Just Back From

A Whirlwind Tour of Vietnam and Cambodia

by Lizzie Fortunato

The pool at Belmond La Residence D'Angkor. All photos by Lizzie Fortunato.

Globetrotting jewelry and accessory designer Lizzie Fortunato finds inspiration for her eponymous collection all over the world. Recently, her travels took her on a first-time visit to Cambodia and Vietnam.

So, what brought you to Vietnam and Cambodia?

I traveled with my boyfriend Peter for vacation and to get inspiration for our upcoming Lizzie Fortunato spring collection. We covered a lot of ground (moving locales every two to three days) and mixed exploration with relaxation.

What was the best tip you got before you left?

Oftentimes the best travel advice I get is word of mouth from friends. Prior to leaving, I spoke with Amanda Alagem, the an editor at Harper's Bazaar. She had just returned from a Southeast Asia trip with her husband and highly recommended hiring a private guide to tour Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and the most famous of Cambodia's temples. You can ask them to bring you to the back entrance of the temple before sunrise because the main entrance gets incredibly crowded. We were so happy we heeded her advice. Peter and I arrived with our wonderful guide and ran into just a handful of people pre-sunrise at the temple ruins. It was incredible — by the time we were leaving, Angkor Wat was packed, but our first hour was relatively empty and incredibly serene and moving.

Dragon Peal Junk in Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

Sailing into Bai Tu Long Bay.

Dragon Pearl Junk Boat Cabin in Vietnam

Bedroom quarters on Dragon's Pearl Junk.

How did you get there?

We spent a day in Hong Kong before flying Dragon Air to Hanoi, Vietnam. We started our trip by heading North to Ha Long Bay, then drove from Hai Tu Long Bay back down to Hanoi. From there we flew Vietnam Air to Siem Reap, Cambodia. After that, we flew Vietnam Air to Ho Chi Minh City and then onto Con Son, the largest of the Con Dao Islands in the South China Sea. We then returned to Ho Chi Minh City, took an Uber to the Saigon River, and jumped on a speedboat en route to Ho Chi Minh via the Saigon River.

Your itinerary:

We spent 24 hours in Hong Kong, where we stayed at Park Hyatt Hong Kong, followed by two days sailing on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay. Our next stop was the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, where we spent time eating pho and learning about Vietnam's tumultuous history at the Hoa Lo Prison. Then we spent three days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we stayed at Belmond La Residence D'Angkor and visited the famous Angkor Wat temple. Our next stop was Con Dao for three days at Six Senses Con Dao. We headed back to Ho Chi Minh City and spent two days at Saigon River before heading to the Park Hyatt Saigon for one night.

What did you know by the last day that you wish you had known on the first?

That Google Maps and WiFi work well throughout both countires. Also, you can get photographs for your Cambodia visa at the airport.

This was especially great:

Six Senses Con Dao. There are no words to describe the luxurious oceanfront treehouse-esque villas with private pools overlooking the crystal blue sea. They serve free ice cream and Vietnamese cuisine at the hotel's causal market. I was especially enamored with the hotel bar and its leather swing seats. The low-slung buildings, wood walls, and luxe bedding had me wanting to redecorate my apartment. When we weren't soaking it all in, we took scooters to the island's small town and visited the pier to admire the beautiful Vietnamese fishing boats.

But this wasn't:

I had a terrible twelve-hour bug during our time in Ha Long Bay. I have a sensitive stomach and have to be careful when traveling (and eating foods that I don't regularly eat.) The only plus? The Vietnamese people I encountered were so kind, helpful, and caring. While I wasn't feeling well, every driver or hotel employee we had wanted to stop for medicine or offer help to get me better quickly. One woman at the Sofitel in Hanoi went so far as to go out and get her favorite power drink for me. It worked wonders.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Old Quarters in Hanoi.

Bac Thai Textile

Bac Thai textiles.

This was touristy and worth it:

We used Indochina Junk Company to book our visit to Ha Long Bay, which I would highly recommend, as it sails into less crowded Bai Tu Long Bay. Our boat, Dragon's Pearl Junk, had eleven beautiful cabins with private baths. I was so inspired by the design of the 29-meter boat; meals were eaten outside on the dark teak deck and the tables were set with traditional hand-painted Vietnamese ceramics. We started our sail by visiting tiny Paradise Island, where we disembarked to explore the caves and kayak around the bay. The highlight was sailing through Bai Tu Long Bay's limestone karsts at sunset. Peter and I loved siting on the top deck of our boat and watching the sun fall into the water between the bay's 2,000 islets.

What's the local speciality?

Vietnamese enjoy pho for breakfast; The best we found was Pho Thin (13 Loc Duc; +84-162-769-7056) in Hanoi, where we dined at 8 a.m.

Speed round of favorites.

1. Meal: For excellent, well-priced Vietnamese food, eat at Cuc Gach Quan in Ho Chi Minh City. My favorite dinner of the trip consisted of beef, bok choy, and lemongrass-fried tofu.
2. Neighborhood to explore: I loved Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the streets are divided up according to what they sell — there is literally a sneaker street and a mattress street. One street specializes in beads, sequins, buttons, and the like. It was heaven.
3. Casual hangout: All of the pho joints in Hanoi. It was fun stopping in for a bowl of soup or a Vietnamese coffee. We did this every few hours.
4. Souvenirs: I collect textiles from the countries I visit, so I was thrilled to find a small shop selling vintage Bac Thai textile from the North of Vietnam in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh City has amazing custom tailoring. Peter ordered suits, jackets, and shirts; I remade my favorite boyfriend blazer by The Row with Minh at Dung Tailors.

Lizzie Fortunato on Con Dao Fishing Pier, Vietnam

Lizzie at Con Dao Fishing Pier.

Con Dao Fishing Boats, Vietnam

Con Dao fishing boats.

One place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to:

I'm dying to go to Hoi An, the historic town in the Souteastern Vietnam that's known for its lantern fesitval. Originally it was on our itinerary, but ultimately we didn't have time to fit it in. Next visit!

You can't stop thinking about:

Our stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we visited Angkor Wat and stayed at Belmond La Residence D'Ankgor. The rooms are sanctuaries with wood everywhere and daily fresh fruit and flowers. My favorite of the temples, Angkor Thom, is best seen during the afternoon — when all the other visitors are at Angkor Wat. Climb the nearly vertical steps to the top for a spectacular view. Make time to explore Siem Reap's countryside. We took a Grasshopper Adventures bike tour through rice paddies grazed by water buffalo, a crocodile farm, and a colorful Buddhist cemetery with elaborate elephant stupas. Most people only visit Siem Reap for the temples, so we loved dodging the other tourists on our bikes and exploring the local market, where, to our surprise, we found the most delicious donuts, along with clothes, dry goods, fish, and vegetables sold by local vendors. For souvenirs, my favorite place to shop was the Old Market, which sells traditional Krama scarves, horn and shell utensils, and beautiful bronze bells.

Any surprises?

I didn't realize how touristy Siem Reap would be. The whole town is centered around Angkor Wat and with good reason — it's magnificent. The wild card bike tour we did that day was such a great decision because we got to see parts of Siem Reap that I don't think most tourists experience. Exploring village roads of packed red dust that lead through groves of trees and into a market was such a cool experience. 

Cambodian Donuts

Cambodian donuts.

Siem Reap Cemetery, Cambodia

Siem Reap Cemetary. 

The Instagram moment:

An Lam Saigon River is a secret garden oasis an hour outside bustling Ho Chi Minh City. Lounge by the pool, watch the boats pass, and speed down the Saigon River on the hotel's speed boat when you're ready for the commotion of the city.

What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go?

Make the effort to get to Con Dao. It's off the beaten path, but so worth it.

Would you go back?

Absolutely! I'm so interested in visiting Hoi An as well as Sapa in the North of Vietnam. Sapa's landscape is extraordinary with its beautiful, bright green terraced rice fields. The Hill Tribe people that inhabit the area are known to wear colorful woven clothing. It's quite different from the area that we visited and I feel like it would be such a different trip altogether. Cambodia and Vietnam have so much to offer travelers. I definitely want to explore more of both.


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Sniff Your Way to the Best Street Food in Vietnam

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