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Flying in Southeast Asia

Hey all,

This will be my first trip to Southeast Asia. Generally speaking I'm usually quite comfortable with shorter-than-usually-recommended-on-internet-forums stays in cities. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I have (almost) zero interest in doing anything that requires waiting in a line (museums/monuments, etc). I have just over three weeks this time around, and if I were traveling by train this itinerary wouldn't bother me at all, but because it seems that travel in SEASIA necessitates so much plane travel, I am balking a little bit at my itinerary. My main concern is getting through the airport over and over and over again. I've also read some things about long queues... is that an issue?

Anyways, I've whittled it down to to basic itineraries, the only difference between the two is that in version B I skip Luang Prabang entirely and redistribute those nights elsewhere. Now, if this were all by short, efficient train (read: Europe), I would be totally fine with this rate of travel, but again, the time it takes to fly concerns me.

If anyone wouldn't mind looking over the two and provide some insight, I would appreciate it:

*Trip A:

Hanoi - 3n
Ha Long Bay - 2n
Hanoi - 1n
Luang Prabang - 3n
Chiang Mai - 4n
Bangkok - 3n
Siem Reap - 3n
Ho Chi Minh City - 3n

*Trip B:

Hanoi - 3n
Ha Long Bay - 2
Hanoi - 1
Chiang Mai - 5
Bangkok - 4
Siem Reap - 4
Ho Chi Minh City - 3

Thanks for any input!

Also, I'm going to tack on to this, is there any issue in getting visas between these countries? My understanding is I will need to apply for a Vietnam visa online, like, soon, and then with Laos/Thailand/Cambodia I can get one upon landing with my passport. Also, re-ntering Vietnam on the same visa is a non-issue, correct?

Posted by
1330 posts

One item to note. I do not know if this applies to other SE Asia airlines, Bangkok Airlines serves a meal on all flights (even one hour hops). You have to be careful though because the meals can be very hot (spicy).

Eighteen months ago we took several flights in SE Asia as part of a tour. For all the flights we arrived at the airport 2 hours early and always had plenty of time after checking in and getting through security. We entered Thailand twice and did not need a visa either time.

Posted by
7977 posts

Do not drop Lusng Prabang!
We flew all over SE Asia. Air Asia is excellent, Vietnam Sirlines too. Inexpensive, on time, nice planes.

Posted by
15037 posts

You get an automatic free visa on a US passport when you enter Thailand. You can get a "visa authorization letter" online and then get a VOA (visa on arrival) at the airport when you land. There are two 3-month tourist visas, one for single-entry, another for multiple entry. The latter costs more. I used this site and paid $6 (Paypal) for the letter. The website said it would take several days, I think I got mine in less than 48 hours. When you get the letter, there will be a lot of other names. Make sure yours is on the letter and all your information is correct. It will help if you highlight your name so they can find it easily. It took a few minutes in line at the airport to hand in my application (you can download, print and fill out the application form at home, and attach a photo). Then you just wait while they process it. They'll call your name and it will also appear on an overhead screen with your photo. There's no real order, so people who came after you may get theirs before you. I waited about 15 minutes for mine. You have to pay cash (US$) on the spot. You don't need brand-new bills, but they should be in very good condition to avoid any problems. You can also go to a Vietnam Consulate/Embassy in the US - you may be able to do it all by mail - and avoid the wait at the airport, but it will probably cost more. If you were entering in HCMC, it might be worth it (huge airport, tons of tourists), but Hanoi is usually not busy and long waits are rare, I'm told. I went to Siem Reap in 2011 and got an e-visa on-line in advance. At the time, it was recommended because there could be long lines for on-arrival visas at the airport. As it turned out, there was a pretty short line. I haven't been to Laos.

My most recent trip ended just a month ago. My route was Hong Kong > Hanoi > HCMC > Chiang Mai > Bangkok. In Bangkok there are two airports. The main one BKK is easily accessible by public transportation (sky train). It's big - the biggest in Asia, I'm told. It's efficient, but be prepared for a long line for security/passport when you leave. Chiang Mai is small, no lines. I flew into SGN from Hanoi , so I don't know how long it will take you to get through the airport with an int'l flight. However, after baggage claim they were checking every piece of luggage against the claim checks, so be sure to have yours handy just in case. I had a checked bag on all the flights, which didn't seem to add much time, either at check in or at baggage claim. If you're going with just carry-on, be sure you know the limits - and remember the "liquids thing". It took up a lot of my time to do the packing because of the flights. . . . packing all the liquids so they wouldn't leak, arranging stuff so that nothing would get broken or damaged by the baggage handlers. And I really don't like airports and all hassle of going through security checks.

Be aware that HaLong Bay 2N will use up 3 full days. It's a long, slow drive to/from Hanoi. It's worth it. That was the best part of my 2 weeks in Vietnam. I mention this because you really don't have much time in Hanoi - just 2 full days at the beginning (jetlag???).

I don't remember waiting in line more than a very few minutes to enter any sights. I did spend a lot of time in lines at the airports, and a lot of time just hanging around waiting for flights to board. I flew JetStar from HKG and it was fine. I flew Vietjet from HAN to SGN and from SGN to CNX. The HAN-SGN was delayed by several hours with no explanations or information, including when they changed the gate but didn't post any info. They just turned off the overhead screen and walked away from the desk. Most waiting passengers didn't even notice. Also, all but one of your flights is int'l. That will add time getting through the airport on arrival. Also, it can take an hour to get to HAN or BKK or SGN from the center of town, depending on the time of day.

Posted by
15037 posts

I like Thailand better than Vietnam, but I met others who felt the opposite. Unless you are really into the ancient temples, I wouldn't spend more than 3N in Siem Reap. There is a lot to see in Bangkok, 3N isn't much. I haven't been to Laos so I can't say whether it's worth going to on this trip.

Like you, I wouldn't have a problem with a string of 3-nighters in many parts of Europe, with train stations in the heart of the cities. It feels pretty rushed to me for SE Asia. I spent 5N in each of my stops, though I did split Hanoi into 3N and 2N for Halong Bay, and I'd been to Saigon (briefly), Chiang Mai and Bangkok before.

Posted by
1677 posts

Flying is more efficient than trains, but depending on the day, time, and mood of the security folks it can range from easy peasy to a real headache - no way to predict (I had a wide range of experiences, but I was traveling with a group so that complicated matters a bit). I echo the comments about airline quality - Bangkok air was great (and yes free food and beer even on a very short flight), Vietnam Airlines was just fine as well. There are plenty of cheap one way flights all over SE Asia - just read the fine print (baggage charges, etc). I had a good experience flying Korean air from west coast US (via Seoul).

You should call the Vietnamese consulate in DC or San Francisco to get the definitive answer to your re-entry question. What I can tell you for certain is that if the dates are wrong on the visa, you won't get in, period. I had a tour mate who failed to do her visa correctly and spent at least double more getting an emergency visa (with correct dates) at the last minute. Visa on arrival in Cambodia was easy (no e-visas when I traveled, you just paid cash, US dollars, and gave them a passport photo). Can't speak to Laos as I didn't go there (but wish I had - a friend went and LOVED it)

Personally, I liked mid-Vietnam much better than HCM, in particular Hoi An and Hue. They're not super easy to get to (you can fly into Da Nang, then transfer). Unless you have a specific reason for wanting to go to HCM, I might cut it out all together and redistribute your days between the six other stops, and fly home from Bangkok.

Posted by
15037 posts

When I flew from Hong Kong to Hanoi a few weeks ago, no one asked about a Vietnamese visa. At one airport I was asked the details of my flight home, but I didn't have to produce a ticket. It may have been at an airline check-in counter and they may have had interline access and been able to see my name listed on the flight. Or maybe I just look trustworthy.

Posted by
1 posts

For a person who does not want to stand in line, you have just built into your itinerary that very thing. It is true that you can get your visas for Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia when you arrive, but be prepared for LINES! If you have time before your departure (and money), it would be easier to get those visas ahead of time. As for Luang Prabang, I thought it was one of the best stops on our itinerary. It is an individual thing, but for my likes you are spending way too many nights in the big cities. You are also covering a lot of territory for a three week trip. What about Hoi An? I agree that Halong Bay is a ‘must see’ but another reviewer was right to say it was a long journey from Hanoi..., personally, one night in Halong Bay was enough. Also three nights in Ho Chi Minh City is a bit long, unless you plan on side trips out of the city.

Posted by
115 posts

Well yea, hence the purpose of the thread. I've actually reworked my itinerary since I posted it based off of these.

And no Hoi An/Hue because I'm going to do that next march, this trip is for Nov/Dec (rainy season).

I've decided on fewer destinations with longer stays over concerns of air travel... again, the point of the thread.

Posted by
225 posts

I’m reading all these great suggestions. I’m doing almost this same itinerary. What I’m wondering is- this will be my first time to SE Asia- does anyone have a travel guide they like that’s somewhat Rick Steve’s style????

Posted by
2 posts

Just a quick heads up that Bangkok has two international airports. The main one is Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and the other is Don Muang (DMK), the latter catering to budget airlines.
It is worth being aware of this if you plan to use any connecting flights, as the airports are a good hour apart by taxi.

Posted by
3329 posts

Contrary to some other posters’ experiences, ours with Vietnam Airlines was pretty poor. They were late on both flights we took, 6 hours on the one to Cambodia.
Having gotten a visa in Siemens Reap, I advise you to do it in advance. The process must have been dreamed up by a demented bureaucrat. Admittedly, everything was made worse by the fact that several planes arrived at the same time, pouring hordes of visa-needing foreigners into the airport. The personnel in the visa section were extraordinarily curt, almost to the point of rudeness, in a country where everyone else was friendly and kind. The process is described by a poster above.
The icing on the cake, though, was that despite the calling of his name, somehow the agent behind the counter handed my husband the wrong passport. DH just stuck it in his bag without checking it. Fortunately, we were on a tour, which made it pretty easy for the functionaries to track us down at a restaurant, where we were all having dinner. Someone came to the restaurant and saw to correcting the error. If we had been on our own, I think it would have been a lot more complicated.