If you have limited time to visit either Vietnam or Cambodia, this guide will help you discern their key differences in travel-appeal, attractions, culture, food, safety, history and more.
Our personal view is that Vietnam has more diverse cultures and landscapes, such as amazing mountains, memorable karst landscapes, giant caves, a few nice beaches, and a variety of interesting ethno-cultural groups, whereas Cambodia has more specific world-class cultural artifacts, such as the iconic Angkor Wat, but is otherwise more limited than Vietnam.
Read on to learn about the key differences and similarities between the two neighbouring SE Asian countries of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Key Facts: Geography and Population
- Population size: 16 million (Cambodia), 97 million (Vietnam)
- Land Area: 179,000 km2 (Cambodia), 857,000 km2 (Vietnam)
- Growth Rates: 1.3%/year (Cambodia), 2.5%/year (Vietnam)
- Main Cities: Phnom Penh (Capital of Cambodia), Siam Reap (North Cambodia); Hanoi (North Vietnam); Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (South Vietnam)
- Avg Temp Winter: Phnom Penh 28°C (82.4°F), Hanoi 17.8°C (64.2°F) , Ho Chi Minh City 26.9°C (80.4°F)
- Avg Temp Summer: Phnom Penh 28.8°C (83.8°F), Hanoi 28.9°C (84°F) , Ho Chi Minh City 28°C (82.4°F)
Both Vietnam and Cambodia have highly varied landscapes with mountainous and coastal regions.
Vietnam is known for its long coastline, which stretches over 5000 km along the South China Sea. The country has many mountain ranges, including the precipitous Annamite Mountains in the north and the lush Truong Son Mountains in the central region. Vietnam has the world’s largest caves and amazing Karst landscapes (e.g. Ninh Binh and Halong Bay).
Cambodia has hot tropical beaches, and is also home to a number of mountains, including the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest and the Elephant Mountains in the east. The country also has a number of rivers, including the Mekong River, which forms part of the border with Vietnam.
WARNING: if you don’t like extreme heat, be aware that Cambodia and South Vietnam are disgustingly hot, even in spring and autumn. North Vietnam (Hanoi) is also very hot in the summer and spring and autumn, but has cool winters (<15 degree).
Both countries have temperate mountains with pleasant climates. If you don’t like extreme heat, you should head to the mountains.
Tourist Attractions: Comparison of Top Sites
Both Vietnam and Cambodia offer very different tourist experiences, with different cultures, artifacts, and natural features.
- Cultural Diversity: Vietnam has more diverse cultures compared to Cambodia, with 54 different ethnic groups. The North Vietnamese culture has a history that spans over 4,000 years, and its culture has been shaped by a variety of different civilizations (especially China). In contrast, Cambodia has a shorter and more specific history, with a culture that is heavily influenced by the Khmer civilization.
- Attractions: Vietnam has a more varied natural-topography, with mountains, beaches, temperate forests, river deltas, and caves. It has more tourist options and better tourism infrastructure. Some popular tourist attractions in Vietnam include:
- the Hoi An Old Town – a World-Heritage old trading town.
- Halong Bay – mind-bending karst landscape on the ocean.
- the Mekong Delta – tributaries with many traditional tribal groups.
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang – world’s largest cave system.
- Mountains – see the incredibly sheer cliffs and stunning rice terraces of Ha Giang, Sapa, Cao Bang, and many more, each with their own unique ethno-cultural profile.
- Cambodia also has beautiful beaches and hot tropical islands. Cambodia’s cultural attracts are some of the world’s best and most important, including:
- the ruins of Angkor Wat — of which Vietnam has nothing so splendid or comparable.
- Killing fields – site of one the world’s most brutal Communist massacres.
- Other popular tourist attractions in Cambodia include the capital city of Phnom Penh, and the Cardamom Mountains.
- Authenticity: Vietnam has a more diverse and cosmopolitan culture, while Cambodia has a more traditional and rural culture. Many of the Vietnamese tourist sites suffer over-development, campy “enhancements” and an overall feeling of being “tourist traps”, whereas Cambodia’s attractions feels more authentic.
Best Beaches in Cambodia vs. Vietnam
Some of the top beach destinations in Cambodia include:
- Sihanoukville: Located on the Gulf of Thailand, Sihanoukville is a popular beach destination in Cambodia. It has a number of beautiful beaches, including Ochheuteal Beach, Serendipity Beach, and Victory Beach, which are all great for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxing.
- Koh Rong: Koh Rong is a beautiful island with white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. It is a popular spot for snorkeling and diving, as well as beach-lounging. It offshore from Sihanoukville.
- Kep: Kep is a small beach town with a more laid-back and peaceful atmosphere, compared to the more-crowded beaches of Sihanoukville. Kep has a number of beautiful beaches, including Rabbit Island and Koh Tonsay.
Some of the top beach destinations in Vietnam include:
- Phu Quoc – Vietnam’s hot tropical island off the southern tip of Cambodia. It has amazing food, giant resorts, cute small towns, hammock cafes, and a mix of lovely beaches (as well despoiled garbage dumps).
- Read more: Top 10 things to do in Phu Quoc
- Nha Trang – home to Vietnam’s first mega-resort (VinPearl), with a lovely archipelago of several small islands that are great for snorkeling and diving, as well as mind-bending salt fields.
- Read more: our Nha Trang Ultimate Guide, including recommended hotels and resorts.
- Da Nang – Vietnam’s third largest city, with a laid-back culture, amazing food, long clean beaches, and amble surfing and snorkeling opportunities. Da Nang also has a wide variety of memorable day excursions, such as our favourite cave-temples in the Marble Mountain, and the nearby World-Heritage site, Hoi An Old Town.
- We personally recommend a few off-the-beaten path beach-towns such as Tuy Hòa – Phú Yên and Quy Nhon, especially to get away from super-resorts. These also have cute little fishermen-villages — we love the villages’ maze-like old-towns and welcoming drinking cultures. These were the highlight of our trips
- Read more: Vietnam’s underrated destinations, like Tuy Hòa and Quy Nhon
Cuisine: Differences in Cambodian and Vietnamese Food
Cambodian cuisine tends to be spicier and more heavily influenced by Thai and Chinese flavors. Cambodian dishes often feature lemongrass, kaffir lime, and a variety of herbs. Some popular Cambodian dishes include:
- Amok: A popular Cambodian dish made with coconut milk, curry paste, and fish or chicken, typically served in a banana leaf.
- Khmer red curry: A spicy curry made with coconut milk, red curry paste, and a variety of vegetables and meat, such as beef or chicken.
- Lok lak: A dish made with marinated beef or chicken that is stir-fried and served with a dipping sauce and vegetables.
- Nom banh chok: A popular breakfast dish in Cambodia, made with rice noodles and a variety of toppings such as herbs, bean sprouts, and grilled fish.
North Vietnamese cuisine is known for its soupy-noodles, fresh flavors and use of a wide variety of herbs and vegetables (especially basil, mint, cilantro). Some popular Vietnamese dishes include:
- Phở: A popular Vietnamese noodle soup made with a special secretive broth, rice noodles, and a variety of meats such as beef or chicken.
- Read more: how to pronounce Phở?
- Banh mi: A popular spicy sandwich inspired by French baguettes. The savory fillings include pork, chicken, tofu, eggs, fresh herbs, and a tangy spicy sauce.
- Nem (Spring rolls): Thinly sliced vegetables and meat wrapped in rice paper and served with a dipping sauce.
- Read more: our authentic vegetarian Bun Nem recipe
- Bun cha: A dish made with grilled pork, vermicelli noodles, and a variety of herbs and vegetables.
- Banh xeo: a savory crispy crepe, whose innards consist of fresh herbs and sauteed meats/seafood, or mushrooms and mung-bean.
South/Central Vietnam is much more sweet and spicy. Our favourite dishes are from the Phu Yen region.
DIY TOUR: our recommended DIY food tour of Hanoi, including map.
Arts and Architecture
Temples, Pagodas and Relics
The ancient Khmer Empire is known for its impressive temple complexes, such as Angkor Wat, which are characterized by elaborate carvings and ornate architecture. These out-shine anything Vietnam has to offer. There is also the Silver Pagoda, with the intricate silver floor tiles and other silver decorations.
Northern Vietnam a more modest architectural tradition, similar to China, with a focus on simple, functional structures. The modern temples and pagodas look look cheap and campy, like an amusement park version of temples.
South Vietnam has more elaborate and varied temples than Northern Vietnam — they are slightly reminiscent of Thailand or India. South Vietnam are also has more ancient relics from the old Champa empire, whose ornate ancient temples have a hint of Indian and/or Indonesian influence.
Art Performances and Craftsmanship
Cambodia has rich and visually stunning artistic performances, including:
- Apsara Dance: a traditional dance performed by female dancers dressed in elaborate costumes and doing graceful, flowing movements. It is based on the legend of the Apsara, celestial beings who are said to inhabit the clouds.
- Khmer Classical Dance: a traditional dance form that combines elements of Hindu mythology, Buddhist teachings, and local folklore. It is characterized by elaborate costumes, precise movements, and expressive gestures.
- Khmer Music: traditional music played on xylophone, gongs, and flute, often in combination with poetry and story-telling.
Vietnam’s traditional song and dance performances are less visually impressive compared to their Cambodian neighbours. Nonetheless, there are interesting attractions like:
- Water-puppet Threatre: old “black screen” technique to make puppets come alive.
- A-O Bamboo show: modern Asian-fusion dance, like a Vietnamese Cirque Du Soleil.
- Hau Dong – transvestites act as past-kings and throw money at onlookers.
- Each of the 54 ethnic minorities have their own folk performances.
In contrast, we admire Vietnam’s artistic tradition in the commercial arts and crafts — Vietnam especially has a deep history of fine craftsmanship in painting, wood-carving, embroidery, instrument-making, and much more.
Learn more about Vietnam’s incredible manufacturing and handicraft skills by visiting Vietnam’s artisanal villages.
Old Cambodia was more heavily influenced by its neighbors in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Laos, while Vietnam has been more influenced by China (at times, it was even occupied by China).
In terms of friendliness and being welcoming towards foreigners, the rural Cambodians are popularly considered some of most warm and genuinely welcoming people. In contrast, the touristy and urban areas of Cambodia, such as Phnom Penh, are not especially friendly (and are even outwardly hostile to Westerners).
North Vietnam culture is not known for being especially friendly to tourists, having a legacy of suspicious towards foreigners during the heydey of Socialism. However, South Vietnam is considered much more friendly and welcoming of foreigners, having a longer legacy of global trade and free-market capitalism — Read more here about the differences between north and south Vietnamese culture.
Did you know: the Vietnamese people have some of world’s most positive attitudes towards Americans.
In Cambodia, it is considered polite to touch another person’s face during greetings, while in Vietnam it is considered very impolite to touch someone’s head or face. In Cambodia, it is also common for people to use their left hand to touch or pass objects to others, while in Vietnam it is considered impolite to use the left hand for these purposes.
The family structure of Cambodia generally consists of extended families: it is common for multiple generations to live together in the same household. Grandparents are the most important for child-rearing. This is also true in Vietnam, but young Millennial urban families are starting more nuclear families, and many aspire to live separately from their parents.
Religious Differences Between Cambodians and Vietnamese
Both Vietnam and Cambodia have had waves of foreign religious rulers, including Buddhists, Islamic rulers in Cambodian and Southern Vietnam, and Confucianism in Vietnam.
More recently, both Vietnam and Cambodia had active suppression of religious institutions and careful control of personal religious beliefs under their respective Socialist/Communist regimes.
In Cambodia, Buddhism has been re-established as the official state religion following the end of the brutal Pol Pot regime. The majority of people in Cambodia are Theravada Buddhism (Öjendal & Lilja 2009).
Religion is more complex in Vietnam:
- Atheists or religiously unaffiliated make-up the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese people — such labels were necessary for government employment and government favours under Socialism.
- In actuality, most so-called religiously-unaffiliated Vietnamese do in fact observe a variety of spiritual rituals, holidays, supernatural beliefs, and superstitions related to Daoism and Confucianism, such as Ancestor worship and burning paper-effigies.
- Only 5% to 15% of Vietnamese are Buddhists (Mahayana), 6-7% are Catholic, 1% are Protestant, and less than 1% are Muslim. There are a variety of other Vietnamese religons like Cao-Dai’ism.
- Vietnamese are incredibly superstitious. Many Vietnamese rely on Fortune-Tellers for major life decisions, including whom to marry, when to have a baby, what house to buy, and when to travel. Belief in ghosts is widespread.
Read more about the complex religious landscape of Vietnam in our dedicated post on the subject: Religions in Vietnam.
Ethnic Groups of Cambodia vs Vietnam
Cambodia has a more concentrated ethnography: the Khmer ethnic group make up 90% of the population. There are other ethnic minorities including Vietnamese, Lao, Thai, Cham and various others. In general, Cambodia has a more dominating national identity that Vietnam.
Vietnam has a high degree of ethnic diversity, with 54 recognized minority ethnic groups (read more here). The highlands and mountain areas of Vietnam (SaPa, Hai Giang, Pleiku, etc) are dominated by a plurality ethnic minorities — these are especially interesting cultural attractions for tourists.
The dominant ethnic group are the “Kinh” (i.e. the Viet) who make-up approximately 86% of the population, especially in the North, which was their ethnic homeland. In contrast, South Vietnam has different populations, such as the Cham, but has undergone several hundred years of colonization and forced Vietization.
- Language: The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which bares some similarities to Thai. The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, which is unique to Vietnam, but shares some ancient vocabulary with Mandarin.
- Alphabet: the Vietnamese use Latin characters, plus a variety of diacritics and accents to signify “tones” and different vowels. The Latin script makes Vietnam a lot easier to navigate for Western tourists. In contrast, Cambodians use a special non-Latin Khmer alphabet, that is descending from an ancient Brahmi script (from India). It is very difficult for foreigners to master.
- English: Vietnam has a more widespread use of English, which makes it easier for Western tourists to communicate and get around. In Cambodia, English is less widely spoken, and tourists may need to rely more on local guides or translators to communicate.
Vietnam also has a variety of services available in Korean, Japanese and Chinese due to the high influx of Asian partners establishing factories and investment operations in Vietnam.
History: Brief Overview of Differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese History
- Precolonial histories: Cambodia and Vietnam have distinct precolonial pasts. Cambodia was originally part of the Khmer Empire, which was a powerful and influential kingdom in Southeast Asia from the 9th to 15th centuries. Vietnam, on the other hand, was home to a number of disparate dynasties and feudal states that were often in conflict with each other, such as the Dai Viet in the north and Champa to the south. Vietnam also suffered multiple-centuries of occupation by different Chinese dynasties.
- Colonization: Vietnam was colonized by France, which established a protectorate over the country in the late 19th century until 1954. Vietnam also occupied and controlled Cambodia during various periods. Cambodia had a series of treaties and agreements with France which gave France effective control over the country. The French influence is generally well-regarded in both countries — the French built lasting and beneficial infrastructure and institutions, such as massive bridges, paved roads, archaeology, and some of the most beloved colonial buildings.
- Vietnam War: Vietnam’s civil war (aka, the “American War”) was a seminal event to shape modern Vietnam — Vietnam suffered heavy casualties and mass-destruction, but it resulted in reunification of the once-cosmopolitan South with the Communist North. Almost immediately thereafter, China made a failed attempt to invade Vietnam in 1979.
- Khmer Rouge: The Cambodian Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975 after a long and bloody civil war. The infamous Pol Pot became the leader of the new government. Pol pot instituted a radical and violent program of social engineering and collectivization. His brutal policies included execution of intellectuals, religious leaders, and anyone else who was perceived as a threat. Approximately 1/4 of the Cambodian population died as a direct result of Pol Pot’s policies. Pol Pot’s rule came to an end in 1979, when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge government.
- Post-war: Following the economic stagnation of Socialism, in 1986 the Vietnamese government embarked on a series of economic and social liberalizations known as “Doi moi”, which spurred tremendous economic growth and prosperity. In Cambodia, the instability of the country persisted much longer than in Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords in 1991 resulted in the deployment of UN peacekeepers to oversee the transition to a new democratic government, as well free-market reforms and special economic zones to help attract FDI. These progressive reforms have regressed recently.
- Rise of China: Cambodia is more pro-China than Vietnam (many Vietnamese worry that Cambodia is back-sliding on its multi-party democratic system and becoming a vassal state of China). In contrast, China has been a long-time nemesis of the Vietnamese people, despite their close cultural connections (in the North). Vietnam maintains a precarious diplomatic relationship with China — officially they are top strategic partners and key trade partners, while under-the-surface they are seething over maritime border disputes. Vietnam is also increasing its relationship with the USA, Japan, Korea and other democratic, Western-allied countries. Vietnam also has long historical ties with Russia.
READ MORE about how the Vietnamese people feel about China
Somewhat surprisingly, the Cambodian and Vietnamese people feel little solidarity with each other, having a tense recent history including invasions. Most Vietnamese know little about Cambodia, and feel a closer kinship with Western countries that have a large Vietnamese diaspora.
Economy: Explosive Growth in Vietnam and Cambodia
Both Vietnam and Cambodia are among the world’s fastest growing economies, mainly as a rebound after decades of economic stagnation under command-and-control central-planning (see the graph below showing the economic “catch-up” with Asian neighbours post-liberalization). With free-market economic reforms, both countries demonstrate a fierce appetite and aptitude for business-formation and FDI, especially in Vietnam.
Vietnam has a more diverse and developed economy compared to Cambodia, with a strong manufacturing sector and a growing middle class. Cambodia’s economy is primarily based on agriculture, tourism, and garments, and it is still a relatively poor country.
Both countries have benefited from the USA’s trade war with China, as well as broader Western divestment from China. Vietnam is the focus of a lot of FDI and re-routing of companies’ supply-chains away from China — many top-international brands now make a majority (or plurality) of their manufacturing in Vietnam.
Cambodia is also growing in popularity as a low-cost alternative to China, but its logistical infrastructure is less developed than Vietnam.
Safety for Tourists
Be sure to consult your government’s official travel advisories before visiting either Cambodia or Vietnam.
Both Cambodia and Vietnam are considered relatively safe. The USA Department of State rates both countries as Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions, while noting some regional issues.
In Vietnam, you are more likely to be a victim of petty scams and dodgy-business practices, as opposed to outright violence. Read more here. However, many Western governments have noted an uptick in petty crimes and violent assaults on tourists since 2019.
Cambodia has a number of special advisories. For example, Phnom Penh is designated as “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” by the USA State Department: they warm about street robberies targetting tourists — we can also personally attest to feeling unsafe in Phnom Penh at night-time.
Cambodia has a persistent problem with land mines and unexploded ordnance in remote areas. Be extra careful in places like Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Pursat, Siem Reap, Pailin, and Kampong Thom provinces.