Earlier this year we planned a trip of a lifetime – a 2-week honeymoon in Southeast Asia visiting Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Outside of our house, car, and education, this was the most expensive thing we’ve ever purchased, with a total price tag of around $15,000. Our wedding itself was under $10k, which was in part to save money for this amazing trip.
You might be thinking “Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest places on earth, how the hell can you spend $15,000 in two weeks there?” – well, there’s an easy answer to that: Disney. For this trip, we decided to try something new and do an all-inclusive, guided vacation. You can check out the entirety of the trip on the Adventures by Disney site. They would handle everything from picking us up at the airport to dropping us off 2 weeks later. Aside from getting a Vietnam Visa and having a few passport photos taken ahead of time, we were in their hands for the entire trip.
Attempting to do this trip justice in a single post isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m going to focus on why it could be worth the money for you (if you happen to have a spare $15k laying around).
The Itinerary: 3 Countries in 12 Days
Flying out to Southeast Asia from the US mainland takes over 24 hours from just about anywhere. If you happen to find a direct flight, hold onto it with your life. This meant that while we were there we wanted to get the most out of our stay before the long flight back. When we were looking at different trips from Adventures by Disney, the ambitiousness of this trip immediately stuck out. Just look at the itinerary:
1-2: Stay in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
3-5: Hoi An, Vietnam
6-7: Hanoi, Vietnam
8-9: Luang Prabang, Laos
10-12: Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia
Yes, you’re reading that right – 5 different hotels, 4 different local flights, and 2 border crossings during those 12 days. If we were planning this trip ourselves, there is no way we’d ever attempt something this ambitious. Not because we can’t, but because our usual pace of travel is far slower.
This trip was a way to test if we could try something more aggressive – in a controlled, organized way. Spoiler: we liked it.
Here’s the full breakdown of where our money went for this trip.
- $10,000 – Main Tour for two (breakdown of what’s included next)
- $2,500 – Flight from Salt Lake City to Saigon, Vietnam and out from Siem Reap, Cambodia for two
- $1,000 – Custom made dress and suit in Vietnam
- $400 – Tips for guides
- $500 – Food, alcohol, bars anything else we ate
- $50 – Souvenirs
After 2 full weeks with our 2 guides, it’s customary to give a generous tip. The recommended amount is $12-$20 a day per guide. That would put the tip for a trip like this somewhere between $288 – $480 since it was officially a 12-day tour.
There are ways to get the Main your cheaper too! If you book it through Costco travel, you might be able to get as much as 10% off. For the main tour, it includes a LOT:
- 12 night stay in top-notch hotels
- 4 flights between cities
- 2 guides throughout, plus additional expert guides on site
- 2-3 planned excursions every day with admission and transportation
- 2-3 meals each day – usually hotel breakfast, lunch if we’re traveling, and sometimes dinner (either as a group or individual).
- 12 days of worry-free transportation using buses, rickshaws, vans, and tuk-tuks.
- Everything planned out for us!
Going from our usual “plan everything” to handing that control to someone else took a leap of faith. Luckily it worked out.
The Magic of Border Crossing With a Guide
Having never traveled with a group before, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. When our flight touched down in Vietnam, we were greeted by a man holding signs greeting us before we even got past customs.
Visas for Vietnam are extremely confusing. You need to head to their official site and pay for a visa ahead of time. After a few days, you’re (hopefully) approved then you need to print it out. You’ll bring that printout (and 2 passport photos) with you along the way to show every gate agent along each leg of your flight to Vietnam. We had to show these many times as part of our SLC -> LAX -> Guangzhao China -> Saigon flight.
The man holding the sign quickly collected these papers and our passports and skipped a long line of travelers up to a window to get them processed. Within 5 minutes we had been approved for our visas, somehow bypassing the long line of individual travels without an insider to deal for them.
Going through passport control was even more hilarious. Rather than standing in the long lines for “foreign passports”, he instructed us to get in the empty “diplomat” line. We breezed through there in a matter of seconds and were officially in Vietnam!
That level of service would set the stage for what would be a very pampered trip, unlike any we’d experienced before.
Later on, when we traveled from Vietnam to Laos, and from Laos to Cambodia, we had similar border experiences. Rather than needing to know what to do, we just showed up and were magically funneled through borders without any questions. Some nights we would even hand our passports over to our guides, and they would prepare all of the paperwork for our travels the next day. It felt odd to hand over our passports, but the convenience was a nice bonus.
It was equally impressive how well they timed arriving at flights. We only had to wait to board a plane once – every other time we went through security and immediately boarded.
We had no idea who to expect on this tour, or how much we’d interact with the other travelers. When we finally settled in and met everyone, it was a group of roughly 28 people total – almost all were couples in their 50s and 60s. We opted for a “adults only” group, which meant no little ones running around. There was one other younger couple in their early 20s who was recently engaged, but aside from that, we were the younguns of the group at 35.
Over the course of 12 days, we’d get to know every single person in the group very well. Sitting together at meals, on buses, hiking and exploring tend to bring people together.
There is one question that rarely came up during that time: “What do you do?”. We didn’t ask, and it wasn’t a thing discussed enough that I remember. The subject likely came up during the first few days of the trip, but the conversation quickly moved on to more substantial topics. The primary subjects to talk about was past travel, favorite places they’ve visited, foods people love and places we were looking forward to during this trip.
Another common theme in this group: everyone was outrageously happy. Like, going to Disney on your birthday happy. As an introvert, there were times I wanted to just curl up and have alone time. For the most part, it seemed everyone here just loved each others company. It was amazing. the closest other experience I’ve had to that with people I didn’t know was at FinCon.
By the last day of the trip, it felt like we’d all known each other for years. It felt like traveling with a group of friends (“travel with friends” happened to make it on my 101 Goals List).
This is a photo from a visit our group made to a school for deaf children in Laos. It was an eye-opening experience, and one I plan to write more about.
A Disney Guide & A Local Guide
From the moment we arrived, we had two guides – a Disney guide and Vietnamese guide. Later on, when we visited Laos, we had two additional Laotian guides. When we reached Angkor Wat we had an amazing Cambodian guide too.
Each of these guides was a complete expert in their area. On a bus ride in Cambodia, we played a game of “try to stump the guide”, asking specific questions about the country and its history. He answered everything we threw at him with more detail than we even knew to ask for.
I can’t imagine being responsible for 28 people for 2 weeks, but our guides did it with a smile. Working all day, then going back to their hotel rooms at night to plan and organize things for the next leg must have been completely exhausting. The latest time we woke up during this trip was about 7:30 AM. Most days we were waking up at 6:30 AM to make sure we ate breakfast prior to the days activities.
Top Notch Lodging
Whenever we made it to a new hotel Mrs. Minafi would insist on taking pictures before we messed up each room. Here’s a list of the lodging on this trip, with their respective costs.
- Park Hyatt Saigon $250/night *2 = $500
- Sunrise Premium Resort Hoi An $120/night * 3 = $360
- Sofitel Legend Metropole (Hanoi) $210/night * 2 = $420
- Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao (Luang Prabang) $450/night *2 = $900
- Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra (Siem Reap) $170/night *3 = $510
Aside from having great service and beautiful rooms, these all had amazing buffets for breakfast. I know, I know, we’re in another country, we should explore – but early morning is the time I love to just wake up and relax. For these, we were able to dig into local food without leaving our hotel.
Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi was at the top of the list here – from service and food. Their breakfast buffet included fresh everything – including a pho station which you could tell was simmering overnight. They also had one of the best restaurants we went to – a traditional Vietnamese place with north Vietnam specialties (and an interesting cocktail menu too!). When it came time to leave that hotel, Mrs. Minafi loudly proclaimed “I don’t want to leave!”.
The Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang was the most expensive of the bunch, but the design was absolutely beautiful there. It felt as if we were out in nature as we wandered the halls to our room. Food wise – it was my second favorite as well. It would be hard to justify $450/night when you can grab an entire house Airbnb for closer to $50/night right downtown.
One hilarious part about the hotels in Southeast Asia were the minibars. They would have traditional snacks and drinks you’d find anywhere, but the prices were comical compared to staying in the US. $1.50 for this cold beer I don’t even need to leave my room to find? Yeah, I’ll do that deal. We were too busy to ever order room service, but I imagine it would have been reasonably priced.
The total hotel cost for these two weeks would be around $2,690 for 12 nights at luxury hotels, a good quarter of the total tour cost. For comparison, you could have stayed at hotels in these cities well under $50/night in every place, but I doubt they would have had the service and tasty wakeup calls.
One of the things we got the biggest kick out was “Tinkerbells Service”. Whenever we traveled from city to city by plane, we would be instructed to set our luggage outside of the room early in the morning. “Tinkerbell” would pick up our luggage and transport them to our next hotel room. After our flight, we would get to the next hotel – sometimes with our luggage there before us, sometimes with it arriving while we were still taking photos of the room.
This the level of service you’d expect in a place where they have full control over the surroundings. Going from country to country in Southeast Asia isn’t exactly the easiest place to do this, but somehow they made it work. Having always lugged our own bags when traveling, this wasn’t something we needed, but it was one less thing to worry about when traveling. On the tiny local planes we were flying on, not needing to worry about fitting anything in the overhead bins was a nice bonus.
If there’s one thing we splurge on its food. We’ve spent outrageous amounts on 3-Michelin star restaurants when traveling and also enjoy greasy street food. The food throughout our trip to a-m-a-z-i-n-g. We hunted out unique spots, tried every local delicacy we could and ended up with a number of new favorite foods. Ba la lot and chè in Vietnam, amok and coconut pancakes in Laos and Khmer soup from Cambodia.
There’s a lot here. Mrs. Minafi runs a food blog, and we could happily write about each and every experience. From fresh herbs in Vietnam to Tarantulas in Cambodia – we tried everything we could. If I were to describe the tarantulas, the best adjective would be… hairy.
One of those cocktails was amazing too — it was pho flavored! It even had peppers to control the spice level, just like when having soup.
The unexpected best things I ate were both bought for less than $2 from street vendors: coconut pancakes in Laos and a chive dumpling in Cambodia with a sweet and spicy sauce. Just thinking about both of them makes me want to recreate them here at home.
Excursion Organization and Transportation
Having limited time to experience a city or country has a massive impact on the strategy we’d use to travel. Like many people, the most time we could get off at a time was 2 weeks. If we were traveling for a month, we’d likely get an Airbnb for a month somewhere on the outskirts and slowly explore the city. For 2 weeks though, we wanted to see what we could and leave the trip exhausted. We were optimizing for travel over vacation.
The amount and diversity of activities were impressive.
- Mekong River Delta cruise
- Cú Chi Tunnels tour
- War Remnants Museum
- Hoi An
- Vietnamese cooking class
- Lantern building class
- Lantern ceremony
- Marble Mountain tour
- Rickshaw tour
- Tai chi class
- Water puppet show
- Luang Prabang
- Waterfall tour
- Rice harvesting and tasting
- Butterfly Park
- Night market
- Temple tours
- Buddhist Alms Giving ceremony
- School for the deaf visit
- Siem Reap
- Multi-temple Angkor Wat Tour
- Gondola boat tour with wine and snacks
- Night market
- Cambodian live theater performance
This isn’t everything, but some of the most memorable activities. In addition to having these all scheduled, somehow we were always given VIP treatment for everything.
Take the Water puppet show in Hanoi. It’s a live performance by puppeteers with live music. We showed up a few minutes before the show and had the entire first two rows of the theater reserved for us.
The Buddhist Alms Giving ceremony was another great example. We show up at 6 am only to find a beautifully laid out area for us to sit and participate – complete with rice and everything. Our Laotian guide was there to greet us and explain the significance and process of the ceremony.
These and so many other activities would have involved hours of planning and additional work to find the activity, make a judgment on if it’s something we could do on our own. Having each excursion planned out let us sit back and spend all of that time just enjoying it. It made it clear to me how much I love letting people who are experts take the lead.
Most Memorable Experiences
I could honestly write an entire post about each memorable place we went or activity we had. Some activities were morbid but eye-opening – like the war remnants museum in Vietnam. Others were challenging (have you ever tried making a lantern using cloth and glue? It’s harder than it looks). Instead, I’ll pull out the top 3 that stand out to me.
One theme that’s interesting to me is that these were all outside of major cities. If there’s one thing we realized on this trip it’s that we enjoyed time in nature quite a bit more than in the hustle and bustle of the cities.
1) Rice Harvesting and Tasting in Luang Prabang
We wouldn’t have guessed that a half day preparing, planting, and harvesting rice would be as exciting as it was. How often do you get an opportunity to till a rice field with a water buffalo? We followed that up by getting our feet dirty and planting (an embarrassingly small) amount of rice. The crazy amount of work needed to get even a cup of rice floored me and increased my respect for farmers.
Later on, we went to visit a school for deaf children. Through a sign language interpreter, the kids asked what we did while in Laos. We explained how we went to a rice farm to plow fields and learn how rice was made. In unison, all of the children broke out in laughter. We asked why they were laughing? They said that everything here in Laos should be very cheap for us – why pay to come here to do something they could do for free?
2) Angkor Tour
We had one day to explore Angkor. One day. The size of this place is staggering, with temples spanning miles. Just take a look at the entire area. Angkor Wat is the most known (and largest) temple, but it’s just one of the dozens of large temples and hundreds of smaller ones.
As we drove through Angkor on in the back of a 4 person tuk-tuk being pulled by a scooter, we constantly passed small structures on the side of the road that amazed us.
We ended up quickly exploring three temples during our time there: Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm has been featured in many movies (most recently Tomb Raider) and is famous for its overgrown trees that appear to be taking back the temple for nature.
I quickly realized that one day wasn’t going to be enough time to do this area justice. I absolutely want to go back and explore Angkor for at least a week.
3) Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang, Laos
On the same day as the rice harvesting, we went out to the Kuang Si Falls. This “waterfall” was more of a series at different heights along the river. The largest was impressive, but the series of smaller falls with bright aqua pools were beautiful.
To add to the “insane service” side above, during our visit to the falls, we were dropped off right at the falls with a towel – all ready to jump.
What Wasn’t Great About It?
Nothing is perfect. Despite our guides best efforts, things go wrong. For us, we made every flight, the weather cooperated and no one was hurt or lost.
The less than great parts for us were more about food. Mrs. Minafi and I love the local cuisine, but many of the Adventures by Disney meals cater to more a western palate. We were in Vietnam at a group dinner and one of the options was pizza! I get it, not everyone is an adventurous eater, but offering the best local food should be a staple.
There were a number of great, local meals, but a few not-so-great ones. You can choose to skip breakfast at the hotel or a venture out on your own rather than going to a group dinner. Honestly though, the hotel breakfasts were amazing, usually featuring many local dishes, pho stations and more. Lunch is more difficult to plan around though since we would often eat out between excursions.
The biggest areas for improvement were more related to giving up control of our schedule. That’s not specifically wrong with ABD, but would be an issue for any group travel. Getting up early every day, taking flights when we’d rather stay in town, leaving a site when we’d like to stay and explore more – those are all just parts of traveling with a group. We saw many more things than we would have otherwise due to the fast pace.
Some excursions weren’t great. There were a few things that, while good ideas on paper, took time away that we could have been exploring other areas. The downside is we didn’t know until we had already done them. For instance, there was one excursion to a high rise in Saigon to see the city from high up while eating dinner. The food turned out to be less than great, and the view was something we didn’t get much out of. Luckily there were few issues like this.
Was it Worth It?
For us, this was absolutely worth it, despite the $15k price tag. This trip was organized at a time we were getting married and moving across the country. To also schedule an ambitious two week trip like this would have stressed us the hell out.
For a while we considered not going! With Adventures by Disney we needed to put down $2,000 in order to hold our spot, then needed to shell out the additional $8k (plus flights) 4 months before the trip. This is around the same time we were selling our house and moving across the country. We had planned to cancel the trip, but missed the deadline. We could cancel and lose $2k or shell out the rest to go.
We knew we wanted to go, but the timing wasn’t great. If we had travel insurance at the time it’s likely we would have just canceled our trip and rescheduled it for a better time. In retrospect, I’m glad we went when we did. It also meant we got to escape Salt Lake City during the coldest month in favor a warm climate!
The experience of traveling with guides and a group was something we hadn’t tried before but ended up enjoying.
It’s hard to determine what price would be “too much” for us. I doubt we’d do something like this again for at least a few years though. Traveling in this way is great, but it is cost prohibative to do it every year (unless we would only want to do this as your trip).
When we talked to other travelers in our group, nearly everyone one of them had been on multiple Adventures by Disney trips. Some even had been on over 10 trips with multiple each year!
I’ll be honest, if I had about double our savings, I would consider going on one expensive trip like this each year. Galapagos ($8k/person) and China ($11k/person) both look amazing but are even more expensive than the trip we went on. We’ve casually eyed these as a potential next trip somewhere down the line.
At those prices, all of the sudden the total cost ends up closer to $20k/$25k for a 2 week trip! That’s a bitter pill to swallow. It could be possible to live somewhere in China for a good part of a year for $25k.
Like anything, it comes down to opportunity cost. I’d recommend these trips for people that meet all of these conditions:
- You want an adventure – waking up early, visiting as many sites as time allows.
- You don’t want to plan it.
- You have the money to spare.
- You’re actively working and have limited vacation time and want to make the most out of it.
- You want to travel with a bunch of strangers (skewing in age to 50+) who will become great friends.
One thing to reiterate – we did the “adults only” version of this trip. In talking with our guides, they mentioned that with the kids’ version of the trip families tend to stick together more and chat less with other groups. It makes sense. If you’re a group of 2 parents + 2 kids, that’s a lot to keep track of – and enough to claim most small vehicles and dinner tables for your group alone. If you want more socialization, go with the adults only flavor.
The “actively working” one is a personal preference for this. If I wasn’t working and had all the time in the world, I would prefer a slower pace of travel that could be accomplished at a similar price. For the $15,000 we paid for this trip, we could’ve rented a place Luang Prabang for over a year! Pair that with meals around $4 and you have a vacation that’s 26 times longer for a similar price. This trip is for when you want to be pampered, not worry about anything and be exposed to a great many things.
The question then becomes: do you want to explore a lot of places or go very deep in one location. I think it’s important to do both at times. We wouldn’t have fallen in love with Laos if we hadn’t been on this trip. I love the idea of exploring many areas and finding which ones we want to go back to later and spend more time in. Our shortlist already includes Laos, Cambodia, and Japan to spend extended stays in and we have many places still to see!
For us, we may try another Adventures By Disney down the line. If we do, it’ll be a location that would be difficult for us to explore on our own. While ABD does many trips around Europe, those locations seem less daunting to try on our own. It’s only when language, the difficulty of travel or potential safety comes into play that we’d opt for a full tour experience over a DIY solution.
What about you? Have you ever tried a guided tour experience? Would you? Why or why not?