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When to travel
When it comes to weather, it’s a tough call, as Vietnam’s climate is so diverse. Think frosts and occasional snow in the mountains of the north, and temperatures soaring to 40°C in the south during the dry season.
Vietnam’s weather is dictated by two monsoons, meaning double trouble on the rain front. The winter monsoon comes from the northeast between October and March, bringing damp and chilly winters to all areas north of Nha Trang, and dry and warm temperatures to the south. From April or May to October, the summer monsoon brings hot, humid weather to the whole country except for those areas sheltered by mountains. For the best balance, we’d vote for the months of April, May or October. For those sticking to the south, November to February is dry and a touch cooler. From July to November, violent and unpredictable typhoons hit central and northern Vietnam, which can dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic traveller.
It gets pretty crowded from November to March and in July and August during high season. Domestic tourists are a major force now and they tend to travel in numbers during July and August as well. Prices peak over the Christmas and New Year period, and if you don’t fancy sharing the sites with the masses, try to avoid this busy time. May, June and September are usually the quietest months.
Some travellers like to time a visit with Tet (Vietnamese New Year), the biggest festival in the calendar, which falls in late January or early February. It’s a nice idea in principle, but not in practice, as the whole country is on the move and prices rise dramatically. Transport is crammed in the runup and aftermath, the Reunification Express shuts down during festivities, and most shops and businesses are closed for the best part of a week.
The best time for visiting most of Laos is between November and February, when it rains the least and is not too hot. It’s also Laos’s main season for both national and regional bun (festivals).
If you plan to focus on the mountainous northern provinces, the hot season (from March to May) and early rainy season (around June) is not bad either, as temperatures are moderate at higher elevations. Southern Laos, on the other hand, is best avoided from March to May, when day-time temperatures break into the 40s and nights aren’t much cooler.
The rainy season is not as bad as you might think. While it will rain – very heavily – the downpours are often fairly brief and can be bracketed by long periods of sunshine. The rains also clear dust from the skies and land, making everything clearer and brighter. Of course, there are downsides; unsealed roads can become quagmires and extensive travel in remote areas like Salavan, Phongsali and Sainyabuli might be impossible. River travel can be a good alternative during these months. If you intend to travel extensively by river, November is the best; flooding has usually subsided yet river levels are still high enough for maximum navigability. Between January and June, low water can make navigating some rivers difficult.
December to February and August are the peak tourist times. January, in particular, is very busy and booking ahead is advisable.
Cambodia can be visited at any time of year. The ideal months are December and January, when humidity levels are relatively low, there is little rainfall and a cooling breeze whips across the land, but this is also peak season when the majority of visitors descend on the country.
From early February temperatures keep rising until the killer month, April, when the mercury often exceeds 40°C. Some time in May or June, the southwestern monsoon brings rain and high humidity, cooking up a sweat for all but the hardiest of visitors. The wet season, which lasts until October, isn’t such a bad time to visit, as the rain tends to come in short, sharp downpours. Angkor is surrounded by lush foliage and the moats are full of water at this time of year. If you are planning to visit isolated areas, however, the wet season makes for tough travel.
Some visitors like to coordinate their trip with one of the annual festivals, such as Bon Om Tuk or Khmer New Year.
The best time to visit most of Thailand is between November and February, because it rains the least and it is not too hot. This period is also Thailand’s main season for festivals, like Loi Krathong and Songkran.
If you plan to focus on the northern provinces, the hot season (March to May) and early rainy season (June to July) are not bad either, as temperatures are moderate at higher elevations. Northeastern and central Thailand, on the other hand, are best avoided from March to May, when temperatures may climb over 40°C. Because temperatures are more even year-round in the south (because it’s closer to the equator), the beaches and islands of southern Thailand are a good choice for respite when the rest of Thailand is miserably hot.
Thailand’s peak tourist season runs from November to late March, with secondary peaks in July and August. If you want to avoid crowds and take advantage of discounted room rates, consider travelling during the least crowded months (typically April to June, September and October).
Although the rainy season (roughly July to October) gets a bad reputation, there are some bonuses: temperatures tend to be cooler, tourists are fewer and the landscape is lush and green. Depending on the region and the month, the rains might be hour-long downpours in the afternoon. October, however, tends to be the wettest month