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PHNOM PENH – Sitting in a bar in Tuol Tompoung, Lyheng is still excited by his latest trip to Vietnam. “It was so great. I love going there so much,” he said if his second trip to Cambodia’s neighbor this year.
“I went to Ho Chi Minh City twice, in August and September. But I actually have been to Vietnam around ten times since 2017” said the 29-year-old traveller.
“I’ve already visited all Cambodian provinces, some of them several times. So, when I want to go abroad, Vietnam appears to be the best solution. It’s close, cheap and I never get bored.”
Like Lyheng, more and more Cambodians have a tourist crush on Vietnam. While the border between the countries remained closed for more than two years because of COVID-19, Cambodians have been flocking to Vietnam for the past five months.
According to the Vietnamese administration of tourism, more than 82,000 Cambodians visited Vietnam since the reopening of the borders in May. In August, their number was up 205 percent on the same period in 2019.
Such a score ranks Cambodia as the third main source market for the Vietnamese tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, as in all countries in the region.
With 369,800 and 139,400 visitors respectively, South Korea and the United States come first and second in the ranking.
Though Cambodian tourists to Vietnam are nothing new, their high proportion among the overall visitors highlights a new trend in the Cambodian youth and increasingly populated middle class who have the financial resources to go further.
“More and more Cambodians are prompted to travel,” says Miquel Angel Martorell, CEO of MQL Sustainability and member of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, whose goal is to advise the Vietnamese Tourism Ministry.
“But for many of them, going abroad is a new thing, so Vietnam offers a good compromise. From Phnom Penh, it is geographically closer than Thailand and Laos, not too far away in terms of culture and gastronomy, but it still gives them the sensation of visiting a completely new place.”
Cambodia represents a long-term and multiple-visit market for Vietnam.
“Compared to Australian or Singaporeans visitors, Cambodians won’t spend tons of money in the country,” he said.
“But at the same time, while Europeans or Americans will come once in a lifetime, Cambodians are very likely to come on several occasions, as they usually don’t visit all of the places at once.”
This is the case of Sokheng, a 21-year-old Cambodian street artist whose relationship with Vietnam started a long time ago. While part of his family comes from the Mekong delta, he was used to visiting Vietnam as a child.
But now that he’s financially independent, Vietnam still comes first when it comes to traveling abroad. He went there twice this year, the first time in May, and the second time just before Pchum Ben.
“Nightlife in Ho Chi Minh city is amazing. There are more people on the streets, bars are open until the end of the night, and it’s so easy to find very good street food at pretty much any hour of the day or night," he said.
“As an artist, I also love how the art and culture are displayed in the city. It is something that we don’t see yet in Phnom Penh,” he adds, while his Instagram showed videos of him tagging streets of Saigon.
The Vietnamese urban way of life is also what Lyheng enjoys most. “I love their ‘minimalist coffee places’. They are absolutely everywhere in Saigon and photos in there look so amazing,” he said while showing pictures of him posing inside a cafe with a sophisticated and refined design.