Tour leader interview with Nikki Zimbler - Small group tours to Cambodia & Vietnam

Angkor Wat and (inset) Nikki Zimbler
Angkor Wat and (inset) Nikki Zimbler

Leader interview: Nikki Zimbler - Small Group Tours to Cambodia & Vietnam

Nikki lives in Saigon. Setting aside a career in film production, she came here as a tourist in February 2011 and loved it so much, she found herself interviewing for a job with this tour operator. And here she is. If there was a script of her life there wouldn't be enough closing credits, as she walks into so many sunsets, night after night, sharing them with other travellers, some of whom will probably be inspired to follow their dreams, just as she did. When asked if she is there to stay she says, "Definitely. It just makes me happy".

The best bit of this trip is probably the overnight boat on Halong Bay, waking up in the morning and getting onto the top deck of the boat and seeing the sun come up about six-ish. People love that.
In fact it is probably my favourite viewpoint on this trip. When you first get on the boat it is just pure tranquillity. And if it's misty and foggy and rainy it just looks like a scene from a film set. It's breathtaking. It never gets dull. It is life out on the bay, and for me it's just utter serenity.

Sunset over Halong Bay
Sunset over Halong Bay (Photo by IDreamLikeCrazy)
A lot of people buy the conical hats as soon as they arrive, and in fact local people like to see tourists wearing them, which is sweet.
People sell them off the back of bicycles or stalls and they are in lots of different sizes. Some people buy the really tiny ones to take home and put on their cat, although the poor cats never look amused in the photos that I get sent! The price depends on how good your bargaining skills are, so if you buy one for $4-5 you've made the seller happy and you've made yourself happy.

The Siem Riep temple day is a huge thing for many of our clients. People have spent years trying to get here to do it, and finally it is happening.
Their faces when they see it are just beautiful. It is very moving, and I have had people cry before. We get up at four in the morning for the Angkor Wat sunrise, but it is worth it. We leave at quarter to five for that on tuk tuks, in the dark. It is brilliant. If there is one song that is perfect to capture that experience, it is The Beloved's The Sun is Rising.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Sunrise over Angkor Wat (Photo by Mendhak)
About four days ago, we did an impromptu walk through a little village about an hour out of Halong Bay. We had time before the flight back; the traffic was flowing so we took this little detour. It is really tiny, about four streets wide. It is just so real there it is wonderful.
All the rice husks are drying in the road, all the kids are running around playing, the old ladies in the conical hats are sweeping the streets. It is proper, unaffected life and usually no tourists at all. We had a ball, because I had a blond haired, blue eyed, pale skinned girl on my tour, first time in Asia, and she is being treated like a super model. And they all just surrounded her, with one whole family just poking her, prodding her and laughing with her, just giggling. And she was having a ball. It was brilliant. I love that, because this is proper interaction for both sides.

It is the people who make it on this trip, in both Vietnam and Cambodia.
Yesterday, one of the guys on our tour said to me, on day seven of the trip. "I can totally see why you live in Asia. It's the people." He was just blown away by it; it's just the people.

My favourite drink these days is Vietnamese coffee, with condensed milk, ground coffee and a lot of ice.
You get a little china cup, put condensed milk at the bottom, and then put one of those coffee drippers, with a little silver tray on top of the cup, and then another silver cup on top of that, which has a sieve on the bottom of it. You put the ground coffee in, then the hot water, and then the coffee drips through into the china cup. And when it has all dripped through, stir it all together, and pour it over ice in a tall glass. It is a very specific Vietnamese way to make it.

Vietnamese coffee
Vietnamese Coffee (Photo by Marko Mikkonen )
Before they come, people have no idea how good the food is in Cambodia. They always ask me on the first day, am I going to be able to eat anything there? They really worry about it, but the Khmer food is really amazing.
I don't eat curry generally but I eat Khmer curry because it is very sweet. And it has big chunks of vegetables in it, and big cubes of chicken. And you just pour the sauce all over the rice, mix it up together and it is really lovely. You can buy it for about 4 for a huge bowl. There is another dish called amok, which is a marinade sauce of Khmer spices and coconut milk. They marinade fish, chicken, prawns or tofu and then serve it in a coconut shell or a banana leaf. It's such a gorgeous, creamy sweet spice. Very few people know Amok before they come but then just love it.

Amok spices
Amok spices (Photo by Sonja Pieper )
I have people of all ages on my tours, between 7 and 92. I have just had two brothers on a tour, 11 and 14, and they asked more questions than anyone in the group.
They were asking history questions, about the Khmer Rouge. It was mind blowing. I thought they would be bored and looking at their phones but they were really, really interested in the personal and historical side of it all, and really wanted to understand the whos, the whys and the whats. It was really impressive. Although I did say to them "Boys, I don't want you leaving here with any questions at all, so as soon as you have a question, you've got to let me know". And it is really sweet sometimes, because kids ask questions that the adults don't want to ask!

I think the kids on this trip also really love the food. They try things little by little, becoming more and more immersed in the food. And then by the time we get to Cambodia, they are trying deep fried tarantula! It's just fantastic, as they take photos of each other with tarantula legs sticking out of their mouths!
The first survival tip on this trip is to go with the flow. That is a big thing. And that means trying it all, experiencing it all - some of it you will like, some of it you will love, some of it you won't, but just give it a try.
The second thing is, if you encounter the monkeys around the temples of Siem Riep, don't bare your teeth! It's a sign of aggression apparently. Although I haven't seen it, but that's what people tell us.

People with mobility issues might think they will struggle with this trip, but in fact, I can usually find ways to accommodate people's needs.
Although we are wandering around the streets of Hanoi for a few hours, for example, I can get you around in an e-cart instead, which is an electric cart. So, you can do the same walking tour but in an electronic cart. I can get you around pretty much everywhere, even at the temples, where there are a lot of stairs, I can always get you around in a tuk tuk.

Wheelchair bike
A wheelchair bike (Photo by James Schwartz)
One of the biggest misconceptions is that people are scared to come here if they have allergies, such as peanut allergies. But there is no need, especially when you have a tour leader who knows what they are doing, telling your hosts in advance, and restaurants and so on.
Local people do understand that now, but having a local guide, and having it written down in Vietnamese or Khmer before you turn up, on a little laminate to carry around with you if you are going out on your own. Restaurants that I go to all know that I will come in with a dietary list. I really understand it, because I have had guests who have never left their home country because they are worried about their peanut allergy, and then I take them around and they can't believe that everyone has been so accommodating. That's really nice.

One time in Cambodia, in Siem Riep when we were doing the temple touring, it was the last temple of the day, and we had seen about four already in the morning, and a couple of my clients said that they were going to do a bit of last minute shopping around the stalls.
We came back 45 minutes later and couldn't find them anywhere. Then suddenly we could hear music coming from behind the stalls and we went round the back, and there was a party going on, with my clients and the local shop sellers. They had beer, there was beautiful Khmer food going around, all the kids were laughing and joking and dancing. About 25 locals and my clients having an impromptu party, dancing to a phone that was pumping out a beat. It was great.

Local people like to make fun of our 'Buddha Bellies' as they call them. Any man who has got an inch of fat around their belly has the chance that someone, man or woman, will come up and rub their belly and call them Happy Buddha.
This is because they want the good luck to rub off onto them because if you have a belly, then you eat well, and you have enough money to eat whatever you want. It is wonderful to see people's reactions when a total stranger comes up and shouts 'Happy Buddha' and rubs their belly! It is aimed at men because Buddha was male, so they hone in on the men. With women, local people just love their skin, and all the different colours of skin. Doesn't matter if it is pale or dark, it's just that it is not Vietnamese or Khmer skin. They are fascinated. They don't make jokes about it, it is pure admiration.

A common misconception for Americans is that they will not be welcome in Vietnam.
I have had veterans come on the tour, and for the first two days they are just really quiet, and I ask them if everything is alright, and then they slowly reveal the story, that they served here, and that they are worried about people hating them, and don't want people to hear their accent. It is a recovery thing for them. But it is a common misconception that the Vietnamese hate Americans because it is so, so wrong. It is a healing thing for a lot of people who have served here, and it is incredibly moving. Although I do think that the Vietnamese have moved on and aren't focused on it all the time.

The words for 'cheers' go down very well in both countries. Because you can say it to local people and everyone raises their glasses to join the camaraderie. In Vietnamese it's "Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!" which means One, Two, Three, Cheers! And in Vietnam, if you say this, then you are meant to down the drink in one, the most popular drink being beer. And the Khmer for cheers is "Jul mouy!"
The beer in Vietnam is regional. In the north all around Hanoi, you have these local beer corners, which are called Bia Hoi corners, and you sit on a little stool, just out on the street, and for about $0.40-50 cents you get a little glass of cold local draft beer. It's a great atmosphere, because it starts off with like ten little stalls outside each of the little bars, then it becomes 20, then 50, and then the whole place is just as one, with everyone on little stools just drinking. As soon as one person says Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo, everyone is just downing their beer, which is all a bit wild and crazy and brilliant.

Drinking beer
Drinking beer (Photo by Prashant Ram)
One of the most striking sounds in Vietnam for me is the sound of motorbike horns. The traffic is insane in Saigon and Hanoi and the motorbikes beeping is a wonderful sound.
Watching the traffic is mesmerising in fact, and I recommend going up to a rooftop bar and just look down on the traffic, listen to all the horns, because they are all having little conversations with each other. Which is why it is such a brilliant sound. They are not about road rage, there is no road rage in Vietnam. They are just little toots on the horn to say 'hello, I'm on the road, just letting you know I'm on the road!' as they meander in and out of the traffic.


One of the most striking smells in Vietnam is that of the durian fruit. As soon as you smell it for the first time, you never forget the smell.
It smells like really, really over ripened, pungent rubbish. But it tastes fantastic! People get a whiff of it for the first time on our market walks, even through the hard skin before it is peeled, although it is much stronger when peeled.

One thing that makes me scream 'No!' at tourists is when they give sweets to a child. You can see them getting off tourist buses, with massive packets of sweets to hand out to the kids surrounding the bus. I don't really understand it.
I don't tend to see individuals doing it, but busloads of tourists doing it. Kids here can now ask for sweets in about 12 languages, which is really worrying. The other thing that makes me mad is people just ignoring the culture, walking around Angkor Wat, for example, and ignoring the dress code. Or people who go up really close to a monk and take their photo. I find that really offensive, not asking permission. We recommend bringing notebooks or pencils, combs or toothbrushes, which we then distribute to schools or hospitals so that they are distributed fairly. I also recommend bringing things like small bouncy balls, ping pong balls or skipping ropes, to give to children. Activity things. With one football you can bring fun to twenty kids at once.

Playing football
Playing football (Photo by hectorbuelta)
The one thing that makes me scream 'Yes!' at tourists, is when I don't have any involvement, but I see one of my clients having an interaction with a local man, woman or child, and they are off in their own little world.
Maybe showing them photos on their camera, or letting the child play with their blonde hair, or whatever. It is those moments when I know that my client understands the people, the culture and the serenity of the country and they are respecting it, enjoying it and have adapted to it. You might not speak each other's language but you are having a brilliant time together. That is wonderful.

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