Overland to Vietnam

Trip Start May 18, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

My last night in Cambodia was spent in the company of some fellow travellers, chatting the night away on the deck of a neighbouring lakeside guesthouse. This tactic pretty much ensured that no matter how bumpy the road was to Vietnam, I'd be able to snooze away at least some of the eight hour journey.

Shawn and I wearily checked out of our less than perfect room at Sister Number 9 guesthouse and walked over to the ticket office where we had bought our US$4 tickets yesterday. I'm usually a little suspicious of these cheaper options, but both of us felt hardened enough to deal with any scams they might try and throw at us. Surely it could not be worse than the border crossing at Poipet, entering Cambodia.

We got picked up on time (7:30am) and then delivered to the Narin Guesthouse to change to the larger bus and pick up more passengers. I felt more at ease keeping my luggage on board and this didn't seem to bother the driver and the other chap, whose purpose on the journey I still have not quite worked out. The bus itself was decent enough and had the slight hint of having air con for most of the journey to the border.

There were the usual rest stops along the way, and the driver would indicate that we could get off and stretch our legs by saying "Hello" as he exited the bus. I think this might have been the only English word he knew. Our short stop at Neak Loeung to cross the mighty Mekong river by ferry was quite poignant, as I'd watched The Killing Fields yesterday. A heavily bombed Neak Loeung was depicted in the movie.

Surprisingly the road was pretty good all the way to the border, and we arrived in good time. Instead of driving up to the checkpoint the bus predictably stopped at a 'friendly' restaurant next door before we crossed the border on foot. The Cambodian side of this journey had been pleasant enough. Now onto Vietnam!

Exiting Cambodia was simple, we got our passports stamped and walked across no mans land to Vietnam. It was a hot day and I was quite impressed to see a couple of cyclists with fully loaded bikes also crossing the border with us. Between them they were carrying almost 10 litres of water!

The only scams we encountered on the entire journey were in the Vietnamese immigration office. As we entered there was a small desk on the right hand side where a few men were hurriedly taking passports from everyone and filling out the customs declaration form at a cost of US$1 each. Seeing as the form was printed in Vietnamese and English both Shawn and I asked to fill them in ourselves, saving them the trouble and us a couple of dollars. The 'form fillers' know that they are onto a good thing here and are not too keen to have people fill out the forms themselves. Persistence pays and it only took a few seconds of tapping on the desk to get a blank form from them. With the amount of human traffic through this border these guys must be making hundreds of dollars a day. Nice scam!

After getting stamped into the country the second (and official) scam involved some ridiculous vaccination declaration form that everyone had to purchase for 1000 Riel (US$0.25) which would be checked for when leaving the country. Fortunately that was exactly how much Cambodian money I had left to dispose of.

Our Cambodian bus was not crossing the border with us. Instead we waited twenty minutes for the Vietnamese sister company to pick us up. The Happy Tours bus was far superior to the one from Narin Guesthouse, and already I was feeling quite relaxed and happy to be in Vietnam. This bus also carried an extra staff member, but unlike the silent bloke from Phenom Penh we now had an energetic sales rep from Happy Tours giving us all an introduction to Vietnam! The rep made the remaining two hour journey from the border to Ho Chi Minh City very entertaining, by singing songs, teaching us Vietnamese phrases and explaining some of the history of Saigon; now known as Ho Chi Minh City. All in all, this was a very good value US$4 bus ride.

During the journey it became quite obvious that the level of infrastructure in Vietnam is on a par with Thailand. When I think about capitalist communist comparisons I usually have images in my head of the USA and former USSR. It will be interesting to compare capitalist Thailand with communist Vietnam during the course of this tour - it may yield a more accurate comparison of political doctrine.

On arrival in Vietnam's largest city we checked into Mimi's - a nice enough guesthouse in the backpacker area. At 110000 Dong (just under US$7) for an en suite twin room with air con, fridge, hot water, free internet and cable TV the prices are cheap compared to the same level of accommodation in Thailand. There did not seem to be any real budget options like in Cambodia, where you can easily find twin rooms for US$4 a night. On first impressions though, eating out is cheaper here than in Cambodia.
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