Trying everything once is not a bad idea. Perhaps I am not young any more, yet I would not recommend you travel by bus between those two cities. Despite the fact that the border process is quite simple with the help of someone, the journey itself is totally terrible. The only exception is an unexpected Mekong River crossing.
I was going to Thailand, and I thought it was a risk to fly to Bangkok because of the potential for Suvarnabhumi to close down with Thai protests. I had friends in Thailand who had lost a lot of money in airfares when the Yellow Shirts shut the airport down for a week.
Vietnam was a revelation after spending a lot of time in Thailand. The streets were clean, the prices below those of Thailand and the people who exceptionally nice and friendly. They say Vietnam is like Thailand was 30 years ago – I do not know – but I do know I want to get back here as soon as possible. I really love this country!
I went to De Tham Street in District 1, the Khao San Road of Thailand mini-me street in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It was my first trip to Vietnam, and I had arranged a return ticket from Auckland in New Zealand.
There were three of we foreigners picked up and taken by van not far away to the bus we were to take to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I normally fly around South-East Asia but I thought it would be nice to see more of both Vietnam and Cambodia. The two others were English and around the early twenties in age.
Unlike the buses that I had seen come into De Tham this bus was very basic. The ticket had been purchased in De Tham with the bus sight unseen. The cost of the ticket was US$ 12, not bad for a 6 hour trip.
The guy in charge of the bus got US$ 25 from each of us and also our passports. The border entrance fee is actually US$ 20 but the bus company charges a US$ 5 service fee per person.
Cambodia is one of the most expensive places for Westerners to go to and leave. The departure fee is US$ 25 in addition to the US$ 20 paid on entry.
The Vietnamese do not charge an exit fee but their visa application fees are very high. I paid around US$ 95 for mine. It was done overnight in Wellington, New Zealand after some misinformation given to me by a travel agent. Vietnam requires a visa to enter unlike Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia where most Westerners can get a visa on arrival.
The journey started well. Almost all the passengers were Cambodian or Vietnamese. Unfortunately, just like Thailand it was not long before the standard South-East Asian infantile TV sitcom made an appearance on a very large screen at the front of the bus.
It could be ignored while the sound was down, but soon the sound was turned up to ear splitting levels. By ear splitting I mean that I had my fingers jammed into my ears so far that when I tried to take them out, the suction felt like I nearly pulled my inner ears out of my head.
Even with this measure the noise was so loud it gave me a headache and it soon became the most miserable trip I have ever taken. Around four hours of it at ear splitting decibel levels. Extraordinarily, the locals seemed to be loving it. I was not able to get out in the middle of nowhere and hitch hike.
Neither did I feel I could ask for the noise to be turned down as this sitcom seemed to be the life of the locals’ party! I resolved to see if I could make it to Phnom Penh with my sanity in tact – I would not have wanted to bet either way.
I am of the view that loud noise with other people around is a form of assault against those other people. I include mobile phone loud talkers in cafes, people playing loud music, screaming babies, and so on.
The reprieves on this trip – and they were like water found in the desert – were two stops at the border with Cambodia, a very short food stop in Cambodia close to the border, and one delightful surprise which came so unexpectedly.
This was when we reached the Mekong River and the bus drove onto a barge-like vessel for the trip to the other side. That was marvelous, and afforded the opportunity to get out of the bus for a few minutes peace and quiet.
After that we got back on the bus for another sound assault and travelled onward to Phnom Penh arriving in the evening after it had got dark.
As we travelled in Cambodia, one could not help but notice the change in architecture, specifically the Buddhist Temples that were quite numerous. Their sight contrasted markedly with Vietnam where I can not remember seeing these religious places. Perhaps this is Vietnam’s communist political system in action?
The Vietnamese and Cambodian cultures, and the Thai culture for that matter, are very very different from the West. It is very hard for an older person such as me to fit in, although I noticed the other two – young -foreigners – experienced the same frustration.
By all means experience these cultures, but not in an environment that you can not leave when you have had your ‘cultural fill’. One of my happiest moments this year was finally arriving in Phnom Penh and getting out of that bus. Pure joy and relief!
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