Taking the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh
We initially were going to start our Asian travels in Vietnam, but due to friends coming to visit later in the month (yay!), we moved around our schedule and would head to Cambodia and then back to Vietnam later on to meet with them, as we had a 3 month, multiple entry Visa for Vietnam. We decided to spend 2 nights in Saigon to acclimate to the time change and rest from all the transiting before heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Landing in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as referred to by the locals), Vietnam was a complete change of scenery for us, as it was the first stop in Asia during our trip. We had just come from a completely luxurious layover in Doha, Qatar where everything was brand new and over-the-top extravagant. Upon landing in Saigon, it was a huge shock to our senses as it was practically the opposite end of the spectrum of where we just came from – it was hot, humid, loud, and crowded!
Minh was born in Vietnam, but moved to the States when he was 2 years old, so technically, we were experiencing Vietnam for the first time together. Minh speaks conversational Vietnamese, but he quickly learned he needed to adjust his accent when speaking to people, as many people initially didn’t understand him. This deterred Minh from speaking to people in Vietnamese at first, but when people would struggle speaking to us in English, he would switch to Vietnamese, and people would do a literal double take and look up to see if it was the same person speaking. It was a very funny thing to constantly witness, and Minh’s Vietnamese is better than he gives himself credit for, as it was evident by everyone’s surprised reaction.
Upon arriving at our hotel, they informed us the air conditioner wasn’t working and had to move us to another hotel branch location. They moved us to the Liberty Central Citypoint, where they also gave us a suite upgrade and daily breakfast buffet. Score – we didn’t have to give up the luxurious life just yet! It was a really nice hotel and the location is on the newer side of town. The staff was also very accommodating and helpful, I would recommend it if you’re looking for a place to stay in Saigon.
After settling into the hotel, we decided to venture out to explore the city and find some yummy food. The thing that was most intimidating when we first arrived to Vietnam was learning how to cross the street. The amount of traffic and vehicles everywhere felt nearly impossible to maneuver through, and many streets don’t have crosswalks or traffic signals.
The first few times, we stood waiting at the edge of the sidewalk until a local came by and we hurriedly tailed them so we could cross with them. When we were at an intersection with nobody there to “help” us get across, we realized we were going to be there forever if we were going to wait for the road to clear for us to cross. From what we read online and what we observed, you can’t wait for the traffic to clear to cross. You have to go against what you’ve been taught back home, and step down onto the street when there’s a small opening for you to enter and walk across at a slow and steady pace. The traffic will weave around you as long as you move at a continuous stride. The most dangerous thing you can do is actually run across and stop in an erratic way, as the motorbikes can’t line up where you are headed to move around you. Our word of advice would be once you’ve stepped down onto the street, you’ve committed to crossing and have to keep going at a slow and steady pace – don’t make any sudden movements (backtracking, stopping abruptly in the middle of the street), and if you need to react, react only in your face! Once you’ve crossed a few times, it becomes easier and less scary, and you’ll learn to trust the process.
We made our way to Phạm Ngũ Lão street, which is along the river in District 1. There happened to be a food festival going on in the park and we couldn’t have been more excited, as this was going to be our first authentic Asian meal since we left home 5 months earlier.
After navigating the chaos of the crowds and competing loud music blasting from every direction, we managed to order some dishes to enjoy for dinner.
The next day, we headed to the backpackers street in District 1 to buy bus tickets to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and explored a little more of the area.
Taking the bus from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Early the next morning, we hopped on a bus to Phnom Penh at the central bus terminal at Pham Ngu Lao Street. At 460,000 VND ($20 USD) for 2 people, it was a local commuter bus and we were fully back to the budget travel life again. People were bringing on with them giant bags of produce and other random things stuffing the cargo container to the brim. The bus was completely filled, and there was only one other foreigner on the bus besides us.
It’s a long bus ride and there are no restrooms on the bus, as we learned from our bus travels in Europe, these transit days are a balance of staying on the brink of dehydration for fear of not knowing when the bus will make the next restroom stop. When boarding the bus, they handed out a bottle of water and hand wipes to each passenger (which is typical of most bus companies). Shortly after taking off, one of the bus stewards came by to collect everyone’s passports. It felt really weird giving up our passport, but he was collecting both locals’ and foreigners’ passports, so this was completely normal and routine. After about an hour and half, the bus stopped. There were no announcements of where we were, but everyone on the bus gathered their purses and valuables and hopped off the bus. We had no idea where we were, but grabbed our backpacks and went the rest of the crowd.
Everyone headed straight to the restrooms, and there’s a woman there collecting money. Her sign says 1,000 Vietnamese Dong, and is shouting “1,000! 1,000!,” while all the local Vietnamese people just walk past her without paying. I’m standing behind the only other foreigner, and then she hears us speaking English and all of a sudden starts shouting “2,000! 2,000! 4,000 for 2!” Minh was already halfway past her and I have to yell out to Minh and tell him she just changed the price on us! Minh calls her out in Vietnamese asking how come her price changed when her sign obviously says 1,000. She does the hilarious double take that everyone does when Minh starts speaking Vietnamese and then gets tripped up and makes up an excuse saying she meant if you wanted tissue, it costs 2,000 Dong. Riiigghhht. Now, the difference between 1,000 and 2,000 is negligible ($0.05 – $0.10 cents), but it’s the principle! She’s obviously only charging foreigners, and she will change the price and charge how she feels. This was a great reminder to us to keep our guard up, as foreigners are a big target for locals who know they can exploit them.
We realize we are at the Vietnam Border exit checkpoint at Moc Bai. We make our way over to immigration to collect our passports, and the area is what Minh and I have come to describe the way things are handled in South East Asia as “controlled chaos.” There are large crowds of people huddled along the posts of the immigration officers posts, with no organized lines of any sort. The other foreigner girl on our bus had a big look of panic on her face as she had no clue where to go or where our bus was (as it already drove over to the other side of immigration).
The best tip I would give to navigate this part is to keep an eye on the bus steward from your bus and any people on your bus and see where they go. Your bus steward will usually be standing by one of the immigration officers calling out your name to give you back your passport. He will most likely be pronouncing your name in a heavy Vietnamese accent and you may not recognize when your name is being called, so pay attention! As there are many passengers being offloaded by the busload, this may take a while. Once you get your passport back, you’ll walk through the immigration bar gate and exit the building and back to your bus. At this exit, there will also be people there you can exchange your Vietnamese Dong for Cambodian Riel (Note: The preferred currency in Cambodia is USD, so no need to if you have USD you can use).
Bus Travel Tip: Take note of the company and license plate of your bus and/or remember who is your bus steward to make sure you get back on the correct bus during border crossings!Two Peas Travel Tip
Once everyone is back on the bus, the bus will move for less than a minute to take you to the Cambodian border in the town of Bavet, where everyone will proceed to get off again. This time, you will have to bring your passport with you and present your passport individually to the Cambodian immigration officer. For US passports, you’ll need a visa which you can either get a visa-on-arrival (make sure to let your bus steward know when he collects your passport and have an extra passport photo handy), or apply online beforehand. We applied online beforehand and had the printouts with us, to avoid any hassle of needing to bribe officers to “speed up” the process.
We hopped back onto the bus and a few minutes later, stopped at a rest stop to buy food and drinks for lunch. The food is not that good and pretty pricey for what it is, so if you can, pick up some Banh Mi or something else in Saigon to bring with you on the bus. This is also your last opportunity to use the restroom before hopping back on the bus before reaching Phnom Penh, so make sure to use it and limit your liquid intake afterwards!
Four hours later, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh at the bus company’s store front. There are lots of tuk-tuk drivers there soliciting every passenger that gets off asking where they need to go. Luckily, one of the tuk-tuk drivers speaks Vietnamese and Cambodian, so he is able to call our hotel to get proper directions and Minh is able to negotiate a fair price for him to take us there and we aren’t charged an exorbitant foreigner’s price.