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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pleasure, pain of taking a Vietnam break

Pleasure, pain of taking a Vietnam break

Derek Francis highlights some dos and don'ts on a cross-border



ext door neighbor Vietnam must inevitably beckon if you

have a spare four or five days for a international break. With easy access,

cheap food and accommodation and relatively close proximity, there are on the

face of it plenty of good reasons for going. Mind you, one of the drawbacks

swiftly presents itself when you apply for a visa - a one month stay costs a

cool $55. The only silver lining here is that you are no longer tied to one exit

and entry point, which used to all but rule out for example traveling by land

one way and returning by air. Most of the city's major travel agents can obtain

visas in two days. Applying directly to the embassy takes longer and is no

cheaper. Visitors on their second trip pay only $25.

There are several

options open for the journey. Kampuchea Airlines, Cambodia International

Airlines and Vietnam Airlines all fly from Pochentong airport to Ho Chi Minh

City. There are up to four flights a day and the 30 minutes trip costs $50 one


Alternatively, you can catch a bus down Highway 1 which runs all

the way to Ho Chi Minh. Buses leave from the corners of Streets 211 and 182 at

the rather ungodly hour of 5:30 am everyday except Sunday. The cost is $12. The

bus trip can take 13 hours as often there is a stop of several hours at the

border while customs officers 'negotiate' taxes for goods being smuggled into

Vietnam. A better method of traveling perhaps is to catch a taxi to the Moc Bai

border crossing from the taxi-stand at Street 369 on the eastern side of the

Tonle Bassac, just over the Monivong Bridge. There is a well established private

transport network to the border and you should only have to wait around 10

minutes to share a car ride to the border for $10. The trip takes three hours,

and the scenery is pleasant though a lot of it is arid landscape during the dry


One is struck by the relaxed and relatively prosperous lives of

the people especially close to the border. There is also a refreshing lack of

military checkpoints or armed men of any description.

At Phumi Banam, 60

km out of Phnom Penh you must catch a ferry across the Mekong. This stop is a

good place to change dollars into smaller denominations which are useful in

rural Vietnam, and also to get some Vietnamese dong. After some bargaining here

you'll generally get as good a rate as in the rest of Vietnam - 11,000 dong to

the dollar.

At the border it is relatively simple to get a moto for the

two-hour trip straight to Ho Chi Minh for around $4. Actually it is not as bad

as it sounds as the roads are generally in better condition than

those in

Cambodia, as are the motorcycle taxis.

If you are traveling light and

have extra time you may well want to take in two attractions worth seeing along

the way, for which you should pay an extra $2. Around 10 km past the border is

the turnoff to Tay Ninh, which is the world cradle of the Cao Dai religion. The

town lies 20 km north of the highway and is home to 20,000 adherents. At 6am and

6pm 2-3,000 of them get together and worship in the Great Temple, 4 km south of

the town. Cao Daism is a fusion of many religions, principally Christianity,

Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and was founded in 1926.

The temple is

spectacularly and intricately painted and there are English guides to show you

around. By the way one point to bear in mind when visiting most attractions is

that unofficial private operators offer the same guide and hire services as

state-run Saigon Tourism at a fraction of the price. While at Tay Ninh, try to

make a brief stop for lunch at the Long Hoa market, 3 km south of the temple.

The people here are especially warm and friendly.

The second attraction

worth stopping off at on the way to Ho Chi Minh is Cu Chi, renowned for the

amazing 250 km tunnel network which was a key factor in the Viet Cong

confounding their far better equipped American and South Vietnamese adversaries

in the war.

The tunnels lie 10 km from Highway 1 and are about 60 km from

the border. The turn off to them is clearly marked. Visitors can clamber through

a 30-meter section of tunnel, try the Viet Cong's staple diet of boiled tree

roots and see some of the deadly traps they built to snare US troops and sniffer

dogs brave enough to venture in. The cost for entry and a tour of the eastern

tunnel complexes is $2.

If traveling along Highway 1 by moto be prepared

to pull over and ask to shelter in houses along the way from the rain - it helps

having international cigarettes to offer your host. The weather across the

country is quite variable at present, the sky can be perfectly clear but 20

minutes down the road you can be caught in a cloudburst.

I left Phnom

Penh at 8 am and arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 6:30 pm. It can be difficult to find

cheap rooms at this time especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

I was

pulled off the street by a kind middle-aged lady who offered me an upstairs room

in her house - but unfortunately it turned out to be the type of room you'd have

second thoughts about boarding your dog in. I gratefully accepted for $2 a


By the way staying in such unauthorized places, along with using

dollars or exchanging money outside of official banks is illegal, though all

three are fairly freely done. Police have apparently relaxed on enforcing these

laws in the last year but it's probably best to stick to the rules if it doesn't

cause too much of an inconvenience. The official exchange rate is only

marginally less than the black market rate and obviously is a lot safer.

One of the first points of reference newcomers should head for is Sinh

Cafe. The eaterie is located on Pham Ngu Lao Street near the center of the city,

which has become a haven for backpackers. Here Vietnamese speak good English and

are well-versed in coping with travelers needs.

Here I found a single

en-suite room in a reasonable hotel for $7, which is a standard price for the


If you've never been to Vietnam, be prepared for a major culture

shock. Vietnamese mores and manners are vastly different from those in Cambodia.

They tend to be far more aggressive in their behavior. Be prepared for them to

take your hat off and try it on, to pull books out of your hand and read them

and show them to their friends. The Vietnamese are very inquisitive and there's

little which escapes their attention. This has its pluses. For example,

Vietnamese make competent guides and are adept at finding places if they are

shown the address in writing.

Motos and cyclos are the same price as

Phnom Penh, but be warned the bargaining is a lot tougher. I found the best way

is to simply pay the fare and walk off firmly without arguing. However one

traveler related how he was forced to pay a vastly inflated price by a cyclo

driver on a short journey out of town. And when he began walking after refusing

the cyclo for the journey back the driver attacked him with a metal bar. I found

Saigon to be fairly unpleasant. In the markets I was mauled, prostitutes

accosted me, child beggars deliberately got in my way, cyclo drivers would often

grab me and try to lift me into their carriages.

Some people seem to

specialize in ripping off tourists and one should never pay for anything until

the vendor has fully provided his service.

Despite these drawbacks, Ho

Chi Minh City's tourist attractions are excellent. I would highly recommend the

War Crimes Exhibition, entrance 70 cents and the Reunification Hall at $4. The

latter was the seat of the South Vietnamese regime and is preserved exactly as

it was when the "American puppets" were deposed.

Also worth a visit is a

city's zoo, not so much for the animals but an intriguing water puppet show

(entrance $1) and the botanical gardens, where artists will sketch you for $1.

Entrance to the zoo is free.

Dinner on the balcony of the Rex Hotel

accompanied by classical music is also not to be missed as is a show at the

Municipal Theater (tickets $3) and a cruise along the Saigon River for 30-50

cents. The 60-seater boats leave from near the Floating Hotel.

One big

plus is that the food in Vietnam tends to be very good and is cheaper than in


The stresses and strains foreigners face in the big city make

heading for the provinces a must. One direction to head in I would strongly

recommend is the Mekong delta area, which begins 100 km southwest of Saigon. The

fertile land around the mighty river is lush and green, densely populated and

intensively farmed. Extensive natural river systems criss cross the terrain

providing a feast for tourists wishing to experience the traditional water-based

agrarian Vietnamese lifestyles.

The town of Can Tho is a good base to

explore the delta and lies 170 km southwest of Saigon and takes four hours and

$4 to get to by moto. The city caters well to tourists. Numerous restaurants and

pubs have been built overlooking the river which teem with hundreds of small

wooden boats used by the people for fishing and to transport their produce. On

dry land the local form of transportation is cyclo carriages which have

motorbikes attached. For passengers there is a sensation of traveling in a small


Boats, of either the paddle or motor variety are also for hire

for around $1 an hour, giving you the opportunity to explore the numerous

waterways as the mighty Mekong splits into in its final stages. Residents stand

on the banks, smiling and waving and are only to happy to invite you into their

boatshed houses and taste the local beer, 25 cents a bottle, wine and salted


Some 30 km southwest of Can Tho is PruVing, where seven rivers

meet. Between 7:30 and 9:30 am many of the townsfolk load their canoes and row

to the junction to join a bustling floating market by a bridge. Boats are also

for hire here to explore the market and the seven rivers.

Sa Dec is

another city worth visiting, 30 km north of Can Tho. It is home to many flower

nurseries used among other things to make sweet tea. By the river there are

numerous little homes-cum-factories where young men churn out noodles using a

combination of flour, rice, water and the sun.



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