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
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
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.
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.
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.