Border Bureaucracy – Vietnam to Laos

Edit: Have recently discovered that Dong is a closed currency. Spend it or change it to something else before you leave Vietnam or you’re stuck with it!

The tales you read on the internet about crossing from Hanoi to Vientiane on a bus range from the uneventful to the truly awful. It’s a 20-24 hour bus ride which is about a fifth of the price of a flight. As I’m in full saving money mode, I didn’t have much else in the way of choices. I took the bus. I booked through my hostel and paid $28 USD for my ticket. The bus seemed fairly clean, modern and had a toilet that did not make me vomit in my mouth.

Every review I read commented on the fact that that white people are put at the back of the bus. This is normally next to the toilet, in the bottom bunk (where you can’t sit up because the compartment is only about 70cm tall) and right above the engine block (so your back feels like it’s on fire). The reviews are all correct. That’s exactly what happens. If you expect anything else, you will be disappointed. Don’t try and argue. The bus staff already hate you for even existing and now you are on their bus which has basically ruined their whole week. They’re not going to move you but they might leave you behind at the border if you really annoy them so just suck it up like a big brave soldier and get on with it or, you could cry. I cried but I was poorly with a cold which made me feel very sad about the whole thing indeed. And no one from the bus crew saw me crying. They were silent tears of a very British nature.

Other stories about the journey tell of cockroaches and creepy crawlies sharing your bed. We had cockroaches but they were only babies so the tissue and flush method was employed successfully on four samples before they stayed away. This amused the locals on the bus no end as they had obviously never seen a white girl deal with a cockroach before in their lives.

Other retellings of the journey say that the aisles were packed with people, chickens, rice sacks and all manner of other things. My bus was OK. There were even a couple of spare seats. Very civilised in that respect.

The journey itself was fine. No mechanical mishaps. No issues really. We got to the border about 45 minutes before it opened. We waited and, at the appointed hour, got stamped out of Vietnam for a $1 USD fee (not an official fee I don’t think).

Once stamped out, it’s about 1km to the Laos border. All the locals were allowed back onto the bus for this trip. The two white people were not allowed back onto the bus (despite trying to get onto it) and instead took a nice stroll.

Arriving at the Laos side, you enter the arrival corridor, acquire a visa on arrival form, fill it out, hand over a passport photo, $35 visa fee and $1 for, I dunno, the ink they’ll use stamping your passport. Hopefully you get a Laos visa back in exchange. I did and proceeded back to the bus in triumph.

Back in the boiling hot engine block toilet coffin, I watched Laos zip by until we arrived at Vientiane bus station. The bus station is a few km out of town. The second you get off the bus, you will be encouraged to take a tuk tuk instantly. Don’t. Walk out of the station and get a big tuk tuk from the front of the station, it’s cheaper and there a couple of ATMs if you need local currency too.

All in all, another pain free crossing completed in 22 hours.

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Sapa Trek – The Hmong Generation

Whilst researching what I could do in and around north Vietnam, I read an awful lot about this place Sapa. It apparently has beautiful scenery to enjoy, a culture which is still rich with tradition and the highest peak in Vietnam (Fansipan). I decided that I would spend some time in Sapa but I wasn’t sure what to do. The overwhelming opinion of the internet, and my guidebook, was that I should do some trekking in Sapa. I caved to the peer pressure and decided to trek.

The company I chose to trek with is called Sapa O’Chau. I chose them above cheaper alternatives because they have a school in Sapa which local village children can attend and the profit of their treks goes into maintaining the school. All of their guides are school graduates too so they provide education and employment in the region. I can get behind that.

I took an overnight bus from Hanoi to Sapa which cost me $16 (USD) each way. This is cheaper than the trains and actually gets you to Sapa proper (trains bring you into Lao Cai which is a couple of hours from Sapa by bus). I arrived in Sapa at about 7am so had time to grab some breakfast prior to my 9am trek start time.

I met my guide, Lam, at the Sapa O’Chau cafe at 9 and off we went! Lam had attended the Sapa O’Chau school before becoming a guide for them. She was born and raised very close to the town were I would be spending my homestay so she knew the trails between Sapa and Lao Chai very well.

As we were leaving Sapa, I got a glimpse of what the views were going to be like for my two day adventure.

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Absolutely stunning. The trekking was not particularly hard but I would say you need a decent level of fitness in order to undertake it. There’s a lot of steep and slippery sections and you even cross rivers balancing on stones at some points. Here’s one of them,

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Yes, I crossed that. I didn’t fall in and I’m terribly proud of myself. There was also good amounts of balancing on thin ledges done. Most of the ledges were separators between different level of rice terraces. The views as I walked were just breathtaking. I could have taken a photo a second but, you have to draw the line somewhere. I actively limited myself to photographing only the ‘extra’ beautiful like these watered rice terraces.

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Lam explained as we walked that the families in this area do not sell the rice they grow. They keep it for themselves and their families. They do have other things growing and animals breeding for trade. I saw ducks, chickens, black pigs, pink pigs, buffalo, hemp plants, plants used to dye cloth black, plants used for pig feed and all manner of other income generating produce.

Lam explained that the terraces are normally family owned. One family will have tended a terrace for generations and tending the terraces seems like jolly tough work. They have to be prepared before rice can be planted. As the rice grows, it needs to be moved from terrace to terrace until it can be harvested. Each rice crop is a two to three month process of constant planting and picking.

I stayed in a village called Lao Chai for the evening with my host, Mai, and her 3 children. She was incredibly gracious and cooked enough food for an army. I thoroughly enjoys my evening but the trekking had left me more tired than expected so I got to bed very early and slept like a log.

The next day brought more trekking and more beautiful scenery.

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The weather held out both days and was blisfully overcast on day two. With the clouds blocking the sun and the wind blowing, almost, a gale, the trekking on day two felt easier. I could feel all my leg muscles. I concluded that I have become hideously unfit since moving to Hong Kong and that I will do something about it once I’m settled again. The things you get to look at as you trek more than make up for the leg pain though.

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We finished our second day at about 2pm which meant I had a few hours to explore Sapa itself before my bus back to Hanoi at 6pm. I wandered around and looked through the market in town for a while before simply retreating to a bar for a well deserved beer.

Sapa is a beautiful part of Vietnam. I’m just waiting for some of my friends to suggest climbing Fansipan so I can go back.

Vietnam Visions – Visit 4

After Hue, I headed to the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi. I took a sleeper bus to get there and, once again, arrived safely and in a timely fashion. The scariest part of the journey was getting off the bus in Hanoi as I was treated rather like a good cut of beef at a steak restaurant. The moto and taxi drivers all but steal your bag in order to try and get you into/onto their vehicle and paying their inflated price. I had been in touch with my hostel before my arrival and arranged to be collected from the bus stop so I was able to confidently refuse all services. If you haven’t prearranged pick up, haggle hard.

I stayed at the Street Backpackers Hostel on Ly Quoc Su street in Hanoi. I was very pleased with my stay. The hostel is able to book you almost every kind of trip or travel you might desire at, what my research showed to be, reasonable prices. They also provide breakfast for you between 7-10am and free beer or rice wine between 8-9pm. Their laundry service is a competitive rate and you are in a good location. Additional to this, the owner is simply lovely. I booked a trip and all my transport through Street Backpackers and was very pleased with everything. I would recommend them for not only board but also travel agent services.

I didn’t see or do a great deal in Hanoi City because I was beginning to feel like I was at learning capacity. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything at all though.

I visited the Temple of Literature. It’s set in a series of pretty courtyards.

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There’s a lot of turtles guarding scripture.

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In total I remember three courtyards. The prettiest was the first and the last contained the most interesting stuff. The last courtyard contains a temple, a structure housing a big bell and a structure housing this gigantic drum.

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The temple building in the last courtyard is a kind of small museum but it’s all in Vietnamese so no real value for an English only speaker in there. The courtyard is good to just sit in if you can find some shade, it gets pretty hot walking around.

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Apart from seeing the temple, I also saw the smallest frog. He was miniscule (smaller than my thumbnail) but I was too nervous to slide anything into the shot for scale incase he hopped off.

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I visited the Women’s museum too. It looks at the traditions, ceremonies and roles of Vietnamese women through time. It covers marriage, birth, social roles, working roles and women at war. It is all very interesting. Admission to the museum is 30000 dong (15000 for students) and I think it’s completely worth it as you really do come away with a solid appreciation of just how different each tribe is from one another and also how different life for a Vietnamese woman is compared with the life of an English woman. You see examples of cooking, everyday objects, crafting skills and details of traditional ceremonies for weddings and births. The sections on on women at war are incredibly powerful. After I had been through the war section, I was left in no doubt as to why Vietnam has successfully repelled invasion after invasion over the years. It’s because Vietnamese women are as proud, tenacious and capable as the men and the men know it. Vietnamese women are not shut away like precious porcelain in times of struggle, they’re out doing every bit as much fighting as the men. On the top floor they have an excellent display of fashion and jewellery items. It’s really a great little museum. Try and find time to go.

A good free activity in Hanoi is to have a slow stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a pretty sight with a very isolated island in the centre.

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There’s a temple you can visit set on the lake but I was temple’d out so I didn’t go in. I just took a photo of it instead.

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There’s plenty of eating and drinking places around the lake so you can take your time and enjoy the lake one side and the crazy moto traffic the other.

The trip I booked through my hostel was a two day, one night Halong Bay tour. I paid $45 (USD), was fed, was taken from Hanoi City to Halong Bay and slept on the boat (the Halong Wonder). My $45 also included kayaking and entrance to a lit up cave which was pretty but you could tell had been heavily modified for tourism.

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The cave took on a more gimmicky feel than I was happy to endure so I elbowed past the other tourists and got out as quick as I could really.

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The view outside was markedly better anyway.

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After the cave and kayaking, the boat chugged slowly through the bay until sunset. At sunset, we admired the view from the deck and toasted our luck with too much booze.

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The Halong Wonder was definitely the party boat that evening. All other boats had shut off their karaoke at about midnight but we ploughed through. Come morning, the view hurt my head.

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I had a fabulous time in both Hanoi and Halong bay. I would highly suggest at least 1 night in Halong Bay as opposed to a day trip. It’s worth the extra money, trust me.

Vietnam Visions – Visit 3

After Nha Trang I took another overnight bus with Hanh Cafe to Huê (pronounced hoo-ay). Again, the bus was an uneventful ride that got me to my destination in a safe and timely(ish) fashion. I stayed at the Huê Backpackers Hostel. The dorm was clean and the happy hour was fierce.

I only had a single day and night in Huê so I had to make the most of it. I hired a scooter (with driver included) and started at the Citadel. It’s a pretty big place. Here’s the main building with a suspicious looking tourist posing.

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There’s many buildings in the citadel complex which were used by the emperor and his family. They included living spaces and relaxing spaces. I particularly liked the pond complex you can see below.

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The grounds included many resting places as you walk around. I took a rest from the sun under one of these bad boys.

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A lot of the complex has been restored and you can attend a traditional music and dance show twice a day. Your ticket also includes entrance to a museum a short walk away from the main citadel. The museum is full of items recovered from the citadel and associated buildings and ranges from pottery to ceremonial weapons. The entrance fee to the citadel feels a little more acceptable when you consider it includes the museum too.

After the citadel, I was driven down by Perfume river to a secluded Pagoda.

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In the grounds of the pagoda there is also a temple which plays host to a relaxing golden Buddha. You can see him chilling in his glass case.

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The temple is set back from the river and surrounded by nicely landscaped gardens.

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The pagoda is also free entry which makes it all the sweeter to wander around. It is a little far out of town (about 5km) but you could easily cycle it or hire a moto.

The next place I was taken to was the tiger fighting arena. I was a little naughty and climbed up and over the barrier to walk around the top of the arena. Back in the day, the emperor would come to watch tigers and elephants fight it out in the arena. Here’s the main staircase up.

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There’s a small, and very old looking, temple near to the arena. Here’s the entrance gate.

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There are some amazing views of Perfume River in Hue. My scooter driver took me to an area that had previously been used as an underground shelter. It was beautifully secluded and gave a great view down the river.

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We stopped at a village where I saw incense sticks being made which was interesting. The actual incense part is a very thick paste which is rolled over a wooden stick. When dry it turns hard and resembles the incense I’m used to seeing. I did not realise how incense sticks were made before and I even got to have a go at making one myself.

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Huê is a beautiful City to visit and I’m pleased I spent a day there but I think a day was enough.

Vietnam Visions – Visit 2

I took my first sleeper bus from Ho Chi Minh north to Nha Trang. I was very surprised at how fancy the bus was. See for yourself.

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The seats were swanky. They sat up, laid flat and reclined to various angles in between. I was very pleasantly surprised by the sleeper bus as I’d heard mixed things about them ranging from good to horrific. The company I travelled with was called Hanh Cafe and I was pretty happy with their service. You can buy what’s called an ‘open tour’ ticket with Hanh Cafe which entitles you to take their busses to any of their destinations providing you book in advance. Most hostels can book for you which is good. I didn’t take an open tour ticket as I wasn’t planning on stopping at enough places to make it worthwhile (it was cheaper for me to just buy the single tickets I needed than to buy an open tour one).

The drive was uneventful and I arrived safely in Nha Trang.

Nha Trang is a fairly quiet beach town but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. There’s a large water park you can visit a cable car ride away. You can also snorkel and dive around Nha Trang. There is plenty to do in Nha Trang but I did not want to do anything. I wanted to lay on the beach and read my book. This is a completely viable activity in Nha Trang. The beach is beautiful. I spent three days on the beach and swimming in the sea. It was as hot as hell and even factor 50 did not blot out the sun for too long. Go prepared for heat with plenty of water. Also be prepared for beach hawkers. They will try to sell you everything from lobster to bracelets.

When the sun sets, you can either continue drinking on the beach or leave the sand for a local watering hole (which are in plentiful supply). I managed to find an open mic in one of the pubs and sat listening to a variety of cover versions which made me feel happy.

There’s plenty of eating spots too, both local and foreign. I ate at a really good Indian cafe just down the road from my hostel called Omar’s Tandoori. It was the third best Indian I’ve ever had (1st being in Hyderabad, 2nd being Brick Lane).

I stayed in a very lovely hostel called Mojzo Inn. It’s a five minute stroll from the beach, a good breakfast (which has a great view) is included, the WiFi is great and the staff are amazingly friendly. I would definitely recommend it as somewhere to stay in Nha Trang.

I didn’t take any photos because I was too busy lazing around but take it from me, it’s beautiful. Nha Trang is worth a stop if you’re in Vietnam.

Vietnam Visions – Visit 1

After my successful and stress free crossing into Vietnam, I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City feeling as though the best was definitely yet to come.

I stayed at the Ngoc Thoc Guesthouse which is run by a rather lovely lady and her family. They organised my tours and transport whilst I was in Ho Chi Minh. The hostel is clean and the family is friendly to a fault. I had a very pleasant few nights there.

I organised a half day tour to Cu Chi tunnels with my hostel. It cost me $5 (excluding the 90000 dong entrance fee to the tunnels) and I think it was good value. I got collected from my hostel and was amused by the tour guide for most of the day. The tunnels are a few hours drive outside of Ho Chi Minh City but you go through some good countryside on the way so it doesn’t feel too torturous.

When we arrived at the tunnels, we were pretty much herded to a movie room where we were shown a film about how and why Cu Chi became the centre for guerilla forces (a.k.a. the Viet Kong). There was a cut away showing the different levels of tunnels that people lived in during the war inside the movie room. You can see it below.

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There were three levels. Level one was approximately three metres underground. Level two was approximately seven metres underground. The deepest level was approximately ten metres underground. Each room in the tunnel system had was specific use. There were rooms for sleeping, cooking, washing, eating, weapon making/repairing and strategising (I’ve probably missed some too). The tunnels were ventilated and several thousand people survived living in them for many years.

The tunnels were incredibly well disguised and entrances were difficult to spot. Here’s an example of a hidden entrance. You can see our tour guide demonstrating how the guerilla fighters could seemingly vanish into the ground.

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The tunnels are very narrow and the secret entrances even more so. Had an entrance been discovered by western forces, I don’t think they could have got their hips/shoulders into the holes!

Some of the tunnels have been widened to accommodate tourists and there is a section 140 metres long that you can scramble through. It was quite surreal to think that people had lived, married, reproduced and died in the same tunnels less than 50 years ago but that now, tourists were making their way through them in droves.

The tour of the tunnels also covered the kinds of booby traps that were set in the forest by guerilla forces in Cu Chi. Some of them really make you wince and it’s easy to think them overly brutal but these guerilla fighters were mostly farmers and villagers unwilling to sacrifice their land. They were utilising every resource they could to keep their families and homes safe.

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The Cu Chi tunnels is an interesting look into how and why guerilla forces functioned in the Vietnam war. I would say it’s worth going for a look if you can get a tour for less than $6-7. Our tour bus dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum on the way back.

>—————————————WARNING————————————-

Some of the images from the War Remnants Museum I have used are very graphic and upsetting. Consider this your opportunity to stop reading. No nasty comments will be approved. You’ve been notified.

>———————————-WARNING OVER————————————

There are large examples of war outside the museum building in the form of helicopters, planes and tanks. You can see below a chinook helicopter used by the USA during the war in Vietnam.

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Here is a tank, again used by the USA, and a close up of the tread. You can see from the gouges and general missing tread that the tank has definitely seen a fair share of ‘action’.

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Once you get inside the museum, the exhibits are smaller. You’ll find mostly pictures, documentation, maps, timelines and fact sheet type displays. Some of the photos I saw reduced me to tears. Here’s an example of one of them. I chose to show this photo as I think it shows just how scarring war is for those who died and those who survived be they soldiers, family or bystanders.

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The sheer brutality applied during the war in Vietnam is incomprehensible. I realise that, as the museum is in Vietnam, it’s probably a more one sided view than is healthy but the facts and images I saw were not photo shopped or embellished in any way. They were very concise and to the point. When exhibiting about a village massacred by US special forces, the display simply stated how many men, women and children had been killed. That’s all.  Just a body count. Maybe there is no extra explanation they can give for the deaths as it’s never been understood why the village was targeted. I don’t know. I just know that I read body count after body count.

Apart from the universal horrors of war, the museum also looks at the immediate and lasting effects of biological warfare. During the war in Vietnam, the USA coated massive parts of Vietnam in Agent Orange. This chemical killed all plant life it touched. You can see below the devastation it caused.

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Agent Orange not only killed vegetation but also inhibited regrowth. You can see a before and after picture of the effects of agent orange below. The image on the right shows lush vegetation along the river bank. The left shows a desolate landscape and the result of agent orange.

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The final, and possibly most horrendous effect of agent orange is to humans. It has the ability to mutate DNA with no outward effect on the carrier. The effect is only seen in the offspring of a carrier. Agent Orange mutation carriers give birth to children that can have a range of physical and mental disabilities. I am not going to go into the details here but recommend you look up the facts for yourself. Essentially, completely innocent parties are still suffering every day for something that happened before they were a twinkle in their Daddy’s eye. It is simply horrifying.

The last part of the museum is dedicated to a prison. After seeing Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, I had lost hope of there being any humanity in a Vietnamese war jail. I will admit that, by now, I was pretty spent. The day had been completely harrowing so, when I saw a guillotine inside the jail, I decided not to look or read any more. I just couldn’t take any more in.

I took a very slow walk back to my hostel from the museum that night in the pouring rain.

The next day, I went to Reunification Palace. It’s a very cool building that is still used for important state functions. Here it is.

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The palace has free guided tours in several languages and they’re well worth taking.

The palace used to be the residence of the President. It has many rooms for formal meetings and entertaining. Here’s a state room.

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Below is an entertainment room. You can see in the background there is a bar in the shape of a barrel. It’s very 70s.

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One of the more surprising rooms was the personal cinema.

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In the president’s living section, there’s a lovely garden set in an open, atrium style part of the building. The garden is surrounded by bedrooms and a dining room. Must have been pretty sweet to be the president.

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On the roof, there is a helipad which was used to evacuate when necessary. The two red circles show where bombs landed on the palace during the Vietnam war.

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Beneath the palace is two levels of bunkers. They were used by the president and his team for planning and shelter when necessary. You can still see the maps on the wall.

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When North Vietnam secured the capital in the south, tanks crashed through the gates of the palace and secured surrender of the president. Here’s the scene then.

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Here’s the scene today.

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Reunification Palace cost me 30000 dong to go round and it was worth it. I would recommend a visit.

Quite close to the palace is Notre Dame cathedral. I couldn’t go inside but I had a walk around the outside. It really doesn’t seem like it fits in Ho Chi Minh.

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Ho Chi Minh City is a busy city and although I didn’t see everything it has to offer, I was ready to leave after my few days there. I departed for the beach on an overnight bus. More on that next time.

Border Bureaucracy – Cambodia to Vietnam

Traversing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam is far less manual than the Thailand to Cambodia affair. The key difference is that you can get an international bus. Joy of joys! Instead of making your way to the border on one form of transport and then sourcing onward transport in the next country, you can get a bus directly from Cambodia and into Vietnam. I took a Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City bus run by Sappaco for $12.

My bus departed Phnom Penh at 9:00. By 11:30 we were being stamped out of Cambodia. Marvellous, right? Well it wasn’t worry free. Let me explain my first timer insecurities about the whole process which should hopefully ease any worries you have if you do the same journey.

Firstly, my passport was taken. Not having my passport on my person makes me feel quite unwell unless I know it is locked up somewhere. In this case, it was in the hands of a Cambodian man whom I did not know from Adam. At the time, I was mystified about why I wasn’t clutching my passport but I realised quite quickly what was happening. You are not allowed into Vietnam without a prearranged visa for many nationalities so, the bus company needed to make sure that if you need a prearranged visa that you had one. Otherwise, the bus could arrive at the border with 40 passengers eligible to cross and 1 passenger with a lack of visa problem. Not ideal. UK passports need a visa in advance. I got mine from the embassy in London but I believe you can get one from any Vietnam embassy. Do triple check. Do not leave visas to chance.

Passports were taken on boarding the bus. They were returned just before being stamped out of Cambodia. Once you’re stamped out, it was taken again to check you’d been correctly removed from Cambodia.

To enter Vietnam, you must be carrying all your luggage. Whilst the passengers were getting their bags, the man with all the passports went ahead to the Vietnamese immigration desk and the official began stamping all of the passports through (even though the passport owners were not present for inspection). At the time, I was being shuffled to immigration with my luggage and no passport thinking ‘well this is not going to end well’ until what had actually happened dawned on me, We were simply being herded over the border in the most time efficient manner, plain and simple. As passports were stamped into Vietnam, the bus driver called forward the appropriate passenger, they got their passport back and got on the bus. It makes perfect sense really.

Once we were all aboard again, it was a hitch free drive to Ho Chi Minh. We had arrived by 15:00 and it was pouring with rain.

I can highly recommend taking an international bus for border crossing where they are legitimate. Cambodia to Vietnam is legitimate. I’ll report on others as I find them.