The Mai Linh Express bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh lasts about hours including the border crossing. That’s about hours longer than they claim but it was a smooth ride. Our bus was peopled with other peculiar passengers including a couple traveling on Cuban passports, and a Vietnamese-Australian family.
Cambodian customs and immigration was uneventful. The bus company holds your passport the whole time and they even save you trouble by filling in your forms. You just need to pay the $ for the visa, in whatever currency you’ve got or combinations thereof.
Overall I wasn’t crazy about Vietnam, but we enjoyed our weeks. It was an interesting, educational experience.
A few things about Vietnam surprised us. For instance, toilets are very clean. Even at dinky roadside restaurants, the toilets were fine. They are usually Western-style commodes with seats and toilet paper. No squatters. I like squatters in theory, but they do tend to get slippery, dirty, and buggy if not cleaned regularly.
Besides the toilets, just about everything else in Vietnam is a rd world classic. The traffic was heinous, as chaotic as India’s and with more motorcycles. At least in India you know to wait for a break because otherwise you will get hit. In Vietnam to cross the street you have to wade out into the traffic and trust that the drivers will go around you. Usually they do, sometimes they most certainly don’t which is why I got hit by a motorbike in Saigon.
We traveled from the north (Hanoi) to the south (Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City) and stopped at only five towns along the way. Because we stayed up to weeks in each place, Josh and I get a lot of feel for the pace and style of everyday life in these towns, more so than just passing through. It was really nice to establish ourselves somewhere even for just that short time and become “temporary regulars” at coffee shops. Our only short stays were in Nha Trang ( nights) and Dalat ( nights). Everywhere else we stayed long enough to receive hotel discounts.
In Dalat we splurged on the Ana Mandara Resort and Spa. Dalat is a mountain town, and there isn’t much to do there anyway so we figured that this would be the best place for a relaxing retreat. This is a very busy time of year for our business and Josh was really getting burned out. So I found this deal on Agoda. Agoda is a must if you are traveling in Asia, it’s basically a Priceline/Hotwire/Venere for Asia and their prices tend to be better than other booking engines. Dalat was where we visited the coffee plantations.
My personal favorite place that we visited in Vietnam was Mui Ne. Mui Ne is a very small town near a larger town called Phan Thiet. Between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet is a beach strip, literally only one road that has only hotels and restaurants. It sounds lame but it turned out to be the most peaceful spot of the whole trip because of the chilled out surfer vibe. Not wave surfing but wind and kite surfing. Every day around noon when the winds start to pick up, hundreds of surfers at varying levels of expertise come out to play and practice.
It’s a long, long beach with soft sand. You can’t really swim in the South China Sea there because it’s rough. But the breeze keeps the air so cool that you can lay out all day (as I did) and not sweat. The eye candy is great, all the surfers many of whom do tricks in the air, and the novices learning. Their first lesson is literally flying a kite for hours—that’s it! They don’t even get to surf until the rd lesson.
Just as with all good surfer towns, there are plenty of places to drink beer including one brewpub down the end of the road that is a branch of Vietnamese brewpub chain Hoa Vien. We rode bicycles from the hotel, it took about minutes. Unfortunately, the beer wasn’t so great so we didn’t go back. But on the way out we rode past two signs that said “Live Beer!” I immediately knew that would mean fresh beer, and the next day we checked that out. Turns out the Russian microbrewery Fifth Ocean launched a brewery branch in Saigon just three weeks earlier. We had the Fifth Ocean (Pyatiy Okean in Russian) a few times after that. There is a large Russian contingency of both tourists and expats in the southern part of Vietnam.
Saigon was great, it surpassed our expectations. Just as Hanoi let us down, Saigon inspired us. Saigon is totally different from Hanoi, and it seems most people like Hanoi better for some weird reason. Saigon is bigger, and seems to have better urban planning. There is more green space, more traffic lights, better flow of traffic and pedestrians, more sidewalks, more restaurants, more bars, and more amenities in general. The food was better and the people friendlier than they were in Hanoi. Hanoi has more brewpubs (and better ones) but that’s the only tick on its side of the chart.
One thing I liked about Saigon is all the history of the American War (that’s what Americans call the Vietnam War). The War Remnants museum in town has great exhibitions on Agent Orange showing how babies were still being born with deformities in the late s.
The day-trip to the Cu Chi tunnels shows how the Viet Cong dealt their decisive blow. That’s also where you can wreak some innocent havoc on targets at the shooting range. They have Ms, AK-, and more. It was $ for a round of AK- bullets and worth every dong. We also visited the Holy See of a Vietnamese syncretic cultish religion called Cao Dai. The Cao Dai symbol is the Illuminati eye in the triangle.
Given my fascination with such things, I really enjoyed that temple, and we even arrived on time to see the noon mass/chanting ceremony. Visitors are permitted to observe from the nd floor and take pictures.