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Vietnam and Cambodia Trip

  • Submitted by: David, United States
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

Although the trip lasted from June 15 to July 21 (1992) and included stays in the Pacific (Truk, Guam, & Hawaii), Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei, and Thailand, I am only going to comment on the segments in Vietnam and Cambodia as I believe they are of the most interest.
We (Greg and I) initially applied for our visas by writing to:
Permanent Mission to the United Nations of the Vietnamese People's Socialist Republic
20 Waterside Plaza
New York, New York 10010
tel: (212) 685-8001
We received from them a photocopy of an application form with the instructions to submit two completed applications, three photos, two photocopies of our passport, and USD 90 each. These materials were sent to them 3 months in advance of our departure from the United States. 6 weeks later Greg received a 6am (9am NY time) phone call in which he was informed that our entry port to Vietnam at Lao Bao, overland from Laos, was not permissable. I then told them that we would change our schedule such that we would arrive by plane at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi. Everything seemed to be OK until I returned from my trip to Italy and found that the visa had still not arrived. I phoned the Mission in New York and was informed that it would take a little longer, too long in fact for us to receive the visas before we were to leave for Truk. I then asked them if they could send the visas to the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok where we would pick them up in person. For some unexplained reason I was informed that this was not possible. Not having an idea of where we were going to be staying in Bangkok I told them to send the visas to the United States Embassy (which is only 100 yards down the road from the Vietnamese Embassy) and we would pick it up from our fellow Americans. This seemed to them to be satisfactory and we set off across the Pacific thinking we would have our visas all ready and waiting upon our arrival in Thailand. And just to be sure, I phoned the US Embassy in Bangkok before we left California to tell them that we were going to be having a package sent to us care of the Embassy that we would pick up once in Bangkok.
Upon arrival in Bangkok we hurriedly (it was a Friday afternoon and the Embassy would soon be closing until Monday morning) made our way through the exhaust choked streets to the US Embassy. Although greeted politely by Thai's at the front desk they seemed to be somewhat confused by our request to see if the mail room had received the `important documents' that we were expecting. The limited command of spoken english from the mail room caused me to wonder if they had received the visas and either thrown them away or filed them in the `do not understand' cabinet. We decided to wait until Monday and see if the package would arrive or they would find it during the weekend.
We spent the weekend in Bangkok staying in the Khao Son Road area where we met other travelers who had just returned from Vietnam. After one 45 minute conversation with a couple that had just spent some time in Vietnam - in which most of our talk was spent highlighting the difficult aspects of travel in the country - Greg decided not to go. Realizing the likely possibility of the US Embassy not receiving the visas I delayed my flight from Bangkok to Hanoi from Wed July 1 to Sat July 4 in order that I could apply for another visa.
On Monday, a drop by the US Embassy proved unfruitful as they had still not received the visas. I walked to a travel agency just down the street and ordered the visa there. I got the visa for Vietnam from :
M.K. Ways (Thailand) Co., Ltd.
57/11 Witthayu (Wireless) Rd.,
Bangkok 10300
Tel. 254-4765, 255-2892, 252-8214
Fax. (662) 254-5583
Telex. 21975 MKWAYS TH
This place is right at the corner of Wireless and Phloen Chit and is just a few hundred yards from the US embassy which is at 95 Wireless.
I dropped off my passport on Monday June 29th and picked it up Friday (July 3rd) afternoon. The cost was USD 80. If you want it in two days they will do it for USD 125. If for some reason you think a Vietnamese Visa stamped in your passport will cause you problems you can have the visa issued on a separate piece of paper. This also enables you to not have to leave your passport with them for 5 days. I had no problems returning to the USA with the Vietnamese or the Cambodian visa stamped in my passport. In fact they didn't even look and if they did I doubt they would have known what they were looking at. I told the immigration in both Guam and Hawaii that I had been to these countries and they just searched my bags a little more carefully but nothing more than that.

I flew on Saturday July 4th from Bangkok to Hanoi on Thai Airways for USD 178. Greg flew home from Bangkok to San Francisco on Sunday the 5th, a full 18 days sooner than our itinerary called for. Upon arrival in Hanoi the officials asked what tour I was booked with and knowing that one is not required I told them I had none. Conveniently, a representative from some agency `happened' to be right there and said he would sign my arrival card if I booked a tour with him. Having no choice (I could not leave the airport without the arrival card being signed), I agreed. They snagged about 10 other Western tourists from my flight with this same scam. So we all piled into a minivan (with AC thankfully) and took the 45 minute ride into downtown Hanoi. The drive itself was very interesting. The trip down the narrow road lined with rice fields on this sunny day contrasted with the independence day fireworks I knew were going on back home.
A number of the people in the van (particularly the two French travelers) were quite angry at this blatant rip off but the driver insisted that we needed to get this paper work taken care of and since he had our passports we had to go along. Well as soon as the minivan stopped in front of their office and the driver got out he made the mistake of leaving our passports on the dash. I promptly grabbed mine and to the astonishment of the `we-must-always-follow-the-rules-Germans' I took off down the road, ducked into the first side street and paid some kid a dollar (an outrageous sum I later found out) to take me on his motorcycle to the hotel I had decided I wanted to go to. I stayed at the Sophia Hotel which is just south of Hoan Kiem Lake for USD 12 a night. Although this was the most I ever paid for a hotel in Vietnam it was also the nicest room (AC, bathroom, large bed, desk, etc).
I rented a moped from the people at the hotel for USD 5 a day and cruised around for two days. The place I thought was the most intesting in terms of a tourist sight was Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. After registering at the gate and dropping off my camera a group of us were led single file with hats off, sunglasses off, no gum, and hands out of pockets, into the large concrete air conditioned structure that houses Ho's body as it lay there in a glass case. Other intesting sights included the much bombed, yet still servicable Long Bien Bridge over the Red River, the `Hanoi Hilton' prison, and an Army museum (with captured US equipment). I don't want to get into sight seeing too much as all this info can be found in the Lonely Planet Vietnam, Laos \& Cambodia book (The LP series of guides has over 80 titles for independent travelers, people which they `assume know how to get their luggage off the carousel').
My general impressions of Hanoi are two: brown and bicycles. There are a few green trees there (I have pictures to prove it) but my mental picture of Hanoi is of the uniformly drab buildings, sidewalks, and streets. The other impression is the ubiquitous presence of bicycles. Mopeds are also in use but not to the extent of bicycles. Cars are virtually nonexistant. As I walked down the streets the hum of gears and derailers provided a welcome change in the background noise from Bangkok's mayhem. The people were quite friendly although shy when compared to those I would meet as I traveled south. They are genuinely happy to meet tourists - even Americans. I do want to recommend the Cha Ca Restaurant which is located at 14 Cha Ca St a few blocks north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Although Cha Ca means fried fish in vietnamese I was able to get a vegetarian dish here consisting of stir fried noodles and vegetables. A skillet on top of a clay pot filled with burning embers is placed on your table and you mix and cook the ingredients yourself. Total cost including a can of beer and a 1 liter bottle of mineral water was about USD 2.
The one bureacratic thing that needs to be taken care of within 48 hours of ones arrival in Vietnam is to register ones presence. I did this with:
Oscan Enterprises Ltd.
60 Nguyen Du Street
Tel. 84-42-52690, 84-42-65859
Fax. 84-42-57634
They also took care of the paper work for my internal travel permit which I needed in order to travel outside Hanoi. They did both of these things for USD 18 with same day service. Vietnam Tourism, TOSERCO, Vietcochamber, and the Immigration Police Office all said it would take at least two days and cost 50% more. I had Oscan write down over 20 places on my internal travel permit because I was not sure where I wanted to stay on my trip south. As it turned out this document was only checked when I left the country and the exact locations where I spent each of my nights was not verified. In fact the only unpleasant experience I had with government/police officials thoughout the entire trip was the arrival incident at Noi Bai Airport. Throughout the trip I did not get the feeling of being in a police state at all. In fact I never saw any soldiers and most of the police were armed with only a billy club.
Monday morning I bought a ticket to leave Hanoi at 4pm by train to Dong Ha. The train station has a special place where foreigners have to go to purchase tickets which are 5 times the rate that Vietnamese pay for the same class (there is nothing you can do about it). The alternatives are to take a bus or rent a car (USD 30 a day with driver). The buses are as slow as the trains and don't offer the freedom of being able to walk around so I did most of my traveling by train. If I would have been with another person and definitely if there are three of you in the party the rental car is the way to go. I met all sorts of people doing this and believe me, compared to the trains/buses that I rode the rental car would have been a dream. The driver will take you anywhere you want to go and they pay for their own meals/lodging. The ticket to Dong Ha on the hard seat (cheapest possible fare) was USD 17. At 3:55pm I was still sitting in the offices of Oscan as we waited for their employee to return with my passport and documents. He burst in at 3:57 and raced me on the back of his scooter to the train station whereupon I caught my train with one minute and thirty seconds to spare.
As far as I could tell I was the only westerner on the train as well as the only one who spoke english. I did meet one Vietnamese guy who like many others had spent some time in the former East Germany and the combination of two less than fluent German speakers enabled us to `communicate' for a while till it got to be too much effort and our conversation degenerated into staring out the window. Which brings me to my most vivid impression of Vietnam - the landscape. Of the 30 or so countries I have been to Vietnam is easily the most beautiful. I saw more shades of green then I knew existed. Rice fields manually tended from dawn to dusk were always in view as were forest covered mountains. I also frequently caught glimpses of pristine deserted beaches from the train window as we made our way along the coast.
Inside the trains was a zoo. The third class coach I was in had a center aisle with benches on both sides arranged to face each other at a distance that allowed the knees of Vietnamese travelers to just miss each other. I relied on sitting on the edge of the bench in order to have my longer legs jutting out into the aisle where I could stretch them out so as not to be bumping up against the person sitting across from me. The drawbacks to this were that taking the end space on the bench frequently left me with just enough room for one butt cheek to be on the bench while the other hovered above the aisle. The other annoyance was that the constant traffic up and down the aisle required me to be continually moving my legs to unblock the path and allow the people to pass. Vendors of water and tea passed back and forth with ridiculous frequency. Constantly calling out their wares they navigated the cluttered aisles in search of thirsty travelers whereby they would fill an aluminum coke can that had its top removed leaving a jagged and rusted maw from which to drink. I preferred to purchase bottled water and carry it with me. Both of the marathon train rides I took stopped about once an hour. During these stops the train cars would be besieged both from the exterior by vendors attempting to sell their goods to you through the open window and from the interior by the more persistent, who would add to the already crowded aisles (now filled with people getting on and off with their baggage). The variety of items to be purchased now ranged from whole cooked chickens to pieces of sugar cane to gnaw on. The truly daring would climb onto the top of the train while it was stopped and then once we had started again and they believed it was safe, they would climb down and crawl through the open windows while the train is cruising along at its stately 30-50 miles per hour. They would then have someone from above pass them their food/drink and we would now have more sellers to cope with. The unfortunate were the passengers whose window this new entrepreneur had decided to enter from. They would have to deal with a clambering soul who would come pouncing across the unsuspecting riders laps. These traveling salespeople had to deal with the train conductors who carried electric shocking devices which they would use on someone that they caught sneaking on board. Often times our aisle would fill with vendors who were being chased from one end to the other. When the conductor got too close everyone would head for the windows paying little heed to the passengers they had to hastily crawl over in order to get to the window and freedom. On one corner I leaned over (remember I have the aisle space) and took a look out the window at the roof of the train. I saw about thirty people of all ages and genders milling about with their goods trying to find out from their comrades already in the train where the conductors were and which was the best window to climb back into.
I arrived in Dong Ha (after 17 sleepless hours) which is a main city in the region of the former DMZ. I spent two nights here while I explored the area that saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war. I visited the Truong Son National Cemetery as well as the area surrounding the Con Thien Firebase. The hundreds of grave stones in the cemetery are labelled with the words Liet Si (martyr) at the top. I was told that many of them are empty as the body was never found (Vietnam has tens of thousands of MIAs). Children in this region make a living by venturing out into the former battle fields (still filled with unexploded mines and ordnance) and collecting scrap metal. While I was there one kid came back from the fields with his wicker basket filled with rusted pieces of mostly undecipherable metal. After weighing his booty on a primitive balance the loot was dumped onto a mound of the stuff in which I was able to find pieces of claymore mines and artillery shells.
A dinner I had at an initially empty restaurant in Dong Ha quickly turned into some sort of spectacle as about 40 people came in to watch me eat. Not many visitors stop in Dong Ha as the `attractions' are out in the countryside so visitors get alot of attention.
A 2 hour bus ride the next day deposited me in the city of Hue. The buses, which should more appropriatly be called 35 year old vans, begin their journey from a `bus station' (although vacant dirt lot would again often be more appropriate) but they do not have prearranged stops. When someone wants to go somewhere in Vietnam they often stand along side the road and wait until a bus approaches, wave it down, and leap in while it is still moving. When someone wants to get off they yell to the driver who proceeds to slow down to a speed inversely proportional to the persons age (passengers my age, 25, might get the bus down to 5 mph while senior citizens get nearly a complete stop) in order to allow a hasty exit. Since the buses never leave the station until they are full (and I mean full), and the rate in which people disembark is less than the rate at which those on the side of the road wish to embark, the bus stays packed from beginning to end. As we neared Hue the bus was making its usual stops here and there while I, needless to say having never been here before, had no idea where to get off. Eventually the driver after weaving us along some fairly narrow streets whose shoulders were conveying foot, bicycle, and donkey traffic stopped in what seemed like a completely random spot and gave me the impression that this was were I should be getting off. In a very light rain I was able to locate myself from the map inside my guide book as being along a tributary of the Huong Giang (Perfume River). The first items on my agenda were to find and then get to (two different tasks) the train station in order to figure out when I could leave. A 45 minute walk brought me to my goal: Ga Hue. I discovered that the next train south would not be passing through Hue (on its way down from Hanoi) until 2am. I decided to buy a ticket and quickly see as much as I could in the 14 or so hours I had until the train left. At an outdoor cafe I was able to rent a bicycle from a teenage girl for 1000 Dong an hour (the exchange rate is 11000 dong for 1 USD) and visited the tomb of Tu Doc, the Citadel, and Thien Mu Pagoda. Because I am a vegetarian and the food given to passengers on the train was meat and rice to be washed down with tea out of a communal cup, I had the family at the cafe make some sandwhiches for me to take along.
Another 18 hours and 18 dollars brought me to Nha Trang, a wonderful city with a fantastic stretch of beach. A spent two nights at the Khach San (Hotel) 44 for USD 5 a night and for the first time was able to relax a bit after the previous grueling few days. The Po Nagar Cham Towers made for a nice historical tourist attraction but for the most part I just took it easy. In Nha Trang I met a cyclo driver who had served in the South Vietnamese Army during the war. After spending 2 years in a re-education camp (prison) Trung was unable to get a job (because he was on the losing side) and ended up peddling around one of the manually operated `taxis' that are found everywhere throughout the country. There are no automobile taxis in Vietnam. Autos are such an extreme luxury that the idea of hiring someone to drive you across town is as inconceivable to them as the thought of hiring a helicopter for a ride across town is to us. Having worked with the Americans during the war, Trung spoke fairly good english. Trung showed me a letter that he received from a man in Oregon who had visited earlier which included a US Postal Service money order for 10 dollars in thanks for Trung having the American over for dinner. Of course Trung did not have a chance in hell of being able to cash a US government money order so I gave him 10 dollars worth of Vietnamese currency (equivalent to at least a months pay for him) and took the money order back to California with me. I have since mailed the money order back to the guy and he sent me a 10 dollar check - that I had no problem cashing. There are plans to build a Club Med in Nha Trang when the embargo is lifted and unfortunately it is ideally suited for one. Nha Trang is a great vacation spot.
I then took a 5 hour bus ride to Dalat. This is often called the nicest city in Vietnam, and for good reason. It is the favorite spot for Vietnamese couples to spend their honeymoon as well as family vacations. Dalat is situated a little over one hundred miles northeast of Saigon in the mountains. It is the mountains that make Dalat such an attractive place. It is much cooler here than the rest of Vietnam and the mountains make for nice lakes, hiking trails, and waterfalls. But I didn't come to Vietnam for a honeymoon and left for Saigon after 1 night.
Saigon is much busier than Hanoi. Mopeds are now as plentiful as bicycles and there are even a few cars now and then. Billboards and neon signs can also be found here along with discos and expensive hotel cocktail lounges. Saigon goes to sleep later than Hanoi as young people cruise around on their mopeds up and down Le Loi Boulevard. I stayed at the Van Canh Hotel for 55000 Dong a night which is conveniently located just around the corner from a great vegetarian restaurant where full meals with sodas come to about one dollar. Saigon has some interesting sights. In particular, the former US Embassy, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Reunification Hall are all must sees. But my favorite was the Museum of Imperialist Aggressive War Crimes. Here you can get an extremely one sided view of the wars that the Vietnamese have fought with the Americans as well as their traditional enemy China. Various torture methods employed by the Americans and South Vietnamese Army are described as well as massacres of civilians (My Lai etc.). But as I mentioned earlier, the average person you are going to meet does not harbor any animosity whatsoever and only wishes that the US would lift the trade embargo so more foreign investment will come and hopefully lift the populace from their present state of 3rd world poverty.
In order to leave Vietnam by bus to Cambodia I had to get my exit port changed on my visa to Moc Bai which is the Vietnamese border town. I had this paper work done at the Oscan office in Saigon also in one day and also for the bargain price of USD 18.
Oscan Enterprises Ltd.
2D Pham Ngoc Thach Street
1st District
Ho Chi Minh City
Tel. 84-8-231191 (also 231022 and 231023) Fax. 84-8-231024
I don't want to seem like an agent for these people but they really got the job done and when you are 10,000 miles from home its the bottom line that counts.
I applied for the Cambodian visa at their embassy when I was in Hanoi and was able to get the stamp a week later from their consulate in Saigon. The people in Hanoi needed three photos and USD 10. They then gave me a slip of paper which I presented to the officials in Saigon who got another USD 20 out of me and then put the stamp good for 7 days in my passport immediatly.
The bus for Phnom Penh left Saigon at 6am. We had a one hour wait on the Vietnamese side of the border and then another hour wait on the Cambodian side of the border. The wait on the Cambodian side was made enjoyable by the fact that the UN peace keeping force (UNTAC) has a station set up just inside the Cambodian border. The Chinese, Australian, Thai, and Cambodian peace keepers let us wait inside with them as they showed off their gear and refreshed us with their bottled water. The bus continued, arriving in Phnom Penh at about 4pm. Phnom Penh has alot more traffic than Saigon. Although much of the traffic is UNTAC related, the roads were full of bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, buses, and cars (in that order). The city itself is in poor shape with all buildings, except the nicest hotels, being in a state between run down and collapsed. Like the Vietnamese, the Cambodians are very hard working and everywhere construction and refurbishment seemed to be occuring. Attractions in Phnom Penh included the Royal Palace, National Museum, and Wat Phnom, among others.
Of course Phnom Penh is also known for the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The Security Prison 21 (now called Tuol Sleng) was formerly a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into the largest detention and torture center in the country. Over 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to Choeung Ek for execution. About 6 miles outside Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is located at the end of a road in beautiful countryside. Here the victims of S-21 were killed and buried. Mass graves, most of which have been exhumed, are visible as pits in the ground surrounded by pathways that are littered with bone fragments, teeth, and clothing. A memorial temple has been built on the sight which houses over 8000 skulls arranged by age and gender. While I was there Malaysian members of UNTAC were having their picture taken as they held skulls in their hands.
I managed to rent a moped from my hotel and took off for the 30 mile trip to the temples at Tonle Bati with a fellow American I had met in the Cambodian consulate in Saigon. With him on the back we rode for about an hour on paved (though heavily potted) and dirt roads. We eventually stopped after it became apparent that we were lost. The villages out here on the banks of a Mekong Tributary were very primitive. Houses were set up on stilts to avoid seasonal flooding and electricity was nonexistent. The landscape was lush with towering palms and tropical plants. Able to communicate only by saying the name of our intended destination and pointing we were directed back the way we had came, and not having seen a turn off in over a half hour we figured that we had made a wrong turn from the very beginning. Driving back nearly all the way to Phnom Penh we found the right road and then with a fresh tank of gas made it to our destination an hour later. The temples are located near the banks of a lake which is a popular spot during the weekend. Having arrived late in the day on a weekday the area was deserted except for a Buddhist monastery adjacent to the temples. Four monks invited us inside as they began their evening chants. The chanting from the two old monks and the two teenage ones was mesmerizing as they lulled us into a near trance (or was it a near sleep) after 45 minutes. Tonle Bati was built in the 12th century on the site of a 6th century Khmer shrine. The main sanctuary includes 5 chambers with a statue in each (or what is left of a statue after the Khmer Rouge got through with it). Because I was not able to get to Angkor (lack of time) the temples here served as a scaled down substitute. The trip back to Phnom Penh after a quick meal (with the normal curious crowd of onlookers) was made difficult by the rapidly approaching nightfall. The sun had already set as we took off for the 30 mile return trip and I was using my sunglasses in order to keep the bugs out of my eyes. Soon it became too dark for sunglasses and with no lights of any kind (other than our meager headlight and the occasional oncoming traffic) it was quite dark. I was forced to wear Dan's prescription glasses in order to keep the bugs out of my eyes which were impacting my face, neck, and arms with a sting. I suppose slowing down could have been a solution but having been on this moped for hours I preferred to just deal with the blurry vision and insect collisions and get us back to the hotel as quickly as possible. Dan was all for this too as he had me for a insect shield and without his glasses on I don't think he realized just how little I could see of the road. After one spill (on mud which we had luckily been going slow on) we made it back to the hotel with the trip meter saying over 100 miles. The only casualty was my shirt which I left at the hotel as it was too covered in mud to pack.
I took a Bangkok Airways flight from Phnom Penh back to Bangkok for USD 160. All said my biggest regret is having missed Angkor and having ate (or drank) whatever it was that made me sick for a week after I returned.
I arrived in Hanoi with USD 400. Here are some expenses (all in USD):
Viet registration/travel permit/exit port: - 38
Cambodian Visa: - 30
Train fares: - 35
Nha Trang to Dalat bus: - 1
Dalat to Saigon bus: - 2
Saigon to Phnom Penh bus: - 3
Hanoi hotel (two nights): - 24
Dong Ha hotel (two nights): - 14
Nha Trang hotel (two nights): - 10
Dalat hotel (one night): - 4
Saigon Hotel (two nights): - 10
Phnom Penh Royal Palace entrance fee (w/ camera): - 4
Phnom Penh Pochentong airport tax: - 5
Credit cards (from US banks or US citizens) are absolutely worthless in Vietnam. I got a VISA cash advance from the Cambodian Commercial Bank in Phnom Penh (corner of Achar Mean and Soeung Ngoc Ming Street).
Total expenses for 10 days in Vietnam (includes everything except airfare and initial visa purchased in Bangkok): USD 186 Total expenses for 4 days in Phnom Penh: USD 69
I want to thank:
Paul Durham, Bach Hoang, and Pham Phan for advice and info on the region before I left.
If anyone has specific questions you can email me directly at:

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