Doug's Vietnam

Bus and boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Bus and boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Letter from Cambodia
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Phu Cat Air base links

Saigon to Phnom Penh

Bus to Chau Doc boat to Phnom Penh



It's early, and Saigon is peaceful, as Mr. Thuan my landlord walks me to the Ben Thanh bus terminal.  Ill take the cross-town bus to Ben xa Mein Tay from here and than board a second bus there taking down to Chao Doc City in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.


There I'll try and find a non tourist boat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Meanwhile, Mr. Thuan sprinting ahead of me, my pack in his hand, leading me to the Ben Thanh bus terminal as you would a child on his first day of school.


Riding public buses in Vietnam is more an art than a science due to schedules functioning more like a loose set of guidelines than a specific schedules, resulting in buses whizzing around as drivers seem to make up the stops on the fly.


Of course, Siagonese understand all this and accept it as a matter of course. Accustomed to the cities heavy traffic on difficult roads and the resulting delays are an expected reality, as are the unscheduled stops make by buses. But to foreigners, it can get mighty frustrating. With this in mind if I could focus more on what is, instead of what isnt, I could make a much better go at traveling in Vietnam. So I've set a personal goal to not become one of those foreigners I see standing impatiently at the designated bus stops, waving and hollering as the bus driver and his helper gleefully cruise by.  So my advice to you to in dealing with what might seem to be a conspiracy against us foreigners trying to save a buck by using the bus be cool  remember bus stop signs may or may not mean a bus will actually stop there, if possible walk to a bus terminal or if you must wait on the street, join in with local Vietnamese waiting, try to recruit a friendly Siagonese to flag down a passing bus. Then, if all else fails you to can resort to the scream and holler technique with arms flaying as you secretly pray for a taxi, cyclo or motorbike to show up as yet another bus passes you by.


We walk up to Ben Thanh Market and from there see the bus terminal on the other side of the traffic circle. It's good to have Mr. Trung along as it can be tricky locating the correct bus. For example, the name card showing the bus destination may or may not be correct but they also have a number posted identifying its designation so you need to cross check these. Of course, the problem with using numbers is that you need to find a way to identify which numbered bus goes where. This leads us to the information window where I always have a next to impossible time getting anyones attention. So I  developed a sort of a  three-prong bus location strategy plan first asking about what bus I'll need at my guesthouse or hotel, then I check with Vietnamese friendly's also waiting for a bus, and lastly try the information window. The compiled information gives me a pretty good shot at the specific bus I need to look for. 


Another thing at bus terminals is to be aware of don't let the stenciled bus bay destination markings fool you in thinking the bus that pulls up there is going to that destination or even that a bus will stop there. As a proof to this, I look up as my bus slowed and slides by its designated bay. However, the alert Mr. Trung gives the, what must be, secret Vietnamese signal to the driver and the bus slows to a stop. He then pushes open the door, and shoved me and my bag aboard. Were on our way!

The standard city bus fare is 2000 dong and is collected on the bus once underway. The bus I caught to Ben xa Min Tay picked us up at 7:00 am which I believe was the first bus of the day. So, this bus was my only public transportation shot at snagging the 7:55 bus to Chao Doc City.  However, if youre not into adventure and economy, you could also take a taxi or motorbike out to Ben xa Min Tay .


As I was leaving the bus at Ben xa Min Tay my water bottle gets away from me. I'm digging around under the seats trying to corral it when a Vietnamese woman about my age hauls my gear off for me.  Then stands guard over it until I can stumble off with my errant water bottle in hand. As I smiled my thanks, she half smiled back as if to say, Those American's will never grow up. 


We arrived at 7:40 Ben xa Min Tay; I walked inside and up to the terminal counter, tried my English, than some Vietnamese.  Finely in desperation I showed the ticket lady the note I previously had Van wrote for me in Vietnamese  requesting  two seats to Chau Doc. I always try to book two seats, one seat for me and the other for my gear. As I walk away from the counter, a couple Vietnamese grab on to me, pushing, and pulling me out toward the buses. With a lot of enthusiasm, the two leave me with a Vietnamese lady who looks at my tickets, wonders if I am missing someone for the second seat and then pushed me aboard a bus. 


The cost of a ticket to Chao Doc City is 43,000 dong and is only available for purchase on the day of your travel. My seat strategy was a waste of money, as I ended up holding my gear  to allow one of the standers to sit. Yup, you got it, no designated seating. The bus was of the mid size variety (about 25 passenger), with no air-conditioning but over all in reasonably good condition. Once under way, the drivers helper turns into the bus holler as he leans out the open door shouting at people walking down the street in an effort to add more passengers. I am amazed, it works, as more and more people keep piling into the bus.


Now my guess is that it's about now youre wondering when I'll get to the details of the bus ride, things like how often and where did we stop, and when did we get to Chau Doc. Well, I was so busy with the cute motion sick girl next to me, smoking with my new best friend behind me (no, I don't smoke) and drinking with my other new best friend over lunch (yes, I do drink) that the trip is a bit hazy. Sorry! Though I can share this, the ride was interesting and fun, not all that uncomfortable, we made a few rest stops, stopped for an hour for lunch at Denny's (just kidding) and arrived in Chau Doc while it was still light.


Once in Chau Doc my hope was to find a non-tourist boat to carry me up to the Mekong to Phnom Penh, but no such luck. Two days after my arrival in Chau Doc, I ended up boarding the Capital Tour Express boat that takes you to with in 45 minutes from Phnom Penh, than via a tourist bus into town. To buy the ticket, which cost $ 6.00, I used a shop run by a very nice couple who sell used books and tours. Their shop, Hoa Sen, at 14 Nguyen Huu Canh mobile phone 0913777978 is located in the center of town. It was across the street from the Khach San (hotel) Song Sao, 12-13 Nguyen Huu Canh where I stayed. For the $18.00 a night, it was ok, but the room was dark, there restaurant was closed. Then there was the really cute looking room cleaner, and her little terrier dog who attempted to clean the shower with me in it. So, if youre single guy like me this might be a good spot. Overall, aside from the cute cleaning lady I think you can do better and at a cheaper rate and get a breakfast tossed in check with Mr. Nguyen Van Long the owner of Hoa Sen Book Store and Travel. He seems to be well connected in town so knows what is what.


For reference, Mr. Nguyen Van Long also does a great job of guiding you around the area on the back of his motorbike. He is a good driver as he is a retired bus driver, his prices are reasonable, and his English is very good.


The following morning when the time came to board my 7:00 am departing boat, I wandered down to the riverfront and in typical fashion, milled around with the other travelers as the 7:00 am departure time came and went. Then when more than one boat showed up, I checked with multiple Vietnamese, getting multiple answers as to which one was mine and then to just stumble onto the correct boat.


The boats are enclosed but you climb up on the top to get some fresh air and work on your tan, as no one seems to care. Though, remember this is third world stuff and you're the only one responsible for you, so be careful. The boat makes a short stop around midmorning for bathroom breaks and refreshments. Then mid day, you'll make a longer stop where you'll walk through customs Vietnam than Cambodian. It is best to have your Cambodian visa before you get to this point.  Otherwise you might not get into Cambodia and you would be stranded at the boarder.


As we move into the last leg of the trip, the tour operators greed starts to show. They seem to delay our entrance into the Phnom Penh so we are arriving after dark as they pitch their two guesthouses. Our bus trip ends at one of the for mentioned guesthouses, and they attempt to hold our luggage hostage until we can be herded in for a sales pitch. About then I had had enough and physically retrieved my bag from a Cambodian doing his best to look intimidating. Then I quickly hopped a motorbike over to the river area and found a nice guesthouse.  It's named the Bright Lotus I Guest House and Restaurant # 22 St. 178 Sangkat Chey Chomnas Khan Daun Penh  - (655) 23 990 448   It has air-conditioning, cable TV, a small frig in the room with a hot shower ask for a corner room 309. It has a balcony area also - $18.00 (US) night. I recommend it highly. It has good food served in a pleasant restaurant with slightly worn seating in either the  outside or the inside. Also, across the street is very nice Vietnamese place serving inexpensive Pho with a great high speed internet place next to it.


When the time came to travel back to Saigon I decided on the full sized, direct express bus which left Phnom Penh at 6:30 am, (yup, AM)  booked through the Bright Lotus Guest House, at a cost of $9.00 a seat. I had a prearranged a 5:30 am motorbike taxi pick me up (yikes 5:30 am). It was easy rounding up my driver at that time in the morning as he sleeps on his motorbike outside the hotel. He delivered me to the CTY SE KHACH SAI GON bus around behind the main market great bus, designated seating, even a person to seat you customs was a snap and we got back into Saigon mid afternoon. The bus dropped us off on Pham Ngu Lao a couple blocks from De Tham Street.


For reference, there are alternatives to traveling down into the Mekong and on into Cambodia that offer a much more structured trip than mine. For example, you could book a tour of the Mekong through one of the many travel agents in the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers area and have them drop you in Chao Doc with a boat connection to Cambodia. Also, if it is only Phnom Penh you want, there are direct tourist buses or mini van's running from Saigon, again, seats can be booked through tour any tour operator or probably the place youre staying.


A word about tour companies, You'll find smiling and friendly tour operators most places, but especially as you walk through the Pham Ngu Lao backpackers area. But it's sad to say that some are better at selling than anything else. So if the deal youre offered seems too good to be true and much better than the other guys, shop on ,shop on. Around here its buyer beware so once the money changes hands or you hand over your passport youre pretty much on your own.