Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 4, 2009
At 2 a.m. on the very first day of our trip, Tiff, Jen and I found ourselves sitting in small plastic chairs on the sidewalk fronting a 24-hour convenience store along De Tham St., Ho Chi Minh’s backpacker district. Having just arrived in Vietnam from our three-hour flight from Manila, we had four hours to spare before our bus ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and we didn’t bother renting a hotel room in which to spend such a short amount of time in – we figured there was no need for the typical tourist transition point to ease our way into a strange, foreign land, and instead opted for an immediate immersion into the country we would call home for two weeks.

We were the first customers of the lady who was just beginning to set up her sidewalk food stall when we arrived. Under the orange-yellow glow of a lamp post, the three of us shared a plate of noodles with beef and vegetables and caught up with each other’s lives. We had not seen each other for a while, so there was plenty to talk about. Lulls in conversation were spent observing the few passers-by wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh past an apparent curfew – mostly they were foreigners coming to and from the few bars that were still open. Pretty soon it was dawn and the street lamps gave way to sunlight, and by 6:30 am our Sinh Café bus had arrived (for information and a review of Sinh Café, click here).

Border Crossing at Moc Bai
I’ve lived all my life in the Philippines, a country of at least seven thousand islands. And being surrounded by water all my life, the idea of crossing over to another country by land is a pretty alien concept to me. So you can imagine my excitement (and slight anxiety, I must admit) at being able to literally walk across from one country and right into another – with the proper immigration process and paperwork, of course.

There were so many people trying to cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border that Saturday morning so it took a while to get our passports stamped and for Tiff (who has an Australian passport) to get her visa. Our tour guide on the bus collected all our passports and had them processed all at the same time. He would call out our names once our passports had been processed, and amidst the heat, the many bobbing heads eager to cross the border, and the tour guide’s accent, it was a slightly daunting task, waiting for your name to be called, after which you had to drag your luggage across the aforementioned bobbing heads (and their own luggage) to claim your passport and have it stamped one last time before you’re let out of the building. In an hour or so we had all successfully been allowed entry into Cambodia and were back on the bus on our way to Phnom Penh, but not before a quick lunch at a roadside eatery. Our Vietnamese Dhong were rendered useless once we stepped into Cambodian territory, and we instead used our US dollars to buy us lunch – noodles in hot soup for Tiff and rice meals for me and Jen. (For tips on money matters in Vietnam and Cambodia, click here).

Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
The open bus tour took us from Ho Chi Minh City to the Vietnam-Cambodia border at Moc Bai and eventually to Phnom Penh, which took around five hours. At the Sinh Café office in Phnom Penh, we transferred to a van which drove us to Siem Reap, a trip that lasted another six hours. Nearly a whole day spent in transit isn’t as daunting as it sounds, to be honest, thanks to the iPod and my terrible lack of sleep the week prior – I pretty much dozed through the entire trip. I got so used to sleeping in a moving vehicle, in fact, that after our border-crossing bus ride from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap, I would get on a bus or any moving vehicle and find my eyelids heavy – in a minute or so, however bumpy the road or beautiful the scenery, I would be sleeping.

The Town of Siem Reap
It was already late in the evening when we finally arrived in Siem Reap, and the town seemed already asleep. Driving into the town of Siem Reap was an interesting experience - imagine having travelled over five hours on mostly unpaved, extremely bumpy roads, with scenery that mostly consisted of trees, rice fields and the occasional row of houses, and then to awake and find yourself under the glow of street lights, past large structures with well-manicured lawns, on a surprisingly smooth ride along wide and well-paved roads with street signs that would rival that of a city’s. Siem Reap, while a small, sleepy town in what seems to be the middle of Cambodia nowhere, has the look, feel and tidiness of a city. It just felt so…organized, too organized and tidy for a small, sleepy town, but not in a pretentious, attract-the-tourists kind of way. I daresay Siem Reap has managed to find the fine balance of being a true, small and sleepy town, with its old charm intact, while also being a fairly progressive, modern, and tourist-friendly destination. Is there such a thing as a “sleepy tourist destination”? I didn’t think so before, but after having visited Siem Reap, I think perhaps it might be possible.

A tuktuk took us (read that aloud and it’s like you said “took” three times over, haha!) to our hotel from the bus stop. We were to stay at The Villa Siem Reap, a nice purple hotel that looked more like a big house than a formal establishment, which no doubt added to its charm. We were warmly welcomed by their lovely staff and led to our room on the second floor, but not before asking us to remove our footwear and leave them by the front door. As our trip progressed further we were to realize that this was common practice among hotels in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

We hadn’t the energy to explore the streets of Siem Reap after our nearly 11-hour land trip from Vietnam, so we opted to have dinner at the hotel restaurant and go straight to bed right after. We needed to wake up early the next day – around 5 am – because we were to begin our exploration of the temples of Angkor Wat and catch the sunrise.

Two Weeks in Indochina: Our Epic Trip to Vietnam and Cambodia!

April 4-18, 2009
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Hue, Vietnam
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Vietnam-Cambodia Complete Trip Information

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