Siem Reap - Phnom Penh - Ho Chi Minh

This will be short and sweet, because it will just be about our trip back from Cambodia to Vietnam. And mostly because I can’t wait to start writing about our other destinations: Hoi An, Hue, Ha Noi and Ha Long Bay. So here's our journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, told in pictures (and yes, that is Elton John in one of the photos).

April 7-8, 2009

It was another 5-hour van ride from Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh. On the way, we stopped by a roadside eatery that served turtles, with the shell and everything! It did not look delectable at all, especially as we had a pet turtle in the house before, but I just had to take a picture before they started cooking them.

In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a hostel called Fancy Guest House, where we were welcomed warmly by Phannak, its quirky owner. He claimed that Elton John had once stayed in the Fancy Guest House, and had an autographed photo of him clipped to the hostel's sign.

Contrary to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh was noisy, crazy, polluted and populated - a shock to the senses, especially after we had spent the days prior in the quiet forest of Siem Reap. We hadn't the energy (and the guts, to be quite honest) to explore Phnom Penh thoroughly but we did eat at a non-profit restaurant whose earnings went to charity. It seemed a popular joint with travelers, as it had an entire wall sprawled with messages from people all over the world. While waiting for our meals, we also saw a huge elephant pass by nonchalantly by the side of the road, much to our surprise. It was the strangest, coolest thing.

We spent the next day on a bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh, where vendors tried to sell us their goods as we sat comfortably within our airconditioned bus. Others who rode open-air vans weren't so lucky - their windows were open to the onslaught of a million sales pitches.

We finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh and checked into Bich Duyen, a small hotel along Pham Ngu Lao, a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss kind of street whose entrance on one side is a small alley that opens up to a narrow street lined with hotel upon hotel. It was, however, one of the best hotels we stayed in during our entire trip, mostly because of Chahn, the friendly hotel manager. The service at Bich Duyen was amazing, the rooms very clean, and the breakfast delicious, and all for very reasonable rates!

Here's a simple tip when trying to find good accommodation - the first sign of a good hotel with good service is its warm, friendly reply to an email inquiry. From the very beginning, when my friend sent out emails to Fancy Guest House in Phnom Penh and Bich Duyen in Ho Chi Minh, the email replies of Phannak and Chahn were already very accommodating - they answered our every question, agreed to our every request. And true enough, we were very happy with the service we received when we stayed in these hotels. Of course, I can't say for sure that this method is failsafe, but I certainly believe that the email reply to an inquiry is a good gauge of how friendly and accommodating a hotel is.

Our night in Ho Chi Minh was a great food trip and a reunion with other college friends. Our first stop was Highlands Coffee, which I guess was sort of like the Starbucks of Vietnam, and then we met with Apple, a classmate of ours from college who was working in Ho Chi Minh City at the time. She took us to Ngon, a great place that served delicious Vietnamese cuisine. The spring rolls were amazing! Afterwards we had gelato at a cute French-inspired joint. We then visited Nina, another college classmate who was in HCM on a business trip.

We got to our hotel very late at night, and discovered that hotels along Pham Ngu Lao actually close at night - much to our horror! For a few seconds we were worried that we would have to sleep on the street that night until the ever-reliable Chahn opened the hotel's door for us. Relieved, we dashed to our hotel room and slept almost immediately. The next day was going to be a long one too, as we were to take a Vietnam Airlines flight to Danang, and from there, head out to Hoi An.

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