Saturday, September 9th

Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It has been another long day. At 5 am this morning it really started raining very heavily so I was out on the floor’s balcony watching it and shooting some video. There is something about the rains here that are both terrible yet calming; fascinating at the same time.

The alarm went off at 6:15 and by 6:45 we were up on the 8th floor for breakfast which was as un-impressive as yesterday. The others seemed to have enjoyed their trip to the Sky Bar though did confirm the prices were quite expensive. They were there for some time last night, evidently. At 7:15 we all had our bags in the lobby. There had been talk amongst our fellow travellers about visiting a local bakery, the Blue Pumpkin, but I decided to pass, staying behind to instead watch the bags while the others headed out.

I spent the time looking through the magazines on offer - Pretty dire but I do have a better understanding of the real estate market in Phnom Penh now…still can’t say I am interested in living here. It is surprisingly not as cheap as you might think with foreign demand driving up prices. The streets outside the hotel are now dry as if the rains never even fell a few short hours ago.

Mel eventually returned with drinks from Café Amazon and some snacks (along with a bunch of $1 bills and massive amounts of small rial coins - we are leaving Cambodia so I guess we'll have some souvenirs…).

Rous called just before 8 to let us know there was heavy traffic and the bus would be 10 minutes late but a short while later she came running up to the hotel to meet us. This was a shared bus and it had parked a short distance down the road so we headed out into the heat dragging our bags. It is a large long-distance bus with lovely sparkly lights in the ceiling to keep us entertained…the television screen in the front was never turned on…On each seat waiting for us was a pain au raison wrapped in plastic and a bottle of water which was very nice.

As we headed out of the city including passing through a massive V-junction which we had used yesterday (and I had noticed many people cutting through the petrol station on the corner to avoid the traffic lights).

I enjoyed the view and my “pain au raison”. The bus operators came around to gather our passports to ensure we had our visas. Before leaving the city there was a short stop for a few people to use the toilets at a petrol station.

A rather boring bridge took us over the very wide and muddy Mekong with people living in huts right on the water’s edge.

A little more than an hour later took us over a much more impressive suspension bridge built by the Japanese tall enough to allow shipping to pass uninterrupted underneath.

Though out of the city there are still villages everywhere and houses. Not so much the paddy fields we had seen previously in the countryside. There were a few spots of rain and it is cloudy but no real rain. Some areas are obviously flooded. The houses are rough many with cinderblock walls. Cows and water buffalo. Bumps in the road. The occasional green rice paddy. Flat. Short trees. Large farm buildings just off main road. Petrol station under construction. “Special Economic Zone” industrial parks with long straight roads and massive arched security gates. Instant noodle signs everywhere (evidently they like them a lot here). People calmly sitting on top of the loads of trucks. The speed limit is 40 km/hr in the cities but this is largely ignored.

We have been playing with the WI-FI on the bus but it does not seem to be working all that great, if at all. Managed to set up a Facebook group for our tour but not much more.

The group has generally be sleeping while I have been glued to the view passing by outside the window while I have been eating my rock-hard lotus seeds (hope my teeth will be ok after this…I should really be softening them more before crunching them).

Clothing on rails beside the road. Fresh fruit laid out in the shade of an umbrella on tables for sale. A motorcycle piled high on the back with charcoal sacks. A small eating area on the road of a busy junction it’s diners oblivious to the traffic passing only a few feet away. This is a country that is alive.

Just before noon we arrived at the Cambodian border where as we left the bus we were given our passports then joined a queue inside a small building. Back on the bus our passports were again collected from us then after a gate was opened we drove a short distance then pulled off onto a side road and into the car park of a large modern building. A tall monument at the Vietnamese border is clearly visible across a field a short distance away.

The building we were now in had a small but busy restaurant and a large duty free shop - Both, thankfully, air conditioned. We were given only a few minutes for lunch (having to be back in the bus at 12:30 for the operators to keep their schedule this gave us less than 25 minutes) so we were anxious to get our orders in quickly as we sat at the food court-style tables (all plastic) in the restaurant area. A large version of the menu was plastered on one wall with a glassed off section behind which the cooks were at work. Eventually we managed to get someone’s attention and I ordered a beef/egg/rice/pepper (Tak Lak? About $3) dish with, of course, rice and a fresh orange juice which I eventually received but I was one of the lucky ones with many not receiving their food in time despite expressing their anxiety to the staff. We sat with Chris and Marie and only my food actually arrived before we had to head out.

As the bus honked I was able to pay our bill (including getting rid of a large amount of our rial at the same time, thankfully) while everyone else attempted to arrange to have their food “to go”. Marilyn had given up on trying to eat and had taken the time to visit the duty free and pick up some (very cheap but quite good I was told) wine. Rachel was very annoyed and refused to pay, quite rightly, since she had not received her food.

The bus returned to the main road, now quite wide, flat and made of concrete for the short drive to the Vietnamese border where we stopped just beside the tall memorial. We learned that we needed to take our luggage with us for inspection so after getting it out of the compartment under the bus I wandered a short distance so I could get a picture of the monument with the impressive border-post building behind. Much more impressive and substantial than the Cambodian border which looked more like a motorway tollbooth.

Passing through the glass doors of the building there were a few short queues waiting for customs agents. They had been given our passports so our names were called out one at a time to go forward for the formalities. Then we had to put our bags on a conveyor built that took them through a standard airport scanner. No serious problems as we returned once again to the coach for the last part of the trip to Ho Chi Minh “bus station”.

There is quite a lot of room on the bus so Mel moved across the aisle to take pictures from the other side as we travelled the final two hours of our journey.

It is a lot cleaner and obviously more wealthy here in Vietnam. There is a dedicated motorcycle/scooter lane that runs parallel to the road separated from it by a curb. I have seen several motorcycles go by with dogs in cages on the back (hint: they are not to be used as pets) which freaked out a few of our fellow travellers but goes without a notice here, of course.

The landscape is riddled with the trappings of a large, modern society with rubbish strewn alongside the road. Mostly it is houses and businesses rather than agriculture that we see along the road.

At 1:45 we stopped briefly for Rous to use the toilet before continuing. At 2 it rained for a while but the traffic and life around us never stopped with the motorcycle drivers either simply ignoring the rain or covering themselves in plastic for a modecrum of cover.

Signs for “Pho” and “Bihn Mih” (Vietnamese dishes and the only words I can make out) - Hurray! We are in Vietnam! The entire trip to Ho Chi Minh we never really left the buildings behind and as we approached the city the frequency of them just increased. The city never really “starts” though we know we were close when we passed by the airport.

At just after 3 the bus just dropped us off on the side of the street opposite a street food market quite close to the hotel. Our bags were put onto the pavement for us to collect and drag across the busy road. Rous took us through the market stalls (all looks very good to me!) then across a park and the road on the other side where our hotel, “Asian Ruby Hotel 3”, is located. The traffic here seems to be even more chaotic than in Cambodia so it is going to be interesting…Rous’ method of holding her hand in the air as she crosses to attract attention does not seem to be doing much good here…

We eventually made it in one piece and piled into the small lobby quickly overwhelming the staff. Mel and I are in room 502. When checking in they took our passports to photocopy and we were given tickets for breakfast which is on floor “M” evidently (“mezzanine”?). We were told to meet back in the lobby at about 5:20 for a cyclo ride followed by our last dinner together.

Our tiny room faces the tallest tower in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) - The Bitexco Financial Tower which we have been told (and you can see sticking out of its side) has a “Skydeck” that you can visit for great views of the city and, of course, pay lots of money for food and drink. Otherwise the view looks out over the park we passed through earlier which also seems to have a big eating and shopping complex as well. We also can look onto the tops of many of the hotels and other buildings in the area, arranged higgledy-piggledy around us. This is definitely more like the 1st or at least 2nd world now…for good and bad.

The room has a double bed with a single wardrobe and a small bathroom (with both bath and shower). It is tiny by comparison to our other rooms but comfortable enough. As with all of our other hotels we have WI-FI so spent a bit of time getting connected up and retrieving emails as we lay on the bed to relax for a few minutes.

Of course, this was not going to last.

We were only going to be in the city for today, basically, so I wanted to get out and see a bit of it starting with that neat street food market we had passed through on the way from the bus to the hotel. In the lobby we met Chris and Marie who were heading out to do some exploring as well but we parted ways as Mel and I bumbled our way across the road to the park area opposite.

A large “Weekend Market” was set up under a temporary tent structure but it was extremely crowded and hot underneath so we bumped and saddled our way through what was mostly clothing and knick-knacks. As we were about to visit the street food market we came across a large roof structure covering a small outdoor amphitheatre the entrance to what looked like an underground shopping centre. There was some pretty loud music playing at the bottom of the stairs leading into the shopping centre (Taka Plaza) so we made our way quickly past that into the air conditioned mall.

It just so happens we were right at the mall “food court” so decided to have a look around despite not being hungry (never mind eating in an hour or so). I am always interested in food! Located in a sunken section of the mall, the food court contains quite a number of stalls both large and small selling all manner of food including not only a large assortment of Vietnamese but also Chinese, Italian and Japanese…but no British…Most seem to concentrate on a specific type of food or drink rather than providing entire meals so, for example, going to a sushi stall you might have to get a soft drink elsewhere. The prices all seem to be reasonable and there appear to be a lot of customers sitting and eating. We had a quick drink at a coffee stand before continuing our exploration.

The rest of the centre consisted of a large number of stalls selling clothing which we wandered through with a bit of hassle but not too bad. Often we had to squeeze through the small spaces between the stalls. Mostly it was shirts and jeans, not really anything particularly fancy but the prices, from what we saw, were quite reasonable. The currency here in Vietnam is the “dong” rather than the US dollar we have been using in Cambodia - 1 British Pound is about 30,000 dong so Mel’s coffee at about 25,000 dong was a little less than a pound.

We returned again to the noisy below-ground amphitheatre then quickly climbed back up to street level to visit the street food market we had passed through earlier with our luggage, the “Saigon Central Makert” (sic). A single long, narrow, tent with a red and white roof having stalls selling food along the right with tables on the left and a walkway between them. Most of the stalls were selling raw food colourfully arranged on a table in front of them such as skewers which, after selected, are cooked right there and then. Signs on each stand showed pictures of what was being sold, the name (in Vietnamese and often English) then the cost (which was often extremely reasonable). It seemed there was “table service” as well where you sat down at a table opposite the stall you wanted to visit and someone would take your order and bring it to you (much like we saw in the floating market in Bangkok). Nothing was particularly unusual here (I did not see dog, for example) and it all looked very good indeed.

We walked through the small park this time taking our time and looking around before crossing back towards the hotel then wandering around the corner from our hotel. I had been looking at Google Maps on my phone and seen that there were a few places relatively close by that would be interesting to look at. A large wide roundabout was surrounded by billboards and crammed with traffic (mostly scooters) going in every direction. The traffic ebbs and flows as one traffic light changes to let vehicles from one road onto the roundabout then it turns red to allow another traffic light to change. It was tricky crossing the various roads surrounding the roundabout to get to the far side but we are getting the knack - Basically watch the traffic then, with nerves of steel, just start walking and, miraculously, they will go around you. Despite the chaos they seem to be very much paying attention to what is going on.

Continuing along the road I noticed a stall beside the road selling dog meat (it was in English so I could tell) though I did not point this out to Mel until a short time later so she would not be upset. It seemed to be pretty out of the way and separate from other street vendors as if perhaps this has fallen out of favour in recent years. A short time later we ended up at “Tao Dan Park” which is a refreshing break from the traffic we left behind. Lots of tall trees, sculptures, fountains, gardens and grass. It was absolutely spotless though not terribly busy at this hour of the day.

We casually strolled through the park ostensibly towards the “Independence Palace” but we needed to start heading back to the hotel to meet the others. Before leaving the park we passed by a noisy covered area where a basketball game was underway.

I wanted to at least have a quick look at the large “Ben Thanh Market” so we followed a road south in that general direction. We stopped briefly to have a look in the “Ben Thamh Authentic Street Food Market” (“market” spelled correctly this time) only recently established. Compared to the market we had just visited this was much more sterile and lacking it’s excitement. It seemed to be more geared to tourists as those are all we saw sitting inside. There does seem to be street food available everywhere here with every back alley having one or two stalls set up with a few plastic tables and chairs for customers to eat at. All seem very tidy and clean with very little rubbish lying about and there certainly is no distasteful smells anywhere.

Our time was extremely short now so we needed to make our way quickly back to the hotel before they left without us. We had only a short time to pass through the square covered “Ben Thanh Market” made solidly of concrete with tile floors surrounded on all sides by a wide road (and more market stalls). Walking along the central aisle stalls are everywhere but with good amount of space between. Of course they are selling all manner of things but, again, they seemed to be grouped into various categories: Souvenirs in one area, household goods in another, market produce yet another, a section with a food court…etc.

We were only a short distance from the hotel and we made it back a few minutes before our tour was to leave at 5:30. Talking to the others we were not the only ones wandering around in the short time we had so we shared a bit of our experience. Several had been to the “War Remnants Museum” a short distance away that they said had a lot of shocking material regarding the atrocities inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the Americans in the Vietnam war. Not sure we will be wanting to visit this any time soon as we are still in a bit of a fragile state after the killing fields…

Soon enough the cyclos were all gathered outside the front of the hotel waiting for us to get on board. These cyclos seem a lot better built than the ones we used in Phnom Penh which is a bit of a relief though they are the same principle - Passenger in the front, driver pedaling behind. Our drivers all had the same shirt on with “City Tour” on the back which was useful for us to spot.

They first took us through the same large roundabout we had just walked through then travelled on the road along the north side of the large park we had visited. There are a lot of modern glass office buildings and hotels along this busy tree lined road. Our drivers seemed unconcerned at the traffic as they chatted to one another, had a smoke, and occasionally used their mobile phones.

A large walled compound appeared on our right then we turned follow the wall around to the front. Through the bars in the compound walls and the numerous trees in the compound itself we could see at least one tank and a rather large gun. This is the “Independence Palace” which has been the seat of government since 1868 though the current building was constructed in 1966. It played a critical role in the Vietnam War as the final target of Ho Chi Minh when the grounds were infiltrated by a “Vietnamese Liberation Army” tank (presumably the one we can see inside the compound today, off to the right), the driver hoisting a flag and signalling victory in the war. We were told they offer tours but I think we will not have time tomorrow to visit.

The cyclos had stopped in front of the main gates to the palace and Rous gave us some information about what we were seeing. Behind us a long tree-lined busy avenue leads away from the palace lined with circular lit standards with the communist red circle and yellow star in the middle. After a short pause, giving the drivers a bit of break, we headed out along this avenue to our next destination. Rous had pointed out that the city was playing host to the “24th APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Ministerial Meeting” for which banners were along all of the roads.

A short time later we came up to a rather incongruous sight: A 19th century European-style cathedral. The first real colonial building we have seen here “Notre Dame Cathedral” sits on it’s own surrounded on all sides by busy roads. There is also restoration work being done so there are construction hoardings surrounding the building and it is closed to visitors right now.

We stopped in a small park out the front to take pictures with PJ and Steph hamming it up for the camera standing in front of the “Regina Pacis” (“Our Lady of Peace”) statue in the middle of the park. Yeah, all a bit silly, really.

On one side of the cathedral is the central post office, another impressive colonial building: A rectangular building two stories high painted in yellow with large green shuttered windows and white carved decorations with a large central hall that we could see into through the gates of the main entrance.

Painted murals on walls either side of the hall then old-style counters lining the walls with a picture of Ho Chi Minh at pride of place in the middle of far wall. After 6 now the post office was, of course, closed so all we could do was look.

A short distance north of the post office Rous stopped to order some rice pancakes from a vendor sitting on a small stool by himself with a tray of ingredients and a small brazier off to the side. The pancake on the grill he added whatever ingredients we fancied so, in this case, we had egg with dried shrimp though Rous bought three so we could try different ingredients.

At a small souvenir stand PJ bought herself a traditional straw cone-shaped hat which she was quite pleased about and probably would do a good job keeping off the sun…To be honest it looked better on Rous when she tried it on!

Meeting up with the cyclos and their drivers we headed out again. We continued our trip into some of the newer parts of the city with much higher and much more modern hotels and office buildings passing by the colonial “City Opera House” then around the corner to drive up another impressive boulevard to the (also colonial) “Ho Chi Minh City Hall”.

Opera House

City Hall

Making a U-turn we headed south along the boulevard passing by the impressive building with the “Saigon Skydeck” in it then turning around at the dead end before the Saigon river. A short while later we were in a large roundabout in front of the “Ben Thanh Market”, the one Mel and I had visited just a few hours before but now all lit up in neon.

The tour was now over as the cyclos dropped us in front of our hotel. Unusually there was a man on a scooter parked outside with a massive lizard (iguana?), perhaps three or four feet long (nose to tail) that we all were very interested in and stopped to stroke (and take pictures). It was attracting attention from a number of people…

Our cyclo tour here in Ho Chi Minh was much more exciting that the one in Phnom Penh as the traffic is so much more frenetic here with so many scooters. Everyone really enjoyed it. A lot of fun.

Next Rous led us around the corner to a restaurant for dinner, “Hu'Ong Viet: Vietnamese Aroma” (175/3 Pham Ngu Lao, PPNL, Q1) It is nice to have a change of menu with Vietnamese food after the someone more limited Cambodian options that we have been seeing. I had a passion fruit smoothie (65K dong) with “Pho Hai San”, a seafood pho (pho is a rich soup with noodles that is served with fresh herbs and vegetables; 75K dong). Mel had “Goi bo rau muong” a beef salad that was served in a mound in the middle of a plate with a dipping sauce and a few prawn crackers (79K dong) as well as a “morning glory” smoothie (mixed fruit; 69K dong). We also, of course, had some rather nice vegetarian spring rolls with a spicy dipping sauce (69K dong). All very nice and for less than $20 (US)!

After our dinner Chris presented to Rous the tip that we had put together for her and gave a bit of a speech thanking her for all of her hard work. Rous modestly accepted the money and said how much she had enjoyed being with our group Ironically there was another Intrepid group sitting at a table (Rous knew the leader) blocking our exit from the small restaurant that we worked our way around then into the air conditioned lobby of a hotel nearby that used to be used by our tour. Rous took the opportunity in the quieter surroundings to talk about the review process and advise us to “…be completely honest but give me a good review” (smile). It was a bit uncomfortable with the group of us sitting in the lobby of another hotel and the staff did not seem all that keen but we were tolerated for the time we were sitting there with Rous talking to us then giving us each a hug in thanks.

The group split up with some wanting to go to a local bar while others were going to the Skydeck to have a final look at the city. Mel and I chose the quieter option, heading back towards the hotel. She wanted some ice cream so we stopped at the Baskin Robbins (!) where after some thought decided on a scoop of vanilla and a scoop of black raspberry (142K dong, or, about £4.60, yeah, not cheap!).

We managed to find our way through the dark and busy streets back to the quiet of the hotel. Our room was so cold that we could almost see our breath so I was quick to get changed and under the covers turning on the television for a few minutes before going to bed. I did manage to check out the view out of the window - There seems to be a bit concert or something going in the small park opposite the hotel.

Tomorrow we have a lot of travel to look forward to…or not. Sad to be leaving and we had such a good group to travel with.

>> Sunday, September 10th