After posting some photos of my recent Vietnam-Cambodia trip, I received quite a number of inquiries on how to go about this route. Since today is a “free weekend” I decided to make time to write my Vietnam-Cambodia adventure (some friends have recently took this trip using my recommendations and others will take the trip in early 2019). To have a meaningful trip experience, begin by having a stress-free planning and a “ready-mindset” for possible contingencies during the actual trip. Also, take into account value for money. There are lots of options that won’t sacrifice comfort over costs. Here goes my simple yet practical tips if you decide to take this tour.
Why Vietnam and Cambodia?
Decide on the route and what do you want out of the trip. For me, I chose Vietnam because I just love Vietnamese food – the stew, the sprouts, the fresh herbs, the rolls. I also like to haggle at the Ben Thanh market for delicacies and souvenirs and/or shop cheap at the Saigon Square. Ho Chi Minh also has several landmarks, museums and architectural works which depicted the colonial history of the city. On the other hand, my Lara Croft side wants a Tomb Raider type of adventure which means that running temples after temples in Siem Rep would elevate my adrenaline levels awakening the quiet heroine in me. Wherever you are coming from, search for the shortest but cheap airline route and this should be done months ahead of the trip.
Transportation from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Siem Rep, Cambodia
This is where most people are clueless. I used Bookaway to reserve bus tickets ($26 one-way) for the Mekong Express tourist bus. Once paid, the printed voucher will be sent to your e-mail. Seat numbers are automatically assigned by the system during booking. Bring the voucher to the Mekong Express office (Address: [Vietnam] 1, 275F Phạm Ngũ Lão, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh; [Cambodia] Sivutha Blvd, Krong Siem Reap) at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure to exchange it for the actual ticket. The bus is loading passengers in front of the office. It is quite a long trip, a little over 13 hours with stopovers for lunch and dinner. The bus has a small, clean toilet which is convenient for a long trip. About 6 hours after departure, there will be a bus transfer in Phnom Penh. WI-FI is available on the Phnom Penh-Siem Rep bus route and vice versa.
Accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City
Since we arrived after midnight in Ho Chi Minh, we booked at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Saigon, a 3-minute walk to the Mekong Express bus office. A convenient way to book your accommodations is through booking.com. You can choose to pay at the hotel upon check-in. We also arranged for an airport pick-up for hassle free airport-hotel transfer because we expected that we were already drowsy after an almost 3-hour flight and arriving at midnight. Bloom Hotel is another good option (with steam, sauna, shower and gym services for free) if you do not like the vibe of a backpackers accommodation, but is 6-9 minutes by car away from the Mekong Express bus office.
Vietnam-Cambodia Border Security Check
Do not be alarmed if your passport will be taken by the bus crew. Usually, they collect the passports before reaching the border to submit it all at once at both Vietnam and Cambodia tourist security checks. The process of getting your passport stamped at the border usually takes about 30-45 minutes depending on the queue. You and your carry-on items will pass through x-ray scanning machines. Border check is mandatory and everybody must undergo this procedure. Take note: never ever take photos at the security checks because this is strongly prohibited.
When in Siem Rep
Upon arrival, we took Grab taxi (which is so cheap in Siem Rep) to bring us to the Angkor Paradise Hotel. There are cheaper accommodation options but we chose this hotel because it is recommended by a friend with spacious room and mouth-watering international buffet breakfast. In case you go out of the hotel before 6:00 AM, breakfast will be packed by the staff as a takeaway. Remember to download the Grab app and make sure it is working prior to your departure from your country of origin. I saw several tourists struggling in the registration of the app because the codes will be verified via phone and some sim cards do not work at all.
We only have one whole day for our temple run adventure. So, instead of using the most popular tuktuk tour package, we arranged with our Grab driver to bring us to several temples. A car is of course faster than the tuktuk and this allows for a convenient temple hopping. We paid $35 for the whole day vehicle rental. There are motorbikes that can be rented on a much cheaper price if you are travelling solo or in 2’s.
A tourist must have an admission pass (an ‘Angkor Pass’) to visit the temples and sites. Passes are sold in one-day ($37), three-day ($62) and seven-day ($72) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. Your admission pass bears a photo of you which will be taken on the spot at the time of purchase. We bought the passes at the Angkor Enterprise which opens at 5:00 AM. Your cab or tuktuk driver will assist you in getting the passes.
We visited only 4 major temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom out of the 7 that we can possibly visit on that day which means there are still more temples to go to on future visits. We stayed for 2-3 hours on each temple to grasp its history and marvel at its fascinating architecture which dates back thousands of years ago. There’s a mystical vibe that draws my soul into the temples which I need to fathom (“Did I live here in my past life”?) which really took time to settle. The temples and the parks which the archaeological structures were built is huge so be ready for a lot of walking and hiking. You can take a guide (cheapest is $15) to narrate the history of each angkor (Sanskrit meaning “city”) and also help in getting the best-angled photos. It is respectful to the culture if you come to the temples wearing appropriate clothing: no sleeveless shirts and above the knee shorts or skirts for ladies.
Night Life in Siem Rep
Siem Rep at night is equally fascinating. The city center has a modern vibe with many restaurants offering not just Cambodian but also international cuisines as well. There are also restaurants with Asian-European fusion menus. A visit to the night market (which is separate from the Art Night Market) is a-must destination to buy souvenirs, traditional clothes and accessories. Be sure to haggle for the best price and do not take the first mentioned price which is obviously high.
If you are fond of gems or precious stones, you can buy it cheap at the Art Night Market. Be sure you know your birthstone (mine is Ruby). You will be awed and speechless at the huge collection, beauty and unique designs of precious stones and jewelries on display. You can use credit card but there are also ATMs nearby to withdraw cash.
We arrived in Siem Rep on Halloween so the famous Pub Street was busier than usual. With live band music and concerts, Halloween street buntings and tourists wearing their favorite Halloween costumes, the night’s atmosphere was festive, young, vibrant and mischievous which creates contrast to the mystical vibes of the temples during the day tour. Bars and cafes lined Pub Street, a good way to relax and recharge after a long day of temple hopping.
When in Ho Chi Minh
We explored the city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) for 2 days. To make the most of our visit, we arranged a tour to see historical sites, famous landmarks and markets. We used this tour package to organize our visit.
We explored the markets and my favorite Vietnamese food in the evenings. It helps that we had a lot of hikes and walking during the day which made me crave for Vietnamese pho soup and fried spring rolls and noodles.
The Ideal Currency to Bring
The US dollar ($) is the best currency to bring around in both Vietnam and Cambodia. I recommend to bring loose change or small bills for easy transactions. Some market stalls will find it difficult to give you loose change for a 100-dollar bill. Vietnamese dong and US $ can be withdrawn from ATMs in Vietnam. Philippine peso is also accepted. While in Cambodia, most are dollar ATMs.
If you are like me who wants to experience both traditional and modern aspects in every adventure trip, the Vietnam-Cambodia route is the best. Ho Chi Minh city is one of the best destinations for food, shopping, history and bike rush. While Cambodia should be really proud of its mind-blowing temples that until now I can’t get over yet. Siem Rep is a small city filled with temples and nature parks worth visiting a hundred times because of the unique contrasts of tradition and modern culture.
The Need for a Travel Insurance
Since 2013, I have been taking long trips and part of the preparation to every trip is the purchase of a travel insurance with clear and comprehensive travel policy. For 5 years now, I have been a happy customer of World Nomads, a trusted partner of Lonely Planet. I was prompted to get a travel insurance due to an unfortunate experience by a friend that had she not have the travel insurance handy, it would have been a nightmare for her and her family.
Meaningful travels can be achieved when you plan it well but be spontaneous to whatever comes your way and live in the moment. Collect fun and wonderful memories as much as possible. Immersed in the culture and connect to the locals. 🙂