A few snapshots from Vietnam

All of these photographs were taken in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in Vietnam.

As you’ll notice, a lot of the famous buildings in Ho Chi Minh City look European, because before they were in war with the USA, they were occupied by the French.

You’ll see some photos of the city life, but I also visited a park where they had some sort of flower exhibition.

Pictures of Cambodia will soon follow!

 

 

What to expect from a bus ride from Vietnam to Cambodia

Nothing.
That’s the short answer. Because if you expect nothing, it can only be better. Actually no, scratch that. Expect the worst.

Let me paint you a picture.

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I could do this verbally, but I’ve heard that a picture says more than a thousand words and there are no thousand words to describe the bus that I was in when I wanted to go from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

I booked my ticket at one of the many tour operators on the street where my hostel was located. I don’t remember the name, because there was only one name in Ho Chi Minh that I could remember and that was the one of the main market where they sell the souvenirs, for no reason other than that it was the easiest one. But Vietnamese is not a language I will ever understand, so I could not remember anything.

They said to be at their office at 23.15, and we would leave at 23.45. I already knew that 23.15 would be very early, so eventually I arrived at 23.20. I’m such a rebel.

Of course, when my phone told me it was 23.45, there was still nobody there. Oh, and the office was closed, but I knew the busses stopped on the other side of the street. I know I should not have had any expectations, but during my days there I had already seen some busses drive by and they looked really comfortable. Chairs that could recline, soft lighting and individual seats.

Around 0.00 a big yellow bus that did not have the name of the bus company I was supposed to go with, stopped very close to me. I decided to ask if by any chance they were my ride. I showed them the ticket and I didn’t really get a confirmation, but they just gestured that I could get in if I wanted to. I asked around frantically to at least assure myself that the bus would be going to Phnom Penh, and it was. So, I handed in my passport, paid the fee for the visa and gave them my backpack, when I got in.

You had to climb the stairs to go in and the sight when you arrived upstairs was something else. A few of my fellow travelers had been in several sleeping busses and they said this one was the ghetto of sleeping busses. Well… That was promising.

I hopped on one of the beds and laid down, trying for a long time to find a comfortable position. In the meantime, I was joined by a guy and while we were laughing about the shadiness of it all, I actually felt good, because I knew this was going to be one of those awful backpacker experiences I had heard so much about. Sometimes I’m too positive for my own good.

After talking with the guy for a few minutes, I distinguished a slight Dutch accent, so I asked him where he’s from, and what do you know? The Netherlands. So we continued in our native tongue and quickly realized that we had both been in Indonesia for almost half a year. He had been there for his studies, and was in Yogyakarta, not Jakarta, like me. We swapped some experiences while the bus driver started on our trip. The lights were turned off pretty quickly and because of the lack of space I got up close and personal with this guy from Rotterdam who I had just met, while we were both trying to catch some shut-eye.

Emphasis being on trying.

For me anyway, the Dutchie next to me was snoring like the sound the bus was making while driving. Even my favorite sleeping music couldn’t get me to fall asleep and it was 3 AM when we came to a stop. A full stop.

I had heard about it, and I knew it was going to happen, but it still seemed ridicilous. We left at 0.00 and had reached the border in three hours. The border… opens at 6 AM. So we were going to be standing still for three hours. I saw a few people sitting up in their beds and I just knew they were thinking what I was thinking…
Can we please go to the toilet?

This didn’t seem like something the driver and his buddy had contemplated, because when I ventured outside of my bed, I noticed that the entire aisle was filled with our bags and suitcases. When did that happen?

I looked and was dreading the prospect of climbing all this stuff to get out, but my bladder was torturing me relentlessly and so I moved out.
I asked a girl in my area if she needed to go also, and together we went for it. The way to get out is pictured below. My leg muscles are still a little sore (because we had to go out at least two times more – and back in).

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When I got out, I felt good to know I was not alone, because about ten more people stepped outside. We faced the warm night air, and while typing this I realize I forgot to mention something very distressing about this trip.

The cold.

They were blasting the airconditioning like they were trying to recreate Antartica and everybody was shivering in their seats (even though they provided us with thoughtful blankets that were too small to cover the body of a child, let alone adults).
So the warmth was welcome. We all ran off in different places to find a private place to relieve ourselves

I popped a squat at the border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia.
And I can only assume I am not the first.

We faced the jungle gym again when we got back inside and I was so relieved. I was comfortable, I didn’t have to pee anymore and I was warm again because of the nightly exercise.

Yet my dear friend sleep did not decide to grace me with a visit that night.
So I lay and listened to music and let my mind wander to all the places my mind decided to go.

And before you know it (no, I’m kidding. It took forever and I was waiting for the moment for three hours), the bus was moving again.
And I had to pee… Again.

Nobody knew what to expect, which you could say makes these trips all the more fun. Or at least more adventurous.

After a while somebody came up to our beds and yelled something. I didn’t know what, but some people were getting up and getting out. Great… More climbing. But I’d gotten the hang of it by then and was out before I knew it. Time to cross the border.
But first I ran in the other direction when I saw a sign saying there was a toilet present.

We stood around for a while, waiting for who knows what, and then we could pass the immigration officer who did not seem all that pleased to have a job that made him wake up before the sun had risen. He flipped through my passport and gestured for me to move on.

Because I have lived in Indonesia for five months, the one thing I have learned and is ingrained in my current life, is to smile. So I smiled at the officer and thanked him, but he did not return the favor and just focused on something more interesting behind me.

I looked through my passport and saw an exit stamp for Vietnam, one more lovely addition to an already large collection of art pieces in my little book of life. But I had expected a little more, namely a new stamp that would remind me I had gone to Cambodia.
Later, we realized that this was just the Vietnamese border and we still had to cross the actual Cambodian border.
Guess what that means…
Yep, more climbing in and out of the bus.

But eventually we also lined up at the immigration officer who was in charge of the stream of travelers wanting to enter Cambodia and when I smiled and thanked him, I actually got back a small smile. I noticed my fellow travelers were tired and exhausted, like me, and with that had lost their manners. I was glad to be rewarded for not forgetting mine.

At this point, I was really, very tired. And when we got back into the bus, I felt like I could sleep easily. I was told that it would be a six hour drive to Phnom Penh and my cognitive function allowed me to calculate that this meant we had three more hours to go.

Oh, my sweet naive past self.

It turned out to be six. Six more hours! So even though I did sleep for maybe half an hour to an hour, I was still awake for most of it and just listened to music, trying to let Damien Rice and Ludovico Einaudi soothe me.
And even though they soothed, they did not make me sleep.

Finally we seemed to arrive somewhere and after paying too much for a tuktuk (which is really all part of the Asian experience, I would say), I arrived at my hostel.
And I slept the day away.

And yeah, I could make myself feel bad about that, because I am not making the most out of the experience and I am wasting an entire day. But really, it was the damn Ankor Express Yellow ugly ass bus that wasted my day and I refused to feel guilty for wanting a nap. However, I had not anticipated sleeping through my alarm that was set for 3 o’clock and waking up at 5 instead.

But we live and learn. And we deal with it.
I’ll explore the city tomorrow.

And yeah, to all those friends of mine who are reading this and wondering: what about the guy? “Was dat niet wat voor jou, Sanne?”

We went our separate ways after getting off of the bus, because that’s just how these things work. And that is more than okay.

Why touristic tours may not be my cup of tea

Because they just want money, that’s why. And when they get money, they want more money.

So I don’t know if I really won’t do any tours anymore. They are a great opportunity to see some sides of a country, mostly of the nature. If the price is right, I may be tempted again in the future. But my current experience is not great. I did two tours in Tenerife more than a year ago and those were not great experiences either. I guess I thought Asia was different.

I booked a tour to the Mekong Delta. It was just for one day, and while I was waiting for the bus in the hostel, I already met somebody who was also doing the tour alone. In the bus somebody casually mentioned that it was the fanciest bus they had been in in Asia and yeah, the bus was comfortable. The seats were a bit small, but there was airco and the chairs reclined, so I guess that’s okay.

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The first stop was at a place where there were three huge buddha statues. Great to take pictures with and the tour guide gave us a riddle. I didn’t realize we could win something, and by the time I did, somebody else already shot up to answer the question.
There were three buddha’s and they represented the past, the present and the future. The huge smiling chubby buddha was the present. The question was which one was the past and which one the future. Well, I would have guessed wrong, because the lying down buddha was the future and the standing buddha was the past.

We continued on the bus and ended up at a small harbor, where we got on a boat. We saw a bit of the waterfront there and eventually got off somewhere for lunch. There were many options to buy something extra but the basic lunch was included.

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Coconut house

After this lunch we went to a place where they made coconut candy. Would be great if we could make some ourselves, but we could just watch the people do it and guess what, we could even buy it afterwards! I didn’t, but I was shortly tempted by a coconut that was turned into an amazing little statue of three monkeys. I decided I could make do with a picture of it. They had many more things made out of coconut, including an entire house.

We also tried some coconut whiskey and you could take a picture with a snake, which seemed very random and strengthened our belief that this trip was very touristic. After that we continued on by small boats, to the next stop.

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What was interesting and a little annoying is that they basically asked for a tip everywhere, when actually, we already paid for the tour and shouldn’t have to pay extra during the tour. Everything was supposed to be included.

Which made it weird that when one guy offered the tour guide a tip in the end, he refused it.

The small boats were very cute and fun to go on, while sailing through a mangrove-like river. But it was a very short trip and when we got off, we sat down again to try some sort of tea. The day started to feel a bit like a tasting and when I asked the guy that sort of hung out with our small group if he had a good time, he said: “I just don’t understand why we are here…”

Me neither. I could have done with more sightseeing and less tasting of stuff.

But the people I was with made the day more fun. Besides the girl from my hostel, who was Israeli, by the way, I hung out with two girls from Germany and a guy from the USA, which was a nice group.

After we drank the tea the tour guide announced another opportunity to win a price. Well, I wasn’t gonna let this one pass me by, but when I heard the challenge, I was sure I would win them without any problem.
He said you could taste some fruit and if you could identify three of them, I would win some chopsticks made out of coconut. Great! Challenge accepted.
So, after being blindfolded and tasting five kinds of fruit, I won the price. I stupidly forgot what I was tasting when eating jackfruit… my mind went completely blank. And he had me try a fruit of which even he didn’t know the English name, so that one was hard too. But I easily identified the watermelon (duh), dragon fruit and the guava.
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I shared my price with my daily friends and gave them all a pair of chopsticks. After this we walked back to the bus that had already driven to a new pick-up point and we headed back to Ho Chi Minh City.

So just to be clear, I do like what the tours can offer, but I feel like the authenticity is nowhere to be found and everything is just way too focused on tourists. That’s why I love meeting people through couchsurfing. It just gives you a chance to meet locals and hear about their daily life.

But one thing these tours definitely know how to do, is make sure you get some amazing pictures to capture the day.

The Vietnamese visa process

I arrived in Vietnam yesterday and of course soon I will tell you more about that. But first, I wanted to share some information on the internet about what to expect when you arrive in Vietnam.
I will just tell you about my experience with getting the visa, and this concerns a one month single entry visa. I arrived at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. And I believe (have been told, but have not confirmed) that this process is only applicable when you arrive in one of the major international airports.

First, there are some things you have to arrange beforehand.
I did not know this. They call it a Visa On Arrival, which usually means you can just get it at the airport. And you can, but you need some documents first.

But, you need some sort of letter that says you can enter the country. You have to pay for this letter so I suspect it’s just a way to get more money out of tourists, because there is really no other use for the letter.
There are several sites offering this paid service, just google. I won’t tell you where I got it, because I wouldn’t recommend the website. I paid for a 4 hour service (I was not informed about the visa process in Vietnam) and I received the letter within 8 hours. Actually, I am going to share with you where this was: http://www.govietnamvisa.com. I’m still trying to get a partial refund.

So, do this at least two (working) days in advance and make sure you have a printer available to you.

Also, and this I didn’t do… Print out this form and fill it out. It will make your process go faster.

Thirdly, make sure you have 25 US dollars with you, to pay for the visa. It has to be in dollars. Why some countries insist on using a currency that is not their own is beyond me.

When you arrive, you will see two things, none of which is information about what to do next. There is a very small window with the words “landing visa” and long lines at the passport control. You have to get the visa first.
So you stand in line at the window. I had to do this two times, because the first time they just gave me the form, of which I told you to print it beforehand. So if you do that, you only have to get in line once. You just hand in all the documents and then they tell you (quite brusquely, I might add) to sit and wait. They will (try) to call your name. At least, they had to say mine twice, because I have a difficult name to pronounce in English. You go up to the cashier window and pay the $25. Then they give you your passport and you’re all set!

On a lot of websites it says you need two ID pictures and two copies of your passport. I only needed one picture and no copy of my passport. Although when I got the form they took my passport, so it was good that I had my copy so I could fill out my passport details. Just to be sure, I guess it couldn’t hurt to be prepared and bring these things anyway.

Good luck, and have fun on your trip to Vietnam!