Long weekends are something Cambodian’s get to celebrate quite often. There are days off for any number of religious, political or social reasons, and as an expat here it can be a great opportunity to go visit neighbouring countries like Vietnam or Thailand without using your annual leave. For one particular long weekend here, Pchum Ben, Mick and I decided to take advantage of the 5 days off and make our way to Vietnam where we would indulge in any number of tasty foods and hang out with some friends who were going to be there. Awesome!
The flights between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City are prohibitively expensive ($240 return for a 30min flight, NO THANKS), so we chose to go by bus which is a very reasonable $15. The trip takes approximately 6 hours and with a good book and some headphones in, that would fly by….surely. Fate had other things in mind for us however…
Firstly, in our defence we did not have experience of Pchum Benh holiday traffic. We did know that this holiday is one of the most important ones for Cambodians with many people travelling to the provinces and family ancestral areas to pay homage to their ancestors of up to 7 years past. But we didn’t realise this meant tens of thousands of people spilling out of Phnom Penh from 2 days before until 2 days after the holiday period.
We didn’t know that the flooding we had read reports of and seen photos of was affecting the road to Vietnam which in short meant that we got the worst of the worst traffic you could imagine. We didn’t know that the bribes everyone (and I mean everyone) paid to police to get a short cut would mean that the roads would be rammed with people going nowhere fast. We had no idea that Pchum Ben traffic is like every public holiday in Australia combined into one with the added layers of people not following road rules, corrupt yet under-resourced police and terrible roads.
We didn’t know these things, but now we do…
So…our quick 6 hour bus trip blew out to 14 hours on the road…and the adventure included such highlights as; leaving our seat on the comfortable bus after 8 hours (5 hours in the one spot); taking a vehicle ferry across the river by foot (the traffic was so bad and so clogged thanks to terrible driving skills and shonky police that no vehicles were actually catching the ferry); picking up a rickety old mini-van to the border with 15 other people (the bus should seat 8 people); paying off the border official at Vietnam to get our passports through quicker (the pile of passports and the under-the-table payments was a sign we should do this) and finally picking up a bus that took us the 3 hours to Ho Chi Minh City. PHEW!
Oh and I forgot to mention that all the while this was going on, we got notice that our flight to Hoi An had been postponed the next day from 9am to 2pm and finally to 9:30pm. Glad we aren’t in a rush I guess…
After all that fun of getting to Ho Chi Minh, Mick and I were very glad for a comfortable bed, a delicious meal and a cold icybeer on the streets of Ho Chi Minh. The last time we had visited was in 2008 when we did our first trip together (Mick’s first trip overseas – my first OS trip was the year before to Vietnam too!) and the city has changed so much. Where the streets were grubby and dirty, they are now clean and efficient. There used to be many run-down french colonial buildings in the heart of the city that are now cleaned up, modernized or replaced with big tall shiny new buildings, cute cafes and restaurants and businesses galore. It seems like Ho Chi Minh is the baby sister of Bangkok, sans rail transport. Rumour has it that there will be a metro-style train in the next few years.
Our initial plan for our weekend in Vietnam was to get to Ho Chi Minh, spend the afternoon & evening exploring then catch our flight to Hoi An in the morning. But what actually happened was we arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 9:30pm at night, and flight to Hoi An wouldn’t depart until 7pm. For some, this would have meant a lot of rage and being annoyed, but you have to take these things as an opportunity to do some fun stuff…like eat and explore!
So we decided to get our walking shoes on and with our hungry bellies, set out to find some seafood. The night before when we arrived we had also tried to find some seafood, but we failed to get anything even worthy of describing. Note to others: Don’t eat at the Benh Tranh Markets at night. Waste of money and stomach space! We wandered around til we found a yummy looking place near our hotel. I can’t tell you the name of it but it was goooood. Really good!
We slipped into seats at a table that was designed for a teeny tiny person with small tiny legs and got ordering – Mick had a bit of a tricky time getting settled into a spot, but his eagerness for crab helped him along.
The seafood in Vietnam really is incredible – so fresh and with mountains of variety everyone will be happy. We had a little trouble working out what to order, but ended up deciding on grilled shells (2 kinds), grilled prawns and steamed crabs.
All up our feast + a couple of beers came to less than $20 and we were sooooo satisfied!
As we had a couple of hours to still kill, we thought we would treat ourselves to a cocktail at Chill Skybar. This bar boasts some seriously incredible views and some seriously delicious cocktails. Happy hour cocktails mean that us poor-types don’t have to break the bank to go there, but you could drink your way into some serious damage. So yummy!.
After watching the sunset and sipping on that deliciousness, we were ready to finally head to the airport which is around 45min from District 1 (where all the hotels are). Now, I am not sure if it was delayed for any particular reason (we weren’t told) but I would seriously not recommend using JetStar Vietnam if you are on a tight schedule. If we were limited in our trip and needed to get connecting flights or anything, that 7 hour delay would not be good. Just food for thought for those who are thinking of going there anytime soon.
By the time we got to Hoi An it was late (11:30pm) and we were hungry (that seafood had been well digested). We threw our bags in our room, gobbled down a steaming bowl of beef pho and hit the pillows.
Hoi An is a very popular tourist destination for local and international visitors. Its location in the middle section of Vietnam means that it is a short trip from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh by plane (15+ hours by bus or train though!). It is well known for its stunning colonial architecture, quality tailors and beautiful scenery. The last time we had visited, it was popular, but still rustic. There was an island across the river that was undeveloped (it now houses hotels, bars and a night market) and shops were relaxed and chilled. Now it is a bustling little town with a lot of tourists and a lot going on…and we were there in low season too!
But we weren’t really there to be bothered with a lot of the tourist stuff. We were there to eat seafood! oh and hang out with our friends Bec and Gav too of course.
We grabbed ourselves a taxi and headed out to one of the beaches, Ang Bang, to chill out and catch up on all the gossip while stuffing ourselves with fresh seafood. The beach itself would be stunning on a good day, but we were there when it was grey, windy and overcast. Not the best for swimming or pictures unfortunately!
But going to a beach town isn’t all about sitting under an umbrella and reading a book. In fact, I would say that’s the last thing I would be signing up for. Yes I like to read books, but getting sweaty and hot around other sweaty and hot strangers beside a lovely beach isn’t my idea of fun.
What is my idea of fun is spending time with good friends, eating amazing food, talking to locals, exploring markets, getting lost in unknown places, riding my bicycle and relaxing at the end of the day with a nice cold drink.
Thankfully thats exactly what this trip had – adventure, relaxation, great food and awesome company.
Sure, we had some crazy, annoying, frustrating times to begin with, but that’s all part of the excitement of travelling. It makes a pretty boring story if you had every bus/train/plane on time, if every plan went exactly to order and you never left your hotel. You would have to ask yourself why you bothered travelling at all if you didn’t find some fun in mishaps and problems along the way.
We left Hoi An feeling pretty happy with our trip and glad we made the effort. It was really great to see Bec and Gav, some really awesome peeps, and our buzz didn’t even get ruined by the delays with our trip coming back to Phnom Penh! I am hoping that we get to head to Vietnam again sometime in the next few months, which is looking pretty likely as my work’s Head Office is there.