To Vietnam

Mon, 26 May 2008 11:41:08 +0000

Phnom Penh Index Ho Chi Minh City Day 1

It's certainly a nice feeling, to wake up in the morning and have a bus ticket, a hotel booking, and a visa all ready to go. Nothing could be simpler than crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. There's something you couldn't have said 20 years ago.

My only concern was getting breakfast before my bus left. I went down to see whether the bar was alive a bit before 7:00, to find all the doors shut. It just so happened that the whole staff turned up on motorbikes at that point to unlock. So they were only in the door ten seconds before I was demanding pancakes and fruit salad. I'm sure I'm a popular man in Phnom Penh. But hey, those are real US dollars in my pocket (this time, anyway).

I was right to be concerned, because the minibus turned up before 7:30. But my breakfast was well finished by then. It's great having minibuses pick you up directly from your hotel. This is especially true given some of the muck you have to walk through in the streets of Phnom Penh. In fact, I kinda wish the minibus could have turned up at my room. It's that kind of bar.

I have to confess that this time, I didn't spend the whole bus journey glued to the window staring at the scenery. I'm on season 3 of the wire now, and it kinda distracted me. Plus, it was sunny, so I drew the curtain to avoid being sunburnt.

We did make a brief stop around lunch just before the border, at a place that I couldn't make head or tail of. There were noodles and soups and baguettes for sale, but I didn't think we would be stopping for long enough (and in the event, we didn't). So I attempted to buy some Oreos and some cashew nuts. I succeeded only in buying some Jatz and some pistachio nuts. Four dollars, too, which is pretty steep for lunch in Cambodia. A kid next to me on the bus had a packet of Oreos, and I was seething with jealousy for the whole of the rest of the trip.

The border crossing was a new experience for me. They had taken away all our passports at the start of the journey, which made me slightly on edge - especially since my backup passport is somewhere in the postal system right now. They had a strange system where the bus conductor went through all the formalities on our behalf and then handed our passports to us already stamped in small batches. We still had to get our bags x-rayed and so on, so I'm not sure this really bought us anything. But there were certainly no dramas.

The only slight difficulty I had with Ho Chi Minh City was that neither Google maps nor OpenStreetMap have any useful map of the area, so I was a bit lost looking for my hotel. Luckily the bus stopped more or less on the block I was looking for. The address of the hotel is somewhat weird, and it took some figuring out. "Pham Ngu Lao" is the name of the street. I was supposed to be looking for "185/26 Pham Ngu Lao", down an alley off Pham Ngu Lao. It turns out that Pham Ngu Lao has regular street numbers, but occasionally a number refers to an alleyway rather than a building. So I just had to look for 185 Pham Ngu Lao, then duck down it. Inside the alley, things are fairly regularly numbered. So it wasn't too hard, but I had to put my thinking cap on.

I resolved that I really needed a proper map before going any further, and apparently these are available at a tourist office to which I had vague directions. It only occurred to me about halfway there that it was Sunday and the place would be closed. I couldn't find it either, and I was sweating horribly even though it was only a short walk. I'm starting to get sick of this tropical heat. Instead I retreated to the hotel and bought a map for 10000 dong. With that chore done, and given how hot it is outside, I decided that I may as well stay in the hotel room for the afternoon until dinner. More episodes of The Wire, I'm afraid.

I went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I tried to find something Vietnamese to eat, and ended up going for a kind of noodle soup. It was pretty good, but the pepper in it had me sweating again.

The draught beers here are either "golden" or "brown", so obviously I plumped for the latter. It had a different flavour to the usual lager I've been drinking, but still far too bland for my taste.

I was going to order a lotus seed cake for dessert, but the service was too slow. Instead I went for a walk and found a cafe where I had an entirely non-exotic slice of cheesecake and a latte. But I did use their wifi to download some satellite maps of Ho Chi Minh City. This is a new discovery for me: in places where there are no online street maps, the satellite pictures make a perfectly good substitute, provided you have some other way to mark on the map where you're trying to go. Even my tiny little alley shows up clear as day. I expect this will help a lot once I get to Africa.

For now, however, I'm happy to have made it to Ho Chi Minh City with such little trouble. I have three days here, so there's no need whatsoever to rush. And after that, I'm booked all the way to Perth. Life should be pretty easy from now on.

Phnom Penh Index Ho Chi Minh City Day 1