A journey through Cambodia & Vietnam

K. Haralu

My dream of visiting Cambodia and Vietnam came true a couple of months back when I found a friend who also wanted to visit Cambodia. This piece is written for those who may be interested to visit these lesser known South East Asian countries.
We reached Phnom Penh after a brief stopover in Bangkok. In the afternoon we took a tour of the city to familiarise ourselves with the place. After a day’s rest we made a 325Km road trip to Siem Reap to see the famous `Angkor Wat’ built in the 12th century. The next day we visited the `killing fields’ and the museum maintained in memory of the thousands of Cambodians who lost their lives under the infamous Pol Pot’s regime. In the evening we watched the celebration of Cambodia’s independence from the Mekong River.
Since my friend had to attend to his business, he returned home in Nagaland the next day and I took a flight to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) as it is called today. You could also travel by Bus from Phnom Penh to HCMC via Sihanoukville, provided you have got your visa beforehand. Located in the North, Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. However, Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam is the largest city in the country, famous for the pivotal role it played in the Vietnam War. It is also known for its French colonial landmarks including the Notre-Dame cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France and the 19th century Central Post Office. The story of war time Saigon is told at the War remnants museum, the tunnel network at Cu chi and independence Palace, where North Vietnamese tanks breached the gates in 1975. Saigon is a place where you can get a feel of the Vietnam War – a war which the Americans actually lost despite their sophisticated war machines. At home the Government was facing stiff protests by the American public against the war, as the body count of dead soldiers was increasing day by day. On the battlefield, the US Army was fighting a losing battle against an invisible enemy who had built a city of tunnels (about 250 Kms) around Saigon. Those who have seen the movie `Tunnel Rats’ will get an idea about the `Cu chi’ tunnels. The Americans had to finally pull out of Vietnam in defeat.
Vietnam is an elongated land mass covering roughly 1650 Kms from north to south and 50 Kms across at its narrowest point. While the whole country is dotted with tourist spots, some places of special interest are the Mekong delta in the south. Travelling north you will touch Saigon, then Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Da Nang, Dong hai, Cat ba Island, Halong bay and Ha Noi (Hanoi). Travelling to the extreme north bordering with China, you will come across ethnic minorities in areas like Lao Cai, Ha Giang and Cao Bang. I met the Hmongs in Cat Cat village near Sapa in Lao Cai District. While the average Vietnamese don’t speak English, many of the ethnic minorities can communicate in English. This is because more and more tourists from overseas are visiting these areas for Homestays in the villages to experience the simplicity of life and see the natural beauty of the land. These ethnic minorities have preserved their culture and traditions and continue to dress and live as in the old days. There are many NGOs teaching English to local people to become tourist guides and earn a livelihood. Village economy is thriving because of tourism.
Vietnam is a Bikers’ paradise. I came across many Bikers from Europe and Australia. The roads are good and the sites- worth it! Hotels to suit all kind of pockets are available. For youngsters, there are back packers’ hostels where, bed & breakfast cost as little as $8 a night. Traffic in the Cities remind you of India – not much rules and no traffic Police but strangely there seems to be order in their disorder. Whether you are a pedestrian or a Driver, just follow the mad flow and you will be okay so long as you don’t hesitate and keep moving. Not much honking and no road rage. Bikers have the flexibility of routes and more sights to see.

cat cat
Cat Cat

Some tips on travelling in Vietnam:
Currency: In Cambodia, the US Dollars is widely used, even the ATM dispenses USD. This is not so in Vietnam, you need Vietnamese Dongs (VND) for all purchases (currently 1USD= 23,300 VND). One should avoid exchanging money in the airports (except for Taxi fares). Money changers in the city will give you a better deal.

Accommodation: While you can get pretty decent Hotels for 20- 25USD, in smaller cities you can also find homestays for 10- 15USD which includes breakfast and you get to interact with the locals. Bookings.com & Air Bnb are good apps for this.

Security: Vietnam is generally a safe country for tourists. Except in Hanoi, you hardly see any Policemen on the street. One should however be careful about petty thefts and conmen, like anywhere else.

Language: This is a serious problem, so it’s good to download `Translate’ from Google. You can use audio version if you are online or else you can write text in English if you are offline.

Weather: For those who are driving or travelling on Bikes, you should check the weather before moving out. Windy.com is a good app for this.

Taxis and local travel: Uber does not operate here but there are other services like `grab’ for Taxis and Bikes. A city tour on Bikes is also a good option to take in the sights. In the country side its quite safe to hire bikes and drive around. If you hire a taxi inside the airports, a trip to the city could cost you about 20-25USD. Outside the airport, a shuttle (a large van) may charge you 10 USD, but you can also get airport Buses for as little as $2.00.

Laundry: This is expensive, so it’s good to carry some daily wear which can be easily washed and dried.

Hanoi street scene
Hanoi street scene

Booking for local activities: If you want to do local activities like the Halong bay cruise, you shouldn’t buy packages from India because the local agent will be going through some bigger agent in Delhi or Gurgaon, who again will contact his agent in Vietnam. To bypass all these, it is best to go to Hanoi and book your cruise locally after comparing the costs from different local agents.

Government & People: It’s a communist system of Government, so people will not talk to you about Politics or their Government. However there is a strange fusion of socialism and capitalism in the daily lives of people. While Governance may be socialist, the economy is very capitalistic. So long as you respect local customs and you are courteous, people are very welcoming and you have no problems. I had a good experience in Nha trang. I had left my mobile phone on the table of the Travel agent and he dropped it on the Bus I was to travel and refused any tip.

Food: Beef, Chicken and Sea food are common and cheap. Amongst the ethnic minorities in the north, you find the kind of food Nagas love: Pork, dried meat and even Birds.

Bargain: You should be prepared to bargain in Vietnam and agree to a price before any transaction.

Halong bay
Halong bay

Mobile connectivity: It’s good to get a local Sim to stay connected. Otherwise also you can manage with wi-fi if you use a smart phone, since every coffee shop, Restaurant, airport or Bus provide free Wifi.

Documents: Always take special care of important documents like Passport, tickets. It’s a good practice to carry photo copies of these documents separately. Sometimes immigration may ask you for boarding pass of earlier flights, so retain these till you return home. Immigration will also give you problem if your passport is damaged/mutilated in any way.

Credit cards: Where credit cards are accepted there is an additional charge of 3%.

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