I woke up early the next day because I didn’t want a repeat of the rush I went through back in Saigon when I was almost left behind by the bus going to Siem Reap. This time, I allotted enough time to pack my stuff and shower. Since I already paid the guesthouse bill the night before, I actually still had time to have breakfast but I figured I’d save some money. And besides, Mekong Express does serve snacks and bottled water in both the morning and afternoon legs of the trip. I’ll just treat the morning snack as breakfast.
So with my bags packed and with a bit of sadness, I spent my last few minutes in Siem Reap chatting with Song, until the service van of Mekong Express finally arrived to pick me up and bring me to the terminal where the bus is located. As a parting gift, the Happy Guesthouse staff gave me a medium-sized bottle of water. It’s a gift I very much appreciated because I already used up half of my budget and freebies are certainly welcome.
I wasn’t able to take pictures of Happy Guesthouse, but I searched the net for a photo that resembles my last look of the place the most, and this is it.
There were already 4 passengers in the van when I got in and it picked up 1 more before finally making for the bus terminal. There I boarded the bus and met up with Leika and her firend. I was seated right behind the driver and beside a portly American who I absolutely did not talk to until much, much later in the trip.
1st LEG: SIEM-REAP TO SAIGON
This leg of the trip is basically the same as the 13-hour long bus ride going to Siem Reap, only that it’s in reverse. The bus was still slow (and it even got stopped by a few roadside policemen for “speeding”. Unbelievable.); Khmer music videos still played all day; and the stopovers were placed at roughly the same hours as last time.
Nothing much to say here really, except that we reached the Bavet-Moc Bai border just as the sun was setting, and that the Cambodian immigration officer who stamped my passport seem perplexed that I didn’t speak Khmer. (The fact that I was holding a Philippine passport escaped his notice.) That was the last time that I got a comment about my “Cambodian looks”, and it was literally given when I was a step away from leaving the country.
It took another couple of hours of travel time before we reached Saigon. Both Cambodia and Vietnam seemed to have the same speeding laws. I guess this was more of a consequence, rather than a necessity once we reached Saigon proper, because it was simply not possible to go fast amidst the city’s small streets and heavy volume of vehicles – motorcycles mostly.
The bus finally stopped at the famous Pham Ngu Lao Street in District 1. Upon disembarking, I said my goodbyes to Leika, her friend and my American seatmate (whose name I’ve completely forgotten.) Then I made my way towards my hotel.
OVERNIGHT IN SAIGON
Actually, I wasn’t sure which hotel I’d be going to. Back in Siem Reap, I emailed Chanh to inquire as to whether there are still free rooms in Bich Duyen, he replied that Bich Duyen is full but he’ll try to see if there were still free rooms in nearby Hong Han, their sister hotel. Later on, Chanh sent another email informing me that they had a room available, so I replied that I was reserving that. For some reason, I completely forgot to ask which hotel he reserved me in. Since the 2 hotels were near to each other, I just picked one to visit first, and if I was wrong, I’d just go to the other.
I picked Hong Han first. Using the map that Chanh gave me a few days before, I worked my way towards the hotel, which was located in Bui Vien Street, just a block away from where the bus dropped us off. Bui Vien is parallel to Pham Ngu Lao and can be classified as a side street due to its narrowness and short length, but at that night, the whole strip was packed with tourists. There was barely an empty sidewalk space as I waded through mostly western tourists hanging out and getting drunk. I came across a taxi driver having an argument with a number of bystanders, making it a huge spectacle because it was in the middle of the crowd. I didn’t stick to find out what that was about and a few steps later, I was at the front door of Hong Han.
Upon explaining my predicament to the front desk person in Hong Han, he checked his computer and not seeing my name there, he called up Bich Duyen. It turns out that Chanh made reservations for me over there, and not here. So I just thanked the employee and set off to walk back to Bich Duyen. The kind man actually offered to bring me to Bich Duyen using his motorcycle, but I politely declined since it was just a very short walk.
5 minutes later, I was once again in the familiarly cramped lobby of Bich Duyen and by instinct, I took off my shoes before entering the building. Chanh wasn’t around when I arrived but an employee named Minh assisted me with my check in and I was pleased to find out that I was given a room in the second floor. (Bich Duyen is too small to have an elevator so guests staying in the upper floors are at a disadvantage.)
I had 2 tasks to accomplish that night before retiring to my room: (1) I needed to buy a bus ticket that would take me to Mui Ne the following day; (2) I needed to have dinner because the whole day I subsisted on mere giveaway snacks from Mekong Express. At that point, I was so famished that I wanted nothing more than a bowlful of pho with ice cold soda and iced coffee with milk for dessert. It wasn’t hard to decide that I had to have dinner first. I walked around Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets to look for a clean-enough looking noodle place, away from the tourist crowd. Once I found one, I promptly went in to order and eat.
After that, I went back to Pham Ngu Lao to look for the Phuong Trang bus ticket office. Back in Manila, I did some research on which buses offer the best service going to Mui Ne, and Phuong Trang consistently topped travelers’ lists in online forums. So I proceeded to their office and was promptly told that I was actually in their courier services site, and I was directed to go instead to De Tham Street. Once I arrived though, I was told that they ran out of 7am seats, and the next bus would leave at 2 pm. Since I had to be in Mui Ne by lunchtime, I had no choice but to take my chances with another bus line.
Sinh Tourist (formerly Sinh Cafe) also consistently figured in the top 3 of the online forum lists. Since it was just a few steps away, I went there to inquire. Let me just say that the Sinh Tourist ticketing office is a pretty cool-looking office. It’s spacious, well-lit, and customer service is good. In fact, it’s a lot better than any airline ticketing office I’ve seen in the Philippines. I inquired about trips to Mui Ne and was pleased to find out that there were still seats available for the 7:15am trip. So I eagerly purchased a ticket and happily walked back to Bich Duyen to finally catch some Zs.
2nd LEG: SAIGON TO MUI NE
The next day, I went through the usual repacking of stuff as I was again going on a bus ride. Mui Ne is 5 hours away from Saigon. Assuming I’d arrive at Mui Ne at around noontime, the plan was for me to start touring right after checking in at the guesthouse that I made arrangements with. I was sincerely hoping that the Sinh Tourist bus won’t take too many stopovers.
One thing I really was thankful for as regards Bich Duyen was the fact that they allowed me to leave some stuff in the hotel so that I wouldn’t need to bring everything in Mui Ne, free of charge! (And this was after I told them that I didn’t intend to check in anymore once I got back from Mui Ne the next day.) With that assurance, I once again checked out, walked to the Sinh bus station in De Tham road. And at exactly 7:15, the bus left for Mui Ne.
It was a bit frustrating to observe the extra slow pace of the bus as it lumbered through the busy streets of Saigon, but it eventually picked up the pace as it began to exit the city. As for Vietnam’s countryside roads, I got to say that I was very impressed. They were consistently well-maintained, with traffic lights that were all working and signages that devoid of any vandalism. I don’t recall ever encountering a road repair that was abandoned or caused any type of inconvenience. This is so unlike countryside roads in the Philippines where conditions change every few or so kilometers.
I didn’t make a mistake in choosing Sinh Tourist. The bus was clean and they just took one stopover (unlike the horror stories by tourists who took other buses where the normally 5-hour trip was extended to almost 7 hours due to 2 or more stopovers made.) What I particularly liked with this bus is that the conductor made it a point to ask all the passengers where they would be staying in Mui Ne so he can log it and each passenger can be dropped off near their hotel/resort (instead of the bus going all the way to its terminal at the far side of Mui Ne, and just leaving the tourists to find their way to their resort.) They even gave us a basic map of Mui Ne with all the hotels and guesthouses listed in their approximate position.
Mui Ne is actually the name of a small seaside fishing village in the outskirts of Pan Thiet City. The village is under the jurisdiction of the city government but because the area of Mui Ne had much more tourism value than Pan Thiet proper, eventually, the name Mui Ne became much more famous tourism-wise. A lot of the seaside and inland resorts, hotels and guesthouses are owned or co-owned by foreigners with their Vietnamese wives.
Pan Thiet is located in a historic area that has been inhabited since before the Chams ruled southern Vietnam. As the bus rolled through Pan Thiet City proper, I found it odd that there were almost no people in the streets. It was almost like a ghost town – except that the surroundings were well-maintained, clean, and had the unmistakable look of being “lived in” (there were still lots of motorcycles parked by the roadside.) It simply had too few people. And coming from Saigon, this would seem rather unusual.
It would be another 30 to 45 minutes before we would reach the Mui Ne beach district that occupies a long stretch of the Nguyen Dinh Chieu Road. And from that point onwards, the passengers were unloaded one by one as the bus approached each hotel or resort that was logged with the conductor. I got dropped off around 30 steps away from Ever Green Guesthouse so I got lost for a bit and actually entered a different guesthouse (which was thankfully empty.) In the course of exploring the wrong guesthouse, I found out that Evergreen was actually next door because I recognized it from the pictures in the Internet as I peered over the fence. So by 12:30, I finally checked in at the Ever Green Guesthouse.
I’d like to make special mention of the fact that even though Ever Green Guesthouse is the most “expensive” guesthouse I’ve stayed in during this entire trip, this is where I experienced the best service so far, right from the time that I rang the doorbell at the front gate. The couple who owned the place – Ken and Monik – never failed to make me feel welcome and extended every assistance that they can. Monik, in particular, even offered to call up my guide Mr. Binh to tell him that I’ve already arrived so that I can be picked up as scheduled by 1:00pm.
As I only had the entire afternoon to tour, I skipped lunch to maximize daylight. Before leaving with Mr. Binh, Monik gave me2 keys: one for my room and one for the front gate. She explained that the gatekeeper only stood guard until 12 midnight, and due to the fact that Mui Ne has a vibrant night life, a lot of tourists stay out well beyond midnight. So the began this practice of giving each tourist keys to the front gate as well.
So with Ken and Monik wishing me well on my tour, I boarded Mr. Binh’s Harley Davidson-type motorcycle, wore a helmet, and then we were off.
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This entry is part of the Vietnam-Cambodia series dated November 27 – December 3, 2011:
1. Preview: Contrasting Motorcycle Scenes in Vietnam
2. Preview: Temple-hunting in Cambodia
3. Suggested 7-day Itinerary for Vietnam and Cambodia
4. Budget Estimate for a 7-day Vietnam-Cambodia Tour
5. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 1 – Arrival in Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, City Tour
6. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 2 & 3 – A 13-hour bus ride, Angkor Wat at Dawn
7. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 3 – All-day Temple-hopping in Siem Reap
8. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 4 – Beng Mealea and Koh Ker
9. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 5 & 6 – Two bus rides to Mui Ne
10. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 6 – Mui Ne’s Natural Attractions
11. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 7 – Last-minute tour of Saigon
12. Vietnam-Cambodia Travel Tips
13. The 24-hour Mui Ne Travel Guide