Just to wrap up this series so I can move on to blogging about more recent travels, I thought of consolidating information which I think would be useful to anyone who wants to travel to both Vietnam and Cambodia in one trip. I already made a sample itinerary and itemized budget estimate for a 7-day trip so you can refer to those entries in addition to this.
With Manila as the starting point, the route of my entire trip can be summarized as follows:
- Fly to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from Manila
- Travel by bus From Saigon to Siem Reap
- Travel by bus From Siem Reap to Saigon
- Fly back to Manila from Saigon.
At the time of my travel last year, there weren’t any direct flights yet between Manila and Siem Reap so I had to take the extra day-long step of going back to Saigon to be able to get home. Nowadays, it’s better because Cebu Pacific already offers direct flights to Siem Reap from Manila. Tourists can either enter through Siem Reap and exit through Saigon, or vice versa. Or they can even skip Vietnam entirely and just travel within Cambodia exclusively.
Most tourists do a Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand combo, but since I’ve never done that, I can’t share any tips for that type of itinerary. What I’ll tell you though is that you have to ask yourself what you want in your travels. If you’re the type who wants to cram as many destinations as possible within a limited amount of time, the this 3-country combo is certainly feasible for 7 whole days. But if you’re the sort of traveler who prioritizes soaking up the experience of being in another culture, then you’re better off spending those 7 days doing the 2-country combo (or, more to the point, just 1 country.)
As mentioned before, flying to either Vietnam or Cambodia is pretty much a Cebu Pacific affair. It’s not the best airline by any stretch of imagination, but they do offer the cheapest rates to Saigon and is the only airline servicing the Manila-Siem Reap route. The only other competitor is good old Philippine Airlines, whose Manila-Saigon rates are almost double than that of Cebu Pac.
I don’t really need to say this, but I’ll say it anyway for the benefit of anyone out there who has never booked flights online before: Cebu Pacific (as well as all other airlines) offer a lot of seat sales unannounced. You have to be quick in anticipating these sales and be able to book at a moment’s notice. I’d recommend that you create a Twitter account and follow the account of all airlines so that when they announce a surprise seat sale, you get to learn about it realtime through your smartphone.
Entering via Vietnam:
Anyway, if you’re using Vietnam as an entrypoint, you need to know that Cebu Pac’s Manila-Saigon flights depart at close to midnight, so you’d surely arrive at Saigon at just past midnight. It would be better for you to pay a little extra to ask your hotel to send a car to pick you up (USD 14 is the going rate, the last time I checked.) Another consequence of this is that even if you’d be checking in at that late hour, you’d still get charged by your hotel for one whole night.
Of course, you can get around this extra expense by staying at the airport until the sun goes up, then do a walking tour of the city and just proceed to your hotel at the earliest official check in time for the day, but I won’t recommend this to first-time travelers or those who have a lot of luggage.
One more thing: You’d want to book a flight to Saigon, not Hanoi. Being only 2 hours away from the Cambodian border, Saigon is the jump-off point for tourists wanting to go into Cambodia by land. Hanoi is just too far up north.
Entering via Cambodia:
As for Cambodia as an entrypoint, their Manila-Siem Reap flights depart much earlier in the evening. The nice thing about lodging houses in Siem Reap is that all of them – from the grandest of hotels to the humblest of guesthouses – offer free pick up service. So one just needs to communicate with the intended lodging house beforehand, specifying that one needs to be picked up from the airport and provide accurate flight details in order to have a hassle-free arrival in Siem Reap.
FINDING A PLACE TO STAY
Selecting a suitable lodging house in a country you’ve never been to involves a lot of online research. The sheer volume of information one will encounter during one’s research can leave one quite confused and overwhelmed. Here are some tips to help you choose based on my experience:
1. Don’t browse too many websites. I mainly used only 3 websites to get ideas and suggestions. These are: TripAdvisor, PinoyExchange and GIRLTalk (yes, a forum for girls). By limiting the lead-generating websites you use, there’s less danger of information overload.
[Update 6/22/2012: Due to recent events, I would have to advise you to temper your expectations of GIRLTalk. While the forum has very helpful members in the travel threads, it unfortunately has mind-bogglingly stupid moderators – one of whom penalized me for posting a link to this very entry (which, as you notice, actually promoted GIRLtalk.) You have to be very patient with the moderators if you want to maximize all the help that you can get from that forum.]
2. Why TripAdvisor? This website has a ranking function that enables one to view the top lodging houses in a particular city. You can even customize the rankings if you want to focus on the cost, the type of lodging house, etc. Of course, there’s no such thing as a completely reliable website, but TripAdvisor is a good starting point that enables you to view a wide array of choices in an organized manner.
3. Why PinoyExchange and GIRLTalk? These are Philippine-based forums that have a lot of threads useful for local and international travelers. If you are a Filipino like me, getting tips from a fellow countryman has the primary advantage having automatically filtered information coming from someone who is similarly situated as you are. There is no language nor cultural barrier, not even an economic barrier. Even the richest Filipino traveler’s idea of “affordable” is a lot more useful to a less-wealthy countryman than what a Westerner’s idea of the same concept.
4. Be always mindful of the risks in getting information online. It always pays to cross-reference and do extra research on the lodging house you are thinking of selecting. Ask around in the online forums. If the lodging house has an email address, telephone number or Facebook account listed, contact them directly through those to inquire about the latest rates and inclusions.
If it’s your first time to travel in another country (or even if it’s not) it’s always better to make lodging reservations beforehand than look for rooms in hotels on the spot once you arrive. Nowadays, in the age of the Internet, this has become quite easy to do. Most hotels have websites or agoda profiles wherein one can make reservations and pay an initial deposit by means of a credit card or PayPal.
“But what if I don’t have a credit card?”
Saigon and Siem Reap are possibly two of the very few remaining cities in the world that are friendly to tourists who don’t own a credit card. If you are a budget traveler who’s not comfortable making online transactions, you’d be pleased to learn that a lot of guesthouses, pension houses, hostels, and even hotels in Vietnam and Cambodia (especialy in the aforementioned cities) accept reservations even without an initial deposit.
Caveat: For both parties of the transaction, this involves trusting the word of another without any assurance that the other party will keep their end of the bargain.
For low-cost lodging houses in both countries, it’s almost a universal rule that you’d have to take off your footwear before stepping inside.
In Vietnam, for lodging houses of all types, you’d need to leave your passport with them for the entire duration of your stay. It’s apparently a government requirement and it will be returned to you once you check out. The only exception I know of is when you check in again a few days after you have checked out. Upon my return from Cambodia, I checked in at the same lodging house that I stayed at prior to leaving, and when I offered my passport, the front desk employee refused to take it, saying it’s no longer necessary.
In Cambodia, you are not required to leave your passport with the lodging house.
In Saigon, I stayed at Bich Duyen Hotel. I highly recommend it primarily because of Chanh, an all-around employee (who looks like a K-pop star) who is the epitome of customer service. They’re ideally located in District 1 (a.k.a. the Backpackers’ District). You can make inquiries via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org . They have a sister hotel named Hong Han, also in District 1. Since it’s under the same management, I guess I’d recommend it too. They can be reached at email@example.com .
Another hotel in District 1 in Saigon that is popular with Filipino budget travelers is Nguyen Khang. I was actually considering to stay with this hotel as the receptionist who answered my email was very helpful, but I ultimately decided to stay with Bich Duyen on a coin toss. I know a lot of fellow Filipinos who stayed here and who highly recommend it. Nguyen Khang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
In Siem Reap, I stayed at Happy Guesthouse. This lodging house is virtually unknown among Filipino budget travelers, and I think I can rightly say that I “discovered” it for the Filipino budget traveling community. It’s located in Wat Bo Village, which is nearer Angkor Wat than most other budget hotels, (which cluster around the area near Pub Street downtown.) They offer fan rooms and air conditioned rooms. You can view their Facebook account by clicking here. You can also email them for inquiries at email@example.com . (They also have a website, but I don’t think it’s being updated often.)
Bou Savy Guest House is quite popular among Filipino budget travelers and I initially wanted to stay here too, before I decided to be adventurous and take a chance at Happy Guesthouse. I’ve gotten good reviews regarding this guesthouse and you can view their website by clicking here.
For short distances, walk! Ask for a city map from your lodging house. They usually give that for free. Saigon is a very walkable city and the only thing you have to contend with is crossing the street amidst hundreds of motorcycles zipping along the roads while you are trying to cross. This can be a very daunting task for first-timers, and the right pace can be learned after a few tries. Just keep in mind that motorcycle drivers would prefer if you cross the road with a slow but steady pace. That way, they could more easily adjust their direction to avoid you. If you cross haphazardly, you’re just making it difficult for them to avoid you.
In the course of your walking, you’d get offered rides on motorcycles, cyclos (sort of a reverse tuktuk) and taxis. Just politely decline them if you don’t need to ride. If you do (in the case of motorcycles and cyclos), agree on a price beforehand so that you won’t get scammed.
Taxis in Saigon are notorious for overcharging passengers. To be on the safe side, only ride either Vinasun or Mai Linh. These are government-operated taxis and they have a reputation of being the exception to the rule. Be warned though that unscrupulous taxi operators try to take advantage of this by making their names or logos very similar in appearance to these two, in order to fool passengers. So you have taxis like V-nasun or Mei Linh. For your guidance, here’s what the official logos look like:
For organized tours, such as the Cu Chi Tunnels Tour or the Mekong River Delta Cruise, these are best arranged through the lodging houses you stay with. They will coordinate with the tour provider and you will even be picked up at the hotel. They’ll probably charge a very minimal fee for facilitating this arrangement and this will reflect in your bill upon checkout. (In the case of Bich Duyen, there was no such fee.)
Siem Reap is a much smaller city than Saigon and, despite all the hotels and restaurants, retains a very provincial atmosphere. Here, you can either walk or hire a tuktuk. Ask for a free tourist map from your lodging house or tour guide and familiarize yourself with the possible routes to the spots you’d like to visit before setting off. I’d recommend walking or renting a bicycle. Most lodging houses also have bicycle rentals which offer daily rates at very cheap prices. Siem Reap is best explored on a leisurely pace.
I never really paid for the services of a tuktuk to transport me in Siem Reap so I can’t tell what the going rate is. I guess I’d just say that if you would hail one, agree on a price beforehand so that there won’t be any overcharging later on.
For organized tours to the temples, you can either arrange them through your lodging house, or you can get in touch with independent operators who can be found online. Be reminded though that if you choose to book guided tours through your lodging house, it is possible that you will follow a fixed route or circuit, and you might be grouped with other tourists. On the other hand, arranging tours directly with an independent operator would allow you to customize your trips, but might cost a bit more.
You’d need to pay USD 20 for a day pass in the Angkor Archaeological Park (where all the major temples are.) This is separate from the tour guide fee and which you will pay directly at the registration area where your photo will be taken and printed on the day pass. You need to keep this handy at all times because you won’t be allowed to enter any temple without it. If you’re just touring at the Angkor Archaeological Park, a tuktuk will be good enough. But if you’d be traveling to faraway Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, you’d need to rent a car.
While touring, wear comfortable clothes – preferably of dry fit material, to avoid unsightly sweat marks – and a hat. Bring drinking water too. Touring the temples involves walking around under the sun. You don’t want to be dehydrated. Be reminded that there are certain areas in the temples where dress codes might be observed. Make sure to ask your tour guide beforehand regarding this to avoid being barred from entry for this reason.
If you need a tour guide, I highly recommend Mr. Sam. He speaks good English and is very knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. I placed his contact information in the Tour Guides page. You can message him for inquiries.
The trip from Saigon to Siem Reap (and vice versa) is a grueling 13-hour bus ride that will test the limits of how much sitting your buttocks can take and how many Khmer-language music videos you can take before you go crazy. I’d recommend buying a nice pair of ear plugs. The sound system of the bus can be pretty pervasive so earplugs do help if you want to sleep or even just ignore the music videos that the bus would play all throughout the trip.
I’ve mentioned Mekong Express a few times before. They’re a good option primarily because they have very professional “bus attendants”, they serve free drinking water and snacks, and their Vietnam-Cambodia buses have toilets in them. Other bus lines, although cheaper, don’t have some or all of these conveniences.
Here’s what happens when you cross the border:
- The “bus attendant” collects all passports and visa fees (not applicable to Filipinos) so that they would be presented to the immigration authority of the country being exited in one batch.
- Everyone disembarks with all their bags and proceeds to the immigration building where they wait for their names to be called to receive their stamped passports.
- Once receiving their passports, everyone goes back in the bus for the short 30-second drive towards the immigration building of the country being entered.
- Everyone disembarks again to present their passports to immigration for the entry stamp.
- Finally, once this is done, everyone goes back to the bus and the journey resumes.
To reiterate, if you are a Filipino and riding with Mekong Express, you don’t need to pay any fee to facilitate the border crossing. Purchasing Mekong Express bus tickets can be done through your lodging house in either country. In Siem Reap, they even have a service wherein you will be picked up at your lodging house to be transported to the bus terminal for free, as long as you make the purchase through your lodging house. If you bought your Siem Reap-Saigon tickets back in Saigon, you can just walk into Mekong Express’ office in Siem Reap, show your ticket and ask them to pick you up to be transported to the bus terminal on the day of your departure.
WHAT TO EAT:
Be on the safe side. Just like here in the Philippines, do think twice before dining at street-side eateries. Street food might be a lot cheaper, but it only takes one unhygienic meal to ruin your entire vacation. Stick with the fastfoods and restaurants.
In Vietnam, VDN 60,000 would be enough for one meal with drink in any pho noodle house. Meals in restaurants probably cost a bit more, but still affordable by Philippine standards.
In Siem Reap, meals typically cost USD 3. But they significantly increase in price when one buys meals within the archaeological parks where a meal could cost as much as USD 5.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to share more regarding this topic as my priority was in sightseeing rather than having a food trip. I in fact skipped a few meals when I wanted to save money or simply when I didn’t feel like eating. (I don’t recommend that you do this.) Perhaps next time I can allot more time for food trips.
A NOTE ON FOREIGN CURRENCY CONVERSIONS
The basic rule in converting from dong (VDN) to peso (PHP) is to drop the last three zeroes, and then multiply it by 2. That ought to give you a basic idea about how much something is worth in pesos when you see something priced in dongs. (To illustrate: If you see an item priced at VDN 110,000, its estimated equivalent is PHP 220.)
U.S. dollars (USD) are also widely circulated in Vietnam and you’d often see store and menu items priced in this currency. The only advice I’d give regarding this is to have both dongs and dollars handy. Dongs are best with small purchases such as food, cab rides, pasalubong shopping, etc. It will be far too inconvenient for you and the vendor if you hand over a USD 20 bill for a mere VDN 30,000 purchase. You can reserve the dollars for your hotel bills, bus tickets and other more expensive purchases.
In my experience, I had absolutely no need for riels during my entire stay in Cambodia. And so I didn’t even bother to find out what the conversion rate was. USDs are even more prevalent in Cambodia than in Vietnam so it would seem as if USD is the country’s unofficial currency. For this reason, it’s always convenient to have small bills on hand. Keep wads of 1s and 5s.
Occasionally, you’d get handed change in riels for really miniscule amounts of change worth less than a dollar. You can either keep these as souvenir or, like in my case, just tell them to keep the change.
In Saigon, you might want to see a bit of Vietnamese culture by making reservations at the local water puppet show at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai road, near the Reunification Palace compound. For more natural attractions, you might want to go out of town and do an overnight trip to Mui Ne. I will make a separate travel guide on how to go to this place.
In Siem Reap, experiencing the Khmer heritage should not be limited to a tour of temple ruins. Watching an Apsara show is also very much recommended. The Apsara is an ancient Khmer court dance wherein the dancers were traditionally chosen from among the most beautiful women in the kingdom.
A lot of Apsara shows are held in combination with a dinner buffet and other Khmer traditional dances are included in the programme. I recommend Kulen II Restaurant along Sivatha Boulevard. The buffet is good, the show is great and relatively affordable at USD 14 (excluding drinks). You can either make reservations directly at the restaurant or ask your lodging house to make reservations for you.
If you have the time, you can explore the faraway temples of Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. There are far fewer tourists in these two sites than in the Angkor Archaeological Park, so you can have the invaluable experience of exploring ancient ruins in peace. Since these are very far, you’d need to allot at least 1 whole day separate just for these 2 destinations.
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There, I’m sure I missed a few things I wanted to share. I’d probably put some additions here when my mind gets to them. You can devise the coments section if you need more specific information and I’ll do my best to answer them. For a more detailed idea of the expenses one expects to make in the two countries, click here. And for a sample itinerary, click here.
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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