19 July 2010

Crossing the Borders and Mekong River


Nowadays there are many buses, night and day, operated between Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and Siem Reap (SR). It took 6 hours to go from HCMC to Pnomh Penh (PP) and plus 6 hours to SR. We decided to take Mekong Express (in the day time) based on people recommendation in internet. It is the first bus company that operates HCMC - SR route, so the buses were considered old but I believe they were more professional and experienced.

Our hotel in HCMC offered this bus ticket for $25 per person, but we could get $20 from other tour agent. We waited in the tour agent office, to be picked up to bus terminal where the bus was waiting. It was just few blocks away from the office (around backpacker area), but we brought along some heavy luggages so the picked-up-guy took taxi for us (he paid for the taxi).

They have one steward/stewardess (with uniform) for each bus who's traveling along. When the bus started moving (around 8 am), she started talking in bilingual, one was English and another one was a foreign language which we noticed were not Vietnamese. It was Cambodian language, or they called it Khmer. Most passengers were Cambodian people going home, not tourists. She then gave snacks box, mineral water and wet tissue for each passenger, Cambodian arrival card for foreigners and then collected our passports. When we reached Vietnam border Moc Bai, we alighted from the bus by bringing along all our luggages. We were waiting in front of immigration counters while our stewardess taking care our passport. Once a passport was stamped by the immigration staff, our stewardess called out a name on that passport, and the owner of it could go passing immigration staff back to the bus, without any further checking on our face/body nor our luggages. This is the first time I experienced this kind of collective passport stamp in immigration border, so careless.

Cambodian border Bavet International Check Point seems better, just like other immigration borders where we need to queue and hold passport by ourselves. Me and my friend who are Indonesian passport holders had already applied for Cambodian e-visa since May 2010. Well I just read news that Indonesian and Cambodian government recently signed agreement on visa exemption for both countries, that is good news! But I still don't know when it starts. Meanwhile, if you need to apply for Cambodian visa, better to apply it online. Be careful, there are many scam websites out there, do not apply from other websites. It costs $25 for tourist visa. Few hours after submitting the detail information plus payment, we will receive our visa by email, so fast and easy. Later just print it out, even in black-white color is OK :D

Just after the border, there are A LOT of casinos! Maybe 30? I didn't know that Cambodian and Vietnamese people like gambling.

After that, the bus stopped in one of restaurants for early lunch. With so many stops like that, the 6 hours journey between HCMC and PP was not so boring. We arrived in PP after crossing Mekong River where the bus (and other vehicles) boarded a ship for only 10 to 15 minutes. In PP, passengers who continued the journey to other areas, such as SR or Sihanoukville, were being transferred to another bus (from the same company, no need to pay more). In this new bus to SR, there were more foreigners than local people. We also got free snacks, mineral water and wet tissue like previous bus (this time there was a steward). Along the journey, the view was rice field, trees, poor people's houses with lack of electricity like villages in Indonesia. We only stopped in one place for 15 minutes. There I saw fried cockroaches as a food. Cambodian people seem like eating anything: cockroach, snake, crocodile, etc.

Finally around 7.30 pm we arrived in the bus terminal of SR, which didn't look like a terminal but someone's house, very small and dark. Tuk-tuk from our hotel was already arrived there to pick us up. The driver was really nice and speaking English very well. Later on the next 3 days we would be accompanied by him going around Angkor.

14 July 2010

Horrible Tour


Today we woke up early because we took a full day tour to Cu Chi Tunnel and Cao Dai Temple start on 8 am. Mrs Vu (the hotel owner) booked the tour for us which costs $8. FYI, do not book any tour via online, usually it's much expensive than the usual price, better approaching travel agents directly once you arrive in HCMC. Cu Chi tour half day should be around $5, Mekong Delta 1 day tour is around $7 and City tour is around $10.

After breakfast, Mrs Vu gave me the receipt, and I spotted that she'd booked us for half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnel (without Cao Dai Temple). Tried not to panic, I reminded her that we wanted full day tour, hope we could get it. For few minutes she tried to contact several tour agents until finally she got spots for us. We were picked up by a guy and sent us to this minibus. The tour guide was too much speaking, in a bad way, I didn't like it! First we went to Handicapped Handicrafts, a workshop for handicapped people, victims of toxic chemicals from US war or they called it Agent Orange. Two hours later we arrived in Cao Dai temple, where 3 religions mixed: Buddhism, Taoism, Kong Hu Chu. We saw they were praying.

After that, we stopped by in small restaurant for lunch, the foods were not that good. Two f*cking hours later finally we arrived in Cu Chi. It was so depressing to see former war prints, imagined how many people died there. The most exciting part is when we went inside one of the small tunnels. We had to bend over to walk inside, it was so dark and hot, really not suitable for people who have claustrophobia. Around 4.30 pm we went back to Ho Chi Minh City. It was just 1.5 hour. Apparently Cu Chi Tunnel is closer than Cao Dai Temple, and more interesting. We should just booked half day tour without visiting the temple, because for me it's too far and not worth it.

On the way back, we were all sweaty and tired. And there's one guy who spread 'Agent Orange' inside the minibus. Do you know people from one particular race who are always smelly? Ya, that one. Sorry for being racist, but seriously those people should have their own tour.

Arrived back in Hotel, we met again with our local friend, Vinh and her niece. We told her that we wanted to eat Banh Xeo, Vietnamese pancake. The most famous one is Banh Xeo 64 in Dinh Cong Trang. She ordered for us which ones the best. There were spring rolls of noodle and shrimp and raw vegetables, being eaten with a sweet sauce. I personally would prefer the fried spring rolls, but those Vietnamese seem really like this raw food. The main course is Banh Xeo, which is pancake contains of tauge (bean sprouts) and shrimp. The way to eat it is very unique. Cut the pancake, put it on top of one leaf of (again) vegetable, roll the leaf, dip it in sour and spicy sauce, then eat it. Vietnamese eat so many vegetables.

We went back home by taxi. We just realized our VND only left 50.000. I asked the driver if he received USD money, but he didn't understand. So we planned to alight the taxi when the metres had reached almost 50.000. Hopefully it's already close enough by our hotel.

That was our last night in Vietnam.

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12 July 2010

Going Around Ho Chi Minh City


Today I woke up late almost 9.30 am due to world cup and holiday mode on. Hurry up going downstairs to catch the breakfast that lasted til 10 am. Our day plan was easy and relax, walking around the city to visit landmark buildings of Ho Chi Minh City. We didn't take any tour (which usually costs around $10), we went around by ourselves: War Remnant Museum, Reunification Palace, Notredame Church, Post Office building, Opera House, People Committee Hall, and Revolutionary Museum. That way we could go anywhere we wanted, and total costs we spent not even $5. One funny thing when we went to War Remnant Museum by cab, the driver who could not speak English ask us: "voom voom voom?" like a gun/bomb shooting sound, to make sure our destination. This museum really made us depression with all the bloody pictures during Vietnam war with US troops.

We had lunch in a famous Vietnamese foods restaurant named Nha Hang Ngon or Quan An Ngon. From internet we noted the address was in 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghai but it was moved to another street nearby, Pasteur 160. We love the seafood with sweet and sour soup! I think I like Vietnam soup more than Thailand tom yam. We also ordered Bánh chuối (Vietnamese Banana Cake), it was good if we're just not too full.

In the afternoon we went back to hotel to take shower (it was raining season there but the day was freaking hot!!!) and got some rest while waiting for my local friend's coming. She then took us for dinner in a small restaurant that is famous among local people for its yellow rice (we'd already had enough Pho (noodle soup), so now we tried rice foods). After that, she took us to a local coffee shop: Trung Nguyen (she said there's one in Orchard Singapore, I didn't know!). Their coffee maker is really unique, small and made of aluminium. There we chatted many things especially about Vietnam (for example on how their government banned accessing Facebook :P). Not just enjoyed the trip, I also learned a lot.

08 July 2010

Greetings from Saigon

Yesterday morning I was still in Singapore. I called and got taxi to office around 9.30 am when taxi fare was not in Peak-hour anymore, which was less expensive. I put my luggage in the receptionist, then went upstairs to my workstation for working half day. I didn't expect much works to do, I'd already sniffed the smell of holiday. But the universe stated otherwise. Don't you feel that every time you're going on leave, suddenly there are many things to be done?

From office, the hectic madness moved to Changi Airport. Ok, this is not something you should try. Me and my friend had Tiger Airways tickets without check-in baggage and was sure we would not bring more than 7kg, but on the day it turned out each of us carried luggage around 8kg. In check-in counter, they didn't check about it and I thought we were already safe. But after passing the gate towards immigration counters, there was additional checking session for the cabin baggage. Crap! I am sure this is new and was not there in the beginning of the year. So yeah we both were caught up and each of us had to pay $18 for 1 kg exceed baggage. This is so expensive compare to $12.5/15kg if we just bought it online. Then we excused to go back outside the gate to throw some things, but all we did was transfering some things from the luggage to our handbag. They did not weigh handbag, only the luggage, so yay we did not have to pay anything! :P

The flight from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City takes 1 hour and 40 minutes. Tan Son Nhat International Airport is decent and nice. We went towards taxi stand and was offered a cab to city for $10, by the taxi stand keeper guy. Before, the hotel staff had already informed me via email that taxi fare to hotel is $10, so we took it. But when we were already inside, the cab was moving, we showed our hotel's address, the driver who did not speak English suddenly said something about $20. Shoot, the guy in the airport said $10 but the driver asked us for $20 because of far distance, traffic jam and airport parking ticket, WTF! Of course we said no. Along the way he still tried to say $20, and then down to $17 then to $15. But we insisted to pay $10, and additional 50,000 VND ($2.5) for the airport parking ticket. He seemed so unhappy, whatever! Deal is deal. Next time please get Mai Linh or Vinasun taxi with metres!

Arrived in Luan Vu Hotel, located in backpacker area Bui Vien St, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 1. I have booked via email the cheapest double room they have, it's $18/night for 2 people. The room is good filled by aircon, fan, fridge, tv and bathroom with hot water. Also free breakfast and free internet are provided. What I dislike are the room's location which is on the 4th floor without lift. There is free wifi, too bad it was not reliable, but it's no big deal lah!

After putting all belongings, we walked to Ben Tanh Market. It's already closed but there is night market around the place, selling all unique things from Vietnam. Along the way, we crossed many streets full of motorbikes, crazy hell! Also electric cables there are chaotic, just like in Phuket.

We had dinner in Pho 2000, to try the best Vietnamese noodle soup in Ho Chi Minh City. One funny moment, when we tried to order Shrimp Spring Roll, the waitress said to me: "you pork?" Huh, she called me pig?! Apparently she wanted to say that the spring roll contains of pork, and (surprisingly) she guessed correctly that I don't eat pork (maybe from my appearance like a moslem Malay). While my friend is a Chinese who really looks like a Vietnamese.

Back to hotel. Another good thing in this guesthouse is many TV channels. Trinity was right, movies are dubbed into Vietnamese language by only 1 person! A man, girl, child... all have the same voice. I slept and woke up at 1.30 AM to watch the hot match Germany vs Spain on local TV channel, with Vietnamese commentator.

Ok that's it for the first day, see you on the next story!

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