Vietnam and Cambodia Dec 2007

Chi Chu Travel Blog

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Chi Chu tunnels

I arrived on 4 December 06:30 at Changi Airport in Singapore. One of those cases where you have just-not-enough time to actually make it worth while to go to town. I searched about an hour until I finally found Pacific Airlines (not Cathy Pacific and not so easy to find as the company actually flying you to Saigon is Jet Air). Finally managed to get my luggage booked in (they only open strictly 2 hours before take-off). I departed at 12 and 1 ½ hours later I was in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). No visitors allowed inside the arrival portion of the airport. Wilhelm waited outside and we took a taxi back to his place. I quickly realized that this is a big and busy city with literally millions of little motorbikes on the road.

Once back at his place we took a walk around district 1 where he lived so I could get some orientation. We also went to the SOS clinic where he worked. Then I needed some sleep as I did not manage to sleep too much on the aircraft.

The next I walked around town, did window shopping, went to book a tour to the Chi Chu tunnels etc. The night we went to a Vietnamese market to have traditional supper. I must have walked about 5 – 7 km's. What I quickly realized is that although this is a very poor country, you barely see any beggars. Everybody does something even if they are pushy with selling coconut or offering motorbike taxi, or sitting along the road – fixing punctures, but they offer something in return for the money that they need. I was really amazed at this attitude.

The Ho chi Minh airport is also the only airport I have ever seen where virtually all customs points where manned and therefore the customs process actually went very swift.

Next morning I got up early and walked the 2km to the travel agent to catch the tour. The whole tour including the bus trip, entry fee etc was $8. Not bad for 7 hours. We went past a craft market run by handicapped people and it is amazing what they can actually do. Our tour guide was still pro South Vietnam (he said he was in the former South Vietnamese army) and constantly joked about the Viet Cong. The tour also included going through the actual tunnel. Apparently they had widened the tunnel to double the original size for the tourists to fit in and I still had to crawl. I even had a few shots with an American machine gun for $13. Yeah this was about the only time I spend money on luxuries, if you can call this a luxury.

After returning to Saigon I still went to the war museum. Ok after that I first had enough of war.

The next day I early took off again to De Trang street to the travel agency and caught a 2 ½ hour bus to the Cat Tin National Park. Well up to a certain town and from there with my back pack for 25 km's on the back of a motorcycle scooter (the only means of transport without a helmet). I arrived at the park, caught a ferry across the river and booked in. the chalets were basic, although with aircon but very clean. Went for a day hike, came back and went for another night hike with some other people. I must say that there is not much in terms of game. There are however plenty of birds and the thickest vegetation I have seen. I had a good Vietnamese supper for around $2 and a beer for $1. I went to sleep and did another hike the next morning. Unfortunately I could not get the bicycle rented as Wilhelm did previously and the 25km away Crocodile lake was out of my reach.

I was ready at 12 for the bus back. This Ford Transit was however an hour late. Then came the interesting part. This was the only way of transport back to Saigon. At first I could not believe that it was only $3 but after loading another 33 passengers along the road, I thought this is it. I was jammed into this minibus like a sardine. These people drive worse than the South African taxis and the bigger your vehicle the more rights you have. In other words if you want to pass a motorcycle, you lean on the hooter and go and the poor motorcycle better maneuver out of the way or his family have to cash in on his funeral policy. From the bus terminal I took a motorcycle scooter back to town. Back at Saigon I went to a shop that sells model sail ships. They are hand made with amazing detail. I ended up buying a 90cm long copy of the HMS Victory and a 80cm long copy of the Swedish Wasa complete with cloth sails etc for $150. I must say you have to bargain all the time the price that they actually want can be anything from 30 to 80% less. Luckily Wilhelm gets a 20 foot container back to SA so I did not have shipping problems. I eyed another ship as well. So I arrived back at Wilhelm's place after 22:00 with 2 boxes of about 1 metre long.

The next day I was off again even earlier to be on the 07:30 tour to the Mekong Delta for $11. this tour included a 2 ½ hour bus tour. Then on a boat on the delta past floating markets, then small villages etc. We also had lunch, were taken in small rowing boats further up the river etc. I even posed with a python snake around my neck.

I arrived back at round 19:00 and then we went for a BBQ at a South African's place who works for Nike. First and only big steak SA style in Vietnam. This friend of Wilhelm (Richard from Knysna) treated us South African style and we had a wonderful evening. Eventually his driver took us back to Wilhelm's place by around 01:30.

The next day Wilhelm, a girl from his work and I were ready at the travel agency at (yes) 05:45 for the local bus to Siem Rep. I don't know who does there pricing but the bus only arrived in Siem Rep the night at around 20:00 and the trip cost 1 way $20. For the way back, Wilhelm managed to find a bus at even half that price. This bus trip seemed like a never ending trip with the bus driver regularly taking big chances by overtaking two rows of traffic etc. There are also cattle, bikes (almost anything) on the road, even passing through towns. There is a reason why Let's Go says 'Friends don't let friends travel in buses in Vietnam and Cambodia, especially not at night'. Our SA taxi drivers can also learn a bit from there colleagues in Cambodia. You can actually tie 2 motorcycles at the back of the taxi and fit up to 5 people and a few bags of rice on the top of the taxi.

Once we arrived in Siem Rep we quickly got a lift offered by a Tuk-Tuk driver (car behind a motorcycle like a horse-and-trailer with 5th wheel). We ended at a guest house called the Happy Guest House. We were happy there. We managed to get good supper for cheap and a room for 3 people was $10 per night.

The next morning the Tuk-Tuk driver was already waiting for us to offer his services. Why not, we ended up paying him $15 for the whole day. He was our personal taxi for that day. The ruins were quite expensive. A 1 day pass costs $20 but was well worth it. We went to 3 of the most amazing ruins. Angkor Wat, the main ruins, a Temple and Angkor Thom. The last mentioned was overgrown by these mammoth trees with giant roots all over the buildings where some of the roots were probably 40cm in diameter. We each took at least 200 photos that day compliments to the digital age where taking photos is for-free. Wilhelm's camera battery went south half way through the day and we ended up swapping SD carts into my camera probably at least 50 times. That night we did not go to the bar but rather went strait to bed after 12 hour sight seeing of which most was on foot. At Angkor Thom we also came across these clever little children who had this sales pitch that if they could tell you the capital of your country, you had to buy something. Well I ended up buying a T-shirt. They even knew the capitol of Madagascar (I don't).

The next day we did a walk through Siem Rep town and the markets. I bought some gifts etc and booked a flight to Hanoi. Then it was Good-Bye. Wilhelm and Linh went to Phnom Penh and I flew to Hanoi. I arrived that night at 22:00 at the Hanoi back packer. While checking in, the Aussie owner gave me a beer on the house and after enquiring when I could have tour to Halong Bay- wait for this –he said I'll organize it for tomorrow morning. And I added a 2 day contingency for booking tours.

Well the next morning 08:00 24 other hostel back packers and I were on that bus to Halong Bay for $59 (the deluxe tour). It was pretty great. 3 hours later we arrived on the boat, got warm towels to wash our faces. After that we got divided into rooms and I ended up with a guy from Pretoria (the only other South African I met on the tour). This was great, we got along very well and actually ended up doing a tour to Sapa together as well. This tour to Halong Bay included a tour to a Surprise Cave which was a nice surprise. We also did 1 hour kayaking and a swim after that. The evening we had great supper with lots of sea food and we ended up playing drinking games. The next morning the boat slowly went back to the harbor dropping off people that went on to Cat Ba Island for the 3 day option. Once back at the harbor, we had lunch in a hotel and then back on the tour bus to Hanoi. That evening we had a beer or 2 and that was it.

The next morning I walked Hanoi (which is a walk able city). I went to the lake and temple on it, the Catholic cathedral (300m away for our hostel), the Freedom museum, Pergola, war museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Parliament building, flag tower, park etc and Terence (other South African) and I booked a trip for that night to Sapa. We ended up making a mistake and saving $10 by taking the 'old' soft sleeper night train. Our cost was $73 for the trip including a night in a hotel in Sapa, guided tour there, all meals etc. the train was unfortunately not very clean and was 5cm's to short for me so that was a bummer. Hell was I glad I was not with a girlfriend, otherwise I would have been in BIG trouble for saving that $10 on the train. When we spoke to other people the next morning in Sapa, their experience on the train had radically differed from ours. From the train station it was 1 hour in a taxi up the mountain to Sapa. Once there, we got a room and were able to take a shower. Then breakfast and then a tour to two minority villages outside Sapa. The trip was around 8km's and went past many contoured rice fields along the mountain, over a suspended bridge, past a waterfall and an old hydro electrical power station. That afternoon we went for a walk to the lake in Sapa and around Sapa and that evening we went for a quick walk to see the town by night.

The next morning we were ready for our 11km hike. There we saw 3 different villages with different tribes and one could se that there was a difference between the villages. The people were very friendly (although constantly trying to sell us souvenirs) and Terence ended up supporting them generously. I only bought 1 or 2 minor articles and some sugar cane.

After arriving back at the hotel, we had a shower, then supper and then a bus took us back to the train station. We had managed to upgrade our train for $7.50 through the hotel. I can not tell you how big the difference was, it was huge. Like the difference between 1 st class and like 5th class. We arrived the next morning in Hanoi at – yes 05:00 and walked to the hostel.

Now I had 2 days left since I did not anticipate that booking tours would go so swiftly in Vietnam. It was not enough time to go to Heue or Nah Trang but too much time to just hang out in Hanoi. I decided to do some research and take another tour to Halong Bay at a travel agency where they advertised the tour for only $35. I thought lets see if we were ripped off the first time. So off I went to Halong Bay again.

To be honest we were NOT ripped-off by the Hanoi back packers. The $59 tour was better. The tour guide spoke better English, the food was nicer with allot more seafood and the boat was newer. This is a case of what you pay is what you get. If you want to safe money – take the $35 tour, there was nothing wrong with it. If you want to spoil yourself a bit, take the $59 option. Simple as that. Without doing both tours I would not have known and probably would have still wondered if maybe it was the same tour for $24 more.

The last week in Vietnam was the start of compulsory helmet wearing and the police were out on the streets in full force with their batons to force unwilling motorcyclists to wear their helmets.

Before I leave the Vietnam subject I must say that the Vietnamese people are really friendly and although you have to bargain to the last cent, they are honest. You have to watch your belongings though as in every part of the world.

The next morning I was ready and waiting at 06:00 for the first $2 airport shuttle (taxi costs $15). Landed in Kuala Lumphur after lunch. After 1 hour in the bus and 20 min by taxi I arrived at my accommodation. The rest of the afternoon was mostly filled with lots of rain so I did not see as much of the city as I would have liked.

The next morning I was ready at 07:00 to go to the bus station by taxi and take the luxury Aero Line bus for $22 with a lounge, lunch etc to Singapore only to realize that there is a time difference of 1 hour between Hanoi and KL. Damn I missed the booked bus and therefore lost the $22. I managed to get another, slightly cheaper bus for around $18 but now only arrived in Singapore at around 21:00. Spend the next 2 days in Singapore and arrived back in Cape Town on the morning of the 24 th, just in time for Christmas.

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Chi Chu tunnels
Chi Chu tunnels
Chi Chu
photo by: capetownian