Vietnam and Cambodia – a Tale of Soft Allure

The Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City was nothing imposing or intimidating, but it was organized and clean, and the immigration process was quick and efficient. The airport is about 7 kilometers northwest of the city center. Airport taxi will charge you about one to two hundred thousand more vietnamese dong than the metered taxis right outside the airport. The metered taxi (Mailinh or Vinsun are advisable) cost two hundred thousand dong for a thirty-minute ride from the airport to the city center. This was about four hundred Philippine Pesos or nine US dollars.

The Sinh Tourist (formerly Sinh Cafe) on 246-248 De Thanh street, District 1, one of many travel agencies in the area, was where I bought my bus tickets for Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and back to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), which all cost 688 thousand dong. I chose the Sinh Tourist based on reviews from the Trip Advisor. My friend from highschool, who worked in Ho Chi Minh, met me at the Sinh Tourist, and brought me to a money changer in the city center (just near the Louis Vuitton shop) where the exchange rate was higher than the others, and especially higher than the foreign exchange rate at the airport. She also brought me shopping at the city center (NOT Ben Thanh market, though) where the bags, jeans, and pasalubong items were lovely and inexpensive. There was also a pasalubong (gift) section at the Post Office across the Notre Dame Cathedral. For a Damean like myself, the Notre Dame Cathedral was a must-see.

Ho Chi Minh is a much littler city than Manila, but the interesting thing about it was the presence of a multitude of vespas, hondas, suzukis, or otherwise all sorts of motorbikes as well as bicycles on the road. Here, the bikers and motorbikers ruled the streets, unlike in most modern cities where it is almost a sin not to have car keys in your purse or jeans pocket. Being an advocate of bike commuting, I was most impressed that bikes and motorbikes abound here like flies, and the sight of bike lanes everywhere made me smile that I cannot have enough of photo-taking. I must salute the women of Saigon, who rode bikes and motorbikes in four-inch heels like it was the most natural thing to do on earth. It was safe and relaxing to just walk around; the city had an aura that was stress-free. Everyone walked or biked, and just sat on the park or the side streets for Vietnamese pho. No wonder it was most rare to see a Vietnamese woman who was bigger than a size 4. I can live happily in Saigon.

Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon (my translation: House of Delicious Food) was a pleasant experience. We joined the locals and tourists who all waited for a table. You may order from a menu, or choose your food and ingredients on the ground floor lined up with food “from north to south.” It was in this open-air restaurant where I had a noodle soup (pho) that was, quite honestly, to die for. When I checked on the Trip Advisor later, Nha Hang Ngon was listed as the number two restaurant recommended by tourists themselves.

Very early the following day, I traveled by bus to Phnom Penh, making sure that I arrived at the bus station more than thirty minutes before my scheduled departure as buses leave promptly whether or not they were filled up. I hardly dozed off on the bus, where I was seated beside a young, amiable Vietnamese out to visit her husband in Cambodia. I took photos and just took in the visionary splendor of Vietnam, and, as we crossed the border, of Cambodia. The land travel took us six hours, including the brief stop for immigration process on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, and the ferry transfer crossing the Mekong River in Cambodia. Once in Cambodia, I was again impressed by the number of bike and motorbike commuters and the presence of bike lanes on the highways. Men, women, office people, farmers, school-children, teenaged boys, and moms driving or picking up their children rode bikes and motorbikes with such ease and grace. Once again, there were women in high heels on bikes or motorbikes looking poised and independent. School children younger than 13 bike confidently on the roads, either by themselves or with other school-children, with their bags slung over their shoulder. Vietnamese and Cambodians were such rare breeds.

The best way to travel around Phnom Penh was by tup tup. They charge between 2-3 US $ depending on the location of the hotel from the airport or from the bus station. My hotel (Silver River Hotel) was a delight. The room was small but clean, and had a balcony. The hotel staff was wonderful, too. I had late lunch that consisted of a mee mak (fried noodles with prawns, squid, and vegetables) and a glass of wine that all cost US$5. The hotel found me a driver named Saswy (tel. no. in Phnom Penh: 012302035) who was very cordial, honest, and kind. We toured around the Sisowath Quay the next day, which is essentially the part of Phnom Penh by the Mekong River lined up with parks, hotels, a few temples, the Royal Palace, and restaurants. At eight in the morning, the Quay looked serene and without the traffic rush. As we left the city center, Saswy advised me to sling my bag over my shoulders and my camera over my neck since there could be robbers in motorbikes who would grab your purse or camera from the tup tup. I never felt threatened although it always helps, especially for a solo traveler, to take heed the advise of locals.

The Cheoung Ek District (The Killing Field) was a mere 2-3 kilometers outside of the city center. It is now called the Genocide Center to commemorate the spirits of the millions who were executed uselessly under the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. The place was about 2-3 hectares with a Memorial Structure in the middle that contained the dug-up clothes, skulls, and bones of those who were murdered in the Cheoung Ek District. There were pits all over the area where the remains of the victims were found. There was a tree where children were said to have been tied to and their heads smashed. There was another tree where a loudspeaker was said to be hung to stifle the moans, whimpers, and screams of those executed, who were locals as well as foreigners and diplomats, farmers as well as professionals, men, women, old people, and children. There was a short video that told of the story of the mass murders during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. As we left Cheoung Ek, I looked at the children and bikers on the streets and wondered if they were relatives, descendants, or friends of those executed during the turbulent Khmer Rouge reign in 1975-1979. Or do they descend from Pol Pot, or from Duch who was the head of S-21, or of the pit diggers and executioners? These must be really courageous people because they share a history of needless suffering in the hands of those among them. I headed next to S-21, which was the prison cell headed by Duch, a close associate of Pol Pot. Those believed to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge were imprisoned and tortured at S-21 and later brought to the Cheoung Ek District in buses to be executed. I did not stay long in the prison.

Foreigners and expats walked freely on the streets. Phnom Penh can be agonizingly hot especially at noon. There was not much to see after seeing the Sisowath Quay and the Cheoung Ek District. I left for Siem Reap at noon after an overnight stay at Phnom Penh. Unlike the bus trip from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, there were no locals on the bus trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. The bus was again only half-full. The scenery was interesting, though. Houses had elaborate stairs in blue, green, white, or gold. Schools, side-street restaurants, and houses of worship were filled with bikes parked in front. The scenery soon changed from dust to greenery.

My hotel in Siem Reap was the Shining Angkor at the Wat Thmey District. It was not much to look at from the outside, but it felt like a true Cambodian home the moment I stepped inside. Everyone was very friendly, helpful, and just plain delightful. My room on the ground floor was huge for a single traveler. Food was alright, but the wine and drinks, except the coffee, was a little pricey for the place. Breakfast and wifi were free like in the Silver River Hotel in Phnom Penh, but here the restaurant staff would be very concerned if you didn’t finish your meal. I had a Lok Lak on my first night just for the sake of trying Khmer cuisine. The dish had Indian influence. I’ve always had a so-so connection with Indian food, so I didn’t finish the food much to the concern of the restaurant staff.

Dara Rann (email address: [email protected]), a very decent and amusing taxi driver I simply found on the internet, was at the hotel at exactly 8:30 a.m. the following day. The day tour by taxi cost US$25, by tup tup US$15, and the day tour fee of the temples cost US$20. I did not expect the day tour fee, but in Siem Reap, I never for a second felt ripped off. Everyone was just amazingly kind. Or perhaps, it was what they called “the nature of things.” I never felt threatened, or scared, or distrustful of the locals. Hence, everyone was kind towards me, even as I walked the streets alone and obviously unfamiliar with my surroundings.

The Angkor temples tour was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. If I had the luxury of time, or if I had another opportunity, I would go back and just sit in one corner in silence and meditation. I had the “small tour”, or the tour of the Angkor Wat, the Angkor Thom, and the Ta Keo. At the Angkor Wat, I met a French woman who was also traveling by herself. She had a minor accident the day before, which explained her arm sling, so she had to postpone her travel to Malaysia. She had been traveling for two months. She urged me to visit her country in the future. I was tempted to check one of the stalls beyond the temples for Cambodian skirts, shirts, and scarves, which were really cheap, and the moment I did that and bought a couple of items I was swarmed by the vendors. At the Angkor Thom, a temple guard approached me with concern seeing that I did not belong to any tour group. He proceeded to become my temple guide, and I was so impressed by his knowledge of his country’s history and his very proficient command of the English language. He took several amazing pictures of me with the beautiful Angkor Thom as backdrop. At the Ta Keo, I met a ten-year old Cambodian boy who stole my heart, him being almost the same age as my own little girl back home. He told me he went to school in the morning, and sold trinkets to tourists in the afternoon. He accompanied me as I negotiated the steep climbs, carried my bag and camera for me, and promised me that he’d study harder for me. My kind driver, Dara Rann, took me to a homey Khmer restaurant for very late lunch where I had delicious stir-fried noodles with seafood and two whole glasses of buko shake. There I made friends with a Singaporean school councilor who wondered what on earth do tourists come to Sentosa for. I laughed and told him that should he ever visit the Philippines with his family in the future, he should skip Manila in favor of Bohol or Palawan.

After a short rest at my hotel room, I struggled to pull myself up from my very comfortable bed to check out Pub Street, a tourist area at the city center. The hotel arranged a tup tup for me for USD1.5 one way. I walked around Pub Street, which was essentially a place filled with restaurants, inns, and tourists, as well as a market at the far end. I had mango salad and a yoghurt drink at the Banana Leaf, then decided to have a foot spa in one of the many massage establishments in the area. The foot spa was fantastic at USD6.

It was almost heartbreaking to leave the quietude and gentleness of Siem Reap the following morning. The bus back to Phnom Penh was full, more than half of the passengers being locals. I sat beside a Japanese female solo traveler who told me she quit her job that she hated and simply decided to travel. I was awake for the most part of the six-hour journey to Phnom Penh, where the scene shifted from greenery to plastic trash on the roadside and local travelers on buses throwing their trash wherever they felt like. There were two toilet breaks but the toilets were so insufferable that I tried my best to hold it in until we reached Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh, I only had time for a Cambodian coffee before the bus to Ho Chi Minh arrived. I said goodbye to my Japanese friend, and joined the two other passengers back to Saigon. The two other passengers were a couple in their 50s or 60s. The woman was Vietnamese and the man was American, who told me there were really not too many travelers, especially locals, from Phnom Penh to Saigon. I never slept the entire time, thus, I had more time to absorb the scenery as it shifted from dirty to clean as we approached Saigon. The ferry ride across the Mekong River only took a few minutes and the immigration at the border was swift as there were only the three of us in the bus. Soon we already had a sense of where we were on the planet as the alphabets on signages and street signs shifted from Khmer to English. We were now in Vietnam.

I had Vietnamese coffee (which was becoming my big favorite) at a bar just near the Sinh Tourist, and a few minutes later my highschool friend picked me up in a cab. We had dinner at Com Nieu Sai Gon, a restaurant featured in Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, where we had traditional Thai rice, which the waiters toss in the air before serving it to the customer. Once again, the food was worth dying for. And once again, this fantastic restaurant where locals and tourists flocked was not climate-controlled. It was, like the Nha Hang Nhon, an open-air restaurant, where we had a refreshing and delightful meal. We then had coffee at Trung Nguyen Coffee, while I showed her the magical places I had been to in a span of four days. We walked around her neighborhood as she took pictures of me on every nook and corner. On my last day in Vietnam, we woke up early to stroll and observe the joggers and badminton enthusiasts on the streets. We had Roti (Indian bread, which I really loved, by the way) with egg and cheese for breakfast before we headed out again to see her office then to the War Museum. We covered only two floors then decided our chests couldn’t take anymore the emotional stress that was the Vietnam war. We proceeded to the Reunification Palace, took pictures on a cyclo, walked through the park again towards the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral. I noticed one more thing rather unusual and extremely humorous about Saigon. As we headed out at around 9 in the morning, my friend pointed to small groups of Vietnamese men either lined up or scattered along the side streets perched on their small seats with their iced Vietnamese coffee just chatting the morning away, while everywhere you would see Vietnamese women in bikes or motorbikes off to work or selling all sorts of items or driving 3 or 4 children to school. At 12 noon, we sighted more of this most unusual scene. While unusual, it becomes humorous because we never saw a single Vietnamese woman seated on a side street whiling her time away sipping iced Vietnamese coffee. The small groups scattered all over the streets, in greater number during noon time, were all males.

My last meal in Ho Chi Minh consisted of seafood pho and iced Vietnamese coffee at the Highlands Coffee. As I was driven by a cab to the airport, grateful for understanding more and seeing more of the city because of my very gracious host, I took in the sights and sounds of Saigon one last time and marveled at the splendor of being able to assimilate different cultures more intimately while solo traveling. I could do this for more than one lifetime.