After exploring Angkor Wat for a couple of days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I took a bus down south into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The bus ride was overnight and bumpy enough to keep me from sleeping. We got to the Vietnamese border around 5:30am but had to wait until around 7 for the border crossing to open so that we could pass. We hung out at a little family run restaurant and then drove another 3 minutes to the border once it was open. We had to get off the bus and walk through to get our passports and bags checked. We met the bu on the other side, re-loaded our bags, sat around for about an hour wondering what we were sitting around for, and then finally got to Ho Chi Minh around 11am or so.
It was so interesting to see such an extreme change from Cambodia to Vietnam. We were barely 100 meters across the border and the atmosphere, lifestyle, and developement was already noticably different. The Vietnamese drive around on their motorbikes wearing surgical facemasks made stylish by using fabric with pictures on it. People pushing food carts or selling snacks walk around with the conical hats made from straw. Bandanas are used to both fasten the hat to their heads and to block the dust and motorbike pollution from their faces. The scenery outside the window slowly changed from the endless, lush green rice fields of Cambodia with palm trees scattered around to the busy city of Ho Chi Minh with its jaw dropping amount of traffic and still present French influence. Vietnam is light years ahead of Cambodia in terms of developement. During a 5 hour bus ride through Cambodia you might pass through a few small towns that are made up of some homes and a few shops selling snacks or gas from empty coke bottles. On a bus ride of that length in Vietnam you see tons of big towns whose streets are lined with shops arranged like stacks of mismatched blocks. That being said, you still come across random cows wandering down or crossing the streets.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, was an eye opening welcome into Vietnam. The sidewalks are jam-packed with street vendors and motorcyclists who have gotten tired of the traffic on the streets. Narrow, winding alleys are laid out like mazes that lead you to guesthouses or homes that double as restaurants, or sometimes just spit you out onto a random main road where the amount of motorcycles makes you think twice about how badly you really need to get to the other side of the road. Fortunately there is a method to getting across if you really can’t avoid it- you inch out into the street, one step at a time, and let motorcycles and taxis swerve around you until you reach the other side. Waiting for a gap in traffic is impossible because there are none, and trying to run across really quickly wouldn’t give the motorcycles enough time to react and go around you. Therefore the only option is to hold your breath as the wind from hundreds of bikes washes away the hot fumes that linger on your legs from their exhaust pipes.
I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of the city, which is where there are miles of underground tunnels that were used by the Vietkong during the Vietnam War. We got to walk/crawl through some of the tunnels, which was really cool. They’ve actually been widened for western tourists to be able to fit through, but even so, I was nearly on my hands and knees to be able to get through them. The size was a huge help for the Vietnamese who used them, though, because since they had a lack of food they were skinny enough to fit through them. If anyone other than them tried to go through the tunnels they would get stuck.
I had met another girl traveling alone while on the bus from Cambodia. We shared a room and hung out while in Ho Chi Minh and then took a bus about 5 hours north to the small beach town of Mui Ne. There isn’t much going on here, but for $5 each per night for a room right on the beach, it’s a nice place to just chill for a couple of days. There are some sand dunes a few miles outside of the city, though. I decided to rent a bike and try to find them on the second day we were here. About 5 minutes into my ride I met up with a handful of cows walking down the road coming my way. I couldn’t help but smile as I rode through a gap between two of them to get by…I feel like a kid when I’m amused by things like that, but I know for a fact that I’ll never forget biking through a small herd of cows walking along a road overlooking the ocean…in Vietnam.
We’re now on the bus again heading to another beach town called Nha Trang. It’s supposed to have more going on than Mui Ne, and the beaches are supposed to be even better, so I’m looking forward to getting there. For now, though, we’re just sitting on the side of the road…travel is slow in Southeast Asia, but I always seem to end up in the right place, even if it’s not at the right time.