Updated: Mar 17
Doing your first "land crossing" into Vietnam is an event for every traveler. The recent Coronavirus outbreak made it even more harrowing.
Until then we had entered every country through major airports, which handle thousands of
tourists every day, and the Visa and security processes were fairly routine. But I had recently acquired a drone, and the laws concerning them were constantly in flux, and some interpretations of current law make it illegal for foreigners to even bring drones into Vietnam. Some people had had theirs confiscated at the airport on arrival. Most flier forums said no one did thorough searches at the small land crossing ports, so we decided that would be the way to go.
Sunday Feb 9 – This was the day. Early breakfast at Le Kep, the cute little resort in the wooded hills of Kep and walked to the bus station near the beach. For $8 each, the minivan took about 10 of us to the border at Ha Tien, 20km east, driving along the coast. When we stopped near the border there were huge Casinos on each side of the road. Gambling is illegal in Vietnam but becoming big business in Cambodia, with the Chinese building many along the southern coast. According to many Cambodian locals, Sihanoukville was once a popular local beach-side town, but is now a hot mess of Chinese casinos and big hotels.
Our driver gave us all a form to fill out, collected everyone’s passports and disappeared into a nondescript block building while we waited outside while he gets the exit stamp from Cambodian immigration. 45 hot minutes later we piled back in the van and drove 200 meters and got out again, and filed into another building – this one actually across the border in Vietnam. He gave everyone a cheap, paper face mask to wear inside.
There was some vehicular traffic crossing the border – mostly motorbikes. But there was a Camry stopped on the Cambodian side, and two Vietnamese officials were spraying the car with a power washer, and there was a strong odor of bleach in the air. Wonder what their paint looked like a few days later.
Inside the building we placed all bags on a conveyer/scanner and walked through an old scanner portal. There did not seem to be anyone looking at the bag scanner. Susie thought it wasn’t even plugged in! We handed a guy our paper and a dollar bill, got out passports back, and voila! – we were legally in Vietnam! Now into a different van for a 30-minute ride to the docks where we will catch a trip on the Super Dong IX Ferry (great name, eh?) to Phu
When first thinking of visiting here a year ago, one of the thoughts I had was “I wonder how the average person in Vietnam regards Americans, re. the VN war”. Apparently, many people had also pondered this as I found many posts on various forums. The consensus was that it is in the past, and it is better to focus on the future, particularly for people in the hospitality industry.
Although there is widespread poverty and corruption, the economy has boomed since the ruling Communist Party initiated a series of economic and political reforms in 1986 that brought it back into global trade. It is one of the fastest growing economies in the 21st century, with growing sectors in manufacturing, IT, oil, agriculture and tourism.
During the van trip and 2-hour boat ride we chatted with a guy from the UK who currently works in Malaysia and has made this journey several times. He told us that when we landed at the dock on Phu Quoc to walk to the end of the long pier and get a ride with the yellow-shirted GRAB drivers – much cheaper than the taxi – to get to our place on the west side of the island.
When we finally debarked there were mobs of people and taxi drivers clamoring for business. We trudge past them all - down the long pier to the dusty street corner, looking for the reported café or coffee shop. None to be found. Yellow-shirted GRAB drivers? None to be found. Guess it will have to be a taxi.
20 minutes later we got out in Duong Dong, a bustling little coastal town similar to many we had seen. One difference was that most signage was in Vietnamese only, unlike many busy towns that had local and English in their signs. Also seemed that fewer locals in the villages spoke any English compared to other SE Asian countries. We did find a nice, small café on a canal for some tasty iced coffee, after some discussion to figure out what was what. Then some basic groceries like wine, rum & chips, and a taxi to the resort 20 minutes north of town.
Sea Sense Resort is very large with beautifully landscaped grounds, pool, and many varied rooms built into the hills at the water’s edge. Our room looks out over the Gulf of Thailand,
with surf crashing on a rocky shore directly in front of us. Walking the shoreline to the south is a waterfront restaurant (ridiculously expensive!) and nice sandy beach. The included buffet breakfast was amazing – best I had ever seen – with many types of cuisine. We really pigged-out there! Once we realized the cost of dinners on site, we walked the considerable distance up and down some steep hills to the nearest village that had a decent variety of eateries.
Pho Quoc is the largest island in Vietnam, covered with lush tropical foliage, with an area of 574 square kilometers and rocky hills reaching 603 meters above sea level. It is physically closer to Cambodia than Vietnam, and both countries had laid claim to it through the years, with Cambodia still refusing to acknowledge ownership by VN today. When the Communist Party of China took control of the mainland in 1949, the Republic of China army retreated to Pho Quoc before moving on to Taiwan.
After 3 relaxing nights at Sea Sense we taxied back to the port and rode the Super Dong VI back to the mainland. Looked like the same boat, but the name was slightly different! Now we wanted to travel from the port town of Ha Tien to Can Tho, inland on the Mekong Delta. Susie had booked bus tickets, from someone in the village, who did not have a great command of the English language and seemed to be urging us to take the 7am (too early!) bus instead of the 11am, which we opted for.
A minivan picked us up at the port and drove us to the full-size bus a short distance away, where we loaded our bags and boarded. Several of the seats had stacks of plastic chairs stacked in them – reserved seats? The bus took off and drove another 5 minutes to a bus station and stopped, and the driver & helper got out. After it started to heat up inside a few passengers started to get off, and we finally followed, later realizing it was a 40 minute stop! After which everyone got back on board, and off we go again. Some more stops. Probably 25% foreigners and the rest locals, and all seats full, except the “chair seats”.
Can Tho is about 250km east of Ha Tien – supposedly a 4-hour bus ride. However, that time frame started slipping when the bus stopped many times to pick up more passengers at random spots on the side of the road. Then the helper-guy pulled another plastic chair out of the seats and handed it to the next person, who plunked down in the aisle! Their bags went underneath, and some were piled up by the driver and in their laps. Several had large, flat woven bags with handles. Later on I heard some clucking coming from the bags. Cock-fighting roosters, going to town!
After 5 ½ long hours we ground into town. Now Susie thinks the desk clerk was trying to tell her the 7am bus was the express bus, and the later was the local bus. Oh well – we got there. We took a taxi to the Harry & Iris Hotel, which was on a sketchy looking side street. And found out our room was on the 5th floor, with no lift! Ugh. It’s late, we’re tired, and not feeling like carrying our stuff up 5 flights of stairs. But even less like finding a new place, so up we went.
Can Tho is a bustling city of 1 ½ million people, located on the Song Hau River, a distributary of the Mekong River. It is the largest city in the Mekong Delta and is famous for its floating markets and rice paper industry. (see previous post for wonderful time exploring the city by water & bike) Our hotel was a short distance from a busy street that turned into a lively night market every evening, with many waterfront cafes and shops nearby.
2 nights was enough there so we moved farther east to Vinh Long – another Delta city. It was not a long drive, so we hired a GRAB for the 45-minute trip – about $20. Riding in the Camry is much more comfortable than the bus! When we arrived in Vinh Long the driver stopped next to a ferry landing and sais “here you were”. Well – no. Our homestay is on the other side of the river! And we had hired him to take us to our place – not somewhere maybe nearby! After much back-and-forth he drove his car onto the ferry with the motorbikes for the 10-minute crossing.
Driving off the ferry on the other side he turns left towards our place, but the road
immediately turned into a one lane concrete path about 1 meter wide – motos only! Really was no reason to bring the car over. Who knew? (hint: not us) We paid the driver, hoisted our backpacks and started walking! About 10 minutes later a guy showed up on a motorbike and asked who we were, then said wait here, until 2 more motos showed up and carted us the rest of the way down the little concrete paths that were very similar to the ones in Can Tho we explored by bicycle. Another frightful drive with each of us sitting behind the driver, luggage in his lap, racing through narrow bridges and windy paths.
After crossing a couple of rickety bridges over small canals we arrived at Mekong River Homestay, a sweet little compound of 12 rustic rooms and a couple of covered patios on the riverfront. The locals called this area “the island”, but it was really a peninsula formed where the Co Chien River splits from the Mekong. There was a constant parade of watercraft going by: from small fishing boats to coastal freighters loaded with rice. Hundreds of floating docks used as fish farms lined the bank on this side of the river.
Our room had aircon and three beds, all with canopy and mosquito nets. The bathroom was outdoors – private but open to the stars. The water was hot enough. When the tide was up I can here the water from the sink splashing into the river. When the tide was out, we had an ugly, muddy shoreline strewn with garbage. 20 meters away was a nice covered area with small tables, chairs & hammocks looking out over the river – perfect for watching the sunset.
A covered dining patio exists in the center of the compound, with a fish-filled pond around it. Breakfast of eggs & baguette was served here in the mornings, and dinner in the eves. First night was 6 large prawns, a curry dish with small prawns, veggies, rice and soup. Fresh fruit for dessert. Very tasty. Soda, water, coffee, beer & wine in a fridge. Mark down what you drink.
Shortly after dinner we were treated to some very loud, horribly off-key karaoke from a nearby neighbor. The same guy persisted for hours with many favorite VN ballads, joined a couple of times by an equally un-talented cohort. Thankfully someone pulled the plug about 11pm, but he started up again around 10am the next day. Yikes.
Feb 12 - Next morning we borrowed 2 rickety old bikes and started exploring the island. Our map apps were not working well & while searching for a coffee shop we end up walking our bikes through people’s yards, though many times it was hard to tell if a path was public or private, with trees and bushes everywhere. Better to stick to the paved paths!
The land here was crisscrossed by tiny canals everywhere, and we saw a dredge that has been digging out the muck to make the canals deeper. It was low tide and most boats inland were grounded, some with guys sitting in them mending their nets. Also saw an inland fish farm pond. After biking to the ferry docks, we found a café for some well-deserved iced coffee.
The main course at dinner that night was elephant ear fish, served whole and upright on a
wooden stand. Looked sort of like a large crappie. We shared the table and the fish with another couple from the Netherlands and picked the meat off until it was all gone – very tasty! Apparently, a famous dish around here.
Thursday, we walked down to the ferry and rode across the river to the city side. Vinh Long is close enough to the ocean that the tides had a strong impact here, pushing the ferry up or down stream, and making the landing interesting. The minute it gets close to the shore a helper drops the ramp and all the motos race to get off, and others trying to get on even before it is emptied. Pedestrians need to get out of the way!
The streets near the ferry landing were busy with traffic and lined with shops and many people in front selling produce and other food products. Lots of fruits and veggies we had not seen before. All the food stalls looked a bit too strange for us – probably making their own version of Pho – the classic VN soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat. The meat was maybe beef, but hard to determine exactly. None of those vendors spoke English. We had some on previous days where we could communicate “no meat” – and still it came with some suspicious grey stuff suspended in the broth.
After walking around the nearby blocks, we ambled back towards the landing where there were a couple of restaurants and ordered some iced coffee. After a while the server brought out two sets of little aluminum drip cans, lids and glass cups with the condensed milk in the bottom, and two other cups with ice.
While we were watching our coffee drip into the cups an older local gentleman approached
us and introduced himself as Taos Alvin. He and his friends meet there occasionally to practice their English, and he wondered if they could join us, to which we replied “of course – we would be delighted!” Shortly thereafter Vuon Lan Nhan Tam and Chin Phan pulled up some chairs, and we had a delightful afternoon discussing everything from families, religion, philosophy to life in our respective countries. They were all retired with backgrounds in IT, media and teaching. And now we were all Facebook Friends! Life is good!
Valentine’s Day was travel day – we were moving on towards Ho Chi Minh City, aka HCMC or Saigon. Since we were leaving soon from a remote area, I decide to take a chance and fly the drone for a while. I launched from the open patio on the water and get some good video over the river and inland. Still pretty new to me and tough to visually keep track of it while watching my phone screen and working the controls. At one point when it was way out over the river the speaker announced “distance exceed, connection lost. Returning to home”. Thankfully it actually did return to home! (see Video page)
Our hosts loaded us onto their two motos and drove us to the ferry, where we crossed and got a shuttle to the bus station for our 4-hour ride on the Puta bus to HCMC. When we boarded the bus, we were surprised to see that it was a “sleeper bus”, with seats that were permanently reclined. There was a lower and upper level; each with three rows of single seats. Our assigned seats were at the very back, where there were five seats across. The back section of my seat has some adjustment, but Susie’s does not move. Not much room for backpacks or anything else. I had almost enough leg room, but anyone taller would be hurting!
After one stop for snacks/restroom and an uneventful journey we arrived at the West Coach Station and walked to the road to catch a Grab. While we were waiting, a South Korean couple walked up and asked where we were from, and if we would like to join them for a massage! Of course, we were totally nonplussed, but thanked them for the kind offer and replied that we were on our way to our hotel. Hmmm….
Vietnam is FULL of motos and less cars than anywhere we have been. Riding across town in
the Grab, traffic was not as bad as many people had told us. Bangkok was much worse. We arrived at Saigon Mansion Serviced Apartments, a stately 16 story building in District 1 near many historic attractions and checked into our nice room on the 7th floor. Washed off the road dirt and hit the streets to see the sights and find some dinner, ending up at Hum Vegetarian Restaurant which was delicious! Sat next to Wendy Hunt & family from Quebec, who were getting ready for a bicycle trek up to Hanoi. Very exciting – and ambitious.
Most Americans have some knowledge of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) from our involvement in the Vietnam War. There were many reminders around the city, with the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Park nearby. What we Americans call “the fall of Saigon” in 1975 is referred to as “the Liberation of Saigon” over there. The Cu Chi tunnels are a very popular tourist attraction where visitors can squeeze into some of the tunnels connected to an immense network use by the Viet Cong. We had already seen enough war-related memorials in Cambodia so opted out of these places.
On Saturday we continued our explorations on foot, walking towards the riverfront. French Colonialism has left an indelible mark on this part of the city, with beautiful buildings like the opera house and post office, which was filled with cheap touristy stuff. L’eglise de Saigon is a large cathedral built by French colonists in the late 1800s with materials shipped in from France. Called Notre Dame since 1959, it has two large bell towers and was closed for renovation while we were there. A beautiful promenade wound along the western bank of the Song Sai Gon with lovely landscaping, old and new buildings and a row of old cannons facing over the river.
Ben Giamo is one of Dan (singer from Clicker) & Reina’s sons who has been living in China for many years, and is finishing up his doctorate in Chinese Philosophy at a university in Beijing. He and his girlfriend Li Ling were vacationing in northern Vietnam when the Covid 19 virus hit and were locked out of China. They came down to HCMC to try and obtain a US visa for her and had been staying at a monastery with Xing Ding, a monk that Ben had roomed with in China. We invited them to stay with us Saturday night and we would tour some of the city together the following day.
Sunday at 8am, Xing Ding the monk arrived downstairs with a good friend from VN who I am calling Hmong (VN horse) because I never found out his real name. Hmong was driving his new, bright blue Ford pickup with a 6 speed on the floor. Hmong spoke Vietnamese, Xing Ding spoke Vietnamese & Chinese and Ben spoke Chinese & English, so there was a lot of translating going on. We had a fabulous time seeing three of the nicest temples in Saigon, including the Ngoc Hoang (Jade Emperor) Pagoda that President Obama visited in 2016. Some of the rooms were closed but our personal monk allowed us access!
About 10:00 we entered a restaurant on the grounds of one of the temples. Hmong ordered everything for us and we soon had a large assortment of rice, soups, vegetables, curries and other delectable local foods to graze on. Plus coffee and tea, of course.
On to another amazing temple, and then we stopped for lunch. It had only been 2 hours
since a huge breakfast! Hmong ’s family and friend joined us, so we had a large crowd gathered around two tables that are soon loaded with another array of delicious food, including dumplings and glass noodles. Two pots with burners were brought out to keep the soup warm. I had to try everything and enjoyed almost all immensely. And that’s how I felt when we finished – immense!
Back in the truck Hmong wove through the city and pulled up in front of a little café on a small side street, which he owns, called Horse Milk Tea. Their main product is milk tea and he was born under the sign of the horse. They have five flavors of milk tea and very soon the tiny table were covered with large plastic cups with the different flavors. Now remember we have just had two large meals in the last 3 hours, but we wanted to be polite and sample the drinks.
Matcha seems to be most popular and turns out Skylar drinks matcha tea in the USA (without the milk!) It is made from tea plants specially grown and processed. Bright green - tasted just ok to me. The purple Tra Sua Khoai Mon was my favorite, made from taro. Very sweet with a unique flavor. I think Starbucks has something like this. There was also a brown version (brown sugar), orange (orange, lemongrass & peach?) and another light green one. All can have the tapioca “bubbles” or “pearls” added. Now they had to pry me out of the tiny plastic chair. And Hmong had a great time posing us “westerners” with various signs and drinks for his marketing! Fun.
At some point during the day Susie remarked how much she enjoyed good Vietnamese coffee – so guess where our next stop was! Yep – another restaurant – this time a pretty fancy place closer to downtown called Thao Moc. Indoor/outdoor with beautiful flowers, streams and waterfalls. The Hmong ’s friends met us there and everyone plunks down to order some coffee and more tea. Wowser.
Moving on someone had also expressed interest in cashews, and Xing Ding just happened to know someone at a market that had good nuts. We parked the truck and wound our way through a maze of shops and stalls to find the best place for cashews – where Susie & Ben each get handed a couple of 2-kilogram bags. And throughout the day, we had not been allowed to pay for anything! I tried to sneak back to the cashier, but they waved me off every time. So very generous and kind.
Now it was time to say Tam Biet to our wonderful new friends as they dropped us off at our
hotel. Ben & Ling Ling were staying next to the airport as they were leaving about 4am for Seattle, and our plane would depart a few hours later.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam and definitely plan to return when we have more time to explore the central and northern parts when the weather warms up. It is a large country with a wide range of terrain and climate: from the Mekong Delta to tropical coastal towns and beaches to jungles and mountains. And many people with warm hearts. We will return.