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Trip Report Vietnam/Cambodia Trip 2013 - My Helpful Tips/Info

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I recently traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was a fantastic experience and I appreciated the help I received on this forum. Below are some helpful info/stories/tips for future travelers. We were 2 couples in our 20s and 30s from USA, traveling in December.

The itinerary:
Flew into Saigon, stayed 2 nights.
Bus to Siem Reap, stayed 3 nights.
Flew to Hanoi, stayed 4 nights with overnight trip to Halong Bay.
Flew to Phu Quoc, stayed 4 nights.
Flew to Saigon/HCMC, stayed 1 night then flew home.

The itinerary was pretty good. We enjoyed the big cities of Saigon and Hanoi, and loved ending the trip on the relaxing and beautiful beaches of Phu Quoc. We hadn't planned on going to Halong Bay, but after 24 hours in Hanoi, we realized we would run out of things to do/see and thought the adventure sounded fun. Originally we were going to take buses to more places but after the 14.5 hours it took to ride from Saigon to Siem Reap, we were thrilled to be flying the rest of our trip.

Saigon:
-we purchased Visa on Arrival letters before we left. We used Vietnam-visa.com, $46/couple, and quickly got our letter, entry/exit forms and instructions. The other couple used a cheaper site and had just as good service. For all the worry about how to obtain the visa once landing in Saigon, it was very easy. We followed signs, walked up to the counter (no wait at all at 11pm), handed over our forms, passports and $65/person (we had exact change in USD) and waited about 10 minutes for them to process. Once we had the visa, we went through customs and were headed to the airport exit.
-cash was easily obtained in any number of ATMs. We used Citibank (Visa) and took out 6M Dong (~$300). Some ATMs only allow for 2-3M Dong per transaction, something we ran into in Phu Quoc. We found that we got charge $5-10 in fees per transactions. I also got charged that fee when I did a balance inquiry (no withdrawal). I believe that if you use an ATM that lists a max withdrawal of, say, 3M Dong and you select "other amount" and put in 5M Dong, it will state that is too much, kick out your card, charge you the fee, and make you start all over (only to get another fee on your next attempt). But hey, it's vacation and these sorts of things happen, no big deal really, just good to know.
-we got scammed by a fake taxi cab driver on the way out of the airport. We were the perfect targets: millions of dong in pocket, tired from 20 hours of travel and completely disorientated. I had read on forums that the main taxi companies are Mai Linh and VinaSun, so I was looking for them. But on the walk towards the taxi stand area, a guy showed us a VinaSun ID card so we followed him to his car. I realized it wasn't legit as we were lead to a dark parking lot but being polite Americans, we didn't want to rock the boat so we went along with it. As we exited the parking lot, he had us pay the parking fee (around 10,000 Dong, or $0.50) and while "helping" my friend figure out what money to use (he only had a large number of 500,000 Dong bills), he quickly swiped one when we weren't looking, which we didn't realize until later. After a short ride, he took our $10 for the trip (should've been more like $5) and we arrived in a sketchy area near the airport at a little hotel we had found on Agoda.com. We were happy to have safely arrived but that opened our eyes quickly. Later, when we came back to Saigon airport, we ignored everyone that talked to us near the taxi stand line, and simply walked up to a Mai Linh taxi, verified that it was metered, and gave them the address to our hotel. Piece of cake.
-the 2nd night we stayed LaFelix in the downtown area. It is an easy to the big Ben Thanh market and it is located next door to the Mekong Express bus (we purchased tickets from Saigon to Siem Reap ahead of time for $22 each). The hotel was on the cheaper side but had everything we needed, including a decent free breakfast. The Ben Thanh market is intense and be prepared to be aggressively approached by vendors. Watch your valuables, learn to haggle (rule of thumb for us was that items were at least twice what we should pay), and enjoy the crazy process. It can be lot of fun and after a while even enjoyable once you learn to battle over prices. Always be prepared to walk away because there are usually many other stalls selling the exact same stuff. Don't hand over your money unless you are getting exactly what you want and don't let raised voices intimidate you.
-we got hit by a pick pocket scam around 10pm that night. The ladies in our group had gone to bed and the guys wandered around streets packed with partygoers (some dressed in full dog costumes) while enjoying Tiger beer. It reminded me of Las Vegas with the sidewalks packed with 4 rows deep of little plastic chairs, people talking, eating, drinking and having a good time, so much to take in and do and see. We were having an amazing time when two girls came up on both sides of my friend. They seductively asked if he wanted a massage, meanwhile one girl came up to me, hooked arms and said the same thing. We laughed, said no, and kept walking. At this point, one girl slip her hand into my friend's pocket and pulled out his iPhone (our main means of booking hotels) and thankfully he felt it. He said "Hey, give me my phone" in a pretty polite manner at first, but the girl denied it and started throwing up her arms and making a lot of noise. She had slipped it into the back of her jeans and played dumb for several minutes as we tried to figure out how to handle the situation. She started to get on the back of a scooter but I calmly stood in front of it so the guy couldn't drive off. He finally said he wasn't involved and drove off without her while my friend continued to argue with the girl, not letting go of her arm. As I watched from a few feet away, I saw another girl come up and pull the phone out and quickly put it down the back of her pants. My friend never would have saw it, so I yelled at him and he eventually reached down her pants to grab it. Hundreds of people were watching but no one helped, though some cheered when we got the phone back. Hearts pounding, we looked at each other and decided it was time to go back to the hotel. It was a scary situation but we were being careless. I don't think we were ever in physical danger, then or at any time in our trip, but pick pockets and thieves love high tourist areas worldwide. So again, best to keep items in front pockets and a hand on them when in crowded areas.
-the final night of our trip, upon flying back to Saigon (and taking a legitimate taxi from the airport), we "splurged" on a 4-star hotel called Eden Saigon. It had a wonderful rooftop pool to lounge in and it was very nice compared to some of our more economic hotel choices.

Siem Reap:
-the bus ride took 14.5 hrs with a couple stops. Mekong Express was a good company. We got our visas at the border without prearranging anything, and while it was unorganized, it didn't take too long. The guide on the bus helped herd us in the correct direction. The driver was excellent, and the driving in those countries seems to be a work of art involving lots of honking, near-misses and shoulder-driving. Best to just relax and enjoy the trip, as if on a rollercoaster. Parts of the road were pretty bad (dirt, big potholes) but it was a wonderful experience seeing the countryside and people up close. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks as well as entertainment (books, iPod, etc). Upon arriving at night, there were tuk tuk drivers willing to drive us to our hotel. We decided we liked our driver enough to have him meet us the next morning to transport to the Angkor Wat temples. There are lots of tuk tuk options, and I'm sure your hotel can easily arrange one, so don't feel like you have to stick with one person if you don't like them. We agreed that he would drive us around for about 6 hours the next day for $5/person.
-we stayed at Riveria Hotel and it was great ($180 for 3 nights, pre-booked). No complaints and a fantastic buffet breakfast each morning. Nice pool area as well. Tons of lodging options out there and easy to shop/review online.
-the temple tour was easy as our tuk tuk driver took us to the ticket location (I believe it was $20/person for 1 day pass) and we toured the main temples grounds, as well as a smaller one, over the course of about 4 hours. That was enough for us but you can always go for longer and 3 day passes are available.
-Pub Street was a blast. We watched Monday Night Football at a local bar at 8am while trying to explain the rules to our server. The people are very friendly and a treat to meet. We also got $10 Thai massages (60 min) in that area that were incredible. There is a night market that is fun to go through, but again, learn to enjoy the game of shopping in SE Asia as a tourist.
-we used USD the entire time. We took enough with us so we didn't have to use ATMs. We made sure to get crisp bills from our banks back home.
-recommend taking taxi to airport instead of tuk tuk as it is quite far and windy, especially if you have luggage. The airport is small but nice, best to arrive early in case there are lots of tourist flying out.

Hanoi and Halong Bay:
-went to taxi stand, found that the legit taxis are metered with a set cost for traveling into the city. It was marked on signs and the taxis. We didn't have a hotel so we got dropped off at a cafe and used wifi to search Agoda for a hotel. We stayed at Classic Hotel, which wasn't too bad except there was loud construction (constant banging of rebar) behind it. We only stayed one night, then went to the Silver Moon Hotel which was a good budget hotel, great free breakfast at their restaurant and friendly staff. We loved it because it was on one of the very few quiet streets, located near the heart of the city.
-we walked to West Lake (didn't find it too special), to the Women's Museum (interesting enough but pretty small), and to Hanoi Hilton Prison (very interesting, intense when imagining the conditions of past prisoners). In fact, we walked everywhere and really enjoyed that hotel location.
-we talked with our hotel front desk about Halong Bay junk cruises. They had brochures and we had them recommend 3 companies. Next we went to a restaurant with wifi and researched the companies (it seems like there are about 4 billion of them). We decided on one of the recommended tours (Tokin Cruise, on the Garden Marguerite boat) and opted for a 2nd floor deck room, which was much better than the 1st floor deck rooms. The brochure prices was listed at $165/night and we negotiated for $130/night with our hotel front desk. They called and made reservations and we were picked up the next morning for the bus trip to the bay. The bus trip took about 4 hrs each way. Briefly, we had 15 people on our cruise, the rooms were excellent, we went on a cave tour (with hundreds of other tourists), paddled kayaks in remote island inlet, watched the sunset on a beach, relaxed on the sun deck while sailing by islands, and enjoyed 3 excellent meals and an okay breakfast. We all thought it was a fabulous experience and though the bus rides are tedious, they are a good way to see the country.
-we massively overpaid for a pineapple on the street ($5, should have been less than $1) because we got intimidated and didn't walk away. We laughed it off and hoped the woman could use the money. Then we stopped by a restaurant to look at a menu and the waitress/host asked how much we paid. We told her and she felt so terrible because we had been taken advantage of. We said it was no problem, we knew we had screwed up, but then she offered to go out on the street and buy some more fruit at great/local prices with our money (a bunch of bananas for less than $1). It just goes to show that good people are everywhere and always out-shine the bad experiences.
-the main night market here is intense and massive. Again, keep a hand on your valuables and enjoy moving through the streets with thousands of people, mostly locals. Sample food carts (maybe stick to fried/cooked items) and soak up the scene.

Phu Quoc:
-spent 4 nights at the Mai Spa Resort ($275 total for a garden bungalow). It was fantastic and located on the beach, with a magnificent free breakfast each morning and one free 30 min massage. The beach was fantastic and it was a blast to walk along day and night looking for places to eat. The beach seafood BBQs were incredible, complete with tables out on the sand.
-we rented two scooters, $9 for 8 hours per scooter, from the resort. These scooters have 125cc engines and we got up to 40-50mph on the main, paved roads while riding double (and probably could've gone faster). It was tons of fun driving around the island and seeing different beaches and villages. Some of the roads were not paved and it was great to go "off road" like the locals. We were extremely careful however as we didn't have travel insurance or international licenses...it's sort of a gamble but a wonderful memory.
-the resort was about a 15 minute walk from the heart of downtown, or a $1-2 cab ride. ATMs are located in the small downtown area, as well as at some resorts. Grocery stores can be found and offer better pricing than road side stands.
-there is a night market with tons of fresh seafood offerings. We mostly ate at beach restaurants but it looked epic, particularly for the seafood lover.


Overall:
-the members of our group ate street food (eg. amazing Hanoi sandwiches for $1 that contained veggies) and didn't limit too much. We ate in small, family-owned places next to the pet cat, as well as in larger restaurants. We blindly followed the belief that the ice with the holes through the middle was sterile and it seemed to work well. I was the most cautious and I got sick first, in Cambodia, but the combination of antibiotics (Azithromycin, obtained in the States when we got our Hep A and Typhoid vaccines) and Pepto seemed to fix me up in less than 24 hours. The food was incredible and worth the risk.
-I say our itinerary was about perfect, particularly because we added in the trip to Halong Bay. Otherwise I think it would have been too much time in Hanoi for our group, though there is plenty of things to see/do in that wonderful city. Ending the trip at Phu Quoc was perfect and something we all greatly appreciated after some exhausting days in the big cities.
-we didn't encounter too many bugs, which surprised me. There were mosquitoes at night in Phu Quoc, as well as some sand fleas (I think that's what got us, though the bumps didn't itch too much), but nothing too terrible. The beds came with bug netting and it did a wonderful job protecting us at night. We did see some ants in one hotel room but again, just like with the lukewarm or low-pressure showers, just something to roll with and not stress about.

In summary, it was a glorious holiday trip and we all made memories that will last a lifetime. I recommend to roll with the bad, embrace the good and soak up every moment while experiencing new and exciting cultures and environments.

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