Kep to Ho Chi Minh City
As we’ve mentioned many times in previous posts, we love travelling by land because you get to see more of a country’s landscape and you avoid a lot of airport hassle. While not always trouble-free and safety-oriented, land travel is nevertheless an exciting and budget-friendly way to get around the place.
After reading the horror reviews online about the Kep to Ho Chi Minh route, we were hesitant about making this journey. Stories of dirty buses not running on time, rude and insane (even by Cambodian standards) drivers and passengers being left in towns way outside Ho Chi Minh scared us a lot but we decided to try it ourselves and see what the deal was. Spoiler: everything was fine!
We opted to buy the full journey, from Kep to Ho Chi Minh, in one go with no extra stops. We booked the tickets through our hotel in Kep (The Boat House) and they cost $22, but that’s the going rate everywhere in town. These tickets are sold all over Kep so the choice is yours.
Kep to the Border 10.40am – 11.10am
Our host told us that the bus would arrive between 10.00 and 10.30am. A minivan arrived at 10.50am. I was starting to panic by this stage, envisioning a day of drama ahead as the first prophecy was coming true.
Our driver was fine. He loaded our luggage into the boot and we got on a small but comfortable and airconditioned minivan. There was already one couple of tourists from Romania on their way to Phu Quoc Island and we picked up another from South Africa on the way who would be with us until Saigon.
The driving was completely acceptable even though the road itself is uneven, not covered with bitumen everywhere and full of potholes and kamikaze motorbike riders. The scenery is nice. Plenty of buffalos and rice fields and the bamboo cone hats are sighted much more frequently in this part of Cambodia.
We soon arrived at the border after a thirty-minute ride. We said goodbye to the minivan and made our way to the border crossing.
Crossing The Border 11.10 – 11.40 (approx.)
Our driver helped with our bags and the whole border-crossing process. The only thing we were required to do was fill in a form on the Vietnamese side with basic personal details and purpose of visit to Vietnam. Our driver did EVERYTHING on the Cambodian side.
We also had to pay $1 each for a health check where the border official scanned our hands with a thermometer to check our temperature. Our travelling companions had unknowingly spent all their riel and dollars before leaving Cambodia so we paid the $5 total, knowing we were all healthy and didn’t have Ebola.
After this we waited for about 15 minutes before a new driver/guide led us into Vietnam and straight over to a café where we could wait in the shade. No problems, no bribes, no queues, nothing scary. We waited there for about 15 minutes before the next leg began!
This is an interesting part of the world where locals head on over to either side of the border to buy up chips, snacks and other tidbits. Often people cruise between the two countries on bikes and we even saw one man running his dog across the border (although this may have been a working hound – unconfirmed.)
It’s also great to pass the time at the border people-watching. We managed to witness a frail, Cambodian grandmother who was about knee-high to a grasshopper queue jump and get her passport back in record time. Even the border guards looked a bit intimidated by her.
Another interesting catch were two Canadian lads crossing into Cambodia on motorbikes. They had minimal luggage, were covered in sweat and looked like they were in the middle of an epic adventure! It’s worth mentioning that most border towns have a really unique atmosphere. It’s almost as if you’re in no man’s land. They always seem a bit grungy.
The Border to…A Bus Station 11.40 – 12.00
We were then ushered onto a much nicer minivan with plush seats. We picked up a few locals on the way and the driver seemed confused about where we were all going (Ho Chi Minh, Phu Quoc Island) but we just kept repeating Ho Chi Minh until he dropped us off at a big bus station.
He got out himself, walked us inside the ticket building, ordered our tickets, gave us the tickets and then led us back outside. We were told “big, blue bus” and with that, he was gone. So, vehicle number three awaited us.
We made our way over to the only big, blue bus we could see and there was no one in sight although the door was open and there was incense in the grill of the car burning. A man sitting in a nearby café saw us, got up and pointed to the bus with an inquiring look. We nodded and he proceeded to tag and load our bags into the bus.
We looked at our tickets. Departure time: 13.50. Current time was 12.40. We had over an hour to kill at a bus station with three cafes and lots of men who liked to spit on the ground. We killed time as best we could by staying out of the glaring sun and trying to understand some of the Vietnamese signs plastered around the place (the latter was to no avail.) By 13.50 there were quite a few travelers, locals and tourists, ready to start the journey. We boarded and everyone found their seats.
A Bus Station to Ho Chi Minh
The bus was big and heavy and so the journey was very slow. Most of the road in this part of Vietnam is narrow so our trip looked like this: a giant blue bus hurtling down the middle of the road in villages, towns and rural areas, beeping at any motorist or pedestrian who should pass by on either side. This was no ordinary beeping. The bus had a modified horn so that every honk sounded like a train horn was blaring right beside us. Very loud and very irritating. We were also most probably not ‘hurtling’ down any roads. Although it felt like we were moving pretty fast, we were probably only doing at 40km/hr. The trip to Saigon was painfully slow and 300km took us 8,5 hours.
We had two stops – a toilet break and a food stop, neither of which we were informed about. We had no idea where or why or for how long we had stopped. It was a guessing game. Do I have time for a number one or a number two? Can I grab something to eat or will that see me stranded by the road in rural Vietnam?
Certainly, a ride for those who like to live dangerously! The toilet break was in one of the bus depots and lasted for about 10 minutes. The bus company provides a box of thongs so that you don’t need to fumble around with your own shoes when exiting and entering the bus. You do have to fumble around trying to find a pair of matching thongs for yourself though and then quickly duck to the toilet before the bus leaves without you! And don’t take too long when climbing down from your bed to exit the bus. If you hold anyone up, the driver and his co-pilot will bark at you angrily in Vietnamese!
The food stop came much later in Vietnam and we were able to stretch our legs for about twenty minutes. The toilets were of acceptable cleanliness and there were plenty of little cafes selling banh mi, fruit and souvenirs. We tried to buy some guava but the lady wouldn’t accept our $5 note (she probably just didn’t have enough change). We resigned ourselves to the hungry trip ahead before a considerate, local gentleman who had witnessed our guava misfortune standing nearby and munching his banh mi, offered us the dong equivalent of our $5 so that we could buy some food. Mind you, he shortchanged us about 50c but we were in a take-it-or-leave-it situation and we really wanted those guavas. We thanked him profusely, purchased our fruit and were back on the bus in no time for the last leg of the journey.
Hop on Hop off Sellers
On this long and treacherous journey we didn’t just travel by land, we also had a ferry ride! It was quite an unsettling sensation, feeling the big, cumbersome bus roll slowly onto a ferry and then set off across the might Mekong at sunset. The river is stunning, though, and we made it across unscathed.
In fact, the worst part about the ferry was the waiting. While the bus was standing in queue to get on the ferry, a number of merchants were let on to carry around and sell various sweets and snacks.
I saw some purple cakes that looked great! How quaint. A small woman in a bamboo cone hat offering me purple cakes! I asked her how much. 1000 dong. Pasha got some money out of his pockets and I asked how many dollars (we didn’t have dong at that stage). “Dollars” she cried, “Yes, $1,” and snatched a $1 note from Pasha’s hand, shoved one cake into my hand and scurried further up the aisle.
I sat there, stunned. I knew the exchange rate was about 20,000 dong to one dollar. Or at least I thought I knew. How could one cake cost $1? Had I just been ripped off? Why did she snatch my money? Maybe $1 was really 1000 dong. An American traveler sitting behind me stepped in, informing me that I had just been massively stung for a purple cake and needed to demand at least 5 cakes for my snatched $1 note. He proceeded to inform us that Vietnamese traders can be quite cunning and that you should be careful when paying with cash in Vietnam.
He took it upon himself to right the situation and when the lady came back down the aisle, after some heated negotiations, we got one more purple cake but were left with a hurt ego and mixed feelings about the coming month in Vietnam.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh
The rest of the night past slowly and noisily with the incessant beeping that plagued the few winks of sleep we did get. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh at about 10.30 and were ordered off the bus. I didn’t even have time to put my shoes on.
Our bags were unloaded and a group of taxi drivers pounced, looking for those of us who seemed weakest, most dazed and liable to agree to a ridiculous price to get to their hotel. We may have been weak and dazed but our taxi driver was honest and offered us a good rate to get to our hotel. We hopped in, tried to buckle up, gave up and then set off for a month in Vietnam!
Also, travels go hand in hand with photography – who doesn’t take a lot of photos when they travel? If you are one of those people (like we are), check out our Fine Art Photography page and let us know what you think!