The road from Phnom Penh was narrow, uneven and the much promised leg room for passengers only held true if you were Cambodian. Traffic was slow, often reaching a near crawl behind agricultural machinery towing trailers packed with passengers or avoiding bicycles or overloaded motos, all competing for too little space offered on National Route One, the main road to Vietnam.
Everyone who could, would overtake everyone who couldn’t, adding to the chaos as dump trucks careered onwards into the oncoming traffic. There was no shoulder for overtaking, no road markings. Shop fronts and houses almost touched the tarmac, a metre or two in it at best. At one point a marquee for a wedding occupied part of one lane, the guests were sitting in the road.
To make matters worse two of the guests from the local were on the bus. Both were from down Surrey way somewhere. They had shared the table next to mine and oblivious to others had reported their activities in monotonous tones. Every time one of them spoke, she reminded me of Victoria Beckham, and she made about as much sense.
Not only had they spent the last two nights eating and drinking within earshot, they were now seated across the aisle. In a loud, whining voice “Posh” was imparting her knowledge of what is worth “doing” in Vietnam to some geezer half-way down the bus, who had allotted eight days to getting Vietnam “done”.
Roads in the kingdom have much improved, thanks largely to foreign assistance. Paradoxically, improved infrastructure brings new problems. Traffic speed is faster and vehicle volumes are higher; driving habits, however, haven’t improved, and the variety of vehicles and associated roadside furniture found in a Third World country, remain.
In parts reconstruction continues and vehicles lurched between potholes on bare earth muddied by recent rain. Modern bridge construction on ancient routes reduced motorized traffic to the pace of cattle. The work, all paid for out of overseas donations, would seal and widen the highway river crossings on this stretch from Phnom Penh. Road signs asked that traffic “slow down” in English and Khmer, though if it moved any slower it would be stood still.
So slow passengers travelling on the roof of taxis (minibuses) could stand rather than be throooown off; like van surfing at slow speed.
National Route One leaves Phnom Penh across the Monivong Bridge. From here it’s a mere 210kms to Ho Chi Minh City. Travel time is now much reduced. Several bus companies ply the route. The best is Mekong Express, which has probably the best safety record for bus companies in Cambodia. That said, you’re much better off traveling by daylight as the risk of death or injury increases dramatically on Cambodia’s roads after dark.
Buses usually make the journey all the way city-to-city. Or, as I’ve done from time to time, you change at the border, which all adds time. All up you’re better off sticking with the same bus.
Suddenly, the Canadian next to me jumped up and asked that the driver stops. He had the runs; one moment we were talking about cameras and the next he’d sprinted for the back of a road side stall. Others seemed keen to follow. I watched on with the satisfied comfort of a non-sufferer.
At Neak Loung, Route One strikes the Mekong River. At this stage the mighty river is about a 1500m across, its ubiquitous muddy waters belying powerful undercurrents. Three drive-on ferries ply the route. The driver offers a toilet stop. People selling all manner of goods descend on the passengers. Those who’ve carefully spent their riels, are now found wanting for the 1000 it demanded to use the toilets. The bottle neck at the ferry can slow the journey; which can be done in about 6-7 hours.
Once across the river and through the bustling town we are back on an altogether better road. Everything that was missing or poor on the west bank highway had been fixed here on the east. It was wide, evenly surfaced, had shoulders and road markings and traffic cruised along at an easy 70 or so. The reason for this became clear later. Even better, Victoria Beckham had fallen asleep.
Five thousand years ago Cambodia didn’t exist. It was an expanse of water between present day Thailand, Laos and parts of Vietnam. The Mekong River made Cambodia, depositing every year in the wet the soil to create the fertile plains that are now the country. Today Cambodia’s hills are the islands that once upon a time dotted the sea.
The border with Vietnam is at Bavet on the Cambodian side in Svay Reing Province, the so-called “Parrot’s Beak”. In Vietnam it’s Moc Bai in Tay Ninh Province. Moc Bai is quiet, far removed from the frenzied, hazardous activity that characterises the Poipet crossing between Cambodia and Thailand.
The border between the two neighbours can be a divide in name only. Before the border, the bus slowed for no apparent reason, until we saw locals, Khmer Krom, Vietnamese Cambodians alighting and wandering off into the trees by the roadside. Its porous nature is illustrated when, on the other side after Vietnamese immigration, the bus slowed again and the same passengers remerged from the trees, their formalities accounted for amongst the murky world of underhand payments to border officials willing to turn a blind eye to cross border movements for a fee.
Officially, for the expats and those with passports, the Cambodian policeman smiled and waved goodbye. Coming from a nation of islands it’s always intriguing walking to another country. A thin stretch of no-man’s land and there you are. No natural divide, just a line on a map. This side belongs to them and the other side belongs to someone else. The terrain is flat. It was hot and dry.
The entrance hall on the Vietnamese side was similarly quiet. There were no frantic queues, no karaoke music, and no immigration forms. Visas for Vietnam cannot be issued upon arrival. These must be obtained via a Vietnamese embassy but you still need immigration forms.
Hidden behind a group of blue-overalled Vietnamese writing frantically on a table was the necessary documentation. With passport in my one free hand I sought to extricate one form from the pad of many. “Passport” said one. I showed him I had one. He grabbed it from me, and the form. Before I could retrieve it he had scribbled my details on half the required blank spaces. By the time I drew breath, he’d done the rest, and charged me a dollar.
The green uniformed official behind the counter selected a finger with a razor sharp long nail and carefully inserted it into his nose. With his free hand he handed my passport to a colleague who stamped the required dates on my visa, which despite being issued in Phnom Penh, clearly showed Sihanouk Ville as the place of issue. After some surgical like movements his finger reappeared and he examined the findings.
This was followed by the next formality, health check.
A woman in a blue uniform tore off the top copy of the immigration form and proceeded to enter my details into a ledger in longhand. Another took my passport and inserted a health quarantine certificate declaring I was in good health and “not infected with any infectious diseases”. I was unclear how she knew this as she didn’t appear to be a doctor and I’d undergone no tests. This cost me 1000 Cambodian Riels (US$0.25). My bags were then x-rayed as if getting on a plane. There wasn’t a computer in sight.
And there I was, standing in Vietnam. Sunday afternoon, stinking hot, headache, head cold – so much for the health check – and looking for a bus which took two hours to show up. I was looking at a row of shops, half of which were unoccupied, and a large car park, next to which a few buses were parked without their drivers. I looked for the one marked “Hanh Café” which I’d been told would be the one to take me to Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City but it was nowhere in sight.
I settled under a tree, out of the sun, to await its arrival and also the other passengers from the Cambodian bus, lost amongst the officialdom of cross-border traffic, without whom we were unlikely to leave. A Vietnamese asleep in a hammock tied between two trees had left his car stereo on and I listened to an elevator music version of a Genesis song.
Tam from the Hanh Café bus welcomed us on board and hoped we all felt more comfortable now that the air-conditioned bus had finally shown up. We were off down the dual carriageway to Saigon, as he called it. Did we like the good road in Cambodia he asked? Made by the Vietnamese he said, it was “same, same as Cambodian road, only different”.
Of course it was, and he was right, it was different. Strategically, if Vietnam ever determined military intervention in Cambodia necessary in future, Vietnamese tank columns would roll much faster on good Vietnamese highways, than on poor Cambodian roads.
Enmity between Cambodia and Vietnam runs deep. The Vietnamese historically are viewed as conquerors of Cambodian soil. Modern southern Vietnam was seized from its Khmer population in the steady advance southward of the Vietnamese. A large Khmer population still lives in Vietnam on land which has always been theirs.
The Vietnamese countryside is built up almost from the Cambodian border. Vietnam infrastructure is superior to that of its smaller, more impoverished neighbour. A dual carriageway runs for most of the way and much of the road has street lighting. Television aerials dominate the skyline like dandelions standing 10 to 15 metres high on metal poles, thousands of them.
From the outskirts of town, its 20 kms to the centre of HCMC. We passed a large Siemens building, Colonel Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken were there and car dealerships of all the usual suspects. Electronic billboards advertised Samsung mobile phones and the latest gadgets. Vietnam is a single party communist dictatorship with a free market economy, and it’s booming.
The streets of HCMC are cleaner than Phnom Penh and they’re all paved. There are an estimated eight million souls in HCMC and most appeared to be on the road at the same time. The traffic jam was permanent, complex, and brutally loud and has been described as “an insect swarm of bicycles, motorcyclos, and Japanese motor scooters” moving down the narrow channels. Unlike Cambodia, where intersections are a sort of motorised ballet, traffic is Saigon are a kind military advance; en masse and overwhelming. Phnom Penh motorists go around you, in Saigon they take no prisoners.
The bus dropped us at the Hanh Café office on Pham Ngu Lao Street, the heart of backpacker Saigon. If you’ve been to Khao San Road in Bangkok, another backpacker ghetto, this all this will look remarkable familiar. Prices keep going up. When I first stayed here I had a room with a family for US$5 a night, now you can pay $30 for a decent place but it will be nice, clean and roomy.
Saigon is Bangkok but faster. Motorcycles still outnumber cars. People watching is Cambodia is fascinating but relaxed, not like here where the noise is amplified, the volume quadrupled and the speed is like, well, amphetamines.
I’d been in town five minutes before being offered the three “M’s”; massage, motorbike and marijuana. Still, this was HCMC, or Saigon, as the locals still refer to it, take your pick, and I’d arrived. Everywhere there was activity.
At the Lilly Bar opposite the Buffalo Bar, there were bottles of Saigon Draught, music so loud it even trumped the traffic, and above the smell of two-stroke and diesel, the sweet smell of marijuana. Every now and then a whistle would blow and everyone moved the chairs back off the pavement.
Once the police had gone by the reverse happened and we all shuffled back out again. The ritual barely raised an eyebrow. The lanky English teacher and the two Vietnamese barely looked up from their reefer. Perhaps this is becasue the Lilly is rumoured to have underworld conections, in a country where things are rarely as they appear. I caught the eye of the hostess as if to enquire if this shuffling of deckchairs was usual. “Another?” she asked; why not as the question suddenly appeared redundant.