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This itinerary takes you both through the core of former French Indochina, and through the fields of the Vietnam War.
Cambodia and Vietnam gained final independence from French rule in 1954. You will even today find many signs of French influence. The Cold War shaped Cambodian history from 1954 onwards. In 1970, General Lon Nol, with backing from the United States, overthrew Prince Sihanouk's Beijing-backed government. Civil war broke out between 1970-1975. The Khmer Rouge won the Civil War in 1975, and seized control of Phnom Penh. Saloth Sar (known in the West as Pol Pot) killed between 500.000 and 2 million countrymen between 1975-1979; estimates vary. While most died of starvation, thousands were also killed in concentration camps and outright genocide. Both the "Killing Fields" and the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre has today been converted into museums and is a must-see for any visitor to Phnom Penh. Despite the tragedy of modern Cambodian history, the country is today a vibrant and exciting country, full of history, architecture and monuments, at the core of Southeast Asia.
Visas for Vietnam needs to be arranged in advance; you can obtain one from the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok, or a Vietnamese embassy or consulate in your home country. Allow 2-4 days for processing in Bangkok, and a fee of ca USD 60. For Cambodia, the Visa is obtained on the border crossing against a cash fee of USD 20. You should also bring cash with you for the journey; the density of ATMs is variable, and at any rate will only be availiable in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. US Dollars is, ironically, the preferred currency, and will get you anywhere in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Thai Bath is will also usually be accepted, or at least exchanged - but buy some USD in Bangkok if you can.
The usual route begins with a 4-5 hour bus or a train ride from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (‘Aran’), the town on the Thai side near the border. Both public buses and buses operated by private tour operators are availiable; tickets can be bought from nearly any travel agent in Bangkok. Public buses are the cheapest option, and are of reasonable standard. From Aranyaprathet, get a tuk-tuk the last 6 km to the border crossing. Cambodian visas are available at the border; current visa fee is USD 20 - remember to have cash at hand. From Poipet on the Cambodian side, it’s a further 3-6 hour bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Be aware of the touts which will approach you once you cross the border to give you all sorts of assistance, and help you find a driver: ignore them, as they will expect a whapping tip at the other end or they may try to deny you further travel as they cooperate with local drivers. Approach drivers directly and agree on a price to Siem Reap. Siem Reap takes 3-4 hours in the dry season; in the rainy season the trip may sometimes take as much as 9-10 hours as the road gets flooded. Bear in mind that Northern Cambodia is still one of the most heavily mined areas in the world; if you need to take a leak, you are well advised to choose safety before dignity and do what you need on the road itself, not in the bushes.
Ho Chi Minh City, a vibrant, busy, beautiful city, full of French colonial history and architecture, and with a great nightlife and fantastic food.
Visit the Angkor Wat. Depending on your level of interest, you should spend between one and three days sightseeing the Angkor Wat. Be aware that due to the size of it all, it is not really possible to see all of it in one, or even two days.
See the separate Siem Reap page for tips on restaurants and bars.You may notice how many of the restaurants have similar names, only differentiated by number 1, 2, 3 etc. This is due to the fact that when a particular named restaurant receives positive mention in any major guide book, surrounding restaurants will change their name to the same. Restaurant "No #1" of any particular name is not necessarily the one that received positive mention; food is generally good and cheap however, just be vigilant and ask to see the menu first.
Get the speed boat across the Tonle Sap to Phnom Penh. Tonle Sap is one of the biggest freshwater lakes in the world. Beware of the slow boats trafficking the lake, as they are both slow and unsafe. There is an excellent Katamaran speed boat service, which takes 4-8 hours, unfortunately at a whapping USD 30 for foreigners.
The first thing you should do is to hire a moto driver! It looks crazy, but it really is the only way to get around. Be prepared to pay around USD 5 for a moto driver for the entire day.
Visit the Tuol Sleng museum, also known as S-21. Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot) used to be a teacher at this former high school. As Pot grasped power in 1975, he turned the school into an "interrogation centre". Several thousand people were interrogated and killed here. Only a very few left Tuol Sleng alive. Upon entrance to the Tuol Sleng museum, you will be approached by guides who will tour the grounds with you for a 3-5 USD fee.
The Choeung Ek museum gives another chilling account of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Located just outside the city centre, you can still find human remains if you dig with your shoe just beneath the ground surface. Get your moto driver to take you there.
Make sure to pay a visit to the Foreign Correspondent's Club, the legendary FCC, overlooking the river and central Phnom Penh. This place serves the best burgers in Phnom Penh, and they have regular happy-hour deals on Gin & Tonics. Burgers and drinks are priced accordingly, but still comparatively cheap (around USD 3 for your GT) Remember to bring your colonial gear, black leather boots and white tropical uniform will be appropriate.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Use one of Saigon's many travel cafés to organize your excursions, found on the main backpacker street in District 1, the Phạm Ngũ Lão. The quality of these trips are generally good, and the prices are low. The Sinh Cafe organize trips both to Mui Ne, the Mekong Delta and Cu Chin tunnels at reasonable prices, but there are a multitude of offers and options, and competition is fierce.
You should spend some time to see the architectural highlights of central Ho Chi Minh City, many of which were built by the French. The Opera, the Central Post Office and the almost perfect miniature replica of the Notre Dame church is all worth a visit.
Saigon has a vibrant nightlife. However, to combat a rising drug use problem, the authorities have imposed a midnight curfew for all clubs and bars. This is not to say that you can't party till early morning - you simply have to find out which clubs run an afterhour on the particular night. Apocalypse Now! is a usual suspect. Don't worry, the police quietly condones afterhour parties as they know it is needed to attract tourists.
The Vietnam War museum is a must-see, particularly if you're into browsing some captured old American military hardware. The museum has a large collection of captured tanks, helicopters, bombs and planes. Formerly known as the American War Atrocities Museum, the name was changed after normalization of US-Vietnamese relations in the 1990's.
The Co Chin tunnels just outside town offers an exciting glimpse into the secret tactics of the Viet Cong during the war.
A trip to the Mekong Delta is absolutely worthwhile, and a 3-day trip including hotel, guide, transportation and food is usually around USD 15!
The Mui Ne resort town is a good choice for some beach life if you don't want to travel too far from the city. There is a public bus to Mui Ne every day, or you can simply hire a driver.
While generally safe, particularly Cambodia can be an exhausting country to travel in. Because of the widespread and extreme poverty, foreigners may sometimes feel as if they were walking cash points. Simply leaving your hotel and walking down the street is likely to attract a mixed crowd of cyclo drivers, postcard sellers, water and ice-cream merchants and anyone else out to get their hands on a dollar. Learn to say "no" and remain polite, but determined.
One option to carefully consider for this itinerary is to book your tickets inbound to Bangkok, but outbound from Ho Chi Minh City. Alternatively, you will probably want to fly back to Bangkok rather than backtrack your journey through Cambodia. Ho Chi Minh City is well connected, however you are well advised to book and buy your tickets before arrival as local air fare prices are very steep.