The journey to the outskirts of Saigon takes us through, District 1, District 3, then Tan Binh and District 12 to the south of the airport. It’s a long traffic laden part of the journey and chews up 90 minutes of the allocated time. This is a part of town that I know well, and it leads me to thinking that maybe one day, I’ll make the journey to the border on my motorbike. If I can find a safe place to park, it would make a really interesting trip. On a motorbike this 90 minute segment would only be 45 minutes, and not tied to a time table, it would be hugely faster. I had to be at the travel agents at 8.00 this morning for a 8.30 departure. Add into that the taxi ride into District 1 and allowing time for traffic. I reckon, leaving home at the same time, I could reach the highway out of town two hours before the bus. Food for thought. Eventually as we pass through first Hoc Mon and then CuChi, home of the famous tunnels, we leave Saigon behind and the scenery takes a more rural appearance The traffic starts to thin, the buildings seem to do the same and the road widens as we hit the highway.
The Border and Beyond
Cu Chi and beyond are just strip developments that have grown up along the years following the road. It’s pretty much the same type of terrain all the way through the Vietnamese countryside. Even though we are in the heart of the countryside, the roadside is always accompanied by houses and small business. After about 3 hours we arrive at customs and immigration and the pantomime of handing your passports to the guy on the bus, then worrying for 20 minutes or so starts. Every time I come through these crossings I am always amazed at why they do it the way they do, but this is Asia. Having travelled on the cheaper buses quite a few times, you normally get through customs then drive on for about 20 minutes before making the obligatory stop at some cafe come souvenir shop. These stops are nothing more really than a chance for a local business to try and make some money by selling you something that you don’t really want. As it is, everyone visits the rest rooms then stands around aimlessly waiting for the bus to leave. Twenty minutes later, it does. I have often wondered why they haven’t thought of building a serious service station along this road. There are enough people with money in their pockets, travelling to make it a viable proposition. Well the good news is, they have. We stop at a brand new service area in the no man’s land between the Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration offices. Good food and a nice coffee, and everyone is happy. I don’t know if all the buses are going to use this, but this service alone makes the Giant Ibis a must for me.
Service with a smile, at last
Lunch over, we proceed through to Cambodian immigration and sail through. I have to say, this is the best bus I have used between Saigon and Phnom Penh. Once you leave the entry point into Cambodia it is instantly clear that this is a poorer country than the one you have just left. Cambodia has suffered terribly over the years and life has taken a heavy toll on this wonderful country and its people. Everything has a look of tiredness about it. Somehow the buildings are less bright, the rubbish and human detritus more abundant and even the greenery seems less green. From here it is a pretty straightforward three and a half hours into Phnom Penh. The scenery of rice paddies and Water Buffalo is broken only, by the ferry across the Mekong. We arrive in Phnom Penh in the mid afternoon and I set about finding a hotel. This has been the least stressful journey between these two amazing Asian capitals that I have ever taken.
The Mighty Mekong Never Fails to Impress
Well I said that the journey into town was the least stressful and it was, to be fair. However the last couple of miles are so frustrating. You’ve done the 7 hours plus, broke the marathon’s back, and then just as Phnom Penh arrives at the party, the road decides to take its overcoat home! The last couple of miles into town are ridiculous to be honest. The road is unsealed and huge craters a couple of feet deep filled with water had the traffic down to a standstill and our buses almost tipping over. Everything is covered in a rich brown mud. Our sparkling clean new bus, which looked like a showroom model when it left Saigon, looks like a loser from the Dakar Rally when we arrive in Phnom Penh. It seems incredible that nobody has made the finances available to seal this last section properly. They are finding the money to build a gigantic road bridge over the Mekong, thus making redundant, the ferry crossing that takes but a few minutes, but they can’t finish a road off that causes at least a thirty minute delay. The people who are unfortunate to live along this stretch of ‘road’ must endure a pretty miserable existence. One suspects some series payments have been made somewhere. Finally, we arrive in Phnom Penh.