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Vietnam/Cambodia 2013 Trip - My Helpful Tips/Info

Posted by abs004 on 23/12/2013 at 07:56

I recently traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was afantastic experience and I appreciated the help I received on this forum. Beloware some helpful info/stories/tips for future travelers. We were 2 couples inour 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 HalongBay.
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 ofSaigon and Hanoi, and loved ending the trip on the relaxing and beautifulbeaches of Phu Quoc. We hadn't planned on going to Halong Bay, but after 24hours in Hanoi, we realized we would run out of things to do/see and thoughtthe adventure sounded fun. Originally we were going to take buses to moreplaces but after the 14.5 hours it took to ride from Saigon to Siem Reap, wewere thrilled to be flying the rest of our trip.

-we purchased Visa on Arrival letters before we left. Weused, $46/couple, and quickly got our letter, entry/exit formsand instructions. The other couple used a cheaper site and had just as goodservice. 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 allat 11pm), handed over our forms, passports and $65/person (we had exact changein 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 usedCitibank (Visa) and took out 6M Dong (~$300). Some ATMs only allow for 2-3MDong per transaction, something we ran into in Phu Quoc. We found that we gotcharge $5-10 in fees per transactions. I also got charged that fee when I did abalance inquiry (no withdrawal). I believe that if you use an ATM that lists amax withdrawal of, say, 3M Dong and you select "other amount" and putin 5M Dong, it will state that is too much, kick out your card, charge you thefee, 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 ofthe airport. We were the perfect targets: millions of dong in pocket, tiredfrom 20 hours of travel and completely disorientated. I had read on forums thatthe main taxi companies are Mai Linh and VinaSun, so I was looking forthem. But on the walk towards the taxi stand area, a guy showed us a VinaSun IDcard so we followed him to his car. I realized it wasn't legit as we were leadto a dark parking lot but being polite Americans, we didn't want to rock theboat so we went along with it. As we exited the parking lot, he had us pay the parkingfee (around 10,000 Dong, or $0.50) and while "helping" my friendfigure 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 untillater. After a short ride, he took our $10 for the trip (should've been morelike $5) and we arrived in a sketchy area near the airport at a little hotel wehad found on We were happy to have safely arrived but that openedour eyes quickly. Later, when we came back to Saigon airport, we ignoredeveryone that talked to us near the taxi stand line, and simply walked up to aMai Linh taxi, verified that it was metered, and gave them the address to ourhotel. Piece of cake.
-the 2nd night we stayed LaFelix in the downtown area. It is an easy tothe 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). Thehotel was on the cheaper side but had everything we needed, including a decentfree breakfast. The Ben Thanh market is intense and be prepared to beaggressively approached by vendors. Watch your valuables, learn to haggle (ruleof thumb for us was that items were at least twice what we should pay), andenjoy the crazy process. It can be lot of fun and after a while even enjoyableonce you learn to battle over prices. Always be prepared to walk away becausethere are usually many other stalls selling the exact same stuff. Don't handover your money unless you are getting exactly what you want and don't letraised voices intimidate you.
-we got hit by a pick pocket scam around 10pm that night. The ladies inour group had gone to bed and the guys wandered around streets packed withpartygoers (some dressed in full dog costumes) while enjoying Tiger beer. Itreminded me of Las Vegas with the sidewalks packed with 4 rows deep of littleplastic chairs, people talking, eating, drinking and having a good time, so muchto take in and do and see. We were having an amazing time when two girls cameup 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. Welaughed, said no, and kept walking. At this point, one girl slip her hand intomy 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 apretty polite manner at first, but the girl denied it and started throwing upher arms and making a lot of noise. She had slipped it into the back of herjeans and played dumb for several minutes as we tried to figure out how tohandle the situation. She started to get on the back of a scooter but I calmlystood in front of it so the guy couldn't drive off. He finally said he wasn'tinvolved and drove off without her while my friend continued to argue with thegirl, not letting go of her arm. As I watched from a few feet away, I sawanother girl come up and pull the phone out and quickly put it down the back ofher pants. My friend never would have saw it, so I yelled at him and heeventually reached down her pants to grab it. Hundreds of people were watchingbut no one helped, though some cheered when we got the phone back. Heartspounding, we looked at each other and decided it was time to go back to thehotel. It was a scary situation but we were being careless. I don't think wewere ever in physical danger, then or at any time in our trip, but pick pocketsand thieves love high tourist areas worldwide. So again, best to keep items infront pockets and a hand on them when in crowded areas.
-the final night of our trip, upon flying back to Saigon (and taking alegitimate taxi from the airport), we "splurged" on a 4-star hotelcalled Eden Saigon. It had a wonderful rooftop pool to lounge in and it wasvery 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 agood company. We got our visas at the border without prearranging anything, andwhile it was unorganized, it didn't take too long. The guide on the bus helpedherd us in the correct direction. The driver was excellent, and the driving inthose 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 ifon a rollercoaster. Parts of the road were pretty bad (dirt, big potholes) butit was a wonderful experience seeing the countryside and people up close. Besure 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 toour hotel. We decided we liked our driver enough to have him meet us the nextmorning to transport to the Angkor Wat temples. There are lots of tuk tukoptions, and I'm sure your hotel can easily arrange one, so don't feel like youhave to stick with one person if you don't like them. We agreed that he woulddrive 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. Nicepool area as well. Tons of lodging options out there and easy to shop/reviewonline.
-the temple tour was easy as our tuk tuk driver took us to the ticketlocation (I believe it was $20/person for 1 day pass) and we toured the maintemples 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 areavailable.
-Pub Street was a blast. We watched Monday Night Football at a localbar at 8am while trying to explain the rules to our server. The people are veryfriendly and a treat to meet. We also got $10 Thai massages (60 min) in thatarea that were incredible. There is a night market that is fun to go through, butagain, 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 haveto 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 farand windy, especially if you have luggage. The airport is small but nice, bestto 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 setcost for traveling into the city. It was marked on signs and the taxis. Wedidn't have a hotel so we got dropped off at a cafe and used wifi to searchAgoda for a hotel. We stayed at Classic Hotel, which wasn't too bad exceptthere was loud construction (constant banging of rebar) behind it. We onlystayed one night, then went to the Silver Moon Hotel which was a good budgethotel, great free breakfast at their restaurant and friendly staff. We loved itbecause it was on one of the very few quiet streets, located near the heart ofthe city.
-we walked to West Lake (didn't find it too special), to the Women'sMuseum (interesting enough but pretty small), and to Hanoi Hilton Prison (veryinteresting, 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 arestaurant with wifi and researched the companies (it seems like there are about4 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 wasmuch 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. Theycalled and made reservations and we were picked up the next morning for the bustrip to the bay. The bus trip took about 4 hrs each way. Briefly, we had 15people on our cruise, the rooms were excellent, we went on a cave tour (withhundreds of other tourists), paddled kayaks in remote island inlet, watched thesunset on a beach, relaxed on the sun deck while sailing by islands, andenjoyed 3 excellent meals and an okay breakfast. We all thought it was afabulous experience and though the bus rides are tedious, they are a good wayto see the country.
-we massively overpaid for a pineapple on the street ($5, should havebeen less than $1) because we got intimidated and didn't walk away. We laughedit off and hoped the woman could use the money. Then we stopped by a restaurantto look at a menu and the waitress/host asked how much we paid. We told her andshe felt so terrible because we had been taken advantage of. We said it was noproblem, we knew we had screwed up, but then she offered to go out on thestreet and buy some more fruit at great/local prices with our money (a bunch ofbananas for less than $1). It just goes to show that good people are everywhereand always out-shine the bad experiences.
-the main night market here is intense and massive. Again, keep a handon your valuables and enjoy moving through the streets with thousands ofpeople, 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 breakfasteach morning and one free 30 min massage. The beach was fantastic and it was ablast to walk along day and night looking for places to eat. The beach seafoodBBQs 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, pavedroads while riding double (and probably could've gone faster). It was tons offun driving around the island and seeing different beaches and villages. Someof the roads were not paved and it was great to go "off road" likethe locals. We were extremely careful however as we didn't have travelinsurance or international's sort of a gamble but a wonderfulmemory.
-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 someresorts. Grocery stores can be found and offer better pricing than road sidestands.
-there is a night market with tons of fresh seafood offerings. We mostlyate at beach restaurants but it looked epic, particularly for the seafoodlover.

-the members of our group ate street food (eg. amazing Hanoi sandwichesfor $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. Weblindly followed the belief that the ice with the holes through the middle wassterile and it seemed to work well. I was the most cautious and I got sickfirst, in Cambodia, but the combination of antibiotics (Azithromycin, obtainedin the States when we got our Hep A and Typhoid vaccines) and Pepto seemed tofix 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 addedin the trip to Halong Bay. Otherwise I think it would have been too much timein Hanoi for our group, though there is plenty of things to see/do in thatwonderful city. Ending the trip at Phu Quoc was perfect and something we allgreatly appreciated after some exhausting days in the big cities.
-we didn't encounter too many bugs, which surprised me. There weremosquitoes at night in Phu Quoc, as well as some sand fleas (I think that'swhat 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 atnight. We did see some ants in one hotel room but again, just like with thelukewarm or low-pressure showers, just something to roll with and not stressabout.

In summary, it was a glorious holiday trip and we all made memoriesthat will last a lifetime. I recommend to roll with the bad, embrace the goodand soak up every moment while experiencing new and exciting cultures andenvironments.
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#1 abs004 has been a member since 10/10/2013. Posts: 5

Posted by danpackis on 23/12/2013 at 23:48

Thank you very much for the details of your trip. I'm planning to visit Vietnam in Mid march, but at this stage I have no itinary . I will be landing in Saigon airport. I'm planning to spend around 10 days in Vietnam. Can you please suggest anything

Best regards.

#2 danpackis has been a member since 18/12/2013. Posts: 4
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Posted by daawgon on 25/12/2013 at 21:31

Don't waste your time in Saigon, head for Hanoi (best of all Viet cities).

#3 daawgon has been a member since 17/4/2007. Posts: 1,152
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Posted by danpackis on 26/12/2013 at 01:24

Thanks daawgon...IS there anything you can recommend in Hanoi to do

#4 danpackis has been a member since 18/12/2013. Posts: 4
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Posted by Johnkuan on 27/12/2013 at 22:40

Posted from within Vietnam.

Saigon is the most popular commercial and modern center in Vietnam. Why Mr. Daawgon say like that?

#5 Johnkuan has been a member since 27/12/2013. Posts: 2

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