Vietnam to Cambodia - on the $14 bus
If you're trying to do south east Asia on the cheap, then one thing that you'll end up doing is the long haul bus. There are plenty of them, we talked earlier about how for short jaunts internal to Vietnam we prefer the limo vans, the limited passenger vans that will pick you up directly at your hotel. Even the small buses drop you in the center of wherever you're going, so you've almost always got an additional tuk-tuk or taxi fare to add to the end of your ride.
We looked at a few for doing the overland route from Vietnam to Cambodia. Web reviews are what the web does best, just a list of complaints about certain companies and horror stories with an occasional 5-star rating with a simple "everything was perfect" comment. Most of the complaints seem to be from people that need visas to get into Cambodia - a visa cost $30 USD, the bus company will handle this for you but charges $35. Apparently if you tell them you're doing it yourself they let you, but by that you need to have everything in perfect order since you're not in a packet of passports handed over by someone who's doing this regularly and has allegedly greased the wheels of the application process. We say allegedly since we don't really know why it seems like it's on the people that argue over a $5 processing fee that seem to write negative reviews.
We knew that we could obtain an e-visa to get into Cambodia online to eliminate any hassle. Actually, the more we read, having an e-visa might also cause some issues, and since we were also in the new passport honeymoon of traveling on virgin passports and our entry stamps and visa for Vietnam in our recently cancelled passports, we decided we would just let the daily experts handle the transition for us.
We looked at a few different bus lines and from the reviews read, we had one we were leaning to, but in trying to book online we also decided to just go to one of the many agents around Saigon. We used Viet Dragon Travel (118 Le Los Street, Saigon) since we used them to book all of our earlier train travel throughout Vietnam without any problems - and actually for less then it would have been if I had booked through one of the "official looking" Vietnam rail websites.
They worked out great, the bus couldn't pick us up at the hotel since it was one of the large buses, but the actual guy we booked with met us at the hotel and got a taxi for us to take us to the bus company. They covered the cost of the transfer in the original price, and we went from hotel, to taxi, to mini van shuttle to the bus depot, to the main bus.
We got on the bus and after about 10 minutes of confusing conversation about seats with the people seated directly in front of and behind us, the bus slowly loaded with passengers. Eventually we were off, maybe 10 minutes behind schedule, but not too bad, and after weaving through city traffic and stopping at a few larger hotels on the way out to pick up additional passengers, we were on our way.
About 10 minutes into the ride they collect passports - we were lucky to have a woman traveling for work seated across from us that spoke English because my explanation in Google translate for why we had to passports each didn't translate properly. We paid the $35 each and settled in for the first part of our trip - a somewhat painless ride for about 2 hours before we arrive at the border.
That's when our fun starts - the Vietnamese guard won't stamp us out of the country since we don't have a Visa in our new passports. We show the old passports, we try to explain how we've done this before in multiple countries when a passport expires before the visa does. Nope, we needed to have a new Vietnam Visa in our new passports to be able to leave. We (I) tried to argue, they wanted $20 per passport to make a new visa, and after about 10 minutes and knowing the rest of the bus was now waiting for us, I parted with the last US dollars we had so that they could get us new visas. A man took our passports and saying "5 minutes" disappeared through a door over to the incoming side of the immigration control. It was more then 5 minutes, when you're now in this type of stress situation all time stretches out, but I did check my watch and what felt like 20 was closing in on 10 minutes when they came back with both sets of our passports with a new Vietnam visa in our new ones as well.
With that we were quickly through and received our Cambodian visas and back on the bus and on our way. Wouldn't that be nice? The guide on the bus was confused, so he listed our old passport numbers on the visa applications - so we had to wait another 10 minutes between countries before our passports came back to us and we could officially enter Cambodia.
From there it's just another 4 hours on the bus until you are in Phnom Penh. The bus stops just after clearing customs for about 30 minutes at a nice restaurant - the food looked good, but we didn't eat. We pack snack and drinks enough to get us through the trip. There was a second stop about an hour from Phnom Penh, at a roadside gas station, it's basically a bathroom break, but you could grab some snacks and water if you needed. We pulled into town just after dark and quickly found a driver to take us to our hotel. The bus stop is littered with tuk-tuk's and other guys offering taxi rides. We tried to barter him down but he was stuck at $7 for a 2.5km ride.
It wasn't bad, in my mind the rides don't deserve the negative reviews they get, but the "newer" buses we were told about were definitely dated, but not to the point of disgusting. We weren't happy about the extra $40 we had to spend for a visa transfer, but that's not something that 99% of people will run into. I've looked online and found comments about people being charged anywhere from $20, to $15, to $0 for Vietnam visa transfers, so it's hard to tell.
So here we are, safe and sound in Phnom Penh. We had a quick dinner and then went to bed, skipping the streets of late night bars that were just a few blocks away from where we are staying.