After spending three weeks in Cambodia, it was time to move to my next country and city: Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Being in Kep, Cambodia, I was very close to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, so it made a lot of sense to head to Ho Chi Minh City overland.
My plan was to take a bus from Kep, Cambodia to Hà Tiên, Vietnam, which is the closest town to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, also known as the Prek Chak – Xa Xia Border Crossing. Once at Hà Tiên, I would get myself some Vietnamese Dong at a money changer (I had USD with me) and buy a SIM card so that I would be able to access the internet. I would then spend some time hanging around Hà Tiên before heading to Ho Chi Minh City on a sleeper bus! I was excited because this would be my first time on a sleeper bus but I dreaded the thought of hanging around town with all my belongings and not being able to take a proper shower until checking into my accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City. This journey will take almost 24 hours!
Map of my journey including the places I visited in Hà Tiên.
And so it begins: Kep, Cambodia to Hà Tiên, Vietnam
I began my journey at 11am with a bus ride from Kep, Cambodia to Hà Tiên, Vietnam, riding on a Champa Express bus that I booked on Easybook.com (link). The ride was US$7 which I found to be the cheapest out of all the other booking sites. There are buses leaving Kep for Hà Tiên departing at 11am, 2pm, and 4pm. I picked the 11am bus because I wanted to reach Hà Tiên before all the shops close for the day, though it also means that I would have a lot more time to kill before my sleeper bus at night.
The pickup location for the Champa Express bus was at the shops opposite Kep Beach and is next to the Giant Ibis office. I got to the pickup location with a tuk-tuk I hailed using the ride-hailing app PassApp. I highly recommend downloading and using PassApp when visiting Cambodia. The app is easy to use and prices are stated before you book your ride so you don’t have to worry about being ripped off. While I found the prices to be equal to or slightly higher than Grab’s, PassApp seemed to be available in more towns than Grab. For example, PassApp is available in Sihanoukville and Kep, while Grab is not. Being the kiasu Singaporean, I downloaded both Grab and PassApp onto my phone anyway.
Before boarding my bus to Hà Tiên, I wanted to accomplish two things:
- Have breakfast at L’epi D’or because I was craving French pastries, especially pain au chocolat.
- Cash-out money from my Wing account
Unfortunately I was only able to accomplish one of the two things. I discovered that L’epi D’or had moved to Deli’s Kep. Feeling utterly disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to sink my teeth into a warm pain au chocolat with liquid chocolate oozing out, I moved to my next task of getting money out from my Wing account.
After some difficulties in communication, I was able to get my money out of my Wing account, which gave me much needed relief. Otherwise my money would remain stuck in my Wing account.
This was followed by my meal of crab and mango salad paired with sugar cane juice from a cart next to the beach.
The Prek Chak – Xa Xia Border
The bus eventually showed up at the Champa Express office at about 11.15am and we were soon on our way out of Kep and towards the border. To my surprise, the Vietnamese-American guy that I met in Coconut Beach on Koh Rong was also on the same bus! It was good seeing a familiar face.
After a short 30 minutes on the bus, we reached the Prek Chak – Xa Xia Border. The gaudy casino buildings were a definite sign that we were at a border crossing. We unceremoniously got off the bus and went into the immigration building to get our passports stamped and exit Cambodia. The immigration area turned out to be a moderately sized room with a few booths manned by uniformed officers. When it was my turn, the officer seemed confused to not find a visa on my passport (Singaporean passports do not require visas to Cambodia for stays up to 30 days). My passport was sent to a more senior official (at least he looked like he was the one in charge) and the air seemed to clear. I got my fingerprints scanned, photo taken, and I had an exit stamp out of Cambodia.
We went back to our vehicle and the driver told us to grab all of our bags from the vehicle. There was no explanation given but we eventually figured out that the vehicle wasn’t coming with us to Vietnam and we had to walk across a section of no man’s land to the Vietnamese side.
Walking over no man’s land was exciting and interesting for me. Apart from the Singapore – Malaysia crossing, this was my second time crossing a land border in my life; the first was the Aranyaprathet – Poipet border crossing. While walking, I observed how little the landscape changed. Unlike the body of water separating Singapore and Malaysia, there was no indication of a division between the two countries. Borders are merely imaginary lines that exist in our minds (or in the minds of governments).
After no more than a five minute walk, we reached the Vietnamese side of the border. As it was the time when COVID-19 was intensifying, health declaration forms were handed out to everyone coming into Vietnam. We filled out the forms and got our temperature taken. News cameras were present, filming the general scene at the border. I made a mental note to see if I would be on the news that night but I forgot.
The immigration area was even smaller at the Vietnamese side. There wasn’t a room, just two booths located at the waiting area. One booth was for checking out (exiting Vietnam) and the other was for checking in (entering Vietnam). The immigration officer demanded that I pay US$1 to get my passport stamped and looked very agitated when I refused. I eventually paid US$1 after giving my best unhappy face. This was my first time encountering a corrupt official so it was interesting. On hindsight I should have given him my leftover Cambodian Riel which was about to be worthless now that I was outside Cambodia.
From the border, we got onto another bus which was bound for Ho Chi Minh City. It was actually a minivan so I doubt that it would go straight to Ho Chi Minh City which was about 8 hours away. It was a quick ride from the border to Hà Tiên. I asked the driver to let me off at the roundabout just before the Cầu Tô Châu bridge and before I knew it, I was in Hà Tiên!
Killing Time in Hà Tiên
I had a few things to accomplish in Hà Tiên:
- Change money
- Get a SIM card
- Book the sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh City
- Kill time
But first, I had to take some pictures:
1. Changing Money
The first order of business was to change money and get some Vietnamese Dong. I read online that you can change money at banks or jewellery shops in Vietnam. I wasn’t able to locate any jewellery shops on Google Maps when I did my research, but I was able to find a Vietcombank in the city. You can look up the exchange rates for Vietcombank at their website here. The Vietcombank office was a pleasant place to be in. The powerful air-conditioning was a great relief after walking in the afternoon heat. WiFi was also provided at the bank, which was important because I didn’t have a Vietnamese SIM card yet.
After waiting for a few minutes (and cooling off near the air-con), it was my turn to be served. The lady at the counter spoke to me in Vietnamese, which was a common occurrence because of my looks, to which I typed “money exchange” on Google Translate on my phone. At this point she swtiched to speaking English and asked for my passport. I handed over my USD to be changed to VND and she carefully counted each bill, repeating the process multiple times. Another staff member came over and counted the bills again, but this time she held up the bill to the light to check for its authenticity. I was impressed – although slightly concerned – at the level of scrutiny. I’ve never closely checked the quality of USD bills that I got from shopkeepers in Cambodia. Thankfully, my bills passed the test and I was handed the Vietnamese Dong along with a receipt and my passport.
I was happy to have received the Vietnamese Dong in both large and smaller denominations (from 500,000 VND to 10,000 VND bills). The last time I had this experience was with the Vattanac ATM in Siem Reap. The Vietnamese Dong bills were new and made of plastic, which was a refreshing experience, given that I had been dealing with decades-old bills that were sometimes wrinkled, faded and seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. I left the bank satisfied with my transaction, but not before heading to the toilet at the bank. Air-conditioning? WiFi? And even toilets? This bank is heaven!
2. Getting a SIM Card
Now that I was able to make purchases with my cash, the next step was to get a local SIM card and get connected to the internet. I went to the Viettel store which was just a short walk round the corner from Vietcombank. Getting the SIM card was a simple affair. I paid 250,000 VND in total for both the SIM card (50,000 VND) and 15 GB of data valid for one month (200,000 VND) under the ‘MIMAX200‘ plan. And I was connected to the internet!
3. Booking the Sleeper Bus to Ho Chi Minh City
With my Vietnamese number, I tried to call the booking office to book a sleeper bus from Hà Tiên to Ho Chi Minh City. I was interested in the 11pm bus operated by Kumho Samco (link here). I chose this for two reasons: (1) the bus ride would be about 7 hr 15 min long, so leaving at 11pm would mean that I would reach Ho Chi Minh City at about 6.15am, and not some ungodly hour early in the morning. Also, (2) the 11pm bus was a limousine sleeper (LIMOUSINE giường nằm) which I was interested in trying, compared to the regular sleeper (Giường nằm cao cấp).
The Kumho Samco website didn’t allow for online bookings, instead they provide a number for the booking office. So I gave a call which ended very abruptly:
Me: “Hello may I book the 11pm bus from Hà Tiên to Ho Chi Minh City today, please?”
The other end: “Sorry no english!”
Not wanting to make the long trek to the bus station across the river to get tickets, I asked my Airbnb host over WhatsApp if he could book bus ticket for me. To my utmost relief, he agreed and made a booking for me! What a nice, friendly and helpful host!
So, it seems like the only way to get Kumho Samco tickets directly without using booking sites like Easybook.com or vexere.com is to either (1) call the booking office and speak Vietnamese or get someone who knows Vietnamese to help, or (2) physically get to the bus station to buy tickets. I could have just showed up at the bus station two hours before the bus departs and buy tickets then, but I really wanted to try the particular 11pm bus, so thankfully I was able to book it in advance.
Sidenote: on the Kumho Samco website, it states that the prices are 170,000 VND and 190,000 VND for regular and limousine sleeper buses respectively. Turns out that the prices online were outdated. A sign at the bus station states the new prices (as of 10 Jan 2020) as 180,000 VND and 205,000 VND respectively.
4. Killing Time
And so it was time to wait for the 11pm bus! The first thing I did was eat. Emerging from the Viettel shop, I wandered down the street until I encountered a decent looking shop selling cơm (rice). I pointed to a nice-looking pork chop and the lady asked me to sit at one of the tables. The food arrived shortly and it did not disappoint.
After my meal I took a walk around the town of Hà Tiên. It wasn’t long before I had something to eat again.
I then walked towards my next destination (Choco Coffee & Desserts). I ordered an iced coffee and stayed there for a little more than two hours. Although the cafe didn’t have air-conditioning, the iced drinks cooled me off very quickly. I spent my time charging my phone with the power outlets provided and posted stuff on Instagram using the cafe’s WiFi. Social media is hard work!
By the time I left the cafe, the sun was already setting.
My next destination was dinner at a place called Quán Lẩu cua đồng Mỹ Hòa, close to where Choco Coffee & Desserts was. The dinner place seemed to specialise in crab hotpot (Lẩu Cua Đồng).
As I wasn’t exceptionally hungry, I ordered a crab noodle instead which basically had the same ingredients as the crab hotpot but already cooked into a noodle soup. I stayed for another two hours at the restaurant, completing a few levels of Vietnamese on Duolingo while slowly savouring a dessert of lotus seeds on ice (Chè sen).
It was time to head to the bus station across the river. The sun had fully set and the sky was dark. However, the city lights of Hà Tiên still shone brightly and people were out and about doing their stuff. The main hurdle was the bridge across the river (Cầu Tô Châu). I was hoping for some pedestrian walkway like the King Naresuan Maharaj Bridge in Ayutthaya, but unfortunately there was none. Perhaps a ferry service like in Ayutthaya would help too.
At some point along my walk I felt so bored that I practiced Vietnamese by counting from one upwards. I got to about 120 when I reached the bus station.
Bến Xe Hà Tiên (Hà Tiên Bus Station)
The bus station was a simple-looking one. Rows of metal benches occupied the ticketing area, surrounded by the ticketing booths of each bus company. I went to the Kumho Samco booth and showed the phone number that my Airbnb host booked the ticket with and after paying the 205,000 VND, I got my ticket!
It was about 8.45pm, a little more than two hours to my bus departure at 11pm. I walked around the bus station to take a look. The station had a single pier with buses parked facing inwards on both sides. Along the bus berths were a row of shops and eateries serving food and drinks. Groups of waiting passengers and bus drivers sat around tables chatting, smoking, eating, and playing card games. Amidst the noise of the small but energetic crowd were the sounds from an unusually loud television set showing a Vietnamese drama. The cries of the actresses and rumbles from the fight scene reverberated through the bus station.
Having walked one time round the entire station, I took a seat at one of the eateries and ordered a coconut. This was when I learnt to say coconut in Vietnamese: dừa. ‘d’ is pronounced as ‘z’ in Northern Vietnam or ‘y’ in Southern Vietnam. I spent close to an hour sipping on the coconut, scraping the flesh, all while completing a few more levels of Vietnamese on Duolingo.
By then I was feeling tired, sweaty and dirty. I craved an actual shower. So I headed over to the toilets to try my luck, and I was elated to learn that I could use the shower room for 12,000 VND! The shower room was also the accessible toilet so it was very spacious. The shower room had everything I wanted: a shower, sink, toilet, plenty of hooks, and two chairs to put my bags down. Feeling extremely relieved with this amazing find, I locked the door behind me and thoroughly cleaned myself in the private shower room. My travel towel came in handy here.
I emerged a new person and when I looked at my phone, it was already 10.20pm. I had spent almost half an hour in the bathroom! It was now time to board the bus.
The “Limousine” Sleeper Bus from Hà Tiên to Ho Chi Minh City
The Kumho Samco bus was the only bus waiting at the bus station. The cargo doors were open for passengers to deposit their luggage. When going up the bus, the driver handed me a black plastic bag for me to put my shoes in. I found it a good idea to have all our shoes off when getting on the bus because it keeps the interior clean and it feels like a homely thing to do.
The seats on the bus were semi-sleepers, meaning that the seat were fixed at a recline of about 30 degrees from the lie-flat position. There were a total of 34 seats on the bus, spread across two “floors” and with two aisles. One thing that struck me as soon as I headed to my seat was just how narrow the aisles were. I had to take my bag off my shoulders and walk sideways through the aisle. The seats themselves weren’t very wide either. I estimate them to be about 60cm wide, just enough for me to lie comfortably in.
On each seat was a pink blanket which was surprisingly soft and comfy. What sets this “limousine” sleeper apart from the regular ones are the dividers between seats and the curtains on either side. Judging from photos of the regular sleepers, dividers or curtains are not available and so there isn’t much privacy.
Each seat also had an LCD screen in front and an array of buttons and charging ports for your devices. You also have two personal air-con vents so you can regulate your own comfort throughout the journey. A bottle of water was also given to each seat.
The bus departed on-time at 11pm and we were on our way! We made a total of two stops throughout the journey to Ho Chi Minh City. The first stop was a short toilet break and the second stop was at a large rest station with large toilets and shops selling food. I bought a pork bao here. I was feeling hungry so having the steaming hot bao in the middle of the night was just what I needed. Each time we needed to get off the bus, a box of shared slippers were given to us so that you didn’t have to take your shoes from your black plastic bag. This was a nice touch.
I would say that I had a good sleep on the bus, although I was awoken each time we stopped for a break, which happened twice. What wasn’t pleasant was the occasional honks the bus would make when signalling its existence to other motorists. The roads were bumpy at some stretches, but I got used to the rocking at some point and perhaps it helped me fall asleep quicker. We arrived at Bến Xe Miền Tây in Ho Chi Minh City just before 6am the next morning, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Weirdly, I wished that the bus ride was longer so that I could sleep a little more. I waited for everyone else to get off before I reluctantly dragged myself off the bus and deposited myself into the subdued early morning hum of Bến Xe Miền Tây.
The Last Mile (or two) in Ho Chi Minh City
Moments after stepping off the bus, I was greeted by eager taxi drivers asking me about where I was going. While politely turning their offers down, I waded through the station looking for the public bus #10 to my Airbnb. I highly recommend downloading the BusMap app (busmap.vn) or using the web version at https://map.busmap.vn/ for bus information not just in Ho Chi Minh City, but for other major cities in Vietnam. BusMap combines and displays information on bus routes, bus stops and timetables for public buses in the city. It is available in both Vietnamese and English.
I saw a row of parked buses with numbers on the front, rear and sides of the bus, so I assumed that they were the public buses. I found a bus #10 and got on it.
The bus did not have air-conditioning, but it would turn out to be unnecessary with the cool morning breeze rushing in as the bus made its way across the city. Before the bus set off, the bus driver shouted something in Vietnamese to the passengers at the back. This was followed by a woman sitting across me gesturing around her face. She then uttered some words in my direction which I didn’t understand. Eventually I heard the words “kou zhao” (口罩) and immediately understood. Everyone had to put on a face mask.
(At the time of writing, an infectious disease known as COVID-19 was spreading around the world)
Soon after, the bus moved off and exited Bến Xe Miền Tây. We were out on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A bus attendant rose from one of the seats and went around collecting money from the passengers. The fare was 7,000 VND.
I spent my journey peering out of the bus windows, observing the people of Ho Chi Minh City getting on their day. People (many people) on scooters zipping around, overtaking the bus I was in. Food carts on streets serving breakfast.
The bus reached the center of Ho Chi Minh City after about 45 minutes and it was about to be my turn to alight. As the bus departed the stop preceding mine, I got up, took all my bags and headed to the exit door of the bus. A few moments later I pressed what looked like a red stop button. I checked the GPS on my phone. Just a few hundred metres more. The bus stop came into view and I shuffled in place, expecting the bus to come to a stop, or at least slow down. But the bus seemed to accelerate and switched to a faster lane on the road.
Perhaps the actual bus stop was a little further down the road. Then I realised that we were on a semi-expressway, and all the bus stops along the way were on the side roads which we were not on. I looked at the bus driver through his rear view mirror and we caught eyes for a moment. He had a look on his eyes which said 🤷.
And so I stood at the exit door, looking wistfully at the buildings and several bus stops whizzing by, at the mercy of the bus driver and road dividers. After what seemed like an infinite distance, the bus finally stopped at a bus stop and I got off, not before glancing at the driver again through his rear view mirror. Still, 🤷.
I was dropped off at some random bus stop a good distance away from my intended destination. I fired up my Grab app and got a GrabBike that would take me to my Airbnb. It was exhilarating. Being my first time on a motorbike taxi with all my belongings, I held on to rear handle tightly, fearing that I would go flying off the bike each time the engine revved. Consoling myself that after all that, I still spent less than I would have if I took a GrabBike all the way from Bến Xe Miền Tây, I started to enjoy the ride. By now the sun had made its full appearance, warming the air around us. With the wind in my face (good that GrabBikes come with helmets for passengers), we weaved through the mass of morning traffic made up mostly of other scooters and the occasional car or bus. I took one hand off the rear handle.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City.
- Start: 11am, 12 Mar 2020
- End: 8.30am, 13 Mar 2020
- Total duration: 21 hr 30 min
- Total cost: US$7 (Kep to Hà Tiên) + US$1 for corrupt official + 205,000 VND (Hà Tiên to Ho Chi Minh City)
- Total distance: ~360km
All times in GMT +7.
Till today I still don’t know exactly why the bus skipped all those stops 🤷