Unlike my other recent travels, I did not research thoroughly on Vietnam and Cambodia, the two countries I was headed to. Probably because, while I appreciate being able to go to a different country, there was nothing prior to the trip that actually attracted me to these places. I know Vietnam to be a communist country and the setting for the famous Broadway play, Miss Saigon. I only know that Cambodia was home to the Angkor Wat, huge impressive ruins of a long ago temple. I did not know anything about their history, their people, even their trade.
I did try to read through and pretty much came up with the conclusion that the places we can visit within this countries are so far apart that we will need tours for them. I’m not much of a fixed tour person, thinking that they are far too expensive compared to what you actually get out of it. I’m not a bad navigator so hand me a map and I’m good on my feet.
Given this background, this piece will comprise 13 observations I’ve made and corresponding facts gotten from internet references (just to make things easier to understand.)
Observation #1: Tan Son Nhat International Airport looks amazingly similar to NAIA Terminal 3.
The Vietnam and Philippine airports looked so much alike it took a while for it to register that I was definitely in a different country. Not only the airports were similar, other places we saw while in the cab were reminiscent of places in Manila. We passed a park which looked like Luneta, a bridge that looked like Nagtahan and an avenue that looked like Buendia. No kidding. It was so similar, it was amusing that I started naming places we passed. Cambodia even had an area that looked like Baywalk! And, to top it all off, the taxi we were in had no aircon but charged us higher than other taxis we would ride in the future would. We tried saying “Meter Down” but the driver didn’t understand and insisted on the price he wanted. Yes, that’s Philippine taxis for you too!
Observation #2: Vietnamese Dong and Cambodian Riel is delightful and confusing at the same time.
So many zeroes! We were overnight millionaires holding as much as 2,000,000 Vietnamese Dong at one time (approximately PHP4,000.) We joked about how we wanted to spend the money but was dumbfounded when it came to actual calculation. Prices in Vietnam and Cambodia were also shown in US Dollar (yet another currency to contend with) and we sometimes had to ask how much the item was in Dong or Riel. Then when we found how much it was in Dong or Riel, our brain had to work overtime to convert USD to VND to KHR to PHP! Waaah, thank God for www.XE.com! The handy site made it easier for us to figure out what we wanted to spend.
Observation #3: Chaos reigns in Vietnam immigration.
From Ho Chi Minh pick up site, it takes 3 hours to get to the border. Our bus conductor (steward?) collected our passports before we reached the border (which made me plenty nervous.) Once we got to immigration, we were asked to go down the bus and into the building. I’ve done something similar when I travelled from Singapore to Malaysia so I wasn’t terribly surprised. Until I got inside and saw the craziness. The conductor asked us to stay in one are while he shoved all our passports into cubicle window of the immigration officer. That wasn’t really a problem until about a dozen or so people did the exact same thing! This resulted to our passports being set aside and the immigration officer (still looking cool and unaffected) most likely grabbed the nearest passport regardless of its position in the queue. I do not really know how long we stood waiting but I can tell you that I was this near to becoming boiling mad over being one of the last to go through immigration. What made the experience even more frustrating was that the Cambodian immigration had an exactly opposite vibe to it. Several queues, all moving, all with finger print scanning. We were done in record time. And the buildings of the two countries’ immigration offices were a just a few meters away from one another. Seriously?! How could the immigration process be so different?
Observation #4: Cambodia has a lot of casinos
So, how do I know that Cambodia has a lot of casinos? It’s because just as the bus gets out of the immigration area, about three to four casino buildings meet you. That really wouldn’t seem strange, given that Resorts World stands just outside of NAIA terminal three except that the border was not within a busy city. It was, if anything, in the outskirts of a provincial town. So the casinos seemed out of place surrounded by pack dirt and dust. The buildings looked abandoned (then again, I was there around lunch time, it may be lively during the night) and I do not see how anyone would drive all the way there just to gamble.
Did a little reading and apparently there were grand plans on building casinos to attract tourists (from the West) and even those from neighbouring countries. While some casinos closed down (probably those I’ve seen) due to political and social decision, others in Phnom Penh are still in operation.
Observation #5: Haggling is a part of life
Haggling is a must, from taxis, to tuktuks to the Ben Thanh Market. In Cambodia, we had to stand our ground against tuktuk drivers who wanted only two or three passengers in a tuktuk big enough for five. He eventually gave in, so it’s only $1 per person (4,000 KHR, 40 PHP) instead of the higher amount they initially offered. In Ben Thanh, we came across Stall 949 which sold coffee where we bargained Highlands coffee from VND 60,000 ($3, 120 PHP) to VND 40,000 ($2, 80 PHP), not bad since she threw in drip filterS ($0.50, 20 PHP) for free. I was also able to get Vietnamese silk scarves for VND 145,000 each ($7, 285 PHP) versus initial price of ($9, 355 PHP.) I could’ve probably gotten these at say, 100,000 – 120,000 each if I really pushed but haggling has never really been my strongest point. Needless to say I need more practice. In fact, the first time I tried to haggle in Ben Thanh market was an epic fail and I spent way more that I intended (cue in the frustration and self-directed anger.) But I know better now, so Ben Thanh market better gear up the next time I’m in the neighbourhood!
Observation #6: Cambodians love the Kapuso network
I first noticed it in the Cambodian immigration building (if I’m not mistaken.) Some staff members were watching TV and I distinctly remember feeling as if I knew the actresses on TV. Sure enough, it was Barbie Forteza from Channel 7. Since I am not a Kapuso and Barbie is only one of about 10 Channel 7 talents I do know of, I wasn’t sure what show it was. Did a little reading and yes, GMA 7 has hit the global market with shows in Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. In fact, one of our new found friends in Cambodia related the rumor that Marian Rivera was pregnant and it was all due to the fact that her character in “My Beloved” was pregnant!
To be fair, the Kapamilya network was also represented. The lady from Stall 949 showed us a picture of Jhong Hilario who recently went to Vietnam! She said she saw in the TV “madalas” which meant that she saw him on TV often and therefore would imply that Channel 2 also has global reach!
Observation #7 There are a lot of disabled children in Cambodia
On our way to Cambodia and especially when we arrived, I must have seen three to four children who have no arms or legs. They roamed the streets freely as any street children would but it was disturbing to look at them and wonder what happened. Some reading led to validation of what I thought the problem was – land mines. Cambodia has been in war for 20 years (read: Khmer Rouge regime) and has one of the highest disability ratio – 1 in 290 people are amputees. Most are soldiers who fought during the 70’s and 80’s and as the 90’s brought some peace into the country, the next victims were civilians returning to their homes. Internet articles state that there are as many as six million landmines still in the country side – fields, streams, farms, etc.
It was no wonder then that the shops surrounding the tourist spots in Cambodia often have signs saying that products were made by individuals with disability, that with every product you buy, you help one who is disabled. For someone who has a background in rehabilitation, I found the history truly saddening and these people’s way forward to be inspiring.
As such, I bought two scarves made of really great Cambodian silk from a store called Happy Silk, a store supporting women’s literacy and disability. That’s shopping and social support action in one!
Observation #8 The Pinoys in Cambodia and Vietnam
We met a Filipino who worked as a waiter in the bar/hotel we stayed in Cambodia. I’m surprised by this but then again as I stated earlier, I didn’t know a lot about the country when I went there. I suppose it should not surprise me that there is a Filipino in Cambodia, after all, Filipinos are everywhere. In my readings, I’ve come to learn that there about in 6000 Pinoys in Cambodia, holding work as supervisors, managers, in different fields like hotels, medicine, business and education. While on the bus, one of my companions struck up a conversation with a Cambodian who spoke fluent English. From their conversation and validated by the articles I read, Cambodia is working to be more globally competitive through the use of the English language. As such, Pinoys were in Cambodia teaching English in schools.
We did not meet any Pinoys in Vietnam and that is validated by articles stating that the Filipino community in Vietnam is small, majority of which work in high ranking positions. Similar to Cambodia, Filipinos in Vietnam enjoy managerial and supervisory positions. I’m happy to hear this. Too often, Filipinos are pretty much labelled as a “workhorse”, when really we are more than that. The articles I’ve read say it too, Filipinos are held in high esteem by Vietnamese and Cambodians.
So, this leads me to checking out salaries (!) I’m still confused by it because internet articles state that the average salary is about PHP6000.00. I’m guessing managerial/supervisory positions earn more than that? Still thinking…
Observation #9 Cross at your own risk
I am no fan of motorcycles. I repeat, I am no fan of motorcycles. Motorcycle drivers here in Manila, especially in the service road where I live, are happy to criss-cross the road any time they please, regardless of road rules. As a commuter, apart from dilapidated jeepneys, they are the bane of my commuting existence.
So, imagine my horror the first time I tried to cross the streets of Vietnam. Ninety percent of the population uses motorcycles, motorbikes or scooters. In fact, more than taxis and buses, these two-wheeled motor vehicles are the Vietnamese commuter’s vehicle of choice. A friend of mine who has been in Vietnam several times told me that in crossing the street, you must not have any doubts, no second thoughts. The moment you step off the curb is the moment you start crossing the street and do not stop until you’ve reached the other side. Easier said than done when I have ingrained in me the safest street crossing process possible.
Vietnamese motorcycle drivers are expert dodgers. They are used to having people crossing the street at their own risk and would simply manoeuvre the vehicle to avoid you. And the cherry on top of the icing is, their main thoroughfares are wide, with lanes for motor bikes and lanes for cars on either side. My only consolation was that the Vietnamese were not right-hand drive people or else I probably would died.
Observation #10 Vietnam sells beautiful clothes which the locals do not wear
In one of the few articles I’ve read before going to Vietnam, it was stated that the country was also known for their tailors. And they did have beautiful clothes. One thing that really stood out for me was the artistry involved in their window displays. Vietnam had hundreds of small boutiques and each them showcased attractive window displays. I didn’t have the chance to visit these boutiques but I saw them on while on the bus and believe me, I just kept looking.
There were many shops that offered 24-hour tailoring services, order today, get the clothes tomorrow. It sounds great because it’s custom made and therefore would be made to your exact measurements. The evening gowns were lovely and casual wear was colourful. In a city filled with boutiques, it was surprising that close to none of the locals wore the clothes they sell. I noticed that the usual fare were t-shirts and jeans, sometimes sweaters to protect against the elements when riding a motorbike. There were helmets and face mask with cute designs, all geared towards the motor-bike commuter. But extremely few actually wore clothes similar to those sold in shops. So I wonder, were they wearing the beautiful clothes under the faded sweaters and jeans. I’ll never know.
Observation #11 Drip Coffee in Vietnam, Cambodiana in Cambodia
Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee next to Brazil. Therefore, it is no surprise that were coffee shops all over the HCMC. From tiny sidewalk cafes to classy Highlands coffee joints, coffee was everywhere. You can have it hot or iced, in some instances in frappe. You can have drip coffee (manual coffee presser) and condensed milk and it would tastes so good. And no Starbucks to be found! Vietnamese coffee really serves up a strong coffee flavour with mild sweetness. It’s awesome and it’s what I’ve been looking forward ever since my plane ticket was booked.
I’d hazard a guess that because Cambodia is also within the same region, they take their coffee seriously too. I got to taste the Cambodiana from Qahwa café and loved it’s refreshing taste!
Typically, I bought lots of coffee from Stall 949 to bring home – Highlands Special coffee (200g crushed beans with free drip filter) and three boxes of G7 instant coffee (recommended by a friend) which held 21 individual packs each. Needless to say too, my mother, who is a coffee enthusiast, was incredibly happy when I went home.
Observation #12 Almost all Vietnam establishments have WIFI
What I don’t understand with Manila, which has all the comforts and technology of the Western and Eastern cultures, cannot have free wifi in their establishments. Vietnam was the opposite. Almost all the restaurants we went to like Highlands Coffee, Burger King and Pho24 had FREE wifi.
I’m not sure if people recognize the importance of wifi. Free wifi is useful in the Android generation who use their multitude of gadgets to communicate with their friends and family. One need not need expensive telephone calls when WhatsApp, Viber and Skype are available. And this Android generation are THE tourists/backpackers. They are a huge untapped market for tourism, young individuals who have planned long term trips and are looking to expand their horizon by going through different countries and soaking up different cultures. Free wifi and hostels (see observation below) will open up more tourism (read: jobs) here in our country.
Observation #13 Vietnam and Cambodia know how to go the “backpacker” way
A friend of mine once told me that because it was a communist country, the land lots in Vietnam are all measured equally (hazard a guess of 100 sqm.) Therefore, if the Vietnamese would like more room, they’d have to build it upwards. Which is exactly what the Ho Chi Minh skyline looks like. There also most likely a limit to how high a 100 sqm building can go which why there are very few skyscrapers in HCMC. Because if it didn’t, you’d have thin, tall buildings all over the city (imagine: bamboo shoots!)
In Pham Ngu Lao, also known as the Western Sector, there are plenty of buildings, 100 sqm wide, 6 storeys tall. And these buildings all have one thing in common – they are all hostels. We stayed in Saigon Backpackers Hostel and they gave us the top most room which held three bunk beds shared between the 5 of us. Each bed cost $8 per night. So that’s $48 (PHP2000) for six beds. I pretty much spent PHP1,600 for the 4 nights that we were booked. Yes, it’s very cheap. And for that price, I got a good comfy bed, airconditioning, free breakfast, free towels, free wifi (though it was somewhat slow), working shower (hot and cold, but I couldn’t figure it out) and flush (with bidet), a key to my own locker and a key to the door of the room.
In Cambodia, we got the same price for five beds with airconditioning (though no free breakfast) at Angkor Mithona. The bathroom had a working flush and shower, free toothbrushes with tiny toothpaste containers and tiny soaps. There was also cable TV. That was good enough for me considering that our overnight stay in Cambodia was sudden and unexpected.
I have previously stayed in a hostel when I went to South Korea called Backpackers Korea in the Sinchon area. They also offered the same amenities at a really reasonable rate. And this got me thinking, was the Philippines also going the backpacker way? Upon my return home, I did some research and found out that we do have a backpacker area too, only it was not as plentiful or as developed as what I’d seen in Vietnam and Cambodia. Apparently, a lot of tourists only use Manila as an entry point, staying for about a night or two before heading off to Boracay, Palawan, Pagudpud, Sagada, Cebu, etc.
Truth be told, I didn’t feel that there was a lot to see in Ho Chi Minh. Most of the known tourist spots were located outside the city. This is not the same for Manila. In Manila alone, we have Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Luneta Park, Corregidor island(a boat ride away), Manila Bay (site of one of the best sunsets in the world) as well as the swinging party streets of Malate and Ermita. If the tourists are feeling adventurous, they can walk around Quiapo (snap photos of Quiapo Church, home of the Black Nazarene) or go shopping in Divisoria. Binondo is also nearby (food trip and Chinoy history) and transportation (from buses, jeeps, LRT, MRT, tricycles and pedicabs) are abundant. Still within the metro, we can find the Cultural Center, SM MOA and the youthful vibe of the University belt. I could go on and on but really, need I say more? All of these sights, sounds, tastes and experiences are missed by backpackers simply because there’s only a few places they could stay.
To end this piece, Khmer and Saigon at present times are incredibly similar to the Philippines. All three share history similar to countries in the region, one with a culture long past, where East and West now collide and with a future of so much potential.
My end reflection is that my country has incredible untapped possibilities. I actually started research on how to start a back packer hostel with all amenities I would like to have if I were the one traveling as well as possible city tours that can be as flexible as possible for the visitor. I don’t know where my research will take me but I do hope that for those who are already established in the realm of tourism and travel, this potential we have can be unleashed through their efforts. And maybe in the future, through mine. =)