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Miss Saigon? Probably Not.

The post where Sam babbles about scams, buses and sights in Vietnam

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Ah, here I am again, being force fed terrible Asian pop music as the headphone jack on this computer does not work. Oh, now the guy at the desk is singing along. Do the Vietnamese think foreigners love their renditions of love songs sang by teens who are in desperate need of a bang trimming? I'll never know. I do know that this is going to be a terrible post because not only do they force every one to listen to their favorite songs, they force it at the highest level. Subwoofers in my ear. What? You want to hear an example of the teenage love songs that bring me to my knees (and not in a fit of passion either)? Okay, you asked for it.

OH MY GOD. HE IS REPEATING THE SONG. Please. Stop. Singing. Ah, the treble...the treble is so terrible. I apologize for how bad this post is going to be. I can't even hear myself think.

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as everyone but the city's officials call it. When we arrived in Saigon, we liked it. It's a nice city. The traffic is terrible with scooters and taxis and people buzzing about like worker drones in a bee hive. But it's still (relatively) clean and well laid-out. It's hot and slightly smelly, but still nice. Or so we thought.

Our first night there, we got in a cab. Our hotel receptionist had warned us before leaving, "Be very careful if you are taking a taxi. Just be VERY CAREFUL." It was a little nervewracking. She didn't care to explain what to be wary of, just to be wary. Err? So we got into the cab we thought the hotel had called. After about one kilometer, we noticed the meter was high, okay incredibly higher, and ticking higher and higher with every block. It was a rigged meter. Obviously, most people would say something like stop, we can get out here. But it was our first night in Saigon! We were lost, confused, maybe even a little hurt by this scammery. We didn't get out of the cab until the meter reached over 200,000 VND ($10). It should have been a $2 ride at the MOST. We kept asking, "That's a lot of dong. Is your meter broken?" And he kept pointing and yelling "METER! METER!" I just kept saying, "Wow, that is very expensive. Lots of dong." And then he started yelling in Vietnamese and shouting, "METER." If you've never been shouted at by someone speaking Vietnamese, let me tell you -- it is not pleasant. We should have paid the $2 and left, but hey, we are new to this scam business. So we paid the inflated fare and pouted. We had been had. Turns out, there are fake taxis that copy the logos of the reputable companies. If you're in Vietnam, watch out for the fake cabs. Only take Ma Linh and Vina Sun. And make sure the logos are not copies. Also check for the drivers' IDs and rates on the cab's dash. At that moment, it was like a giant banner was rolled out, "WELCOME TO VIETNAM SAM AND AVERY! HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAAAY." It was just a sampling of things to come.

So here's the deal: All throughout our travels, we were warned by other travellers about Vietnam. They told us about the scams, the rip-offs, the negative attitude toward travellers. Remember the French dude in Bangkok -- "They (the VN) treat you like dogs!" So we thought we were prepared for it. Nope, two months in SE Asia did not give us the knowledge to travel through Vietnam without being ripped off.

Anyway, we couldn't find the restaurant. So we negotiated with a motorbike driver, who asked me if I "had baby inside" of me, to take us to a second place. Uh? Motorbike drivers have no tact. I knew that dress made me look fat. He brought us to the wrong place, asked for 20,000 more dong to take us to the right place then wouldn't give us our change. I was lucky to have enough in small bills to pay him his stupid 30,000 VND.

After those experiences, we walked. We walked all over sweaty, humid Saigon, feeling more than a bit slighted by the transportation system there. We went to the War Remnants Museum, which was both sad and interesting. What I know of the Vietnam war I learned through American movies, a couple books and my father. So it was interesting to learn about the war through the stories of survivors, photos and artifacts. The Agent Orange exhibit was disturbing. Babies are still being born with birth defects. I had no idea the destruction of the chemicals were so recent. I nearly cried during that exhibit. They spare no gorey details in the photos, which they shouldn't. We also visited The Reunification Palace and an art museum. Both interesting.

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(He is still singing.)

A big thing in Saigon's backpacker district is drinking ridiculously cheap beer (50 cents for a bottle) on the street. Yes, on the street. Foreigners pay to drink beerand sit on child-sized plastic stools in the sidewalks and streets. It's funny to see so many large Westerners nearly breaking the tiny hot pink and bright red stools beneath them. For a 1.50, I had some decent local beer and some great people watching. Best part? When the police drove up to make sure no one was sitting in the road. Of course, everyone was sitting in the road. So the husky Vietnamese shop owners began throwing the pink and red stools onto the sidewalk as the confused and slightly frightened tourists stared. I've never seen women of that size move so quickly. When the police left, everyone moved back into the streets. Too funny. I didn't get a great photo, so http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-photo/haz14/1/1261578939/more-street-drinking-it-s-the-vietnam-way.jpg/tpod.html) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!) is someone else's! Ha.

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One morning in Saigon, I decided it was way too hot for sight-seeing. So I hauled Avery and I onto a local bus (ticket price: 25 cents) to the waterpark! For five bucks, we spent the afternoon going down slides, intimidating children, floating down the lazy river and whatnot. Good fun. We went down this slide with a Vietnamese guy, and I think my screams of horror/delight terrified him. Poor guy. That slide was the boooommbbb.

We went to the big market in Saigon as well. There, we were blown away by the prices. In Cambodia, vendors start at $3 for a t-shirt. We usually paid $1-2. In Vietnam, vendors start at $15 for a shirt that is only worth $2-3! It's ridiculous how much they go up. It takes about 10 minutes to negotiate them down, all the while they are trying to make you feel guilty. As one lady told Avery, "Just buy the shirt! We are tired and want to go hoooome!" :p I've just stopped buying things in Vietnam because the negotiation process is just so grueling. So everyone, you'll be getting your souvenirs from Laos!

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A nice demonstration of weasel coffee in a Saigon market. Did I try it you ask?! MAIS BIEN SUR! It was okay. Kind of sweet.

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After this photo was taken, we were forced to buy a coconut.

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After the heat, scams and pollution (enough that my throat started to ache), we went north to Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. There we met up with two great guys from the Easy Riders, a motorcycle club that shows tourists around that part of Vietnam. But this is for another post, as there is so much to say. Avery will be writing that one.

After Dalat, we ended up in Nha Trang, the big tourist resort in Vietnam. It was full of Russians. So many that the restaurants print their menus in Russian! Avery got a sunburn; I got owned by a massive wave.

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Then we got on a night bus to Hoi An.

Oooh the dreaded night bus. I had refused to take them in Vietnam, as I'm already terrified of the Vietnameses' driving practices during the day. I was sure I would never wake up from a night bus. NIGHT BUS STRAIGHT TO HEEELLL.

Okay, I exaggerate. We may not have departed in hell, but the bus ride was straight from the bowels of hell itself. I do not exaggerate here -- I will probably be needing chiropractic services in my old age from that ride. It was that bad. On these buses, you're forced to lie at a terribly awkward 45 degree angle on a foam pad. A human's back is not built for this. There are three rows of beds, stacked two high. There are no emergency exits; there are two doors, but one is blocked by luggage. Are you hyperventilating yet? No? I'll keep trying. So you and 29 other people have only one exit to all fight for if your bus driver: falls asleep during the 16 hour ride, goes off a cliff, runs into a tree, runs over a biker/pedestrian/chicken/cow/all of the above,etc. It's terrible. And the roads! I rode a country bus for nine years. Those roads were like gliding on ice compared to what my poor spine experienced during those 16 hours of lying in something akin to a coffin. I digress. It was terrible.

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We arrived in Hoi An, slightly shaken and quite bruised but gloriously alive. Hoi An is a cute city in the middle of the Vietnam coast. It's so cute that UNESCO named it a world heritage sight! Other than get a suit made and see "the countryside," there isn't much to do. Well, after three days on a motorcycle, we were all countrysided out. So, we went shopping! I had a dress and a coat made. Avery had a suit made. He looked damn fine. Even the seamstress thought so, as she kept stroking his butt and saying, "These pants make your bum look so nice." Then the seamstress and I would high-five, and I'd be like yeaah, that's mine. Okay, not really. But she did say that, and I did smile and nod at her when she asked if I thought his "bum" looked good in those pants. She was like 8 1/2 months pregnant, so she could grab his butt all day for all I cared. Haha. Some quality work! We went to Kimmy's by the way, if you're reading this and wondering how long it will take for me to get to the point.

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MEOW.
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After Hoi An, I said NO MORE NIGHT BUSES AVERY. And we took the train to Hanoi. It was pretty expensive, but my claustrophobia has been so exacerbated by this trip. I don't even care if I have to pay $20 more to avoid having a panic attack.

The train is much more comfortable, unless you have noisy cabin mates...

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My discussion of the train and the finer points of Vietnam are for another post. There is no heat our current location, the misty mountain of Sapa, and I can't feel my fingers anymore. Oy. This tropical weather has really made me into a cold-weather-fearing pansy.

Tomorrow, we take the night train to Hanoi then fly to Vientienne, the capital of Laos! How excited am I to go to Laos? Well, I am so excited that I called Laos Airlines today and said, "Get me out of here! Can I switch my flight date?!" And now we leave on the 15th. Caaan't wait. Why am I so excited to get to Laos? Well, you'll have to read the next post.

Ciao!

P.S. Can you believe we'll be back in less than a month?! Crazy.

P.P.S. Are you still reading? Your reward is a photo. I found the photos of stuck van in Cambodia. So good. Also, check out the views behind Avery. Ah, so pretty.

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Posted by Sam.and.Avery 04:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged taxi beach waves bus vietnam sun saigon hoi_an dress tailor scams ho_chi_minh nha_trang suits sleeper_bus night_bus war_remnants Comments (1)

Crossing Into Cambodia

Adventures with fake officials, scamming tuk tuks and taxi mafias on the Thai-Cambodian border

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"Do you want to go to Cambodia?" I asked Avery as we sped down a highway in Krabi Province, Thailand in a van full of foreigners. "It makes sense." Outside, the limestone karsts rose above the jungle, like sand castles made by giants.

We had planned to head north from the islands to Chiang Mai, looking forward to the cooler temperatures and rugged terrain of the north. Then the girl next to me asked to see our Lonely Planet guide. We exchanged travel routes. "Oh, we're doing that too -- just backwards," she explained. They were heading to Cambodia once they reached Bangkok. By heading to Cambodia first, they'd be missing the sickening March/April heat of the hot season. By then, they'd be in the cooler northern reaches of SE Asia.

Avery and I had a little chat, and it was decided. We'd reverse our travel route, hoping to save me from some massive heat rash and the perpetual 95 degree days of Cambodia in the hot season.

Buses, Trains and Scams

The bus ride from (somewhere around) Krabi to Bangkok wasn't too bad. Except for the overweight French couple (I thought French people didn't get fat?), who kept waking me up with their butts every time they got up from their bus seat. We arrived in Bangkok around 4:30 a.m. and headed for Khao San Road, fabled backpacker ghetto. At this time, we thought everything would be closed up. But, oh right, this is Bangkok. Fueled by booze and Asian strength drugs, the partiers of KSR were going strong into the night. The 24-hour bar was blasting their American Top 40s, and the beer was flowing. We walked over to the 24-hour bar. "I need to stay awake," I said to Avery. There would be no sleeping at this establishment.

We chatted with a French guy who had accompanied us all the way from Railay Beach. He talked about his travels, including his time in northern Vietnam. After having his camera stolen on a bus there, he is a permanent hater. "They treat you like a dog," he said and made the poo-poo motion that only the French can make. (Say that quote in a THICK French accent, much better.)

The server never came over to us, so we never got a drink. Then at 5:20 a.m. we said good bye to ze Frenchman and headed to Samsen Road for a cab. But first we stopped at McDonald's so I could satiate my grease craving. Ah, Micky D hashbrowns.

We went through three cabs before we found one that would turn on the meter. First guy wanted 200 Baht, next one 100 Baht, the last one turned on the meter and we paid 53 Baht. Scammers. I'm sure they were waiting for the drunks, not sober backpackers.

We bought two tickets at the train station to the border, 48 Baht each. That's like $1.60. On the train, we met a couple from Canada who were living in Bangkok and going on an visa run to Cambodia. The guy (didn't get his name) had been in the Philippines doing research for his grad paper about the media there. The Philippines has the second highest rate of murdered journalists. One of my favorite parts about traveling this way is talking to people you meet along the way. It's really opened my mind to the myriad of opportunities that are present in the world. There are so many more ways to live, work and learn than I had imagined.

Our First Border Crossing

We arrived to the Arapaythet/Poipet border after five hours on the train. As soon as we disembarked, there was a bevy of annoying tuk tuk drivers waiting to take weary travelers to the border. "Tuk tuk to the border, miss?" an incredibly persistent driver asked as he followed me around. Annoyed, I shot back, "Okay, how much?" "Eighty baht." "Okay, let's go," I replied.

Off we went, passing buses, scooters and tuk tuks as we cruised down the red, dusty road. He stopped at a unofficial looking building. "Border. You get off here," he said.

Now, this was not the border. It didn't look anything like the border. I've been to Canada. I know what a border crossing was. For anyone attempting this border crossing, listen up. The drivers will take you to this building, where someone in a uniform will ask you to come inside and receive your Cambodian visa. DON'T GO IN THERE. That is not the crossing, and they may give you a visa. But you will pay way too much for it. I think they charge 1,000 Baht. It should only be $20.

"This is not the border crossing," I said. "Please take us to the border."
"Yes, this is the border."
"No, no it is not."
"This does not look like a border," Avery added.

The tuk tuk driver knew we weren't going to be fooled. Again, I demanded, "Where is the border?" He shrugged and pointed down the road. We paid, even though he did not take us the border. Then as we walked by, we were verbally assaulted by several uniformed people telling us to get inside for our visas. Ha, not today suckers! It's a good thing we read up on this crossing.

Then, we spent forever looking for a bank to exchange our Thai Baht into US Dollars (main currency used in Cambodia). All of the banks refused. UGH. We had read the Cambodian side was notorious for ripping people off during exchange. But no one in Thailand would do it.

We then set out for the crossing. My new rule is when in doubt, follow the locals. They all headed for a very poorly marked outdoor hallway that led to the border. We got in the foreigner line, which was long and filled with backpackers. And then, fast forward: stamp out of Thailand, welcome to Cambodia where we don't use signs to tell you which way to go, Cambodian visa ($20 plus 100 Baht that the custom officials pocket), take your picture, stamp your passport, okay now Welcome to Cambodia.

It was a long long process, but we did it without getting (relatively) scammed.

Illegal Taxi or Legal Taxi?

Next step was to find a way to Siem Reap. In Poipet, the taxis are run by the mafia. Once we passed through Immigration, we were accosted by a pushy, albeit friendly, representative of said mafia. With sparkling English, he told us to please take this free (woopdeedoo!) shuttle to the bus station. The tourist bus station, mind you.

I was pretending that I didn't hear him and kept walking. Then a guy came up to me and said, "Here, you can take a legal taxi or you can take an illegal taxi." I'm guessing he was the illegal taxi. I was never able to find out my options because the mafia rep ran up to me and pretty much verbally hauled us on the "free" shuttle.

At the station, we were presented with an overpriced taxi. Okay, it was only $12 each for a two hour ride. But that's a lot of dollas for this area of the world. And there are no negotiations. So we paid our fare and waited for the next taxi.

We waited in the cab for the two other occupants, who turned out to be two very disgruntled Canadians. "We paid for a private taxi," said the wife, obviously annoyed. Avery and I shrugged.

Turns out, the Canadians were actually very nice people. They had been to Cambodia in 2001 and were back again for more exploring. They pointed out all the things that had changed since their visit. Hospitals had been built, roads had been paved. "It looks like they're doing very well," she kept saying.

We talked about the US and the financial crisis. A lot of the older people meet always ask us about our political views and how we feel about Obama and the way the country is moving. It's interesting to hear foreigners' opinions. But they definitely love to hear what Americans think. The conversation is never a happy one.

Then, the car suddenly stopped at a food stall on the side of the road. A Khmer woman opened my door, "Hello, the car driver alway stop here to wash car. Please come in and buy something."

We watched a guy briefly spray off the hood with a pressure hose, while the shopkeeper kept trying to sell her overpriced wares. Here, drivers get commission for bringing unwilling travelers to their shops. I think this is the fourth time this has happened to us.

Two hours after Poipet, we reached Siem Reap. The taxi was supposed to drive us to our hotels. But instead, he delivered us to the hands of some ravenous tuk tuk drivers. We said good bye to the Canadians, who were whisked off in a tuk tuk to their posh Siem Reap resort.

Our tuk tuk driver said he did not know where our hotel was, despite us having the address. Siem Reap is not that big of a town. Another told us the address was too far out. He wouldn't take us. We did not have a phone or internet access. It was so incredibly frustrating. Stuck outside Siem Reap with a bunch of uncooperative tuk tuk drivers.

It was so frustrating because they did know where it was. They just refused to take us there, hoping we'd cave and be driven to one of their "suggested guesthouses," where they would then collect a nice commission. If a driver says he knows a nice place, don't listen. Usually it will be crap and not like it is in the photos.

Eventually we got to Hak's House, which is a very lovely guesthouse. I'd definitely recommend the place if you're ever visiting Siem Reap.

Then, we had some dinner and fell asleep. After all, we had just traveled from the south of Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 26 straight hours. Plus, we were getting up at 4:30 a.m. to visit Angkor Wat!

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 02:03 Archived in Cambodia Tagged taxi cambodia thailand border_crossing border tuk_tuk poipet scams paks_house Comments (1)

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