Phu My is the port town for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) , which is 2 hours away by bus/taxi. There isn’t much to do, if anything nearby, requiring everyone to plan on 4 hours in a bus or taxi if you wanted to visit HCMC. Judy and I arranged a private 3 day, 2 night tour to Angor Wat with 7 other people. We will leave the ship here and rejoin the ship in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
- First a little background about independent overnight adventures in general and our trip in particular.
- The savings for a do-it-yourself overland tour can be considerable, around 60%-70%, but you have to do all the planning work and assume all risks. If something goes haywire, YOU have to figure it out – you can’t sit by and watch the HAL escort figure it out. I will be putting together an article titled “How To Plan an Independent Overnight Adventure” later and will be posting it on the blog under the shore excursion tab. While ship tours are expensive by comparison, you are getting a lot for your money, but much of what you are getting you may not need or value. For example, they are completely escorted and you don’t have to think or worry about any contingencies. Mobility assistance and planning is available. If the ship schedules changes or your own trip is delayed, the ship will either wait, or arrange for your return to the ship at their expense. If the ship cancels the port, you can get a full refund which may not be possible with your own tour. All of these benefits are nice, but not free, which is why the ship tours cost more. If you can live without these benefits you can save money but buyer beware. Since we are experienced travelers without any mobility issues and are comfortable dealing with issues on the fly, we often plan independent trips, but we always have our plan B figured out in advance
- Our trip itinerary is as follows: –
- March 9th – Arrive Phu My – Prearranged guide/driver and bus to take us on HCMC tour and drop at airport. Fly to Siem Reap, meet prearranged guide & driver, overnight a at 4 star hotel.
- March 10th – Tour Angkor Wat and environs, overnight in Siem Reap.
- March 11th – Fly to Phnom Penn and meet prearranged guide/driver for city tour and transport to Sihanoukville (4 hours away) to meet the ship.
- Total Cost $850 pp all inclusive
Our tour company said our driver would meet us on the pier with a sign. But you are never 100% sure where that may be as sometimes ship tour busses get special access to the port areas and independent tours may not. Our party met near the Ocean Bar at 7am and we left the ship as a group. There weren’t any delays with weather or immigration like we experienced in Da Nang so we were on the pier right on time. We passed thru the Vietnamese immigration tent quickly – there were no lines as we were leaving before any of the ship tours. Once we had our landing cards stamped, Cruise director Gene gestured helpfully and told me that our driver and bus was right over there – pointing to the end of a long line of busses. Our guide was nearby and our group was pleasantly surprised that our transportation for 9 people (11 with guide/driver) was a 29 passenger bus. We had lots of room to spread out and everyone could have their own window if desired.
Mr Chin was our guide. He spoke excellent English with a wonderful personality and sense of humor. The traffic was light all the way to HCMC and we arrived in 90 minutes, 30 minutes faster than the plan. Most of the trip was on 6 lane divided highways (3 lanes in each direction) and there was a stretch where they had 3 lanes each way for cars and another 3 lanes each way for motorbikes. In the median of most roads were red banners displaying the national red star, the communist parties hammer and sickle symbol along with Ho Chi Minh quotes and other motivational messages.
We would learn, once again (the first time from our Da Nang guide) that very few locals refer to HCMC as HCMC preferring to call the city by its historical name: Saigon.
Traffic started to back up once we entered the city and left the expressways. For the rest of the day our bus would be moving around with relative ease consistent with normal big city traffic: slow, but never jammed and we always kept moving. The traffic signals had either red or green countdown timers that informed drivers how many seconds remained until the light changed color. Interesting concept!
Our first stop was the Presidents Palaces that was in use until 1975 by the South Vietnamese Government. This is a very popular stop with tourists and shortly after we arrived, the HAL tour busses pulled up and we saw a few of our tablemates and other friends who were on day tours. The palace exhibits and rooms, covering 3 floors, are well-marked with placards in front of any significant room or area. The information on the signs were surprisingly objective and were lacking any disparaging references to the former South Vietnamese occupants or visiting US presidents and dignitaries. The palace was in excellent material condition and didn’t show any signs of damage or vandalism that may have occurred in 1975, so it was either repaired or never occurred in the first place.
A short distance away is the Central Post Office, but since there wasn’t any place for a bus to park, our driver dropped us off and would return once we were finished. The post office was built in the late 1800’s and is still in use today. Inside there is a large archway with skylights, 30 to 40 feet high, letting in natural light, running down the building’s central area. A large painting of Ho Chi Minh is on the far wall with a painted map on either side wall showing Saigon on one and South Vietnam and Cambodia on the other. Located across the street from the Central Post Office is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. The church was built about the same time as the post office. The church was open and we were able take a look inside, noticing that interiors in both buildings have similar, high arched ceilings.
The War Remnants Museum was our next stop and is only a short distance away from the Central Post Office. It depicts the Vietnam War from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. It is understandingly selective about what information is displayed and how it is presented. They had a large exhibit on “American War Crimes” – featuring the My Lai Massacre and an incident involving Senator Bob Kerry in 1969 near a hamlet called Thanh Phong. I was previously unaware of the Thanh Phong incident and the facts are not nearly as clear as those surrounding My Lai, but I have not had an opportunity to research much more than a Wikipedia entry. Not surprisingly, none of the horrific conduct by the North Vietnamese is mentioned and I didn’t have time to fully read all the panels in this area. There is another exhibit that shows the aftermath and human suffering caused by Agent Orange. The other exhibits are more objective including a large exhibit of photographs that is sponsored by United Airlines and United Parcel Service that fairly depicts the war and the suffering all the way around. We only had 40 minutes here and I could have easily spent another hour or two. I didn’t have time to look at any of the outside exhibits displaying abandoned US military equipment.
The Fine Arts Museum was our next stop which was located in an old French Colonial Villa that is supposedly haunted. There is a large variety of Vietnamese art, but there is very little information about what you are looking at or its significance. If you would find this interesting, then you probably already know all about it and can’t wait to see it in person. If you have never heard of it, then I would take a pass and spend more time somewhere else. This is a spot I would not recommend to others.
It was almost noon, which was the starting time for a religious ceremony at the Cao Dai Temple on Tran Hung Dao Street. It turned out that this ceremony would also include a funeral as part of the service. The men and women were separated and led to different observation areas on either side of the second floor where there was a small walkway overlooking the center of the Temple, 1 floor below. We didn/t understand anything being said, but we observed that the ceremony was very ritualistic with everyone praying and responding to music, drum beats and commands spoken by speakers either recorded or not visible from where we were standing. Since this was also a funeral there was a lot of activity not normally present in the standard service. Our guide said the service normally takes about 30 minutes, but after 30 minutes it was still going strong so we had to leave before the service ended.
Our guide asked us earlier where were wanted to eat lunch and since this was not included we had some choices. We all wanted something fast and local. He picked a place called PHO 2000 which sold a variety of pho noodles and other food that could be prepared easily and served fast. It also turned out to be quite popular with tours putting us right in the middle of swarming tourists, some from HAL and most from other tour companies. We all ordered various types of pho – beef, chicken or seafood were the big choices. President Clinton visited this restaurant in 2000 and they have included this fact into the logo of the restaurant which now includes the phrase “Pho for the President.” They also displayed some jumbo sized reprints that ran in the local papers after his visit. The Pho was outstanding and we all enjoyed it very much.
Our final stop in HCMC was a garden variety tourist shop where we stopped at our request. Everyone wanted to pick up a T-shirt or something and this was as good a place as any.
We arrived at the Airport at 2:30 for our 4:30 flight to Siem Reap on Vietnam Airlines. There were several Vietnam Airline counters processing people for the various flights. We weren’t clear if it mattered which line we chose, so we asked someone and were directed to a line on the B side of the check in counters. After a few minutes an airline employee motioned us to go over the A side of the check in counters, which was a short walk. We chose the shortest of the 2 lines until someone directed us to a third line which was just opening and shorter still. We never did understand if it really mattered which line we were in and I suspect that airline employees may have simply been helpful in directing us to shorter lines that became available. Once we got to the front, we were checked in promptly, received our boarding passes and were on our way thru security.
Security was identical to what you would find in the USA. Belts off, computers on trays, liquids in bags etc. On the other side of security was Immigration where they stamped our passports with an exit stamp, and stamped our single visit visa as USED. The landing cards we were given earlier are for use with the Group Visa the ship obtained for most people and we really didn’t need them since we had individual visas, but the people in the tents on the pier in Da Nang and Phu My were looking to stamp a landing card and nothing else. No one at the airport cared to see our landing cards.
Now that we were inside the terminal we found our way to the gate to wait until our flight boarded in about an hour. The airport had free WiFi and the speed was OFF THE CHARTS Fast. I have an app that measures internet speed and this WiFi literally pegged the needle at over 128 MPS. To give you some scale – the ship barely clocks in at 1 MPS and your typical home will have somewhere between 5 and 50 depending on what level you purchase from your provider. 5 MPS is the minimum to stream NETFLiX using HD but you get much better results with something in the teens. Over 100 MPS is very, very fast. Now maybe they just rebooted their system and I was the first person to log on, but whatever the reason it was very fast for me – as always YMMV.
Once it was time to board, there was a single call for everyone to board – no zones or priority access or anything. There was a separate lane available for people in business class. The airplane was an Airbus A321 with a clean looking interior. They packed in an extra 3 rows over the A321 American Airlines flies, but it was OK for a 35 minute flight. Takeoff safety checks were in Vietnamese and English and were similar to what you would experience on any airline. We pushed back on time, but waited over 30 minutes to takeoff despite a short taxi.
After we were airborne service consisted of passing out bottles of water, which is more than you would get on a USA flight of similar length. We spent most of the flight completing the Cambodian customs and immigration forms which were very straightforward and in English.
Siem Reap airport is very small, without any jetways. They use two mobile airstairs (one forward and one aft) to get on and off the planes and since we were in row 36, we were one of the first people off the plane by leaving via the aft door. We had to walk about 200 yards outside to get into the terminal. If mobility assistance was available, it wasn’t evident. Once inside the terminal, there was an overhead sign pointing to the left for passport control or another sign pointing straight ahead for a VISA on arrival. We all had E-visas that we obtained on line so we didn’t experience how long or complicated the visa on arrival process might have been. Getting an Evisa is very easy and there is no reason not to get one if you plan to fly info Cambodia. Immigration was fast and simple – no questions asked or answered and customs was similar. Someone collected your form and never really looked at what you had written down.
Our guide and driver were waiting as expected. We were pleased to find that we were on a 21 passenger bus and were soon on our way to the Hotel. We arrived at the Tara Angkor Hotel in about 20 minutes and checking in was a breeze. They collected our passports grouped by who was staying in the same room. After about 10 minutes they returned with all of our passports and room keys. Tomorrow would be an early and long day. The bus would pick us up at 5:45 AM and we wouldn’t finish until 9PM that evening.
A few folks in our group jumped on the Tuk Tuks, a motorcycle pulling a covered carriage, for a short ride downtown to shop and eat. We were exhausted and elected to eat in the hotel and get to bed earlier than normal. Our 5:00 AM wakeup call would come all too soon.
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