Exploring Indochina: Expenses

You’ve already read it from countless travel blogs yet you still think that you need to have lots of moolah to travel, so I’m giving you another proof to debunk that notion.
 
Below is a breakdown of our Indochina expenses per country and per item so you can have an idea of how much you need per day to get by.

 

Yes, you don’t need to break the bank to travel to three countries for more than a week.

 

ACCOMMODATION

1 – 3 nights accommodation based on twin sharing

2 – 3 nights accommodation based on twin sharing – Amount indicated is just an estimate since we got a package (accommodation + tour) from the guesthouse.
 
33 nights accommodation based on twin sharing – Amount is significantly higher than our Vietnam and Cambodia accommodations because we stayed in a hotel.
You can obviously bring down the cost further if you don’t mind staying in backpacker hostels or if you’re traveling with a group.

 

FOOD & DRINKS

VietnamFood is very cheap in Vietnam. A bowl of Pho costs about VND40,000 ($2/Php80)

Cambodia – Food and water can be quite expensive since prices are in US Dollars. A meal can cost between $3 – $6. By the way, the buffet with Apsara dance ($8) is included in the cost above.
 
Thailand – We ate a LOT in Bangkok but we still did not spend much. Yes, we survived on street foods (if you’re not picky)! 😀 Typical meal can cost between THB30 – THB50 ($1-$2).

TRANSPORTATION

4 Cost includes airport pickup and bus from Vietnam to Cambodia

5 – Cost includes tuk-tuk/remork for Angkor tour and bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok

 

TOUR & ENTRANCE FEES

Vietnam – Includes Mekong Delta tour, Cu Chi Tunnel tour and admission
Cambodia – Includes one day Angkor pass and tour guide fee
 
Thailand – Includes entrance to Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace, and Wat Pho

 

SOUVENIR

Cost obviously varies for this one. 

Vietnam – We bought souvenirs from Benh Thanh Market which is a tourist trap. We found out the Saigon shirt we got for VND250,000 can be bought for only VND125,000 from a souvenir shop in Pham Ngu Lao.

Cambodia – We went to Angkor Night Market but went home empty-handed. Again, we were turned off because items are priced in US Dollars.
 
Thailand – We bought most of the souvenirs in Khao San Road. Unfortunately, our last day in Bangkok fell on a Friday so we weren’t able to shop much in Chatuchak.

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Includes laundry, tip/gratuity, IDD call (because my roaming wasn’t working) 

***

If you do the math, we only spent roughly about Php5,000.00 per country! It may not be the cheapest, but it’s not that expensive either. 🙂

Exploring Indochina: Moc Bai-Bavet Border Crossing

After our last breakfast in Bich Duyen, we were picked up by the Mekong Express staff around 7:00 am and were led to the bus parked across the other side of Pham Ngu Lao. They handed us a copy of the receipt ($22 per head) and we boarded the bus.
 
There was nothing fancy about the bus except that it has its own toilet (W.C. as in water closet as it is commonly called in Vietnam and Cambodia). While waiting for other passengers, we were handed arrival/departure cards to fill out. The staff collected (I think) $20-$25 and ID photos from tourists who require visa on arrival (VOA). Being Filipinos and members of ASEAN, we can enter Cambodia without visa and stay for a maximum of 30 days.
 
As soon as everybody was onboard, the bus left. Shortly after, the staff started distributing bottled water, cold towels, and snacks.
  Each box contained a slice of strawberry chiffon cake and some kind of meat pie.
Since it was still early, I took a nap knowing that the border was still 3 hours away. Before we reached the border, the staff collected our passports with the accomplished arrival card. Upon reaching Moc Bai Immigration, everyone was asked to proceed to the immigration building. Take note that you have to bring your bags. It has to pass through the scanner.
 
After the security check, we waited for the Mekong Express staff to call out our names and hand us back our stamped passports. Before exiting the building, there will be another immigration staff that’s going to check your passport. Then it’s time to head back to the bus.
 
Anybody know what this ‘monument’ is for?
Rear view of the Moc Bai Immigration building I took from the bus. For some strange reason, it reminds me of the Sky Terrace in Victoria Peak, Hong Kong.
 
Faster than I can say ‘Cambodia’, we were already in Bavet Immigration. It was literally just a stone’s throw away but we still boarded the bus going there.
Welcome to Cambodia!
 
Unlike earlier where we had to bring our bags, this time we just went inside the building, lined up, and waited for our turn in the immigration. I was surprised they had biometric scanners here. First they will scan your right hand, right thumb, left hand, then left thumb before they hand your stamped passport.
Officially in Cambodia
 
After passing the immigration and numerous casinos, we stopped by a Khmer restaurant for lunch then we’re off to Phnom Penh – another 3 hour bus ride and a river crossing.
Vendors aboard the ‘ferry’
Short river crossing
 
Upon reaching Phnom Penh, others were dropped off the market while those heading straight to Siem Reap stayed in the bus until we reached the Mekong Express office.
First glimpse of Phnom Penh
 
We arrived at their office past 2:00 PM and had to wait for another bus that will take us to Siem Reap. Too bad our second bus seemed older and had very poor air conditioning. I think we left their office past 3:00 PM and, again, were served with bottled water, cold towels, and snacks.
Another meat pie and ‘chewy’ bun with toasted sesame seeds. It was not much but enough to fill our tummies for another 6 hour ride
 
In those six hours I just slept, listened to my iPod, slept, listened to my iPod *repeat cycle*. While the view might be something new for Westerners, really I just felt like I traveled from Laguna to Baguio passing by Tarlac and other provinces in between. LOL The scenery is almost the same except for the temples of course and that I’m heading somewhere hotter.
 
Final stopover was at Kampong Thom. It was already dark and I overheard another passenger say that the travel time took a bit longer than usual. Anyway, we stopped by this restaurant but we decided to just have dinner when we get to our guesthouse. After more than 30 minutes, we left the restaurant along with new passengers. It was a bit scary from this point because the road to Siem Reap was really dark.
 
Don’t be misled by the word ‘limousine’
 
If you don’t have reservations in Siem Reap and have not arranged for a pickup service, Mekong Express can also get you a tuk-tuk for $2. In our case, I have already pre-arranged pick-up service from our guesthouse so our tuk-tuk was already waiting for us when we arrived at the Mekong Express terminal in Siem Reap.
 
How I was able to endure a 13-hour bus ride — well that, my friends, is the advantage of having a sedentary lifestyle. LOL It wasn’t as butt-numbing as I thought. :p And unless you have a penchant for Khmer music videos, then better make sure that your gadgets are fully charged.
 
P.S.
 
Good news for Filipinos planning to visit Cambodia, you might not have to endure the half day bus ride after all because there are direct flights from Manila to Cambodia.

Exploring Indochina: Down and Dirty in Cu Chi Tunnels

We booked a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels on our second day in Vietnam.

The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the, and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. – from Wikipedia
 
Our tour guide for the day: Mr. Binh; half-Filipino, half-Vietnamese war veteran
 

Upon boarding the bus, we were given stickers with the letter ‘B’ on it to put on our shirts so that Mr. Binh would know that we are part of his group. The guy has lots of stories about the tunnels as well as personal experiences of the Vietnam War. He gets a bit emotional sometimes while recounting the past.

Before we reached our stopover, Mr. Binh said he had to go to another bus since his colleague is not as good at telling stories, and that he would just meet us again in Cu Chi Tunnels.
 
We stopped by the Handicapped Handicrafts lacquer ware factory

The craftsmanship is impeccable but most items come with a hefty price tag.  

***
Upon reaching Cu Chi Tunnels, we went through some sort of underpass before emerging in the ‘forest’. There, we sat down to watch a documentary of why and how the Viet Congs built the tunnels. Mr. Binh also showed us the diagram of the tunnels; it was three layers deep with several chambers for cooking, sleeping etc. the bottom layer served as an escape route.
 
The Viet Congs may not be as buff as the Americans but they sure know how to use this to their advantage. The Cu Chi Tunnels are testament to their resourcefulness.

Trap door with deadly spikes underneath

sniper hole

 
More traps can be seen in the Self-made Weapons Gallery. Another proof of the Viet Congs’ ingenuity.
 

After seeing the different kinds of booby traps, we took a break and had refreshments near the shooting range. I’m not kidding! We were serenaded by gun shots while eating ice cream LOL. By the way, they only have snacks so better eat heavy breakfast before joining the tour.

After the break, it was now time to enter the tunnel!

One of the exits. The tunnels are made of clay so the bombings only reinforced it.

At the entrance. Definitely not for claustrophobics!

See the guy behind me? We still had to go down a bit and make our way through the zigzagging tunnel. It was made that way so that American soldiers couldn’t fire at the Viet Congs.

To attract more tourists, they made the tunnels a bit wider and higher to accommodate westerners. So while they did the duck walk, I was able to tread just by bending at the waist. I thought it was pitch-black inside so I brought my flashlight. Good thing lights were placed sporadically.

At first it was a bit cool since the walls were kind of moist, but the deeper you go and as more people enter (with people before you stopping periodically to take pictures) it gets a bit exhausting so we just did the first 30 meters and went out.
 
Finally, here’s a short video of our Cu Chi Tunnels experience (please forgive the amateur editing haha):
 


K


Exploring Indochina: Mekong Delta Tour (My Tho – Ben Tre)

We were supposed to join the Mekong Delta tour starting at 7:45 am but exhaustion got the best of us. Good thing Chanh was able to book us for the next pickup at 8:15 am. We learned that day that guides pick up tourists from the hotels before heading to the bus.
 
By 8:30 we were already aboard but we still picked up more tourists along the way. I think at about 9:00 am the bus was already full so our guide introduced himself.
 
IMG_2172  This is our guide, Zett. (I hope I got his name right)

 

TOUR GUIDE JOKE #1: “Okay, good morning. Today, we go to Cambodia. Everybody here going to Cambodia right?” *insert cricket sounds here* (I bet some got worried there for a second. LOL)

Zett then gave us an overview of our itinerary for the day.

A sheet of paper was handed for us to sign our names, nationalities, number of days we’re taking the Mekong Delta tour (multi-day tours are also available), and the hotel we’re staying at because this is their way of collecting payments from the hotels.

About an hour or so, we arrived at our stopover: a hammock restaurant. We took a break for 15-20 minutes, went back to the mini bus, and traveled again for more than an hour.  We passed by some rice paddy fields and, again, Zett made a funny remark (not entirely a joke since I believe part of it is true).

TOUR GUIDE FUNNY REMARK #2: “In Vietnam, cremation is very expensive so people bury their dead in the middle of rice paddy fields. This also makes Vietnamese rice very good. And today, we have rice for lunch.” LOL

Zett proceeds to tell us more about the Mekong River. If you don’t know yet, the Mekong runs through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Simply put, it is the lifeblood for most of these countries.

Half an hour later we arrived at the dock. Here, the group was split. Those taking only the 1 day tour were asked to bring all belongings while those taking the 2-3 days tour can leave their bags on the mini bus.
 

IMG_2177

The dock
We were given this map. You can see the four main islands namely Unicorn, Dragon, Phoenix, and Tortoise.
 

Did you know that there’s a huge demand for Mekong sand? Tons and tons of sand from the Mekong are exported to Singapore.

TOUR GUIDE JOKE #3: “Please stay together and follow me. The island is big. Easy to get lost. If you get lost, you become a farmer forever.”

Within a few minutes, we arrived at our first destination: Unicorn Island.

First stop was at a beekeeping farm. Zett showed us the bees still in their artificial honeycomb plates.
The queen bee’s in there somewhere so you definitely don’t want to mess with the tour guide.

We sat down and were served warm honey tea with some banana chips, candied ginger and peanut brittle (?). Of course these are just samplers and the main goal is for you to buy these products.IMG_2194IMG_2193
I don’t think anybody from the group bought a single product so they unleashed their pet python. LOL
IMG_2200
Of course I’m just kidding! But ain’t she purty? :p You can have a photo op with her.

We then went on to the highlight of the trip (at least for me) – the rowing boat trip! We took a short trek and passed by a hamlet and some souvenir stalls along the way.

NOTE: If you don’t want your fingers to be squashed, keep your hands inside the boat!

Here’s a short video of our boat experience:

NOTE: The boat rower will ask you for a tip.

We went back to our bigger boat and headed to Ben Tre where we visited a coconut candy shop. Zett explained how the coconut candy is made.

IMG_2223
Step 1: Getting the coconut meat.
IMG_2225
Step 2: He shows the machine they use to squeeze out the coconut milk. He says one needs strong arms for this. This is also why their men don’t need to go to the gym. :p
IMG_2224
Step 3: The coconut milk is put on the mechanical mixer. When there’s no electricity, they use the coconut shells as tinder. One also has to manually mix the coconut caramel mixture.
IMG_2226
Step 4: The hardened coconut caramel is cut and individually wrapped by speech and/or hearing impaired women. Of course after all of this, you will be encouraged to buy some products.
After the tour here, we took a smaller motor boat and went through the canals to go to the local restaurant for our lunch. 

Elephant Ear Fish which, really, just looks and tastes like a bigger version of our tilapia. It was good though. For me, the best part of our lunch were the fresh spring rolls that this lady made at our table! Super yummy

NOTE: Lunch is included in the package but this only includes soup, rice, vegetables and chicken. If you would like to try their famous Elephant Ear Fish, you have to shell out an additional VND150,000. Good thing we shared a table with this Japanese lady so we were able to split the cost.

Zett then talked us into taking the ‘speedboat’ back to Saigon instead of the bus. He said if we take the bus, it will arrive in Saigon by 7:00 PM but by boat, we’ll be there by 5:30 PM. Since we’re already tired, (remember we just arrived 2:00 AM and did the Mekong Delta tour on the same day) we decided to take the boat instead.

THE CATCH: We need to pay an extra USD10/VND210,000 per head for the boat trip. He says that was already discounted because the original price is USD15/head. (In fairness, this is indicated on the tour overview Chanh sent me)

After lunch, Zett asked us to join his colleague’s other tour group so we could go back to My Tho to listen to some folk singers while eating fruits. After that, he will take us to the boat that will take us back to Saigon

Folk singer and musicians who entertained us

We were served some tea and fruits (jackfruit, bananas, pineapple and chico (also called sapodilla)).

NOTE: Tip is also expected so better prepare some small bills.

Finally it was now time to go back to Saigon. We took a ‘speedboat’ and I can say that I actually enjoyed it. Although there was nothing much to see along Mekong aside from tons of sand being extracted, it was very nice to feel the wind blowing on my face while we were ‘cruising’. It was relaxing and we were able to nap comfortably. I woke up and as we were nearing Saigon, we passed by some houses along the river bank. It was nice to see kids coming home from school riding small boats smiling and waving at the Westerners on our boat.

And just when the sun was about to set, we were able to snap a picture of Saigon’s cityscape. 

When we reached the dock, there was already a van waiting for us. This took us back to Pham Ngu Lao. The guide sincerely thanked us for visiting Vietnam. He says he hope that we encourage our friends to visit his country as well.

For the price of USD10/head, the Mekong Delta tour was worth it. It was a good way to see the countryside and provided a bit of escape from the hustle and bustle of the Saigon streets.

K

Exploring Indochina: Bich Duyen – Our Home in HCMC

In Ho Chi Minh City, the backpacker’s area is located in Pham Ngu Lao, District 1. Here you’ll find alleys dotted with hotels/guesthouses suited for the budget traveler. 
 
If you’re on a budget but OC like me when it comes to accommodations, then head on to TripAdvisor for hotel/guesthouse reviews. Among the listed 268 hotels in HCMC, Bich Duyen ranks 5th with 438 reviews (the top 2 being five star hotels!) It is also highly recommended in forums. Ironically, they don’t have a website so you can just contact them through email. The manager, Chanh, responds quickly and was very patient in answering my inquiries.  
 
Just through our exchange of emails, I was able to book a double room for 3 nights ($17 per night), arranged for airport pickup ($14), tours (Mekong Delta: My Tho – Ben Tre ($10/head) and Half day Cu Chi Tunnels tour ($6/head), as well as the Mekong Express bus we took from HCMC to Siem Reap, Cambodia ($22/head). They don’t require a downpayment/reservation either and we just settled everything before we checked out.

facade of Bich Duyen

 

Since it’s located in an alley, only the opposite ends have gates. So when we arrived at 2:00 am, Bich Duyen was closed (the roller doors were down). The taxi driver rang the bell and we were led inside. I was surprised that their motorcycles were ‘parked’ inside the lobby lol. A guy named Minh asked for our passports then handed us our keys. 
 
We were billeted in Room 302 (which is really located on the fourth floor since they don’t consider the lobby as the first floor). Also, don’t expect any elevators here so be prepared to run out of breath if you’re carrying lots of stuff. 
 
There were only three rooms per floor and we were located on the far end. In fairness with Chanh, he advised me ahead of time that our room has no windows. 
 
Upon entering the room, we were actually surprised that the room is very nice with a very comfortable looking bed. This is so much better than our room in Hong Kong. Everything seems new. No wonder tourism is booming in this country; even their budget hotels are pretty decent. 
 

 

Pardon our mess. Another surprise is the flat screen TV. I was actually expecting the old one. :p There’s a mini fridge, phone, an open cabinet with enough hangers on the left side, and a full length mirror on the far right (not shown).

If there’s one complain we have with the room, it is the lack of electrical outlets. The one at the bottom of the desk is just enough for the TV and fridge so you have to turn one or both off. Interestingly, there’s two outlets inside the bathroom so charge at your own risk. :p WiFi is also available on every floor, but you can also use the two desktops in the lobby.

 

The bathroom is spotless. Toiletries provided were: soaps, and toothbrush and toothpaste. Rubber slippers are also available. Exhaust is also very good considering that our room doesn’t have a window. The room is cleaned every day and towels were changed daily.

Breakfast area
There were only two choices for breakfast: baguette with butter and jam or baguette and egg served with bottomless calamansi juice (which I loved!); and either coffee or tea with green bananas. You can also be wise, and choose the bread and egg, and still had the jam (it’s already on the table with the other condiments anyway) :p It’s not much but enough to fill our tummies to start the day.
 
More than the facilities, having friendly and attentive staff added to the homey feel of this place. Overall, we were very satisfied with our stay.  It exceeded our expectations and made our trip to Vietnam more memorable.
 
 
K
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283/4 Pham Ngu Lao St., District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: (848) 38374588
Email: bichduyenhotel@yahoo.com
 
You may also want to check out their sister hotel:
 
238 Bui Vien Street, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: (848) 38361927
Email: hotelhonghan@yahoo.com