The story of an overnight bus Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
With our shiny new Vietnamese visas in hand, we boarded a sleeping bus in Sihanoukville. We were ready to get out of Cambodia after spending an extra day waiting for us visas to be processed.
We boarded the bus around 7pm. The bus itself is a funny thing. There are bunks separated by walls so everyone has their own little sleeping corner. One wall is lined with double bunks, while the opposite has single bunks. It’s nicely air conditioned and a soft pillow and blanket is ready for our use. Nice, maybe we can actually get some sleep. A group of loud, obnoxious Irish party girls in the next bunk delayed that with their constant murmurs of gossip and chatter.
Without too many stops, we arrived in Phnom Penh at about 1am. Groggy from sleeping on and off during the journey, we exited the bus. There was a pile up of sleepy young foreigners trying to get to Siem Reap, Bangkok, and beyond. A few travellers we recognized from other buses and attractions. That seems to happen when you travel to the common stops, you end up seeing the same people.
“Ho Chi Minh? Ho Chi Minh?” With enough questions, you eventually get what you want. We were crammed into a small mini van and shuttled only about two minutes to another travel agency office. It looked closed, but a man eventually opened the large office up where we waited for further instructions. Much of bus travel in Asia is waiting and hoping for further instruction.
We were then told that the bus to the Vietnamese border will leave at 5:30am because the border only opens at 7am. Great, so do we have a place to sleep? “Don’t worry, we have a place for you to sleep.” We were skeptical.
The man at the bus station then promptly lead the three of us up the stairs at the back of the building to a room and insisted this is where we can sleep. We entered the room and analyzed the situation. One bed. A cell phone charging. Denim pants on the floor. More tshirts hanging off of a painting of Angkor Wat. A half eaten package of baguette crackers. This is a man’s bedroom…
Okay? This is weird. But I guess it will work. Matti and I took the bed and Nina got comfortable on the extra bedding on the floor. We turned off the lights and attempted to get 4 hours of solid sleep. Not much longer the lights came on and the man had brought another group of travellers to the room, the loud Irish girls. Great…
Now everyone was confused even further. Five more people, one bed. The travel agency man spread the extra bedding even thinner and delegated everyone their sleeping positions. He didn’t speak a single word the whole time. Maybe he didn’t speak English or maybe he just didn’t speak. As we sat on the bed and blankets confused, he mimed for us to go to sleep with his hands flat together against his cheek. We did as we were told as he swatted mosquitos from above us with his electric bug zapper.
Once we were assured that no mosquitos would be biting us during our nap, he looked at us happily, like he could finally sleep at night. Then he did. He laid down right there, in the room with us, at the foot of the bed. Wait what? Is this his room? Are we sleeping on his bed? Should we offer it back?
We didn’t. He was so insistent. It would be like giving a gift back because you found out how much it actually cost.
It took a while to fall asleep. Everyone was laughing at the situation, Irish girls included. Is this what we expected when we bought our overnight bus tickets to Vietnam? Definitely not.
Not sure what it was, but we actually got some sleep in that room, lights on, with 5 Irish girls and one Cambodian travel agent. Maybe the fact that I was assured that each mosquito would be promptly zapped the moment it came anywhere near my body. Around 5:30am people had started to wake up and gather their bags to wait for the bus.
We went downstairs with our stuff to realize that the rest of the passengers of the bus had slept on the floor of the travel office on thin mattresses and extra bedding. Does this happen all the time? Matti and I got the best bang for our buck, sleeping on the bed.
No one else spoke of their strange night. We all just border the bus like nothing had happened. Or like what had happened was totally cool, like obviously we had to sleep at the travel office.
It was a sleepy few more hours to the Vietnamese border. But when we got there it was bright as day, probably around 8am. Everyone handed our passports to the bus driver. And we were told to exit the bus and walk about 200m.
Everyone gathered at the 200m point and waited. There were some Vietnamese officers in uniforms sitting at tables. We were standing under a large structure, large enough for vehicles to pass through. Only about 10 minutes of waiting later, the bus pulled up then 200m we were instructed to walk and we were told to get back on the bus. Oh that’s it?
We drove another 10 minutes and again, we got off the bus, this time with all of our bags. This must be the real border. We walked in the building to some desks that actually looked like passport checks you’d find at an airport. We could go through only if we had our passports. The bus driver had everyones’ passports, but where was he?!
We read the horror stories about border crossings on land in Asia. Was this about to be one of them? We were a bit more assured by the fact that everyone on the bus was missing their passports, not only us.
The pile of passports, from all around the world, eventually showed up and was handed to the border officer. As he check and stamped them, our names were called out. And one by one we received our identities back and proceeded to place our bags through a half-assed security check. We had officially entered Vietnam, legally.
Before we knew it, we were in Ho Chi Minh City, eyes wide open and stomachs even wider. When you smell the pho in the air, you finally know everything gonna be alright.