TAKING THE BUS FROM HO CHI MINH CITY TO PHNOM PENH AND SOME TIPS
Taking buses during your travels through South East Asia is a cheap and relatively efficient mode of transport, and it seems to be a rite of passage among backpackers in this area. Occasionally it makes sense to fly to new cities if you’re short on time but if you have an extended stay in this region, I would highly recommend taking a bus so you can save some money for other travel experiences. If you’re taking the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City, there are a few things you should keep in mind so that you can be prepared for the trip. As I have only crossed the border once so far, I can only give advice based on a limited perspective but I will share my thoughts on what I found before, during, and after my journey.
The ride takes approximately 6.5 hours to complete and it’s one of the shorter routes you can take between major cities within SE Asia. I paid 230,000 VND (a bit under 10 USD) for the ticket itself but prices seem to range between 210,000 VND (9 USD) and 250,000 VND (11 USD). Food, however, is not included. The price of your ticket really depends on which company you book with and you should keep in mind that it isn’t appropriate to try to haggle for a ticket price- you should pay the sticker price charged by the company. Overbooking of buses is common here so make sure to not be late for your bus. If the bus is overbooked, you may need to sit on the floor rather than on a seat. As is common is SE Asia, you should be on time for your bus but shouldn’t have an expectation of it actually picking you up on time- you should expect it to be approximately 30 minutes behind schedule. If you’re from a different part of the world, you might find this a bit frustrating but punctuality is uncommon around here so you have to go with the flow and not complain about it too much. You can often arrange for your bus to pick you up directly from your hostel in Ho Chi Minh City but in my case, I needed to walk to the bus station. If you are picked up directly from your hostel, do keep in mind that it’s common to switch buses before you actually begin your trip.
Before you board your bus, take a picture of the license plate and remember the face of your bus driver- this will come in handy when you’re trying to locate your bus again after the border crossing. Also, screenshot the address of your hostel in Phnom Penh to save you some time later on. Additionally, you should have toilet paper/tissues and hand sanitizer for when you arrive in Cambodia. Toilet paper and soap are luxury items in the vast majority of Cambodian bathrooms so it’s best to be prepared. When I boarded the bus, I was immediately asked to hand over my passport and about 816,000 VND (35 USD) for the visa on arrival. If you google the price of the Cambodian 30-day visa, you’ll see that the sticker price is actually 30 USD. The additional 5 USD is a bribe for the border official, which seems to be a pretty standard practice in getting through border control efficiently. Regardless of what your views are on bribery, I would recommend just going along with it. There was a woman on my bus who refused to pay the bribe because she didn’t want to support that kind of activity but it held up the operation for everyone else on the bus so I wouldn’t recommend it. You can sort out your visa yourself at the border but this is often not a desirable option, as it can put you in a stressful situation, especially if this is your first border crossing. Additionally, it may feel uncomfortable to hand your passport over to a random stranger but keep in mind that everyone on the bus is in the exact same situation and that the individual will be held accountable by many people. They have probably done this transaction hundreds of times so they know what they’re doing- just trust in the system, it’s worked out fine for me and for many other travelers I’ve met.
It takes approximately 3 hours to get to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border from HCMC. Prepare yourself to not have any rest stops during that time but some buses do make stops in between (this means bring snacks and don’t drink too much before you board). When you arrive at the border, you’ll exit the bus with your group. You’ll go into a building to go through Vietnamese security. They will stamp your passport with an exit stamp (note that the bus driver still has your passport so this step will be taken care of for you so you’re only waiting in line for instructions). Don’t get separated from your group to save yourself from getting stressed out. After waiting in line for a while, you’ll exit the building and get back on the bus for about a 5-minute drive. The visa process isn’t over, however, as you will now need to go through Cambodian security to get a full page sticker for your 30-day visa on arrival. You will get off the bus with your group again and go into another building to go through Cambodian security. Again, do not get separated from your group during this time.
When you exit the bus, there will be Cambodian women who will greet you and will ask if you want to exchange your VND for Cambodian riel. I would highly recommend against this as they will almost certainly shortchange you. Additionally, almost no one in Cambodia actually pays in riel- the preferred currency seems to be USD across the board. You will receive unclear instructions on where to go and which line to go into while you’re waiting for your visa to be prepared. After waiting in line for a half hour or so, we were directed to have lunch at a restaurant in a different part of the facility. The restaurant accepted VND, riel, and USD so you can go with whatever you have on you at the time. You will then meet up with your driver and get back on the bus again. At that point you should get your passport back and you can check out your new visa!
You’ll be on the bus for about 3 more hours and you will definitely have a rest stop between the border and your destination. You won’t regret packing hand sanitizer and toilet paper for the squatty potties- you’re in Cambodia now so an actual toilet is often a luxury, especially at rest stops! When you arrive at the bus stop in Phnom Penh, you will probably be overwhelmed by tuk-tuk drivers shouting at you asking which hostel you’re staying at. Don’t be intimidated, these are your friends in Cambodia. You can affectionately call them “bong” which I believe loosely translates to “dude.” You can have tuk-tuk drivers compete against each other for your business- do try to haggle as, again, that is part of the culture. Try to participate if you feel comfortable!