Backpacking solo in Vietnam & Cambodia

On the 22nd of August 2013, I packed my bags and got on a plane from Cape Town, South Africa, to Vietnam and Cambodia.  All I had with me was my backpack, my phone, camera and the Lonely Planet for Vietnam and Lonely Planet for Cambodia.  I had no accommodation booked upon my arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and relied on finding accommodation by the use of my Lonely Planet (which was very fruitful).  I landed in Ho Chi Minh City on the eve of the 23rd of August and made my way to a hotel and had to extend my stay in this beautiful city due to my backpack with all my clothes which stayed behind in Doha.  Having been in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City before, I felt right at home and knew my way around.

I found a hotel quite easily after negotiating my taxi fares at the airport and had a good night’s sleep.  The following day was spent in Ho Chi Minh City, which is most definitely one of my favourite cities.  I visited all the different parks, The Ben Tanh Market and the War Remnants Museum.  It was a day packed with sight seeing and taking photographs of everything and everyone.

After Ho Chi Minh City I caught a bus to Vinh Long, a little town on the Mekong Delta.  I was surprised at how small this town really is and was astonished by the fresh food market which is right on the river.  You can get any fresh food from the market, from fruit to vegetables, meat, fish and all kinds of other weird and wonderful things.  I walked around this little town exploring all the streets and allies and people here seemed to be surprised by seeing westerners and they were very friendly and eager to help me wherever I went.

After Vinh Long, I needed to get to Rach Gia so that I could catch a ferry to the Phu Quoc Island and in order to do that I needed to catch a bus from Vinh Long to Rach Gia (or so I thought, but me being a naive and unknowledgable traveller got that all wrong).  I had to travel 203km’s to get from Vinh Long to Rach Gia in order to catch the 13:00 ferry to the Phu Quoc Island.  So I thought if I leave Vinh Long at 7am that I had ample time to catch a bus to Rach Gia and be on time for the 1pm ferry, once again BIG mistake, but what a journey I had that day.  I left my hotel room at 7am and walked to the bus station which was about 5 minutes’ walk from my hotel.  I managed to buy a bus ticket and to get on the first bus leaving Vinh Long to Can Tho (I had to go to that town first in order to get another bus there).  So I’m on the bus to Can Tho, also a beautiful city on the Mekong Delta.  As we get to the bus station I get off the bus and start looking at buying a bus ticket from Can Tho to Rach Gia, but was told that I’m at the wrong bus station and that I needed to get to a bus station on the other end of the city.  So there two guys tell me to get on a scooter and that he will take me, so I blindly trusted the locals and got on this scooter and thank goodness I did as that bus station was at the opposite end of the city.  As we got to that bus station the scooter driver puts me on a bus which once again I thought is going to Rach Gia and not knowing any better, I got on, put my earphones in listened to music and enjoyed the scenery as we’re driving into Vietnam somewhere.  So here I am on this bus, which I thought is taking me to Rach Gia, when all of a sudden this bus stops in the middle of nowhere and tells me to get off and into this minibus.  I then start to worry whether I am actually going where I needed to go and not to some other little town.  So I kept asking all the locals and they confirmed that I am going to Rach Gia.  As I stand by this minibus on which I had to get, I looked in and realised that there is no space, not even for a mouse and the driver kept telling me that I must get in as there is more than enough space.  I eventually got into the front with another Vietnamese and as I looked back in this minibus, all I could see was loads of Vietnamese heads bobbing around as we were driving.  Surprisingly we stopped along the way and picked up so many more passengers and I kept wondering where they will sit.  Then I saw that they had little plastic chairs which they unpacked and people sat on those between the other passengers’ legs.  Now that is what I call innovation and how to optimally make use of space in a minibus.  So after this minibus got to Rach Gia, I had to catch another scooter to get to the ferry but unfortunately by the time I got to the ferry it was 2pm and I missed it.  I then decided to stay in Rach Gia for the night.

Rach Gia is also a very beautiful little town in Vietnam and is one of two towns from which you can catch a ferry to Phu Quoc Island.  I had a wonderful time walking around in Rach Gia, exploring and taking photos of the rivers and the people.  People in Rach Gia was just a friendly and all the school kids waved at me and wanted to me to take photos of them.  I met this little girl who was absolutely amazed by my camera.  She asked me to take photos of everything and then to show her on the LCD screen and was astonished at what she saw.  I took pictures of her and she just loved every moment of it.  It is so special to meet people who have such an appreciation for something which we tend to take for granted.  Rach Gia is a very busy town and there are scooters every where you look.

Finally, on my way to Phu Quoc Island just off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia.  I was so excited to go to this Island and to live the island life and lie on a beach sipping on some cocktails.  The ferry which leave from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc island takes about 2 and a half hours and is very organised.

Phu Quoc island is lovely with so many extremes and differences in the different beaches on the different sides of the island.  Once I got to my hotel, I rented a scooter and ventured out to explore this beautiful island which offers beaches and warm seas on the one side and beautiful forests on the other.  Sao Beach was my favourite beach by far on the island.  With blue water, white sand and just so serene, definitely one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been at.  I stayed close to the main town on the Island, Duong Dong and enjoyed the night market with all their fresh food.  Phu Quoc island is perfect if you would like to get away from the busy life and just lie on the beach and relax.  Perfect get away from everything and to read your book while taking in the beauty the island has to offer.  There are peppercorn farms as well as a beautiful waterfall, should you want a day of sight seeing.

After Phu Quoc Island, I ventured into Cambodia and went to Sihanoukville, which is also a beach town.  I stayed in the backpackers strip on Serendipity street which leads to Serendipity Beach, which is vibey and full of tourists.  There are an abundance of restaurants and bars on this beach and what a perfect way to spend your day, by lying on a beach chair, sipping on beers/ cocktails and having something light to eat while swimming in the sea and reading a book.  From Sihanoukville, you can see islands all around and there are many island hopping tours available.  The most famous island to visit is Koh Rong with daily boats leaving to Koh Rong and returning to Sihanoukville.  You will also find the most beautiful beach if you leave Sihanoukville and follow the signs to Otres Beach.  What a beautiful and serene beach.  You are closer to the islands and the views are amazing and it’s quieter than the busy Serendipity Beach, so this is perfect if you would like to get away from the buzzing and busy beach.  Otres Beach also has nice restaurants on the beach so nothing is stopping you from sipping on cocktails while enjoying the amazing view and sunset.

From Sihanoukville, I caught a night bus to Battambang which is a little town in Cambodia surrounded by hilltops and rice paddies.  Once in Battambang, I arranged a Tuk-tuk for the day.  This was great as the driver took me to all the sight seeing things in and around Battambang.  He showed me the statue of the person after whom the town was named and told me all about the history of the town.  Then he took me to see the Bamboo Train which is still in working condition and for $10  you can go on the Bamboo Train.  After visiting the Bamboo Train I was taken to view the river, fishing village on the river as well as one of the older Temples which didn’t seem to be open any more.  After that, I was taken to the Killing Caves.  The Killing Caves are situated on one of the hill tops.  There are multiple temples and killing caves with the most beautiful view of Battambang.  This is quite a walk and in the heat, I worked up quite a sweat, but it was well worth it.  I paid a girl $1 and she took me on a guided tour of the killing caves, all the temples and showed me all the views.  Battambang also has a lovely market in which I was walking around and you can buy anything from scarves, to suitcases to fresh food and fruit at the market.

I left Battambang the next day on a boat to Siem Reap on one of the rivers of the Mekong Delta.  This was definitely one of the most beautiful boat trips.  We went through so many fishing villages on the river and meandered through narrow canals on the river.  This trip took about 6 hours, but was well worth it if you would like to get off the road and have a different traveling experience.

Once I arrived in Siem Reap, I battled to find a hotel with available rooms due to the influx of tourists in Siem Reap who all made their way there to visit the amazing Angkor Temples.  Siem Reap is definitely a geared as a tourist destination and caters for everything a tourist might need or want.  From local food, to western food, to having loads of little bars and pubs and markets everywhere.  At night, Siem Reap has such an amazing atmosphere that you’ll want to stay in town the whole night.  I was in Siem Reap for 3 days of which 2 days were spent at the amazing Angkor Temples.  I arranged with a Tuk-Tuk driver to pick me up from my hotel and to take me to all the different temples and we planned a two day route and temple visits.

On the first day to visit the Angkor Temples, I was picked up at 5am in order for me to view the sunrise from the amazing and astonishing Angkor Wat.  So many people go there early morning to view this breathtaking sunrise.  Upon arriving at the Angkor Wat, I got goosebumps at the majesty of it all and to think that humans built those temples in 1600.  It was definitely worthwhile to get up at 4am to see that amazing sunrise.  I visited a lot of temples on day one and every temple amazed me and left me standing there and just admiring the majesty of the temples.  There are plenty of tourists who visit the temples, so ensure that you get there before the big crowds so that you can have some of the temples all to yourself.  At all the temples they are selling gifts, clothes, cold drinks and food so should you need anything, you do not have to rush back to your hotel.

On the second day to the temples, we started a little bit later.  I started at Angkor Wat as that is the biggest and most popular temple.  It really is amazing and I spent about 3 hours walking through Angkor Wat and taking pictures of everything.  The detail on all the temples are amazing and the meaning behind all the carvings are astonishing.  I was at the temples for most of the day and met a lot of tourists from all over the world.  After my visit to the temples, which is quite warm and humid and you walk a lot so you will be very tired, full of sweat and dirt, I went to the hotel for a nice swim.  I spent some time in the night markets after dinner and admiring the town and enjoying the atmosphere at night.

From Siem Reap I moved on to Phnom Penh, which was my last stop in Cambodia before getting on a plane back home to Cape Town, South Africa.  I traveled from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by bus.  We left 8am in Siem Reap and got to Phnom Penh at about 1:30pm.  I booked into a lovely hotel that afternoon, had lunch had a nice warm shower and from there made my way through the city to the Russian Market.  It was amazing to walk around this city and to take photos of all the interesting things and people I saw.  I absolutely loved the Russian Market and loved walking there from my hotel and not having to take scooters or tuk-tuk’s the whole time.  At the Russian Market you can negotiate prices on everything and anything.  You will find anything from clothes, to shoes, to food, to watches, dvd’s, jewelry and souvenirs.

On my second day in Phnom Penh I rented a bicycle and cycled to the Killing Fields just out side of the city.  The Killing Fields are a must for any tourist visiting Phnom Penh.  You pay $6 for entrance and they provide you with a headset and recorder along with a map with information about the recordings on the recorder.  There a clearly marked areas where you need to listen to the recordings on the recorder explaining everything that happened there and in Cambodia during the time when Paul Pots took over.  It truly is an eye opening experience into the genocide they experienced during the take over and rule of Paul Pots.  Paul Pots ordered the murder of over 2 million people in Cambodia and they killed everyone, from babies to mothers, children and fathers.  During the visit to the Killing Fields you will see the mass graves and areas where people were killed.  It truly makes you thankful for the life you have and for not having to go through anything like that.  Upon leaving the Killing Fields and spending the morning there, I decided to go to the Central Market for some lunch and shopping.  The Central Market is a lot bigger than the Russian Market, but it’s more difficult to negotiate on prices at the Central Market and you will find more bargains at the Russian Market.  After that I cycled around and took pictures of statues which you’ll find all over the city as well as some temples and parks.

On the third day in Phnom Penh, I went to the Royal Palace where I also saw the Silver Pagoda.  Always remember when visiting temples, pagoda’s or palaces that you have to cover your shoulders and upper legs.  It is truly worth while to visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda even though you cannot go into the Silver Pagoda, you can get close enough to look through the doors and windows at the inside which is beautiful.  After that I visited the National Museum, which tells you about the history of all the temples and statues and they have it all on display.  Unfortunately they don’t allow you to take photos of all the statues and things in the Museum.

Phnom Penh is a very lively city and there truly are a lot more to do and see than what I managed to do and see in the 3 days I was there.  There are plenty of places to shop and to eat and have sun downers on the edge of the river.  Phnom Penh was the last city I visited on my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia and it was truly an amazing experience and holiday, one that I will remember for a very long time.  I met awesome people on my travels and truly had some amazing adventures and experiences.