Every time I step outside Vietnam, I’m amazed at how quiet the world seems.
I often get comments from well-meaning expats about my visa runs. ‘Why don’t you go to the border and come back, it’s much cheaper!’ frequently confronts me. The money involved has never been a big consideration for me. Usually I’m weighing up the time cost of being away from work or the need for a short break from the pins and needles of living in a foreign culture.
I’m now in Phnom Penh tapping out this article in the lovely warmth and blue skies on the three-floor bar and Jacuzzi area of a small hotel while consuming one dollar beers – and I can’t hear a single horn blasting away anywhere. Not bad for fifteen dollars a night. Traffic is organized, no one makes problems and no sudden lane changes forcing people to brake hard. Lovely!
Why Phnom Penh for the visa run? The embassy is the most efficient of the seven Vietnamese visa offices I’ve visited. Again, it’s not about the money, it’s the lack of fuss, fewer awkward queues and no bad English that I’m looking for.
Also, my ears truly needed a break from horns, karaoke, hammers, sirens and loudspeakers. My brain needed a sabbatical from a difficult landlord, a lovely but demented housekeeper (she puts black things with black things and so on…) and Vietnamese bureaucracy. And my heart yearned for some time away from cold weather, unreliable friends and disappointments. Vietnam, I love you but you are a tough girlfriend!
Although heading out from sleepy Hoi An to the big smoke of Ho Chi Minh city generally puts my teeth on edge, it’s wonderful to catch up with friends and find out what they are up to. I love listening to my Vietnamese pals talking about their big plans with such enthusiasm, friends from other countries are a little bit more laid back and casual about their goals but that’s the Vietnamese; full-on, just like their traffic, all energy and going somewhere in a hurry.
One thing though, Saigon is still, after ten years of living here, an unwalkable city. Each time I come down, I witness the exhausted tourists staggering around an obstacle course of parked motorbikes, broken pavements, sunglass sellers refusing to move out of the way and more. Of the twenty odd major cities I’ve experienced, Ho Chi Minh City is still the hardest for simply getting around. No wonder tourists don’t want to stay more than a few days in the southern metropolis.
While the international airport terminal is marginally better than the cramped, rock-concert sound level and facilities quality for the domestic terminal – if I could land anywhere else conveniently in Vietnam, I’d do it and avoid it like the plague. One good thing however was the taxi mayhem, especially at the airport, seems slightly under more control than on pervious journeys.
The contrasts continue. In Cambodia I’ve never encountered problems with service at a hotel or café. Staff seem to get it and remember what to do. The English is often not much better than in Vietnam, strange pronunciations and some cultural differences yet I don’t have to ask for little petty things and I don’t have to explain so much to tuk-tuk drivers compared to the mushroom-brained taxi drivers of Hoi An.
Some things are still the same. The tuk-tuk drivers hassle me as much as the half-sleeping xe om riders of Ho Chi Minh City and try to ask the same outrageous prices – still taxi drivers are aggressive in a lot of countries so that’s no big deal. But change is coming…the Chinese influence is spreading across Cambodia.
In Phnom Penh, I’ve noticed a massive increase in high end, expensive Chinese vehicles, eateries and dozens of Chinese channels on the hotel TV feed. Local Cambodian staff I chatted to are not sure if it was a good or bad thing – they haven’t yet seen a large increase in Chinese tourists nor employment opportunities except construction jobs. Some were worried that they would have to learn Chinese to get jobs or that there would be fewer English schools.
So that’s my postcard for this week! I’m here for a few days so a few more comments to come later. Next up shopping, getting the visa and pigging out!
Are you jealous yet? Haha…