With our shiny new visas in hand, we finally left our Battanbang sanctuary early Wednesday morning. We boarded what was supposed to be an express bus to Phnom Penh, but it ended up taking six hours to cover just 200 km, due mainly to the number of stops in villages along the way. There were only six of us tourists on the bus, with the remaining seats full of locals, so there was lots of interesting activity to watch, including at one point, a motorcycle being loaded into the luggage compartment! Rachael was also pleased to find sweet tamarind (nick-named dog poop fruit by Beckie) and lotus seeds at a roadside stand when we stopped for lunch. And of course the traffic was its usual insane mixture of water buffalo, cows, pigs, dogs, small children on bikes, weaving motorcycles, overloaded trucks, and honking buses.
Phnom Penh bus station was a total dive, which helped reaffirm our decision to skip the city. We just grabbed some lunch from a nearby store, and quickly boarded the tourist bus that would take us across the border to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (formerly known as Saigon). This bus driver was even crazier and had a very loud air horn that deafened us within minutes. But other than this, it was an enjoyable ride, including a ferry across the Mekong River, and scenic views of endless expanses of flat farmland.
About four hours into the journey, we reached the border, where we all had to get off the bus to have our passports stamped and our luggage x-rayed. Unfortunately one couple on our bus hadn't obtained their visas in advance, but that was the only drama. Our passports were barely given a cursory glance, which was a bit of an anticlimax after all the trouble in Battambang, but a relief nonetheless. The whole process took a while, though, as there were about 100 tourists being processed by a single, very tired-looking man, so by the time we were back on the bus it was getting dark.
For the next hour and a half, we honked our way through increasingly heavy traffic, as we worked our way into the center of Ho Chi Min City. We were a little concerned about wandering the streets of the city in the dark, but fortunately the guest house was only a couple of blocks from the bus stop, and we found it without difficulty. It turned out to be another perfect choice. The proprietor saw us coming and rushed out to help us across the road, This was a great service, as the traffic was the craziest we had seen yet! She then had us take off our packs, gave us a hug and said “You are Rachael? Sit. We bring you dinner. No meat.” (Dinner and breakfast were included with the room.) Within minutes, we were sitting down to fresh juice, steaming noodle soup and spring rolls. After twelve hours on the bus, it was a little slice of heaven! We then went up to our room which seemed like a palace. It had the first bathtub we had seen since Burlington, so there was a bit of a scuffle for who got use it first, but before very long we were all passed out in bed.
The next day was Lucas' tenth birthday. Unfortunately, we had another day of travel, up to Hanoi in the north of the country. For a boy who likes to feel settled, it was starting to seem like the worst birthday ever. We tried to get him excited about the prospect of spending his birthday in both of Vietnam's two biggest cities, but he was having none of it! Nonetheless, we had a nice breakfast at the guest house, and left for the airport. (Due to the visa fiasco we were a little short on time, so we had found a very cheap flight with JetStar to avoid a thirty-five hour bus ride.)
The airport was thoroughly modern and very efficient. But watching some of the locals experience air travel for the first time was quite entertaining. Many older people were terrified of the escalators, and one old lady refused to get on until the airport staff stopped it moving! And when it was time to board the plane, everyone pushed and shoved their way forward as if afraid there would be a shortage of seats, or it would leave without them. But once we were all settled in, the flight proceeded uneventfully. Lucas cheered up a bit after we ordered some interesting Vietnamese snacks for his birthday lunch, and Jeremy very much enjoyed the gorgeous (and slightly revealing) outfits worn by the hostesses. After an hour and a half, we touched down in Hanoi, and were met by a taxi sent by our hostel.
Apparently Hanoi is the capital of SE Asia crimes of opportunity, and a favorite is for unscrupulous hostel owners to use the same name as a well-known establishment, then pay taxi drivers to find unsuspecting tourists at the airport, and bring them to the fake hostel, where they can be thoroughly ripped off. There are also apparently more pickpockets and motorbike-mounted purse snatchers than anywhere else in this part of the world. So we were very happy to see our driver holding a sign with our name written on it, and to discover that our hostel was in a relatively safe part of town. After a forty minute drive, we arrived at the YHA. It's a bit of a party place, with very basic bunk beds, a rooftop bar, happy hour, and bar-hopping tours, but the staff are great, and didn't appear to notice that half of us were 20 years too old and the other half were 10 years too young!
Planning goddess Rachael had emailed ahead for help finding a cake for Lucas and a sushi place for his requested dinner. After getting settled into our room, we set out for their recommended restaurant, which was fabulous. The hostel staff had called ahead to let them know about Lucas' birthday, so we were treated like royalty. We had an upstairs table by the window, and the food was delicious. Lucas had a big smile on his face for the entire meal. His birthday had clearly taken a turn for the better!
Back at the hostel, we let Luke check his emails while Rachael went into the kitchen to make some secret arrangements. The hotel manager then whispered instructions to the rowdy crowd in the bar, and turned out the lights. Rachael came out of the kitchen with a birthday cake the hostel had supplied, candle alight, and the whole place exploded into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday”, beer mugs raised in Lucas' honor!
Lucas was completely taken by surprise, the cake was beautiful, and it was certainly a memorable (if slightly drunken) serenade. All in all a huge success! We shared the cake around, and Lucas enjoyed his instant celebrity status, receiving congratulations from everyone who passed by. The evening ended with him admitting that it had been “a way better birthday than I expected.” High praise indeed from a little boy that tends towards an Eeyore personality.
For the next few days we'll be exploring the area surrounding Hanoi, and have several exciting adventures planned, including a Halong Bay cruise, trekking in Sapa, and some more exciting biking in Southeast Asian traffic!