11th – 20th December
Bordering on disaster
Our first attempt to cross into Vietnam is not a success.
Over breakfast, we’re told by the cheerful proprietor of the bamboo bungalow in Kep that the remote border crossing of Hat Tien, the southernmost border between Cambodia and Vietnam, is actually open to foreigners. Even better, it’s only 20km away and will give us a chance to explore some of Vietnam’s famous Mekong delta region before meeting up with Nina’s parents in Saigon later on in the afternoon.
The road to the little border is picturesque but slow – the last 9km is a dirt track. We drive slowly – it’s a short distance and we do our best not to shower the locals in too much red dust kicked up from the road.
At the border, the Cambodian officials become friendly harbingers of misfortune. They’re very happy to sign off our car paperwork and let us out of the country, but they are convinced that the Vietnamese won’t let the car in at this border – it’s a ‘locals only’ vehicle crossing.
Undeterred but nervous, we ask to leave our car with the Cambodians whilst we walk the kilometre or so across no man’s land to find out for ourselves.
Sure enough, the Vietnamese officials claim they don’t possess the necessary paperwork templates to let the vehicle into the country – we must go to the principle road border, at Moc Bai, nearly 200km north-east, to get through.
OK, we think – a hassle, but not a disaster. We’ll just have to stick to plan ‘A’…
But as we turn to leave, the officials say to us: “Is your car a right or left-hand drive?” We mumble a fabricated answer, having recently heard rumours that right-hand drive cars aren’t allowed into the country. “That’s OK” they reply “if you have a right-hand drive, you will not be able to bring it in”.
The long way round
Bo**ocks. Despite all our research into this country (including a visit to the Vietnamese Embassy in London) this is the first time we’ve heard categorically that we might have a problem getting the car in to Vietnam.
It’s a horribly slow, nervous, silent five hour drive to the border at Moc Bai. Both of us have that awful stomach churning feeling, wondering what the hell we’ll do if we can’t get in. It’s already midday, and Nina’s parents (Roger and Buntie) are already waiting for us at their hotel in Saigon…
Our spirits are improved by finding a rare Cambodian ATM that dispenses dollars. We withdraw $400, in the hope that the Vietnamese border officials are as corrupt as their counterparts through most if Asia.
A border disaster
We arrive at Moc Bai at 3pm, feeling a little more confident now we’re flush with dollars. In addition, we’ve got our circular steering wheel lock out, and practiced our ‘Nina steering in the passenger seat’ routine whilst Charlie hides the steering wheel with a large map – ingenious.
The Cambodian side, as ever, is friendly, efficient and speedy. Indeed, the Vietnamese side starts off promisingly: our passports are stamped on arrival and the customs official we are sent to, to declare the car, seems unconcerned.
We think we’ve done it. After little more than half an hour, we get back in the car, say a quiet prayer and drive towards the final checkpoint, beyond which we’re on Vietnamese soil.
Then it happens. 20 metres before the checkpoint, another customs official flags us down, and asks to see our car paperwork. Bluffingly cheerful, we confidently show him our carnet and Vietnamese translated driving licences.
It doesn’t work. “You need a Vietnamese transport permit to bring your car into our country” he says. “OK, can we get one here?” we reply. “From the traffic police” he says, gesturing towards a grubby office at the other side of the compound.
So far, so good. He seems confident we should just be able to get the permit now. We follow him to the office, unfortunately for us it’s a Saturday and the relevant policeman is at home. The customs official calls him, the reply comes back that the policeman must check with his superior. This doesn’t sound good.
Sure enough, within five minutes the policeman calls back; the grim expression on our friendly customs official’s face says it all. “I’m sorry, you cannot bring your car into Vietnam.”
The finality of this hammer blow takes a while to sink in. Indeed, we spend another three hours at the border, refusing to take no for an answer, and pleading with our official to try every permutation to get the car into the country. At first, he is unyielding, insisting our best option is to return to Cambodia. This is unthinkable; given Roger & Buntie (R & B) are just 60km the other side of the border, expecting us for supper.
Finally, he realises we’re not moving. He finds out that there is a possibility we may be able to enter, if the British Embassy can make a special request to Vietnam’s customs HQ in Hanoi. But being a Saturday, nothing’s going to happen until Monday.
Finally, to Saigon
Thankfully, our friendly and apologetic official agrees that we can leave the car at the border so we can catch a bus to Saigon, which relieves the most pressing of our problems. Exhausted and depressed, we board the first bus in the darkness and make our way slowly to Saigon.
The VIP tourist bus is showing re-runs of ‘Mr Bean’ – just the sort of thing we need to put us in better spirits by the time we arrive in Saigon.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, its new name, is just too much of a mouthful) is a frantic, sprawling city. It takes the bus over an hour to drive through the dazzling neon and fairy-lit suburbs, through endless shoals of scooters, before we arrive at the main bus station.
By the time we reach the swanky hotel that R & B are treating us to, it’s 8.00pm. We had managed to get a message to them earlier saying we were delayed at the border, and by now they have given up hope of seeing us tonight and have headed out to supper.
After the quickest and most necessary of hot showers and changes, we dash to their restaurant and interrupt them midway through their main courses for a very emotional reunion.
The ‘Mandarine’ is one of the best restaurants in Saigon and a suitably apt place for such a get-together. R & B are as relieved and happy to see us as we are delighted to have made it to see them. There’s so much to talk about that the fantastic food and much needed G&Ts and bottle of wine almost go unnoticed!
R&R with R & B
After our recent travails, it’s wonderful just to spend a few days in one place, enjoying a bit of very much appreciated luxury and the company of R & B.
They have a city tour planned for one day, it is a novel experience just to tag along and enjoy the (albeit sparse) sights of Saigon without having to put any thought into the excursion.
We see the impressive ‘Notre Dame’ Cathedral (the French imported every single brick used in its construction from Marseilles) and the substantial yet unattractive 50’s built government palace, but by far the most interesting sight is the War Remnants Museum, Vietnam’s graphic and shocking (and admittedly one-sided) visual history of the Vietnam War.
Fresh from coming to grips with the genocidal horrors of Pol Pot’s regime in neighbouring Cambodia, we find it hard to believe that such a supposedly developed and civilised nation as the USA could be responsible for the level of atrocities that were recorded here in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
There are numerous one-sided references to the ‘illegal war’ which is probably a little far-fetched given the world-wide intensity of the Cold War at the time, but the American’s trial and widespread use of chemical warfare, dioxins and defoliants, coupled with the largest carpet-bombing campaign in history (across Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam) would be inexcusable in any context.
The Vietnam conflict supposedly killed 3 million Vietnamese over six years, a million more than perished under the Khmer Rouge.
We spend the rest of the weekend enjoying more fine meals & luxury courtesy of R & B (including a hilarious dining-boat cruise up the Saigon River, complete with some of the most curious local entertainments we’ve witnessed).
By Monday, it’s become apparent that no amount of diplomatic intervention will enable us to bring the car in to this country.
So we hastily concoct a new plan: we’ll travel to the seaside village of Mui Ne with R & B (now in a taxi, originally we planned to drive this leg of the trip together), then we’ll get a bus back to the border and take our car on a 1,000 mile detour back through Cambodia, Thailand and into Laos, where we can leave it safely whilst we fly into Vietnam again to resume our catch-up with them. Needs must…
Only 200km north of Saigon yet an astonishing 5 hours drive on Vietnam’s uber-congested highways, Mui Ne is a mega-tourist resort in the making.
Its fine beaches and proximity to Saigon haven’t gone un-noticed; for the moment the place is small, relaxed and charming – one doubts it’ll last though.
By chance, our visit here coincides with one of Charlie’s oldest mates, Dougie, who is enjoying a two week kite-surfing holiday here. We spend a memorable evening together, tasting some of the best food we’ve had in Vietnam in a beach-front shack (including some of the best yet cheapest scallops the five of us have ever had).
After supper, we say goodnight to R & B and the three of us adjourn to one of the new trendy beach bars for some serious catching up – after three vicious passionfruit mojitos each, the evening descends from the memorable to the memory loss – we are evidently out of practice!
The very long way round…
In the morning, nursing Asian sized hangovers, we temporarily say goodbye to Nina’s parents and catch the bus back to Saigon, ready to start our four day, 1,000 mile detour to Hanoi…