Crossing the Vietnam border – Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City: A traveler review

After spending just over three weeks in Cambodia, it was time to head to our 9th country of our 10+ month trip around the world: Vietnam.

I’ve wanted to visit Vietnam for many years now so I have incredibly high hopes for this supposedly amazing country. But first though, we needed to actually get there!

Here’s what you can expect when crossing the Cambodia/Vietnam border when travelling by bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.

The early bird catches the bus

We arrived at the Riverside HQ Mekong Express bus terminal just after 12:30pm which was an hour and a half earlier than the scheduled departure time. We were there so early as we’d just arrived in Phnom Penh after getting the bus from Kampot and as that bus was so early, we had plenty of time to spare before our next one.

The Mekong Express bus office is absolutely huge and is also a sort of cafe where you can purchase various hot and cold drinks, as well as noodles and other assorted snacks. There’s a desk that lines one side of the office and then a huge seating area on the other side so there’s plenty of room for everyone. I was also particularly happy that there was air-conditioning and free Wi-Fi as it meant we could relax in a comfortable environment before getting the bus.

I showed the Mekong Express staff member behind the desk our booking confirmation reference and he took our passports to take our details as we would be crossing the Cambodia/Vietnam border on this journey. He then gave us a paper copy of our tickets and little tags to put on our bags.

Cafe at the Mekong Express bus office, Phnom Penh

As there was free Wi-Fi inside the bus office, I got some work done for a little while before it became incredibly busy, when a huge tour group of French students arrived. After that, it got very loud and busy so we packed up our belongings and waited to be called to board the bus.

What’s all the bus about?

We got on the bus at 1:50pm and even though there was air-con on board, it was still incredibly hot and it didn’t do a good job of cooling anyone down. Almost every seat was full as well, which meant that there was an awful lot of body heat circulating too; making the journey even warmer.

Mekong Express bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City

One thing that I was grateful for, however, was that there were little treats for everyone in the seat pockets, including a box of cookies, a bottle of water, a sick bag (just in case!) and even a cold cloth which was a friendly welcome considering it was so hot on board.

The bus set off at 2:10pm, just 10 minutes after the scheduled departure. We were used to transport in Southeast Asia being regularly late by now so this slight delay didn’t phase us too much.

I spent the first few hours rewatching Titanic on Netflix. There was no Wi-Fi on board but I already had multiple things downloaded on Netflix so I’d definitely recommend doing the same if you’ll be making this journey. 

Unfortunately, by the time 4:30pm rolled around, we weren’t even halfway to the border so we knew that this bus was going to be incredibly delayed. The traffic was so bad everywhere and it felt like we’d barely made any progress at all. We made a brief stop at some restrooms for 15-minutes which also had a few food stalls outside but there wasn’t really much to offer. 

At 6:30pm, we stopped for food just a couple of minutes before the Cambodia/Vietnam border at a little restaurant on the side of the road. There were quite a lot of pre-cooked dishes to choose from including various vegetable and meat dishes, accompanied by plain white rice.

Food on the way from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City

Each dish was $2.50 but the portions were pretty small and they were cold so they’d clearly been sitting out for a while and I personally don’t think it was worth the money. However, we hadn’t eaten properly all day so we didn’t have much choice! There were also toilets at this stop (we didn’t stop at restrooms again after this stop so I’d recommend going).

We set off again at 7pm and then we arrived at the border at 7:15pm. Our bus was one of the last ones to depart from Phnom Penh heading to Ho Chi Minh City, so the border was actually remarkably quiet. Unfortunately, that’s the only major upside to the whole process. 

Crossing the Cambodia/Vietnam border

The exit passport control part of the process was remarkably easy and was arguably better and quicker than any airport passport security I’ve ever experienced. We all got off the bus and queued in front of a little booth and then proceeded to go up one by one to show our passports.

As Matt, my boyfriend, and I had chosen to extend our Vietnamese visas to 30 days, we had our piece of paper that included our e-visa so we could stay in the country longer. The man behind the counter barely even glanced at our passports or e-visas so it seemed like the rest of the process would be very easy.

Once we’d done that, we had to give our passports and e-visa papers to the lady who was a member of staff on the Mekong Express bus. She also told us we had to pay a dollar and give it to her so that she could take you through.

We all went back to wait on the bus for 40-minutes without any further instructions. At 8:10pm, the bus “set off” again, but it only pulled forward about 200 meters in front of the Vietnamese entrance building and then we were all instructed to get off again and collect our bags; again, without any real clear instructions as to why.

We still didn’t have our passports back, so the lady eventually gave them out to everyone once we were inside the building. The French tour group that was also there had different instructions and their process seemed a bit more complicated. 

Thankfully, we were finally told to get our passports and walk through security scanners (which weren’t even turned on) with our bags and then show yet another man our passports and visas. It was all so badly organised and no one really seemed to know what they were doing; least of all the staff who were supposed to be in charge of the whole thing. 

Finally, we got back on the bus and set off again at 8:45pm, 45-minutes after we were actually supposed to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City!

We finally (hooray!) arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at the bus stop at 10:45pm, a whole two hours and 45-minutes after we should have originally arrived, which is sometimes to be expected when you have to go through a busy border crossing.

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