First, your hostel proprietor gives you wrong time for the bus.
Well, not necessarily the wrong time for the bus, but the wrong time for the mini-van to come pick you up and take you to the actual bus. After some frantic calls, you finally get to the bus terminal — a small, nondescript storefront with two huge buses in front. You wait. As people of various nationalities rush around you, asking worried questions and receiving no answers from the Cambodian bus operators, you start to wonder if you’re at the right place. After all, there is more than one night bus that leaves from Siem Reap.
You shove your $24 ticket at someone who looks like he drives the bus, or at least has ridden it before. He points to one of the buses. Inside the seats are numbered. A girl agrees to switch with you so you can sit by your girlfriend (the guy who booked your tickets didn’t make sure of that). That girl is headed to a different city (Sihanoukville) and you’re a little nervous that this might not be the correct bus. But when you ask, there is no definite answer.
The bus is a little larger than a Greyhound and has comfortable multi-colored blankets on the seats for you to use, which is great because the bus is freezing. Despite the seemingly unorganized nature of the whole affair, the bus leaves right at midnight. You settle down to sleep, occassionally adjudsting your blanket or peering out of the windows.
At 6 a.m., you arrive in Phnom Penh and the bus driver empties everyone into the parking lot of a small, outdoor bus station. “Wait here,” the driver says and then he’s gone. Your fellow passengers look confused too, heads darting back and forth, looking for any indication of where the connecting bus may be. So we all wait together under a tin awning. Several times, men come by asking where we’re going. When we answer, “Ho Chi Minh City” they say “OK, OK” and walk away.
After about 20 minutes, a middle-aged man asks where you are going. “Ho Chi Minh,” you answer. He says, “Come with me” and motions toward a white mini-van. There is no markings on the mini-van to indicate this guy is with the same company. Your suspicions are high after three days in Siem Reap, where everyone has a monetary reason to take you somewhere, anywhere. You say, “Hold on. Hold on.” You go to the bus ticket counter to ask if this guy is legit. The two people at the counter are all busy, talking on one or two phones. You see a few others in the mini-van now. “Oh well,” you think, “It’ll be an adventure.”
You hop in the mini-van and after about 10 minutes, your driver pulls onto a side street where a real bus is waiting. You shuffle out and onto the new bus. It’s only six more hours to Ho Chi Minh City.
Soon, you reach the Mekong River and the bus appears to be driving straight into it. It’s not until you’re right at the shore that you realize there is a barge to take you to the other side of the river. “This is crazy,” you think. After you arrive on the other side, the border town of Bavet comes into view. Soon enough, you are ushered off the bus, passports are taken and you wait. Then, you’re corralled with everyone else to a large building where a man with a permanent bad day calls out your name. He hands back your passport and you wait by the bus again. Then, everyone gets on the bus, the bus driver goes a few hundred yards to reach Moc Bai on the Vietnamese side of the border and the process repeats. There doesn’t seem to be any problems and, after a while, everyone heads back on the bus.
Another few hours and the traffic increases noticeably. Before you know it, around 1 p.m., the bus drops you off in the middle of what appears to be some sort of motocross race. But no, this is just Ho Chi Minh City. You avoid the taxis and moto drivers at the station, because you know they will try to rip a newcomer like you off, and head a few blocks to pull out your first Vietnamese dong and grab a taxi to your hotel.