Escaping from Cambodia to Vietnam: Why you should plan in advance once in a while

As young backpackers, we like to go with the flow. I’m a strong believer in the theory that you see less if you plan in advance- word of mouth recommendations are how you hear about the very best things to do in a foreign country. In fact, every single time I think “alright, let’s get it together, let’s book something just three days in advance…” I end up cancelling the reservation and losing my deposit.

That being said, I learned the hard way why you should plan in advance when it comes to crossing country borders and obtaining visas.

It was early October, and we were heading from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We’re die-hard procrastinators, and kept putting off getting our Vietnamese Visas, which are notoriously a bit of a pain in the ass to get for Americans- unlike most countries where we could pay up for a visa on arrival, we had to go to an office and get the visa in advance. “In advance” and “young backpackers” are akin to oil and water. So we figured we’d take the bus across Cambodia, and get our visas in Sihanoukville while we checked out idyllic Koh Rong Island for a few days before grabbing a bus to Vietnam.

We were pressed on time as our Cambodian 30-day visas were about to expire. We’d booked a bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Pehn through a friendly travel agent stand- huge mistake. Word to the wise, book bus tickets through your hotel so that they can be held accountable. Our agent said a shuttle would pick us up at our hotel and take us to the bus station. Our shuttle never came. We eventually smartened-up and grabbed a tuk-tuk to the bus station, but the bus didn’t want to let us on because we were foreigners. There was no way to contact our booking agent, and we were stuck in Siem Reap for another night. A few days later, we finally arrived in Sihanoukville, where there was a Vietnam Embassy. Perfect. We celebrated the night away in “Sin-Ville,” aptly named for its seedy party scene and trash-ridden beaches.

It was good for one night of partying, but we couldn’t wait to escape Sihanoukville- and Cambodia, for that matter. I woke up to aggressive knocking on my door, “Annie, we’re stuck in Cambodia for another two weeks. This bloody holiday has closed everything down- including the Vietnamese embassy.” This was the worst news, maybe ever. This holiday- Pchum Ben Festival- had appeared out of nowhere and shut down everything in Cambodia for fifteen days. I’d never heard of such a sneaky or long holiday in my life.

I really didn’t want to become a Sihanoukville club promoter for the next two weeks, so I desperately downed a Bloody Mary and started Googling escape plans. We needed a visa from a Vietnamese consulate or embassy ahead of time if we wished to travel overland to Vietnam- which wouldn’t be possible for over two and a half weeks.  I made a call to Vietnam’s hotline. They told me that if we flew into Vietnam we could apply for a visa online (govietnamvisa.com).

A bus ticket from Phnom Pehn to Ho Chi Minh is roughly $10, a plane ticket is about $150. We paid up – it was early in our travels, we’d pay anything to escape “Sin-Ville.” Our visas took a few days processing time, so we booked the flights for three days later. Our visas application never asked for an outbound flight from Vietnam, so we figured we were good to go. Wrong! If only we’d planned in advance and booked that… when we tried to check into our flight to Ho Chi Minh, the airline wouldn’t let us until we booked an outbound flight. So we quickly booked flights from Vietnam to Bangkok using the Orbitz app. Insider tip: Orbitz will give you a full refund if you cancel your flight within 24 hours of booking it. So we purchased flights and cancelled them once we’d safely arrived in Vietnam.

Aha, off to Vietnam! Oh wait. Due to our lack of planning, we’d overstayed our visas by three days. We paid up the fines, and finally left Cambodia.

Our mistake wasn’t the end of the world, but it did make for a rough road out of Cambodia. Word to the wise: go with the flow, after you’ve done your research.

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