The Moc Bai Visa Run

Star Wars hero Han Solo, piloting his Millennium Falcon, famously boasted of doing “the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs”. Greg Hackett can top that: “the Moc Bai visa run”. Admittedly, it was more than 12 parsecs – and more than a handful of US$

The border visa run is an essential experience for any seasoned traveller in South-East Asia. Why get your tourist visa via the boring online method, when adventure and daring-do await at the border. In Cambodia, I usually acquire a Vietnam visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh. It’s simple: US$5 tuk tuk ride from guest house to the embassy, US$100 for a three-month multi-visit tourist visa which is ready to collect in four hours, and a US$5 tuk tuk back to guest house. This trip, I choose to do it the interesting way: at the Bavet/Moc Bai border.

NO PERSON’S LAND

The bus from Phnom Penh stops about a kilometre from the Bavet border gate, with a short stroll across “no man’s land” to Moc Bai, in Vietnam. A Dutch backpacker has kindly told me to “get off here and follow all of the others, and the border crossing isn’t far by foot.”

“Brilliant!” 

I follow the gaggle of Cambodians for about 200m that seems like 20km in the hot and humid early afternoon. A crook lower back likes to complain but I travel lightly with just a carry-on bag. The Cambodians begin peeling off as we pass a long street market. The sun is so hot, no tree shade, no checkpoint, just heaps of Cambodian market workers chattering loudly. 

“Not so brilliant.”

THE WALK OF SHAME

The road elbows to the right, and so I continue to trundle along – now with only a few remaining bus passengers who enter a gate on the left, into a long, long newly built factory/warehouse/office/motorbike shelter. It goes on for hundreds of metres. Okay, I’m thinking, this must be the start of the border checkpoint complex. Persevere. However, a further 200 or so metres and the building ends. So does the road.

“Brilliant” is no longer the word I use.

An hour of retracing my steps – the walk of shame, as the afore mentioned Cambodian workers and market shoppers gawk and grin at me (and never a tuk tuk available when you need one!) – I find the border crossing. Now the fun really begins.

LUC GETS LUCKY – I DON’T

Border checkpoints the world over have “expediters” (as I call them) who will handle all of the admin hassle for a small-ish fee. “Luc” appoints himself as mine. I queue in the packed, non-aircon, stifling room and get the $US20 “exit stamp”. Luc  takes me to “his man” at the vehicle exit gates, we pass through and trek to the Vietnam side, where the gates, the guards, the gardens, even the building’s paint all look military, serious and officious. Now the problem arises: Luc can acquire for me a three-month, multi-visit tourist visa for 6 million dong ($US250). However, I don’t have THE Letter. I’m supposed to have previously applied for and received a letter of invitation to visit Vietnam – something I had erroneously presumed would be in the “$US250 visa package”.

This is a major dilemma, Luc informs me, and he must call his “Boss lady”, who tells me over the mobile phone – in a distinctive, sweet but serious voice – that “The Letter” can be arranged at much effort on such short notice, and for a further $US150 fee. Cash, up front, of course.

BACK TO CAMBODIA AND BACK

The problem now: I’m out of cash. All ATMs are on the Cambodian side. I hop on the back of Luc’s motorbike and off we go, across the border and back into the Kingdom of Cambodia. Via the back way!

A dirt track skirts around the side of the official border checkpoints. This entire area is a huge construction site, and the track is buzzing with horn-honking motorbikes and trucks, as Cambodian and Vietnamese workers and delivery folk go about their business. No doubt a practical solution: no point in having local labourers clogging up the main route, where permits and visas and stamps are required. And fees.

These are high-rise casino-hotels in various states of completion. Luc tells me that they are all Chinese. We arrive at a newly opened bank branch, which has an outdoor ATM. By now I’m hot, tired, stressed, anxious – I just want to get this done. At any cost.     

HORROR OF HORRORS

Cashed up, we scoot back along the dirt track and over to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Luc drops me off at the checkpoint souvenir shop where I discover – and I nearly pass out in horror – that I have left my credit card in the ATM. The only ATM. On a street of casinos.

Back onto the motorbike, back onto the dirt track, back over the rain filled pot holes and weaving between huge concrete trucks and motorbike riders yabbering their mobile phones, back to the bank. Fortune indeed does smile upon the brave (and the tired, stressed forgetful traveller). The bank is sill open, the young bank manager has just popped back into the office and, by a stroke of good luck, she doe have a key to the outside ATM (which is not the normal practice). And the ATM did have my card. Relieved, I genially ask her why so many Chinese casinos? With ubiquitous Cambodian smile, she replies: “Casino? Chinese? Here? I no understand?” 

ANOTHER MILLION DONG GONE

So, back we go to the Vietnam side, to the souvenir shop where I am to wait while Luc goes off to take care of things – with my cash and passport, a fact that does not help soothe the anxiety. The souvenir shop – which is huge and full of items that the well healed, modern Asian tourist might want – has a reception desk, where a young lady is on the phone … and I think that I might recognise that distinctively sweet but serious voice.

Such are the ways of South-East Asia, and I love it.

Two hours later, Luc returns with all documents, stamped and in order, and I am ready to go. A generous cash tip for Luc – hey, why stress about another million dong – and I wearily trundle to the car park and make a snap decision: stuff mucking about with public buses and group “VIP” vans, get a taxi for the 150km (4 hour) drive to Vung Tau. Then starts the final leg of this journey: The fare is US$110 and the driver must get his mate to do the trip. That mate arrives after 20 minutes and phones his wife to say the job is all the way to Vung Tau – and she goes ballistic! Sitting in the back seat, I could hear her. Half an hour of driving at 45kmh, we pull over for 10 minutes and a third driver arrives to take over. He has to veer off to a designated petrol station to fill up the car, so another 20 minutes before I finally embark on the last leg of my journey to Vung Tau.

Where more adventures await …

Bánh mì Baguette With a Sausage & Sauce: Readjusting to Aussie Food

Who doesn’t adore Vietnam’s bánh mì baguette? Light and crusty.

Time to “re-acclimatise” to Aussie food (fly home from Vung Tau tonight) so lunch is a good ol’ snag & egg in a roll. With tomato sauce.

After a month of mostly preservative-free Asian eating, Aussie food can give you a hard kick in the belly.

Read the ingredients label: we tend to consume the entire Periodic Table at every meal.

That’s the “price” of convenience food …
(This tastes good, btw)

The Vietnamese bánh mì baguette: light and crusty.

Vietnam Food. So You Think You’ve Tried It All?

You’ve seen it a thousand times, on a dozen visits, probably nibbled it – but never really stopped and “experienced” it. 

South-East Asian food is like that. You may reckon you’ve seen it all but no, there’s always a surprise.

Vietnamese call this grapefruit. It’s a type of pomelo, and it varies in taste, appearance and name, according the area where it’s grown.

This one might be nam roi or doan hung; its juice is sweet and with a lingering acidic after-taste.

It is bursting with “healthy”.

When have you eaten enough?

The sweetness lures you into yet another mouthful, while the hint of acid sharpness suggests otherwise: ahh, the absorbing contradictions, that is travel in South-East Asia.

Vietnamese grapefruit are a pomelo and vary in taste, texture and name, according to where that are grown.

Fast Food Wars in Vietnam

Fast Food Wars: the smokey, heat of battle in Vung Tau, Vietnam.

Pitched on each side of the street, it’s Cóm 25k versus Cóm Tàm 25k.

Maccas v Hungry Jack’s? KFC v Red Rooster?

Both sell the grilled, ultra-thin chicken cutlet with egg, rice, vegie and a squirt of sweet chilli syrup.

Delicious, too.

Let’s call it a draw, and we’re all winners …

Vietnam Grows on You

Vietnam devotes much effort into beautifying the beachside parks and gardens.

This is the “Back Beach”, in Vung Tau; the same for Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hoi An – at destinations up and down the Vietnam coast.

Take time out in Vietnam’s beautiful and relaxing beachside parks and gardens

Crunch Time: Tackling Vietnam Soft-Shell Prawns

Vietnam soft shell shrimp (prawns).

Not to my liking but it keeps popping up, in Vung Tau, Nha Trang – across this fascinating country.

Steamed, grilled, sweet, fried. Not one to shy away from a challenge, by the end of this journey I will have acquired an appreciation, or, having given it my best shot, I shall withdraw with honour.

This night’s street-stall version is a big prawn, deep fried in peanut oil with a very tasty batter, and the prawn meat is firm and delicious.

A pity there’s a barrier of “crunchy” shell between the two.

Crunch, crunch, crunch …

Soft-shell prawns/shrimp are a culinary favourite in South-East Asia (and now world-wide) but that “crunchy” shell can be a challenge to even an adventurous diner.

Crispy Rice ‘Puff’ is Good Stuff

Vietnam Lunch: the young bloke next to me was eating a plateful of these, with rice.

Being of daring spirit and with a yearn to learn, I had to try one too. Delicious!

Similar to a Cantonese ham sui gok, it is a light, hollow, doughy “puff” coated in baked rice “bubbles” (a la crispy rice crackers) and, I presume, pan fried.

These being hollow, you could have a lot of fun experimenting with various fillings such as paté or mince, or do vegetarian with diced tomatoes and onions; maybe a sweet version with raisins and citrus peel, and serve hot with vanilla bean ice-cream.

(I’ve impressed myself with these ideas. What am I doing, pretending to write? I should be pretending to “chef” …)

Crispy rice “puffs”: a delicious addition to lunch in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Vietnam Lunch is ‘One With The Lot’

Vietnam lunch is a “one with the lot”.

A big queue was happening at this Nha Trang street food stall – building labourers, office workers, they were pulling up on their motor scooters; the family running the stall were working like clockwork, filling take-away containers and ladening plates.

They all seemed to be ordering rice with a bit of everything. So I did, too! Smart move.

The meal was pork done various ways, chicken, boiled/stewed pigeon eggs, vegetable, crunchy fried shrimp (yes, I crunched them – shell, head and all), and other bits and pieces.

Generously spoon on some SE Asian home-made sweet chilli syrup, and tuck in …

Lunch is a Vietnamese “one with the lot”


Traditional Vietnamese Wedding is a Feast of Fun

Traditional Vietnamese wedding near nha Trang: what an honour to be invited, by Dung to the wedding of one of her work staff.

They are so courteous and friendly.

Two fun & friendly hours of eating, speeches, eating, singing, eating, hand-shaking, eating, pics, eating …
(videos to come)

Beautiful bride & gregarious groom, with office workmates – and an Aussie ring-in.
Sneak in a smile, in between courses of delicious Vietnamese food
Guess whose camera has run out of space on the memory card?

Coffee is Gold, in Vietnam

Nha Trang Riverside: Beautiful new mansions.

I’m guessing the owners might be coffee merchants?

In Vietnam today, coffee is “gold”; in the 19th Century Gold Rush, merchants selling supplies to the prospectors became the millionaires.

Here, start the day with a tin phin drip coffee, with ice and “sweet milk” …