As a more budget-savvy traveler, I’m always down for an overland border crossing to save major $$$. The Cambodia to Vietnam border crossing from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City was my first non-EU international overland adventure.
And what an adventure it was. Whew!
This day brought a range of emotions, from contentment to anxiety, and just about everything in-between. In this post, I’ll share the logistics of a Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh overland border crossing, including the eVisa process for American passport holders.
And, to top it all off, I’ll catalog my chaotic personal border crossing experience that just might end up in my travel memoir one day.
Let’s get down to it, travel friends!
Getting a Tourist Visa to Enter Vietnam
Before you can even dream of crossing the border into Vietnam, you’ve got to figure out your specific visa situation first. As a U.S. citizen and passport holder who was already abroad (pre-COVID), I had these options:
- Apply for my tourist visa in-person at the Vietnamese consulate in Phnom Penh (Google Maps)
- Apply online
I’m a millennial. Option 2 was the obvious choice for me.
If you do not carry a U.S. passport, please visit the Vietnamese consulate’s website in your home nation for information relative to your specific situation before proceeding. You can also likely find this information on your State department’s website.
While many nationalities qualify for a visa on arrival, including Americans who are pre-approved, it’s just easier to get it in advance.
P.s. For all the logistic and administrative things you should take care of before traveling abroad, check out this post!
My Choice: eVisa
I found applying for an eVisa to be relatively painless, with a quick turnover. After applying online, I received the answer on my visa within a couple of days and was able to have it printed at my hotel.
To start the application process, go to this webpage and make sure you have the following materials:
- A passport photo on your laptop to upload (It’s good practice to have these in JPEG format at the ready, anyway!)
- A scan of the first page on your passport not including the signature page (also good practice to have saved on your laptop)
- A credit or debit card to pay the nonrefundable $25 visa application fee
That’s it. Easy, peasy!
A few important FYIs:
The application itself is pretty short, but does ask where you’ll be staying once you arrive to Vietnam. I did fill this out, but the immigration official did not check its validity when I entered the country. I read on TripAdvisor forums that you don’t need to sweat this section if you don’t already know where you’re staying, but it’s better to go ahead and fill it out.
Upon completing your application, you’ll be offered a registration code on your confirmation page. Keep this code! It allows you to login to their system and check the status of your visa application, along with the email address you provided and your date of birth.
Once your application is approved, make sure you print off your visa, which you can access through a link sent in your approval email. If you need to print it off in black and white, that’s okay. The immigration official did not deny me entry to the country over the visa not being in color, and he didn’t even mention it.
Please note that there are limitations to where you can enter Vietnam with an eVisa. You have to choose an entry point from the list offered in the eVisa application.
That being said, I recommend to research which transport type and route you’ll take, then apply for your eVisa, and then book your transport once your visa is approved.
Ways of Getting from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City
Like many Southeast Asian metropoles, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh are widely connected through many methods of transport. This made the process of choosing which one was best for me a little more complicated, but budgetary constraints made the final decision!
This is the fastest option, considering a flight between these two cities is an hour at most. Prices for my intended travel days were anywhere from $60 to over $100, which is just too much for me to justify spending on a flight that short.
If you’re on a tight schedule, or you’d just rather fly, then go for it! You’ll find plenty of flights on any given day since the air traffic on this route is high.
P.s. You can find my tips for finding ideal flights here!
This is by far the most interesting option, but won’t necessarily land you in Ho Chi Minh immediately. You’ll more likely end up in the Mekong Delta by way of Phú Quốc, a gorgeous Vietnamese island I wish I’d known about on my first trip. This destination is definitely bookmarked for my future travels!
I may even do this myself in the future, since I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh so much and never got to see Vietnam’s Mekong Delta!
You can find many a cruise/boat tour that will take you from Phnom Penh’s port to Phú Quốc, and then on to the Mekong Delta from there. Once you’re on land in the Mekong, you can catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh or book a private transfer with a local travel company. These are relatively easy to find on platforms like Klook and GetYourGuide!
This sounds so fun to me that you just might see a boat journey in a future installment of Sarah L. Travels in Southeast Asia…
P.s. You can find more travel search platforms and my favorites after 6 years of traveling on my resources page!
This is the more elite way to travel overland from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh, but it also carries a heftier price tag. You can get a private transfer, or a shared shuttle. It’ll take slightly less time than a bus, but the convenience is only marginally worth the cost.
I read my fair share of TripAdvisor reviews stating just how bad their shared shuttles and/or private transfer experiences were, but I’m sure it depends heavily on the company, the driver, and the day. Proceed with caution, but don’t rule it out if you have the budget to pay a little more!
If you’re a budget traveler, you probs just scrolled here immediately. No judgement! This is the option I chose, since Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh isn’t a painfully long journey. At about a 5.5-hour drive, this was easily and safely done by bus.
Known throughout Southeast Asia as a reputable company, Giant Ibis is the service I went with. Sure, they have their fair share of negative reviews, and I see why.
However, I will say my journey was comfortable, the staff member I interacted with was very kind and knowledgable about her job, and I was dropped off in the location matching my reservation without much delay.
All in all, the experience was pleasant! The even more pleasant part is I only paid $19 for this trip. That’s hard to beat!
My Choice: Overland Border Crossing by Giant Ibis Bus
As I previously mentioned, Giant Ibis is a highly reputable bus company in Southeast Asia offering the Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh route. I went in with low expectations since Giant Ibis does have negative reviews aplenty from other travelers.
I was pleasantly surprised with the comfort of my day with them, but I don’t necessarily discredit what other travelers have said!
How to book your bus ticket with Giant Ibis
There are two ways of doing this. You can buy your ticket in-person at a local Giant Ibis office, of which there plenty, or buy online.
I went with the online option, where I was able to pay with a foreign credit card (hello, points!) and print off my eTicket at my hotel in Phnom Penh. I was also able to choose my seat in advance, and get free pickup since I was staying at a Giant Ibis partner hotel!
My ticket cost $19, including a $1 credit card processing fee, to travel on a Saturday. Not bad!
A Border Crossing Travel Day
Since I chose an 8:00am departure time, I was picked up in the lobby of my Phnom Penh hotel by a Giant Ibis shuttle around 7:30. They were pretty prompt, so be ready at the time they say on your reservation!
Once we arrived at the departure point, the bus for our trip was easy to find, and we were ready to go within minutes. This went seamlessly, especially compared to some of my past experiences.
The bus had comfortable seats that recline, charging stations (perfect for a digital nomad like me!), plenty of leg room, and the bus was clean. All in all, I give the interior of the bus a 10/10. There isn’t a bathroom on the bus I took, but the bus will stop along the way for a bathroom and snack break, then again for lunch/border crossing.
It is common practice in Southeast Asia for bus drivers to pick up locals needing a short ride, but this did not extend the time of my journey. The Vietnamese gentleman seated next to me, since I was in a row on my own until then, was very nice.
A Border Crossing Borderline Melodrama
This is where things get interesting. I know at least some of you only read this post for this part, so here it goes:
For starters, many of the nasty reviews on Giant Ibis’ website is about an über-mysterious $2 fee exclusively for eVisa border crossings. This fee still makes no sense to me, and Giant Ibis does an unsatisfactory job of explaining its purpose on their own FAQ section.
Suffice it to say, this fee is possibly a bribe, maybe a rush fee, and would be more well-received if its true purpose were transparently told to passengers.
The friendly Giant Ibis employee handling the visas allowed myself and two French travelers to come inside the border office with her instead of paying the fee. Again, I had no problem paying it if I knew what it was for. The mystery invoked curiosity in me, and I took the bait.
We entered the building, and the first thing I noticed was that the individual foreigners’ line was closed. Maybe this is because I traveled on a Saturday. Maybe not.
I saw two lines only, both for passengers on buses. One line was VIP, and the other was for everyone else. Both lines were taking the same passports, so the distinction seemed irrelevant.
Bottom line: Vietnamese passports were checked first, then foreigners who paid the $2 fee, then everybody else. Who was in line first didn’t seem to matter, but that may not always be the case.
Basically, you can forget about your eVisa check and passport stamp if you don’t pay the $2 fee. Even though you’ve already done the work of getting the visa in advance, even though this fee is not required for any other type of visa, you’re still expected to pay it and not ask any questions.
I see your eyebrows raised. Same, my friends. Same.
I finally got to the front of the line, and found out that the immigration officer wanted the money from me anyway. As it turns out, Giant Ibis doesn’t keep this fee. They give the $2/person directly to Vietnamese officials. Unless they’re not busy or you’ve got all day to wait around on everyone else’s passports to get stamped, you’ll have to cough it up.
Oh, and if you get held up at the border, Giant Ibis will leave you behind.
Even though I still don’t know what this $2 fee is really about, I gave it to the friendly Giant Ibis employee, she took my passport up front, spoke to the immigration official on my behalf, and ta da! I was allowed entry to Vietnam!
Sure, my heart rate went up when he sternly told me he wanted $2, then handed my passport back when I told him I didn’t understand (because I truly didn’t). But, I was able to take a deep breath once my suitcase cleared customs and I got to eat the tacos I’d packed.
After all, what’s full-time travel without a little forearm hair-raising excitement?!
Plus, I made friends with the French couple in the same predicament as I. What a way to meet people for the first time!
Arriving to Ho Chi Minh City and Starting My Solo Adventure in Vietnam
I entered Vietnam in tears. Surprising tears. I’d had a fine day, met some interesting people, and crossed a non-Schengen international border for the first time as a solo female traveler.
I wasn’t crying because of anything from that day, but rather because I was officially the second person in my family to go to Vietnam, albeit under vastly different circumstances.
The first? My PawPaw, aptly nicknamed Big Danny.
He’d passed from Agent Orange-related illnesses over a year prior, which was deeply difficult for our family.
An overwhelming pang of grief washed over me. I missed him so much in this moment. I suppose it didn’t help that my Spotify playlist switched to Creedence Clearwater’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
But, I was comforted with the reminder that I had the opportunity to travel in such a beautiful country. I was excited for the next few weeks (or so I thought…more on that later!) of seeing a destination that was new to me, on my own terms as a solo traveler.
The future was looking brighter than ever. Almost as bright as the eye-catching lights all over Ho Chi Minh.
• • •
I hope this post helped you plan your own overland travel from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh. I know it can be overwhelming and borderline frustrating to sift through hundreds of outdated TripAdvisor forums for the info you need. This trip was in early March 2020, and I will try my best to keep it up-to-date and relevant for readers.
Best of luck, and, as always, enjoy the journey!