As I was sitting on a six hour bus ride the other day with nothing to do, I started to ponder this great waste of time. If you are catching a bus to somewhere for the first time, then it's a little interesting, but when you are on a bus ride that you have done countless times, it's just dead time unless you have a book to read, some work to do, or you enjoy watching movies with voice dubbing. It occurred to me however that I may actually have something that few people might share. I have gained an in depth knowledge about most of the bus companies that operate the flat as a pancake run from Phnom Penh to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and back. I do it so often (for work), that I have it down to a routine. So if I was to share some of this knowledge, then it might help others and that is apparently what travel forums are all about. So, here goes:
Plane or bus?
The flight is usually around $165USD minimum and takes fifty minutes or so. It's a monopoly by Vietnam Airlines, so prices aren't going to drop any time soon. By the time you get to the airport, wait for the flight, exit the other end and wait for luggage, you are looking at three and a half hours. The bus costs between $8 and $12 and takes six hours normally, so you are paying $1.02 for each minute of the one hundred and fifty minutes you are saving.
Bus-lines ranked by rating
Mekong Express Lmousine Bus (8/10) $12
Mekong Express were one of the first Cambodian companies to do this run. They have some older Japanese buses (Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hino) that they have painted an attractive orange and white color. The buses, while a little old are kept clean and tidy. They have a toilet on board to the rear of the bus which is the item that causes them to lose a point in my review. Probably because the buses are a little old, the toilet sometimes releases some nasty odors into the cabin. Asides from this though, they are a smooth operation. When you arrive to check in, they are well organised. They tag your bag and give you the number to reclaim it at the other end. They provide seats for waiting. They diligently check to ensure that you have a valid visa. Then when the bus arrives, the well dressed bus guide, will show you to your seat. This guide is usually a good communicator and this is helpful when you are stopping for a meal break or going through the sometimes confusing border procedure. This company is by far the most reliable. You can see the staff getting highly stressed if their departure is delayed by more than five minutes where other companies usually stretch it to try and get a few more customers or wait for some idiot that couldn't arrive on time. The reliability and service may explain why there are often a lot of Cambodians using this bus to travel to Vietnam for medical treatment. The Cambodian crowd that you meet on this bus are usually well mannered and friendly. The bus leaves from O'Russey market in Phnom Penh usually and finishes it's journey in Pham Ngu Lao HCMC. Tickets can be brought through agents and hotels everywhere.
Sapaco Tourist 7/10 $12
This is the Vietnamese equivelant to the Mekong Express. They have newish Samco/Hino buses that are quite comfortable. They have a toilet in the middle of the bus (sunken a little into the floor with steps). These guys do about seven buses every day in both directions and are the first choice for the Vietnamese travelers (mainly business travelers). These buses are often full. Where the Mekong Express staff are adorably over-polite and gentle, the Sapaco staff are usually gruff, but efficient (a cultural thing). There are usually an over-supply of these staff, dressed in blue workers shirts and blue jeans. The English and Khmer language skills aren't very good, and they don't tell you a lot about what is happening or what to expect next. They just sort of grunt and point. They always check your passports for a valid visa and will mostly leave on time. If they don't then they make up for it with the presumably faster, newer bus. The bus leaves from Olympic Stadium area in Phnom Penh usually and finishes it's journey in Pham Ngu Lao HCMC. Tickets can be brought through agents and hotels everywhere.
Malinh Express /Malinh Tourist 6.5/10 $9-10
Malinh are a transport empire in Vietnam. They do everything from micro taxis, to huge buses and everything in between. All these vehicles are driven by staff dressed in white shirts with green ties. They have a strict company charter that prohibits them from trawling for extra customers along the way and they are pretty punctual. The buses are usually nice new Hyundais without a toilet which means that they stop occasionally for a toilet break. The staff don't usually speak much English or Khmer, but they generally try to be helpful by handing you a fake-silk pillow to rest your head on.
The bus leaves from Olympic Stadium area in Phnom Penh usually and finishes it's journey in Pham Ngu Lao HCMC. Tickets can be brought through agents and hotels everywhere.
Kumho Samco 6/10 $11
Strange name, nice bus. I recently discovered this bus company coming back from Saigon. They have newish Samco/Hino buses withe the toilet in the middle of the vehicle. They have reduced the seating capacity to 32people, thereby giving some nice extra legroom and seats that recline a long way. The staff were nice enough, but completely disorganised at the start. They improved when we reached the border. The main downsides where that they left twenty five minutes late because they were waiting for a passenger that was a buddy of one of the staff and also that the volume on the entertainment system was too high. Their taste in voice dubbed movies was also appalling, but hey, nothing new there. The bus leaves from somewhere in Phnom Penh usually and finishes it's journey in Pham Ngu Lao HCMC. Tickets can be brought through agents and hotels in some places. I think this company is poorly managed, but they have nice buses:)
Phnom Penh Sorya 168 Bus Company 6/10 $6-7
You get what you pay for. These guys are OK, they are just a cheapo bus company. Ageing Hyundai buses, sometimes with doors that don't close properly. The staff are usually helpful, friendly, but pretty disorganised. They sometimes have a toilet and sometimes don't. departure punctuality isn't bad, but they are not adverse to trawling along the way for more customers. The bus leaves from Central market in Phnom Penh usually and finishes it's journey in Pham Ngu Lao HCMC. Tickets can be brought through agents and hotels everywhere.
Van Rec Co 5/10 $6-7
Ageing buses that they drive like fighter planes. Good if you are in a hurry. Starts? lands? I flagged it down on the bridge over the Bassac river. It stopped in an area of HCMC that I am unfamiliar with. I just got onto a motorbike taxi.
Paramount Angkor Express 2/10 $10-12
These guys suck. I have tried them a couple of times because they have double deckers with heaps of space for cargo (which I sometimes have a bit of) where they have removed seats. The first time I tried them, their bus left fifteen minutes ahead of schedule and I had to argue for a refund. The second time, the staff spent the whole time cackling their heads off so you couldn't hear yourself think. Then we arrived at the border and they realised they hadn't checked their passengers visas. Two young girls didn't have them (thought they could get them at the border). So they turfed the girls out and said "find a taxi". My final attempt with Para-pathetic Angkor Express failed at the border. The guide was so hopeless at getting the passports stamped, that I fled the scene. I already had mine and I could hear that he had lost a few of the arrival forms. After thirty minutes, I walked and grabbed a public bus on the Vietnam side.
So, there it is folks. I hope my knowledge on this obscure matter will help someone in their quest for a smooth bus ride between these two cities.