As Ricky and I started off on our adventure, we were somewhat apprehensive about our 24 hour layover we knew we’d need to endure as our first leg of the trip. We’d booked a hotel close to the airport and just outside Manila, but we still didn’t know what to expect. It was our first time in Southeast Asia and with both the stories of delight and horror that seem to come from this part of the world, we were more than a little nervous.
We landed just after 1am, happy to stretch our legs from the cramped six-hour flight on the budget airline Air Asia (which, although a bit of a squeeze, was otherwise a pleasant journey – I definitely recommend them). Immigration didn’t take too long thankfully, because I was just about ready to drop.
Taxis waited just outside the airport and right away we got ripped off, paying about $20 for the fifteen minute ride. We tried to bargain, but exhausted as we were and laden with luggage, we recognized that we didn’t have a choice. It now being past 2am, there were literally no other options than the sparse number of taxis all working together. Thus we climbed into the backseat, sticky from the 25℃ humid night, and fretted over how we’d spent nearly half the money we’d taken out for getting us through the next 24 hours.
What struck us immediately after exiting the airport was the poverty. Piles of trash leaned against broken wood fences and plastic bags settled into every crevice; buses no bigger than pickup trucks with tuktuk roofs and glassless windows were crammed with thirty people hanging out the sides; shabby building fronts sagged and cracked under their caving tin roofs while the homeless settled in to sleep on the front porches.
We got to the DG Budget Hotel quickly, which was much more like a motel but cozy nonetheless (in fact we were thankful that it was as nice as it was given the run down nature of everything else around us).
That said, the staff was incredibly friendly and helpful (especially considering it was well past 2am at this point). It was very weird being called “Ma’am” all the time, but it seems that’s how everyone in the customer service industry addresses clients. They set us up in our room and we passed out on the beds.
Luckily we could have a nice lie in which also meant we didn’t need to worry about congestion in using the bathroom (which was shared, but as clean as our rooms and with hot water).
Wanting to explore the area and get some lunch, we set off to have a wander only to discover that our area was completely devoid of all activities and restaurants. The one place we could have killed some time was a mall nearby, but we needed our passports to get in which we had left in our room and couldn’t be bothered to retrieve.
We headed back and had some food at a shockingly fancy restaurant (there we were in wrinkled baggy travel clothes in a dim red velvet restaurant complete with flowers and candles on every table). But the prices were cheap and we were starving so we had a late romantic Valentine’s lunch and nommed our way through fresh warm bread with salted butter and the most amazing caesar salad – astonishingly so considering I’d previously been craving the most filling meaty dish out there.
Realizing we didn’t really have the money to go to Manila proper to look around like we’d initially wanted, we decided to head back to the airport to wait for 12 hours figuring at the very least there would be shops and restaurants to make our way through.
I do not recommend this.
Although the DG Budget Hotel was very kind and organized a cheap pickup back to the airport for us (so we didn’t get ripped off again), and although MNL is nice, one should not in their right mind willingly choose to spend that long in any airport.
We did find a really nice little café though that we spent most of our time in due to the fact that it had amazing smoothies and a prosciutto pesto panini that I devoured for dinner.
It also happened to have the most impressive display of deli meats, cheeses, and artisan desserts that I’ve seen since leaving Montreal.
We managed to kill time by wandering through a plethora of shops (I bought some flip flops and Ricky found a nice straw fedora) and even had an hour long body massage for $18 that was probably the most fantastic thing I’ve ever experienced (if you do happen to find yourself with a long layover in Manila, don’t think just do it).
Finally, once we’d become intimately acquainted with every nook and cranny of the airport, we were allowed to check in.
It so happened that I’d been lucky enough to stumble across a blog that mentioned the Philippines exit policy (ie. if you’re there for less than 24 hours then you don’t have to pay the exit “visa” fee). They said that you’d likely have to fight them to let you leave without paying, and so I politely explained this at the emigration desk. Predictably, she looked ready to give me a hard time.
“No, you have to be here less than 24 hours,” she grunted.
I smiled pleasantly. “We have been here for less than 24 hours, we were only here for a transfer.”
I had to explain this a few more times. Eventually, she came up with another excuse.
“Well you need to have arrived on the same day.”
Thanking our damned lucky stars at our obscenely late night flight, I told her, “We arrived today.”
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why didn’t you catch an earlier flight away from Manila?”
“There weren’t any,” I sighed, and I think she must have noticed the genuine fatigue and exasperation in my eyes at the length layover because she pursed her lips and grunted again.
Nevertheless, her displeasure was evident. She asked to see our passports and flight itinerary, which we handed over, then disappeared for a few minutes. We waited, a tad anxious, seeing as we didn’t have the exit fee if she pressed us for it. True as the blog said though, she returned and beckoned us to follow her sans payment.
It didn’t take too long for us to get to our gate – although the plane was delayed and it felt like eternity and a day until we finally go aboard our Cebu Pacific Airlines plane.
As a quick review of them, it was a very meh budget flight. I’m on the short side and even my knees were up against the seat in front so if you need extra leg room you’re not in luck. Also when we were coming back with them on our way home to Korea, they insisted that my carry on was too heavy and that their limit was 7kg despite getting an email that said we had a 15kg allowance. Rather than pay the $10/extra kg penalty (which would have come to $40), we opted to buy 15kg of allowance for $25. All in all, I don’t think I’d fly with them again and don’t recommend them.
Anyway at last we arrived in Vietnam – again, past 1am and very sleepy. We’d already organized our multiple entry visas online (since we’d be going to Cambodia and then flying out again from Ho Chi Minh), but when we finally arrived at the immigration desk after the lengthy wait it transpired we needed to go to a very unobvious back corner where we needed to fill in more paperwork and then get our physical visas pasted into our passports. Felt very much like an Arthur Dent moment.
This took over an hour and needless to say we were both very cranky by the time we got out and made it to the parking lot to get a taxi.
Once again, we were immediately charged a ripoff price – and despite being well aware of this, we knew there was little we could do seeing as all the taxis there were of the same company. I think we managed to bargain down to $15 for our 15 minute ride, but ultimately we were just so grateful to arrive at a place with a bed that we didn’t care.
Our hotel, Hoa Bao Hotel, was surprisingly modern. All glass front and interior, it felt completely out of place in the rather run-down surroundings. The 24 hour receptionist was always very helpful, whether it was for a refill of toilet paper or calling a taxi. The room was quite nice too with a real double bed (most of the rooms we stayed in were either single or two twins pushed together for a “king size”), and had both a turbo fan and an air conditioning unit as well as a mini fridge. The bathroom was a little on the cringe side and the water pressure was little more than an incontinent elderly old woman dribbling in her drawers, but all in all it was one of the better rooms we stayed in.
The only down sides to the place were 1) it was really far away from the center of Ho Chi Minh meaning we had to be out for the full day including the overwhelmingly humid midday, and 2) during breakfast one day a swarm of ants exploded out of some cheese they served. As such I’m a little torn in recommending it. I think if we were to go again, we’d definitely want something closer to midtown, if for nothing else than to save on cab fares there and back every day (over $5 each way, which in Vietnamese dong was very steep and definitely sucked up a large portion of our budget).
That said, we were always able to get a good night’s sleep and after our first night we woke up refreshed for the start of our adventures in Vietnam.
The adventure shall continue on Wednesday, so stay tuned!