Day 5: Phu Quoc at last

The ferry left promptly at 08h30, with, for once me on it. It was a fast ferry, in other words a hydrofoil, with upstairs and downstairs accommodation. Seats sere comfortable, we were given the obligatory bottle of water, and were soon speeding along to Phu Quoc. The journey takes roughly one and a half hours, and you pass by some small islands on the way to the brooding mass growing on the Horizon that turns into Phu Quoc. 

You can, by the way, go ouside to a small deck at the rear, which I did after the Kung Fu films showing in the salon began to pall. I did enjoy the morality tale, however, shown as we were entering the harbour, where a bright-looking ten year old was picked up by the police for impeding traffic on public highways. His

Ferry interior

father came to get him, initially angry, but when he and the police explained he had just been picking up paper as the campaign to keep the island clean wanted him to do. The father began to melt, and broke into sobs when the virtuous boy added « and I wanted to help you, to make your job easier., father, because I know it is part of your job.» It is a shame the human race looks askance at noble sentiments such as these. Mark you, in most places nut just here the boy would have lasted a matter of minutes before either being rushed to hospital or to jail for disturbing the peace. The 21st century is a cynical one, I’m afraid.

It being lunchtime, I walked down to the main road where three or four restaurants were clumped together. Without without to be too hard, they were very much of the beer, chips and omelette type, and advertised everything from burgers through pizzas to gelato. Sandwiched in between were the veggie dishes, and I have to say the news were the equal of any I’ve tasted. The only slight downside was that none served Bahn Mi, the great staple dish created by a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine – Phu Quoc isn’t that sort of island. A typical example was Kim’s, which served seafood as advertised, kicking off with fish and chips. Well, you serve what the market wants on resort islands, and they did it well. 

Phu Quoc, which produces the world’s best nuoc mam, is a fast-developing  resort island, where long beaches flank a crystal sea. The hills provide a glorious backdrop – in fact, it is much as the brochures say. The guide books wax lyrical, as do all the reviews in Tripadvisor and the like. However, they fail to mention the two big caveat that applies to many beach-based resorts: You want to be on the beach side, not across the road that runs down the coast. This particularly applies to newer resort areas, where buildings are shooting up with a minimum of time (and apparently planning) to cash in on the boom. Most guides don’t mention this, but, basically the higher the price the better the position. The more expensive the resort, the more likely it is to be on the beach. Sheratons, Marriots, Anantara and the ilk are all going to be on the beach, the mid range are going to be on the other side of the road, and the hostels are going to be clumped together in the towns a fair walk from the beach across several busy roads.

Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with the mid price, resorts, nothing at all in fact, and the facilities are often excellent, just be aware that, if you see yourself whiling away the hours on the beach, alternating between reading, dips, and the odd refreshing beer, you probably won’t find it that easy. My resort was on the other side of the road, and crossing meant dodging the ever-present scooters. They move slowly in Vietnam, so survival rate is quite high, but I then had an 800m walk that took me through two sodden, muddy, and ugly building sites before arriving at the beach. When I got there – and the return of the rain might have jaundiced my view – the only places where I could lie on the beach with the odd ale all charged Sheraton prices. The same was true of the restaurants. As it happened, the rain which was to be a feature of most of my trip precluded much beach-based activity.

In the afternoon I walked into town by road. It isn’t possible to do this on the beach, partly because of the aforementioned building sites but also because the beach is not one continuous strip, but is broken by streams and rivulets emptying into the sea. The formula is pretty much resorts new or under construction on one side, and restaurants, shops, the paraphernalia of any town where supermarkets haven’t killed local businesses on the other. There is a private musem that also functions as a restaurant and hotel, which is worth visiting, especially at the 20000 d price. It is in one of the older traditional houses, which adds to the interest.The jury is out on whether their turning on each room into something that reflects the exhibits is a success, though. The section on coral, which is on the ground floor, has sculpted rooms designed to emulate caves, but the coral, behind tanks and glass, seems curiously bleached, so I doubt it is living. The skeletons of various fish also left me somewhat cold.

I spent some time, in between sheltering in various spots, contemplating resorts and their function and came to the following conclusion:  if you want to stay in a proper resort, as in one where you don’t need to venture outside save for the occasional tour, don’t go for half measures, but pay top dollar, it really is worth it. If you’re not a resort person, then anywhere is fine, just be aware that your beachside experiences are going to be much the same as anyone staying in a seaside town, and that can often be far more varied and interesting, if not quite as relaxing.

I remember once, when touring the Nile on a riverboat, a conversation with the tour guide. It was towards the end of the trip, and we were sat in the shade just down from the valley of kings. I’d been happily wandering around on my own, making my own discoveries removed from the rest. The guide commented on this, and asked me why. I was a little stumped for a reply, but then said something about the rewards of finding things out for yourself, rather than having them spoon-fed to you. 

The guide nodded, and said ‘You know, the trouble is you aren’t a tour person”

He was right, and neither am I a homestay person nor a resort person. 

Day 3: A short sojourn in the Mekong Delta

Bus Station, Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea when planning the trip. The Delta sounded, and indeed is, interesting, the question was more one of time and travel to Phu Quoc. I’d only allowed an overnighter in the Delta, and reading the bus timetables while on the way to Vinh Long, began to wonder whether I would be able to get to the ferry in Rach Gia in time. Certainly, the girl whose blog I was reading indicated it would be a challenge. I’d already booked the room, plus that for the return to HCM before heading north, and, besides, I had a particular interest in spending time on the island.

As an aside: Futa bus lines offer wifi on their buses. They also have their own bus stations often far from the main ones, but do offer free minbuses to get you from their bus stations to your hotel.

Ferry arriving at Anh Binh

A minibus duly took me to the ferry for Anh Binh, which is across the riverfrom Viny Long, and a couple of minutes later I was relieved of 2000vnd and followed the sign that said Ngoc Phuong, the homestay I had somewhat randomly selected. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, the pack began to way down on me, and the 600m the sign had said was closer to 1 km or more. Nevertheless I found it, entered the compound and let out a hoy. A smiling woman appeared, welcomed me and showed me to my room, of which more later. I asked whether she could give me something to eat – perhaps one of those lovely baguettes they do so well in HCM, stuffed with tofu and salad with a dash of chilli sauce. She offered noodles with pork or chicken soup, a variant of the ubiquitous pho. I had no choice but to tell her the bitter truth.

‘I’m sorry, I should have told you I don’t eat meat.”

She was initially not phased.

“Chicken?”

I shook my head.

“Fish?’ 

Again, I demurred. She grew increasingly astonished

“But you eat prawn?” At my response she seemed lost for words, but the Vienamese are made of sterner stuff “I will make you some noodles and call you when you are ready.” With that, she bustled off leaving me to unpack.

I wouldn’t call that lunch the best I ever had, but it hit the spot. The noodles were pot noodles,but the vegetables were booked in a nice sauce that more than made up for it, especially in view of the notice I’d given the lady, as in none at all.

I don’t think I’m a homestay person. This one was pleasant enough, the setting all the guide books could imagine, the hosts more than helpful, and the food very good indeed. You do meet other people, but they tend to be other tourists, of which there were quite a few at this particular one, rather than locals. Nothing wrong with that, of course, although it does depend on the cast list in your particular homestay play. Mine included a retired French man who was using his retraite to travel around the world as he had in his youth. There were some other much younger French people staying, with whom he seemed more than at ease with, as they were with him. I noticed, though, they gravitated away from him as the evening progressed. Just before going to bed on the way to the bathroom I passed him sitting outside his hutch, alone, reading a book. I would have stopped to speak to him on the way back, but he had disappeared into his room.

Me, I got the Australians. They were the caricature Australians one meets on holidays, at least, the man was. He was loud brash and opinionated, That he was a supporter of Pauline Hanson came as no surprise, given the views he had expressed in the first couple of minutes of our conversation and his concise analysis of the problems in Australia and its obvious solution. I attempted to demur, while his girlfriend, rather more sensibly, plonked herself in a nearby hammock and went to sleep. At that point the retiree arrived, and was treated to an explanation of why the French were the best team in the world at football, why he hated them, and why they wouldn’t win the world cup. The french man listened politely, then slipped off for a beer at the first break in the conversation. Funny how one thing leads to another. Minutes later I could but follow his lead. The speech had drifted off into electrical standards world wide, and no longer needed any contribution from me.

Communal dining does not worry me, in fact I’m used to it, given how close together the tables are in French restaurant. We sat together on one long thin table, oldies at one end, youngies at the other, and participted in the best meal of the trip, up to this point. We made spring rolls, ate whole fried fish, followed by various pork and chicken dishes. For me they had made an array of egg and vegetable dishes, the highlight of which was the marinated and fried aubergine.

I did not enjoy the homestay. It wasn’t the people, it was the fact it resembled the backpacker hostels of my youth and relative poverty. True, there were no dorms, but we slept in open-topped wooden hutches sitting under the roof of the forecourt of the house. Toilets and bathrooms were spotless, but down a path some 50 metres or so. Not a problem, you say, unless it rains, and boy, did it rain that night. I had determined to leave early, and was relieved, after a disturbed night – jetlag and thunder are a powerful cocktail –  when dawn broke. I slipped out before breakfast, anxious to get the first bus.

In the end, I can’t really comment on the Mekong delta. I managed a long walk down some of the paths which wound between the houses and the various fruit and vegetable crops, but cannot say any justice was done to the place. On the next trip I’ll take the bike, and spend a couple of weeks exploring.

I did have time to visit the local town, however. The atmosphere was distinctly laid back: almost like a French village 
sleeping under the midday sun.

The only discernable activity was the two women chatting in the temple grounds, and a man snoring quietly under the awning of a shop. Even the dogs had bowed to the pressure of the day and were sleeping in clumps around the houses. 

Here and there were the bikes of Asia, carrying loads way beyond manufacturer’s recommendations,
although the moto has become the major form of transport here as it is throughout Vietnam. As I was to find when slipping away the next day, bikes still ruled for the school children and commuters, who hurtled down the path in the certain knowledge obstacles such as pedestrians  or dogs were few, and those who had ventured out would leap obligingly out of the way. Since all traffic was heading to the ferry, I soon developed that sixth sense that alerted me to bicycles approaching from behind, although it has to be said that the noise of motos was easier to live with than the hush of tyres on the concrete path .

Trains

Station, Ho Chi Minh city

I’m a big fan of trains, and was looking forward to ambling up the coast by train. Trains are a good way to see the country generally speakng, and that holds true for Vietnam. There is, however, a but, and it was one that had me travelling by air or by bus. The state of the trains is one thing, but it is the state of the track that is the problem.

One aspect common to all trains was the quality of the service, which was excellent. The food trolleys passed up and down the train at regular intervals, all carrying savoury soups, rice dishes, tofu and meat dishes, plus fruit. You don’t need to bring your own meals in Vietnam Railways. Prices are more than reasonable, too.

The first train I took was SE6 from hcm to Nha Trang. The air-conditioned soft class was fine, though did not appear to be one of the refurbished ones promised

Soft class to Nha Trang

by the man in seat 61. It was faded round the edges, but comfortable enough when stopped. The problem was the bucking bronco effect that lasted the 7 hours. The line is a single narrow-gauge one, which might exacerbate the problem, but those who suffer from sea-sickness should take to the air. 

The second was the SE4 to Quong

Carriage on train to Quang Ngai

Ngai. This did seem to be a reconditioned carriage, but was again a little tatty round the edges. It did have USB ports in every seat, but they weren’t working. Again, there was the bucking bronco effect, though it did smooth out aftera couple of hours. The train does pass through some pretty countryside, and worth it for that.

Train to Quang Ngai

The third, SE2, had not been refurbished, as the photos show. I liked its memories of the seventies, but it was frankly dirty. A lot smoother, but grubby would be my summary, and less than ideal for longer trips.

However, you can easily forget all that if you take one of the day trains from Da Nang to Hué. It isn’t a long journey, though it does take around three hours. The reason is simple. The scenery is stunning.  Shortly after leaving Da Nang, the railway follows the coast and begins to climb. It snakes around the cliffs until it reaches about three or four hundred metres, all the while following the track carved into the cliff. The views are stunning as the coast drops away beneath your feet, especially where the drops are sheer. At several points you see the train in front ( I was at the back) above or below you, as it winds around the steep bends that only narrow gauge railways can tackle. It is some feat of engineering, this section. It was this range of hills, by the way, that prompted the French to abandon their attempts to March on Hué, then the seat of government, and instead move down South to Saigon, where the river was navigable and the terrain flat.

I was perhaps the only person on the train who didn’t know what was in store for us. Having found my seat, moved to another where the seat in front hadn’t jammed in down position thus preventing access, I arranged my pack as a pillow and fell into a dreamless sleep. I was awoken by a lady gently shaking my shoulder.
” Sorry, I can see you’re really tired, but have a look out the view. ”

Too weary to do anything acquiesce, I did, and snapped awake. I have to say I owe that lady a lot. I spent the next 45 minutes glued to the window. I haven’t a great head for heights, but some sights eclipse minor problems like that. The great camera disaster had happened so I have no pictures, but the memory hasn’t begun to fade yet.

Day 4: Not getting to Phu Quoc, or how to miss a ferry

Entry to Rach Gia

In fact, I could have made it, had I realised that the bus left not from Vinh Long, but from Can The, some 30km up the road, and, even then, required a minibus for a further 10km to get to the bus station on the main road between HCM and Rach Gia. Futa bus lines are one of the best, but they have the same attitude to geographical locations as Ryanair does.

As it was, I got to the Vinh Long bus station nice and early, a little after dawn, then everything fell in a heap when I was confronted with the Can The conundrum. The helpful people at the bus station told me there was a public bus to Can The and where to catch it, so I headed there. The bus stop had a couple of people waiting languidly, so I joined them. We waited. The day got hotter, and we waited some more. After what seemed like hours, I gave up on the languid waiting competition and returned to the bus station where I asked the question I should have earlier, the one about what time the bus leaves. It left at midday. The only alternative was a 500000vnd taxi trip, which, bearing in mind the time, I accepted, and off we headed to Can The.

We arrived at lunch time, and nothing much was happening. This didn’t disturb me, I’ve lived in France a long time, but there were one or two backpackers who seemed a little overwrought. Anyway, I bought a coffee off a convenient stall, and settled down to wait. 

The minibus arrived, we were bundled on it and driven to the bus station on the main road where the few of us who were going to Rach Gia were put un a larger bus, and off we went.  Unfortunately the combination of hard suspension and bumpy roads precluded much photography (in some ways no bad thing), but the two hour journey to Rach Gia – actually, it wasn’t Rach Gia, but yet another bus station a handful of kilometres away necessitating yet another change of bus – gave me time to digest the countryside. The towns, such as there were, were fairly anonymous, but the network of canals, rivers and rice paddies I found fascinating, and vowed to come back, this time with the ever reliable Brompton and take the time the delta deserves.

River bank, Rach Gia

Having unexpected time on my hands, I took the time to wander into Rach Gia. Most would pass through it on the way to the ferry with nary a second glance,

Market, Rach Gia

which is a shame, as it is a pleasant town with a bustling, friendly market spreading along the river into the centre. People really welcoming, especially the schoolchildren who love to practice their English on any unsuspecting visitor.

Aside from the market, and not far from the ferry terminal, there is a temple deicated to an early resistance leader, Nguyen Trung Truc. He operated from 1861 until 1868, harrassing the French in the Mekong delta region.  Although most famous for his successful burning of the L’Espérance, a French controlled transport, he later became head of Ha Tien province, where he continued his resistance , despite the signing of the treaty of Saigon in 1862, which ceded the southern part of the country to the French. From his base in Ha Tien in 1868 he successfully attacked and captured the French fort in Rach Gia, but this proved his last act. The French recaptured the fort, and Truc with it. He was executed in Rach Gia that year.

I’m not big on temples, but this one dedicated to Truc is interesting because of the graphic retelling of the attack against L’Espérance in a series of paintings, the statues dedicated to the man and because it is a living temple still very much in use. The French have long gone, but not the spirit this man helped engender.