Saturday, January 31, 2009

Phu Quoc Island: Naval Gazing, Pretty Boys and Bedbugs

Originally we intended to spend 7 glorious days on a tropical beach on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. But we were not ready to leave Saigon - it is seriously that great of a city, so we lost one day on the island. Then we learned there is only morning hydrofoils to the island from the mainland, so we lost another day in paradise. We were rewarded with a night in Rach Gia, a coastal town in southern Vietnam that turned out to be quite nice.

There are supposedly wonderful beaches north and south of the town, but we didn’t visit any. There is a great little hotel with big curved shaped rooms for $12 and the restaurants Ao Dai I (pronounced ow-yai) and Ao Dai II named for the traditional dresses worn by Vietnamese women. The restaurants are owned by the same family and the second restaurant is open at night verses the first for breakfast and lunch only. The original restaurant opened for breakfast and lunch serves mainly soups, the main staple of Vietnamese breakfast/brunch/lunch, but the second restaurant served rice dishes also. Since we arrived in Rach Gia later in the afternoon we order a mix of rice dishes and soups for dinner.

Seasoned porkchop topped with a fried egg, oiled scallions, served with fish sauce and over rice – delicious!

Banh Can Cau – Spicy crab-based soup with thick rice noodles and chunks of crab meat topped with fried shallots and fresh scallions.

Mi Huanton – Egg Noodles with Wontons in an oily sweet broth (slightly different from the wonton soups offered up north) another delicious dish.

It was so good we order a bowl of Hu Tieu just to round off our experience. Using the same broth from the wonton soup, but this time with slices of boiled-fork-tender pork slices, clear rice noodles, egg noodles and topped off with a mix of chopped cilantro, basil and green onions, long slices of green onions and fried shallots – sublime.

We went to bed happy and got up the next morning in time to enjoy it all over again at the original Ao Dia just three shops away before heading to Phu Quoc Island.

Phu Quoc Island is on the southern coast of Vietnam, which until recently could be accessed by ferry or flight from Saigon. The ferries used to take up to 8 hours, but now there are hydrofoils that can whisk you to the island in 2 ½ hours. The hydrofoils look like above ground submarines. Inside they looked a little like an airplane.

Within 2 ½ hours we arrived in paradise and ready to relax.

That is until we got to the pier on Phu Quoc and had to figure out how to get to the beach resort. It was either pay an extreme amount for a taxi or ride an hour on the back of motorscooter with our bags. We finally negotiated a fairly reasonable cost for a taxi and we noticed two Germans being harassed to pay an even higher amount for a taxi to the same beach we were going to and offered to share our taxi. That’s when the arguing started, but we managed to finally get to our little resort and breath a sigh of relief – it was gorgeous!
Due to it almost being the Tet New Year it was difficult finding a room, but we managed to snag the last two bungalows on a quiet little beach on the southern coast of the island.

For the next few days we ate every meal beach-side

Took up to 4 naps a day in one of the hammocks strung about the beach area

Got up with the sun

Went for late night swins

And played in the ocean
It was paradise, until the reality of living ocean-side showed itself. The bungalows were simple and basic with outdoor bathrooms that allowed for some interesting company.

The hammocks were heavenly during the day, but were infested with bed bugs after the sun went down that have left permanent itchy memories. After a few days we were ready to leave our secluded beach for something more exciting. Would we return to Bai Sao Beach on the southern coast? Definitely. The beach was gorgeous and probably the best swimming beach on the whole island. Except for the bus loads of daytrippers from other parts of the island we practically had the beach to ourselves.

But four nights of roughing it in a $17 bungalow was enough for us, the newly built Gecko Jack’s hotel next door looked nice, we’ll have to see the progress the next time we’re there, because we’ll be back.
Phu Quoc also has some unique specialties we enjoyed not once, but twice.
Salted Pepper Squid
  Taro Fries
Phu Quoc Fish Salad served with fresh greens, shredded coconut, mint, basil, chilis and lime We also did a little shopping for some pearls, we are still traveling with shopping queen Robyn after all.

Mekong Madness

For as little as $18 you can do a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is a mighty river that starts in Tibet and flows down towards the southern part of Vietnam before it fingers out into the ocean. On our first day of the tour we cruised the Mekong River on long tail boats checking out the sites along the river.Then we were herded onto narrow motorized boats that shuttled us to a coconut farm in the thick delta marshes. We saw how coconut candy is made; we even got to taste some when it’s still warm, which is much better than the hard packaged candy, which tastes like Bit-O-Honey candies.

Then we were treated to banana wine; tasted like rubbing alcohol.
And enjoyed traditional dance performance while eating our lunch.
From the coconut candy factory the four of us got on a saphan rowed by two people through the narrow passageways of the Delta lined with water coconut trees and palms; this was our favorite part of the day and in our opinion way too short of a ride.
From there we headed back to the mini-bus for a two, but turned into 5 hour ride to the ferry to cross the Mekong to the town of Can To, where we were to spend the night. It is close to the Tet New Year so the road leading to the ferry moved at a snails pace and soon some demanded to get off the bus and walk the 15 kilometers to the ferry terminal. Once in Can To we were shuttled to the guest house, the worse accommodations we’ve seen so far to the point where we locked our luggage together in the room even while we slept.The town of Can To turned out to be very chic and quite nice. So our suggestion to others is since the tour is so cheap, book your own hotel – Can To City Hotel looked nice. We met up with family and had a really nice dinner before headed back to the guesthouse to sleep. We wished we could have just crashed at the restaurant, the guest house was that horrible. The next morning we checked out and had breakfast before getting back on the mini-bus to tour the floating market.The boats on the floating market would hang the items for sale on poles to indicate what each boat was selling.
To be honest the floating market was a jumbled bunch of boats and not as impressive as it sounds. We then headed up the river to a fruit plantation and factory where rice paper and rice noodles are made. The fruit farm was really nice where we got to see guava, mango, clementine, cashews, jackfruit and numerous other trees.
The rice paper making process was very interesting, comprised of two people - one person feeding the fire underneath the hotplate (with the husk from rice) and laying the rice paper onto bamboo trays to dry and one person forming the rice paper onto the hotplate.We then were able to purchase some fruit and have a little lunch of yummy Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepes or country pancakes).We then headed back to the bus and split into groups of those heading back to Saigon and those heading further south for another day of the Mekong and us. We were headed to the coastal town of Rach Gia before heading on to the island of Phu Quoc. All in all we felt the Mekong was an opportunity to see another part of Vietnam; to see scenery unlike what we’ve seen so far. Would we suggest doing the tour of the Mekong? If you’re want to see the extra sites of the coconut farm, the fruit farm and the rice paper factory, then you will need to book a tour. But in our opinion the best part of the tour was floating through the narrow waterways and seeing life that happens on the banks of the Mekong, something you may not need to book a tour to do, but does make it easier. Here are a few of our favorite sights.
RelaxingFloating Café

Loading Coconuts
Man on Boat

Family GroomingTraffic JamBath TimeNap Time Pier LaundryRow HousesRiverfront PropertyPropellersBike CommuterBambooWalkwayLife