A Travellerspoint blog

March 22, 2010: Phu Quoc to Ho Chi Minh City

Time to face Saigon traffic

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Today we said goodbye to the questionable hospitality of the Hiep Thanh resort and headed to Ho Chi Minh City for the last phase of our trip: the Mekong Delta. This was the unscheduled part of our travels, in which we had originally planned to make our way by ferry from Phu Quoc up the Mekong river and eventually to Ho Chi Minh City. One of the best things about travelling with Chop and Nat is that they share our exact sensibility about the ideal ratio of gourmet to street food, adventure to vegging out, and spontaneity to planning. After a few days of slow cooking on the beach (not literally; we're still as pasty as ever), daily massages, and glutting ourselves on seafood, we each independently came to the conclusion that we had no desire to meander through the hottest, most humid part of Vietnam on a multi-day tour of what might end up being basically border towns. Especially when $50 and a half hour could get us to Ho Chi Minh City on an air-conditioned Vietnam Airlines flight with all the coconut-scented moist towelettes we could want. Judge us if you want, but we've all put in our time in hostels and one of the advantages of being too old for the student discount is that I can buy myself a plane trip out of Sweatland.

So quicker than you can say "miliaria," we were in Ho Chi Minh City (henceforth Saigon; we were told nobody calls it HCMC unless they are talking to the police). Saigon was a very pleasant surprise. I'm not really a city person, considering them pretty much all the same no matter where you go (yes, I know New York City family members, you just died a little, but seriously, the rest of us could not care less about the restaurants when the whole place smells like urine). And we had heard horror stories about the traffic. Plus we had loved Hanoi so much it was hard to imagine Saigon could compete. But we were wrong! People were even friendlier than in Hanoi, the traffic was crazy, but the streets were wider, and there were sidewalks! Plus there was a great night market which we were very happy to stroll in the relative cool after the sun went down.

Most importantly, being back in a city meant a joyous reunion with our first Vietnamese love: street food! We have been home 12 weeks as I am writing this and I would still kick a puppy to get my hands on a banh bo, a meat pie made of tapioca flour wrapped around ground pork with a boiled bird egg inside. Amazing!


It was a lot easier to get around than we expected and yes, traffic was out of control, but I think by now we were numb to it, having earned our traffic sea legs in Hanoi. Nonetheless, safety rules were broken! To give you a sense of the sheer volume of motor bikes, here are some photos of Saigon traffic:


Even scarier at night!

And the inevitable video of crossing the street in Saigon (I think they actually won't let you leave the country on an American passport without one of these):

We spent the day visiting some of the sites from the Vietnam war, including the Reunification Palace, which was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government. Americans will know it from the famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates (apparently a staged photo). Then it was off to the War Remnants Museum. This museum used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes, so that should give you an idea of the content. Some of this stuff was pretty hard to take, but really educational to see a war from the perspective of the other side. It makes you think a lot about how the current conflicts that the U.S. is involved in will be remembered by history. My aviation friends would be amazed by the American planes, tanks, helicopters, and artillery that is on display here (I guess it was all left behind for the South Vietnamese army).

One of Chop's Vietnam "to do"s was to have a drink on top of the Rex Hotel, so we ended the evening with a cocktail in the rooftop restaurant. The Rex was where the U.S. military gave daily press conferences to the foreign press during the Vietnam War. Apparently all the American war correspondents hung out here. Now it's a pretty swanky hotel, but I like to say I hung out where history happened, even if it was for just one drink.


Posted by redtogo 19:55 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

March 21, 2010: Phu Quoc

We get our snorkel on

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After delaying several days due to Chop's cold, we finally fulfilled our promise to Toto (beach towel distributor, tour organizer, and evidently the only person on Phu Quoc with a phone that could make a collect call to an American credit card company) to go snorkeling. It seemed we had ended up with the most popular possible day to go, however, as we were packed with about 10 other people into a small van to make the (thankfully) short trek to the south end of the island. We stopped first at a pearl farm where a woman with a portable loud speaker squawked at us about pearl farming (at least I assume that's what she was yelling about; she was gesticulating with an oyster, but it was all in Vietnamese, so who knew). After that we were repacked into the van and eventually onto a boat much like the one we had taken squid fishing before. Once in the water, the snorkeling was pretty fine and there was a lot of sea life to watch in the coral reefs. Both Chop and I had some close encounters with corals (Dan says I should be happy that they were not fire corals) in the shallower areas, but it was well worth it. Between snorkeling locales we were served another seafood lunch, which was supplemented by some delicious crabs cooked in tamarind that the family of Vietnamese tourists who were in our group had picked up at a fish farm on the way out of the harbor. I actually didn't see one of them eat a single bite of it, but they kept pressing the rest of us to have more and more. I believe we may have actually violated the universal Mom rule of not swimming within a half hour of eating, because we were right back into our fins right after lunch.
At the end of the day we packed even more people into the tiny van (the second van was going to stop at Sao Beach on the way back) and headed back to our respective hotels, with a short stop at the "Coconut Prison" (did I mention that Vietnamese people love prisons?) on the way. Somewhat disgruntled that we hadn't spent this time on the water instead of heading back early for this unannounced stop, Chop and I skipped the prison in favor of (not surprisingly) the food stall across the street, where we also found (quite surprisingly) pearls for sale. Chop did some serious haggling and practically robbed the place of a handful of pearl pendants. We were "home" in time for one last beach massage for me (oh how I miss you, tiny Vietnamese ladies who giggle the whole time, making me suspect you are making sasquatch jokes at my expense) and a final Phu Quoc meal at the restaurant that makes me wonder why I am wasting my life living so far from an ocean.

Posted by redtogo 08:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (0)

March 20, 2010: Phu Quoc

An even better beach

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Today we rented motorbikes again and returned (this time with Chop) to Sao Beach to see what its beach chairs, restaurants, and massage ladies had to offer. We took our time getting there, stopping off at a hammock restaurant for drinks and then a pearl farm for shopping (but we just weren't in the mood for haggling). We found our way back to Sao Beach easily and stopped at the Sao Beach Club. We had to pay to use the beach (actually, to use the beach chairs), but it was well worth it.
The water was deliciously warm, the beach perfectly white, and the restaurant eager to deliver Tiger beers, shrimp, and crabs to our chairs. This side of the island has many more waves than the side we are staying on, so we had a really good time being tossed gently about (although I did get a couple big mouthfuls of the Gulf of Thailand) in the shallow water.
We ate lunch and settled in to some quality reading/napping time. In the afternoon a huge tide of what turned out to be jellyfish (they are a really pretty shade of blue here, so at least you can see them) washed in close to the beach which freaked me out a little (oddly, Dan was not that concerned, and was just happy that whatever bitey thing lives in the water on the west side of the island seemed to be missing here). I actually watched a Vietnamese tourist fish one out of the water by holding onto its head, which seemed moderately insane to me, but he appeared unharmed. On the way back to our hotel we stopped off at another pearl farm for some ice cream and watched a dog and a monkey playing together. One of the odd things about Phu Quoc is it is full of feral dogs, a particular breed that has a couple of short hackle ridges running up their backs. Naturally (or rather, unnaturally I guess), these dogs have destroyed most wildlife on the island so I'm assuming the monkey was imported by the Australian or New Zealander (he wasn't much for chatting) guy who owns this particular pearl farm. It was cute anyway. We were back to the hotel beach in time for a sunset massage and Tiger beer/mango smoothie before heading off down the beach in search of our next delicious fresh seafood dinner. Why, oh why, are we not steaming crabs in coconut milk at home?

Posted by redtogo 17:21 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

March 19, 2010: Phu Quoc

We do not break for monkeys

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After almost three days of vegetating on the beach, moving only to procure more fresh squid, sunscreen, or a massage, Dan was itching to explore the rest of the island, so we rented some motorbikes and hit the dusty road. The day before Chop and I had been chatting with some other Americans on the beach who told us about their motorbike accident in Thailand, caused by swerving to avoid a sudden monkey. So I was a little nervous about the bikes. I trust Dan far more than I trust myself in all situations involving moving parts and spatial acuity, so I chose to ride along while he drove. Chop had come down with the cold I had in Cambodia, so she continued to lounge on the beach. I warned Dan not to swerve for any monkeys, and we were off.

In case I hadn't mentioned this, none of us speak, let alone read, Vietnamese, so we were utterly clueless about what the road signs meant. We couldn't find a way to cross the river that runs through the island so going north was not an option. We stopped for some lunch pho and cold coconuts in town and then headed south again in search of . . . anything interesting. Traffic wasn't bad at all although the few trucks on the island have horrendously loud horns that made me jump every time I heard them (Vietnamese use their horns at all times that their vehicles are in motion, but especially when passing). We made it all the way to the An Thoi fishing village at the southern tip of the island and were just getting ready to turn around and go back the way we came when we encountered some people who had been on our squid fishing trip the night before. They had hired a car and guide for a private tour of the island and told us how to get to a great little beach they had just visited, Bai Sao. So we turned around, took a different road and soon found the dirt road turn-off they had described. It lead to a gorgeous white sand beach with water that was even more exquisitely turquoise than "ours" at the hotel. We stopped for a couple of sodas at one of the beach bar/restaurants.
A nice feature of Vietnam that we should definitely import to America is what I'll call the hammock cafe. Basically everywhere along the roads in rural areas (I mostly noticed this in Phu Quoc and the Mekong delta), there are little restaurants where you can stop and have a drink or snack and then lounge in a hammock. Hammocks are everywhere, right next to the tables. It's a great idea! Especially since the heat in this country means that afternoon siestas are just a survival strategy. So we hung out in some hammocks, splashed around in the water, paid a ridiculous price for cashews, and then headed back to the resort to meet up with Chop. We had rented the motorbikes for the whole day, but really an afternoon was enough. Those roads are really rough and dusty and did I mention that Vietnam is hot? Plus my terror at falling off the bike did not lend itself to good posture so my back was kind of aching. I don't know how Vietnamese people ride those things all day long.

Dan and I made it almost all the way back to the hotel before we experienced our (non-monkey-related) wipe out. We were going extremely slowly down the steep potholed hill down to our resort so all we really did was lay the bike down in the soft dirt, but still, it sounds exciting, doesn't it? And I must say that my gallant husband made sure I landed in the softest dirt of all.

Posted by redtogo 17:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged motorcycle Comments (0)

March 17, 2010: Phu Quoc

Thankfully, squid was provided.

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We spent most of our first day on Phu Quoc lounging on the beach (see previous post for that itinerary), but at night we went on a squid fishing tour arranged by the famous (he assures us he's famous) Toto. This was our first group tour of the trip, but it was pretty small, just us, a middle aged American couple, a woman writing for Footprint Guides (where do I sign up for that job?), and a couple of European girls who, it turned out, were vegetarian, so I have no idea what they were doing on a squid fishing trip.
Squid fishing is done at night, on small boats with bright lights attached to the side to attract the squid. Basically you hang a large hook over the side and attempt to gig the squid by jerking upwards periodically. I'm thinking there is something more to commercial squid fishing, but those were our instructions anyway. I think our whole group caught two squid and a handful of small fish (Chop landed one of those).
Fortunately, the crew had brought along enough squid to compensate for incompetence. They grilled up the squid on a charcoal stove right on the deck (as a collateral duty safety officer, I would have to say that that was an unsafe action, but I was way off the clock) and served it up with some squid porridge and various fruits.
It was great! I'm a sucker for squid any time (as long as it's relatively fresh) in any preparation at all, but this stuff was really good and simple. Unfortunately for the two vegetarian girls, the squid were, in typical squid fashion, made of meat. So they mostly pouted and ate fruit, which left loads of squiddy goodness for the rest of us.

Posted by redtogo 16:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (0)

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