Asian Travels - Vietnam (2010)
Our scheduled departure from Manila on a Philippine Airlines flight went without a hitch and on arrival at Tan Son Nhat airport at 1300 hours we were met by our pre-arranged hotel car and driver who whisked us straight to the Bi Saigon hotel (www.bisaigon.com) in a laneway off D. Pham Ngu Lao - in the heart of the backpacker district. Unlike the massive modernisation to HCM's airport since our last visit in 2000, the Bi Saigon Hotel was exactly the same as we had left it.
HCM City now has a lot more cars and motorbikes and less bicycles and cyclos than had been present 10 years earlier. The streets are cleaner, the traffic considerably less chaotic and the shops more westernised. After invoking our advanced years, the hotel proprietor agreed to let us have a room on the first floor in lieu of one on the 5th floor - the hotel had no lift. The double room was spacious with full bathroom, desk, window, a/c, fridge all for A$26/night inc breakfast.
The weight in the backpack, which we had borrowed from Amy, was already ominously daunting and did not lend itself to any casual throwing over the shoulder - sometimes I felt like a knight from the middle ages being fitted with his armour when trying to fit it onto my back - it got worse as time went on.
We were very pleased and glad to be back in an old familiar place. Immediately went in hunt for the Darwin golf players who had got into HCM a night earlier. They were staying in a similar hotel (Hong Hoa) in the next laneway. Those present included Jimmy Roberts, Jim Drummond, Cuddles, Chris Brogan, Leroy from the Parap Tavern, Trevor Innes, Robert Hart, a couple of Jimmy's relatives from Melbourne, ex pat TESL teachers down from Hanoi, Jimmy's brother Dick from Katherine. Later that night we were joined by another wave of Darwin-based folk viz: Richard O'Sullivan, Mick & Caroline Holdstock, Dale Bicheno and Kaye Drummond. Most of these wedding guests were associated back in Darwin to either the Wednesday Afternoon Golfers (WAGs) or the 5Ps (Parap Pub Punters) Club.
Bridegroom & Best Man (Men of Steel) For Amy (Dried Cuttlefish)
Some of the Darwin contingent plus ring ins Our Travel Agents (Lan & ?) in HCM
A smiling wallet seller A rare Cyclo driver spotted from bus window
Some crossed wires in HCM
The next day was spent catching up on the news and for a few of us, exploring a couple of the more war time famous hotels in central HCM - especially those with rooftop bars; namely: The Rex, Continental, Caravelle, but we did not make it to the Metropole. Saigon Green @ A$1 was the flavour of the day.
Meanwhile Maria had found a tailer to have a dress made for the wedding in a couple of days time. Unfortunately, my favourite bar from years ago has been converted into a flash nightclub affair and had lost all its appeal. In addition, the streets had also been vacated by those hundreds of pesky kids who had once tormented you while trying to flog you lighters, post cards, fans, maps and other useless knick knacks.
Visiting some of HCM's Rooftop Bars
Back on the ground Site of an old favourite Bar
The next day Jimmy's Vietnamese friends who run a small travel agency in HCM had booked a small coaster bus for us all to travel across to the city of Can Tho some 170kms west of HCM takes nearly 5-6 hrs by bus due largely to need for huge wait for a car ferry to cross the Mekong at Can Tho itself. A bridge across has already been completed but not yet opened....once this happens time should reduce by a couple of hours. Jimmy's wife's family come from this bristling commercial capital of the Mekong Delta region and it is where Jimmy and Hahn currently live.
We had a break in our trip half way along to undertake a boat tour at My Tho (gateway to the delta) of some river villages and some hand craft industries on some river islands. Unfortunately, the trip also included lunch at a children's' theme park which was a little tacky. However we got the opportunity to taste a local delicacy - deep fried Elephant Ear Fish. It being a Saturday, some of the more earnest in our group, ensured that those on board our bus were kept abreast of the progressive scores of the AFL games being played out some 1000s of kms to our south.
En route to Can Tho Mekong Delta Canal
Boat Trip at Mytho
Caroline Holdstock & Kaye Drummond at lunch Deep fried Elephant Ear Fish
Pony Rides were also included Returning to Bus
Later that day we had to experience a two hour wait for the car ferry which had a few of us writhing in thirst - it was very hot and we had too few cold drinks on board - the opening of the bridge is scheduled for a couple of weeks after our departure.
Jimmy had arranged for us all to be accommodated in the same hotel in which the Wedding Reception was to be held and once again they were good clean rooms with all our requirements.
Hotel in Can Tho Hotel's magnificent Orchids
He had also arranged for us to visit the floating markets next morning and this proved a delight although in hindsight it would have been preferable to do it early in the morning say 0600 rather than 1000hours - it got very hot in our crowded boat. However, the trip gave us an unparalleled opportunity to view first hand the industry and commerce being conducted along the Mekong and its tributaries......barges being loaded and unloaded with sand, soil, cement, steel, lumber, bricks and general packaged cargo.
The closed bridge across the Mekong at Can Tho Mekong River Dwelling
Floating Markets at Can Tho
No sooner had we returned from the boat trip than we had to shower and freshen up for the nuptial celebrations scheduled for late-afternoon. Much attention to personal attire in the hotel rooms while the hotel staff were frantically converting the dining room into a reception centre for us.
The ceremony itself was a little confusing to most of us and appeared to be a ritualistic opportunity for family and friends to acknowledge the bridal couple, the giving of gifts and then a massive feast and drinks all put on by Jimmy & Hahn. There were many speeches in Vietnamese during which Jimmy maintained a suitable benign smile and then some scurrilous remarks delivered by Harty (the Best Man) in English.....we all had a good time. Then it was time for the bridal party to ceremoniously walk down the road (100m) to their house for further partying into the night.
Party later that night at Jimmy & Hahn's House
Next morning witnessed a few sore and sorry heads as we had to be sluggishly mustered to vacate the hotel and board a waiting bus to take us to the port town of Rach Gai another 170kms further west from where we would catch a ferry the next day to Phu Quoc Island. It was at about this time that both Maria and I developed mild head colds similar to those already being suffered by a couple of the Darwin contingent. While I managed to throw mine within a couple of days thanks to some local Vietnamese cold tablets plus frequent re-hydration, Maria's went down to her chest and plagued her for a couple of weeks. Apart from this incident, the only other ailment suffered was sporadic and mild episodes of the shits - par for the course in Asia.
In hindsight, our rather tedious bus trip from Can Tho to Rach Gai should have been taken early in the morning so as to enable us to catch the afternoon ferry to the Island rather than spend a night in the rather uninteresting town of Rach Gai. Nevertheless, our Vietnamese travel agents had got us booked into quite a good and cheap hotel with a memorable colour scheme in the rooms of mint green walls and orange curtains.
Next morning while waiting at the ferry terminal, Richard and I sourced a food stall selling wonderful local Vietnamese bread rolls filled with roasted pork, chilli, spring onions and coriander - it certainly filled the breakfast gap (I had two). Our ferry to the island was a large affair probably capable of carrying 200 passengers (two enclosed decks and plenty of places outside to smoke and imbibe diesel fumes.
In pensive mood on our Phu Quoc Ferry
Shortly after departure, a crew member decided to rather roughly reorganise the pile of backpacks at the front of our cabin and caused one of the bottles of red wine we had stowed to break and slowly dribble down the cabin floor much to the loud distress of a couple of snooty Sydney tourists with designer sunglasses perched on the perfectly coiffured hair - bugger em. We had a laugh later on when we overheard one of them re-tell the tale to a less worldly honeymooning couple in a mini bus we were sharing - the wine had apparently 'completely ruined' the poor love's blouse and shorts in her day pack.
The ferry to Phu Quoc took two and a half hours and eventually dropped us at the southern town of An Tho from where we were bussed the final 20kms up to the main town of Duong Dong around which most of the tourist hotels, resorts, shops and airport are clustered. Prior to leaving home, I had pre-booked accommodation on this Island at the Tropicana Resort on Long Beach in anticipation of the others following. However, some felt the price (A$57/night) a little expensive and opted for another resort (Kim Hoa) a 10min walk away along the beach. For our money we got a lovely secluded bungalow with thatch roof, 4 poster bed with mosquito net, ensuite, a/c, fridge, veranda - all set in a lovely tropical garden and 100m from the beach, restaurant and pool. Admittedly the fittings looked a tad tired but it was nevertheless very relaxing. The others were in a more modern brick and tiled two storey complex which nevertheless had some particular attributes - a bar right on the beach selling ice cold 640ml Green Saigon beer for A$0.80; being the major one.
Our Bungalow at the Tropicana Resort
The Resort's Beach The Resort's Pool
While we had booked for a couple of nights some of the others had opted for another night and were going to fly back direct to HCM City. Our first day and night was spent familiarising ourselves with the beach and bar and later that evening we walked into town to the night market where we dined well. I also purchased 500g of the Island's famous pepper only for it to be confiscated by AQIS on our return to Australia.
Maria - The Beach Belle Sampling some Saigon Green at the Kim Hoa Resort
Testing the Waters
Each to their own at the Kim Hoa Resort
The water at Long Beach was similar to that of Darwin ie a little grey green and warm like a bath. The previous night a number of our party decided that we should spend the next day exploring the island by hiring some small 125cc motorbikes. But as with all the best laid plans, by the next morning they had got lost in translation (maybe in Saigon Green).....some had decided on a bus tour of the Island's national park, others a tour of a pearl farm, a dose of retail therapy for others and total R&R (beach bumming) for the rest. At any rate, we had already arranged to hire a bike for the day (A$7) and went off exploring by ourselves. It had been a good 5 years since I had mounted any bike but it didn't take too long to regain the knack and with Maria on the back we hurtled into the main town, got thoroughly lost, found our way out but then took a wrong turn and got lost again heading to the northern national park end of the island. In frustration, we decided to retrace our steps and follow the easier gravel route south which follows the coastline past numerous fishing villages and pearl farms.
We eventually turned inland and crossed to the eastern coastline to the spectacular Bai Sao Beach - here the beaches are glistening white and the water turquoise blue and very little development apart from the odd cafe.
Bai Sao Beach
Maria tries a swim
During our ride around the Island, we did pass many a large billboards giving notice of the intention of some developer (Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish etc) to build some colossal resort on a patch of otherwise pristine coastline - so be warned, this place will soon change. The trek south had taken longer than anticipated and so we opted to return home along the only bituminised road and at the same time do battle with the island's quirky mixture of truck, bus, car and motorbike traffic all squeezed along the same skinny track of asphalt.
We made it home in time for a swim in the resort's pool still being monopolised by French and German guests - some thoughtfully playing volleyball. It was while at this resort I became conscious of the number of tourists constantly using their bloody mobile phones and or laptops. Now this could be poolside, on the beach, collecting their luggage from airport carousels, at the bar, at restaurants, on buses, in queues - there was no limit to their craven need for this technology while on holiday...admittedly; a lot of them could have been neuro surgeons on call or Cabinet Ministers in communication with their mistresses - but what about the rest of em? I will not go into their smoking habits, at this time - but I may later!
One of the catalysts for venturing to this island was to celebrate Richard O'Sullivan's 60th birthday which we did in some dubious style that night with an all in party out on the terrace at the Tropicana Resort. The ladies had even organised a cake in Hawthorn's AFL colours! I think we all had a good night...drinking 'imported' Australian reds (purchased in HCM) and some Duty Free Liquors. I do remember helping a few others getting newly wedded Jimmy back to his hotel room and new bride and then promptly joining them for a couple of nightcaps before struggling back along the beach to my own accommodation.
The next day was to be our break away from the Darwin group as we had arranged to take a shorter ferry ride (1.5hrs) from the Island's other port of Ham Ninh to a small town on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border called Ha Tien from where we were to get a bus up to Chau Doc (3 hrs) on the Bassac nee Mekong River. From Chau Doc one can catch a ferry right into Phnom Penh (takes 4hrs including 1hr for border crossing formalities and costs about A$25). This is a much quicker way of getting to Cambodia than the more conventional route which would have required us retracing our steps to Rach Gai and Can Tho and bussing it up from there. A minor glitch in these plans was my idiotic decision to imperiously wave away a porter offering to carry the backpack out along the jetty at Ham Ninh - the jetty turned out to be over 1km in length! In addition, our last minute booking meant that we did not have proper seats on the ferry and, to the amusement of the locals, two round eyed tourists had to sit on the cabin steps for the entire 1.5hr journey.
The long jetty at Ham Ninh The small ferry we caught to Ha Tien
There were only four of us on the bus ride to Chau Doc which took us right thru the rural delta countryside with many buffalo being used as well as horse drawn carts. It was also interesting to note the large number of eucalypt trees growing along the irrigation canals - maybe part of some Australian aid program. Chau Doc turned out to be a quite sizeable town (150 000+) with extensive markets and a very beautiful landscaped river promenade. It also boasts one of Vietnam's most impressive old colonial hotels - The Victoria (www.victoriahotels-asia.com) situated right on the Mekong River with bars and restaurants far too swank for the likes of us - the rooms cost in excess of A$130/night as compared to our own quite modest abode charging A$12 - but ours did offer complimentary condoms! The town used to be notorious for smuggling.
En route to Chau Doc Chau Doc's Promenade along the Mekong River
The Victoria Hotel Balloon Seller
Chau Doc's extensive Food Market
Cyclo Takes us to Phnom Penh Ferry
The Phnom Penh/Chau Doc Ferry
Temple inside Cambodian Border Check Point
PS: Special thanks to Caroline and Mick Holdstock for sharing their stock of Vietnam snaps with me.
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