Thursday, September 1, 2011

August 31 - around Phu Quoc island. A string of pearls.

Wednesday. The weather has eased, the sea is calmer, the rain gone and even touches of sunshine. I decided to hire a motorbike and take a tour of the island. Hiring a bike is easy, you walk down the street and people approach you they simply rent you their private bike for the day. The fuel tank is always empty, they must siphon the tanks before leaving home, so as part of the deal you have to fill the tank. Also if you damage the bike you need to get it repaired at your expense. If you are careful and keep the speed down low, which you have to any way due to the poor roads, barring accidents, the risk is low. I struck a deal with a rider basically as I left the hotel for a Yamaha step through, similar to a Vespa, basically a scooter.
Without any clear plan, I headed South following the road that ran parallel to Long Beach where my resort is. This is a strip of typical Tropical sandy beach with the ocean, in this case the Gulf of Thailand, on one side, and palm trees fringing the landward side. It runs for about 20 km. The northern end is built up with resorts, these run south for about 5km, the rest has not been developed yet. I understood why there was no further development, the bitumen road soon ends and turns into a poorly graded dirt road. I was tempted to say track rather than road.
(Continuing some time later. The writing of this posting has been interrupted by the need of a foot massage.)
I passed small fishermen cottages, see photo, and one small bar area, perfect for sunset drinks, a bit of a trek to get there however. I then came upon a sign for a Pearl Farm. Australian managed since 1996, the sign proudly declared. I kept going and then came across a larger establishment proclaiming to be a Pearl Farm. Not interested overly much in Pearls but I decided that since I was there that I should take a look. Wow was this place ever a surprise! Inside the building, which must have been over 100 metres long was a double line of display cases with all manner of glitter. Cases were devoted to pearl necklaces, pearl earrings, pearl rings, combination silver or gold necklaces featuring pearls, pendants and the list goes on. I was adopted by a lady who followed me hawkishly, always ready to tell me the quality and show me the goods up close if I so desired. The prices looked pretty steep some pieces listed as 4,000,000 dong, but when I converted that back to $200 it seemed pretty cheap. I was tempted to purchase for the hell of, it as an investment, but have no particular reason and I don't know the first thing about pearls. So my wallet stayed in my pocket.
Leaving there I soon entered An Thoi. This is primarily a fishing village and i had no idea if there were tourist sites, or if so how to find them, so I contented myself with some pictures of the boats and then moved on.
As i left the town I once again encountered the school girls wearing the traditional Ao Dai. This must be one of the most simple but elegant dresses that I have ever seen. A simple blouse has long panels front and back, these appear to flow in the breeze and as the girls walk or ride their bikes. The Ao Dai is not restricted to school girls it is National Dress for all women. You could spend thousands of dollars for a designer dress and find it hard to look more elegant than wearing one of these knocked up on a home sewing machine with a couple of metres of fabric. Use a search engine for pictures better than I can take.
Leaving An Thoi I was basically heading homeward again. I chose a different road to try and complete a circular path. This led me to Sao Beach. My guide book lists this as a white sandy beach rather undeveloped. No longer, it features at least 2 large resorts which appear to pretty much own the entire beach between them. Being sheltered from the westery winds the sea was calm, the sun was out and it was a tropical paradise. As i arrived I met a group of Buddhist Monks, we talked for a while and after I had wandered around the place I bumped into them again. I stayed and talked with them for a while and they shared some of their food with me. It was simple food mainly fruit, some dry packet crackers and some sesame seed flavoured items that looked like a thicker version of a poppodum. They told me it was all good, I found it rather bland. It was nice of them to do so. I went behind their backs and had a more substantial lunch of fried rice with crab meat after I left them. Plus beer of course.
Despite the obvious attraction I decided not to have a swim and proceeded on. Up ahead I could see storm clouds building up, the weather was closing in again. For safety reasons I had set myself a top speed of 40kmh on the scooter. The temptation was to speed to avoid the rain, but I controlled myself. The temperature dropped and the wind began to pick up. When it looked really dirty I stopped and slipped into a raincoat. Just in time as the rain started soon after. I encountered wind gusts that i estimated up to 40 kmh, they were sufficient to blow me off the bitumen and onto the side of the road on at least 2 occasions. The scooter handles quite different to a motorbike due to the small wheels and centre of gravity, therefore it did not feel safe to do rapid counter actions to prevent running off the road. I chose a gentle braking and controlled exit onto the shoulder in preference. I stayed on the bike and came to no harm on all occasions.
It bucketed down. But I stayed dry in my 25 cent raincoat, despite sheets of water running off me.
The Bludger returned to his accommodation surprisingly dry and being all tuckered out needed a sleep.
Nick Smith
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Tuesday August 30: Ham Ninh, Phu Quoc

Sitting in a restaurant, perched above the ocean i had a fine view of the nearby shoreline, fishing boats and small houses hugging this part of the coast. A jetty, to my right, ran several hundred metres out into the ocean. Here it is shallow and the boats must dock in the deeper waters at the end of the jetty. In the distance, out in the calm waters, I could make out the vague outline of a head. Over the course of lunch it slowly wended its way closer to where I sat, perched in the restaurant. The head finally resolved into that of an old woman, crouched in the water, she seemed to be moving by dragging her bottom along the sea bed. She towed an old water container, with one side removed, acting as a form of floating storage.
When she reached the shoreline, she smiled up at the camera giving me a big victory sign with her fingers as I took the photo. She smiled a toothless smile.
My guide explained that she was searching the ocean floor for oysters and pipis and other shellfish. He added that her wits were addled and that she would barely speak to anyone. She was grinning all the time. A manic grin? Or her front to the world that all is well? I could not tell. A person in the restaurant approached her and purchased some pippis. I learnt that they paid 20,000 duong a kilo. The bag was weighed by hand and generous in size. The restaurant was selling identical fare for 80,000 and then adding charges to cook and prepare. It is a hard life that this lady lives.
I was sitting in a restaurant in Ham Ninh. This was the tiny port and village where the boat that first brought me across had docked. On my first time there it was raining and I was rushed to find my transport so I had no time to appreciate the view or explore. And now that I was there I could see that there wasn't much to see and explore. One road in and out and walking and cycle paths only after that. It is a pretty location, with houses perched on the ocean edge and the fishing boats moored in the shallow protected harbour. Picture card views with little reason, except two restaurants at the start of the jetty, to stay longer than it takes to take those pictures.
This was the first day of good weather that i had encountered, and I had set out on the back of a scooter with one of the staff acting as guide. He described himself as an assistant to the owner and could get the time off and would only charge for fuel for the scooter. This is generally the start of a con that ends up with me forking out money for extras, but at the end of the day he was as good as his word, I paid for his lunch and filled his fuel tank. I will donate some money to him before I leave.
Our first port of call was a Pagoda perched high on a hill, the scooter chugged its way up and I wondered if I would need to jump off and push, but we made it. The Pagoda featured a Buddha with small people crawling over him. One was squeezing the nipple of Buddha. We wanderd the various levels and my guide seemed to know some of these people. It turned out that he did and came to this Pagoda regularly to pray. Son, my guide, informed me that i had been invited to share lunch with the monks. I had only recently had breakfast and could not have eaten at that time, so with some regret I turned the offer down. It would have been fascinating and an experience to eat with the monks. The incredible thing here was that I was not hassled for a donation neither in the temple nor by the souvenir sellers. In fact I would have been happy to donate to the temple but I found no obvious opportunity.
Our next stop was a waterfall that had a small theme park at the entrance. A rough hewn path led along the edges of the river, more a stream in reality, with nice views of rapids and a couple of small waterfalls. It took about 15 mins to walk the length of the pathway. At one point we passed a wedding party getting their photos taken, it is a place popular with the locals. The day was hot by this stage and it was tempting to throw off clothes and caution and cool down in the waters. A pleasant experience, if you head this way pay it a visit.
At the entrance to the waterfall car park area was a small themed garden. Large concrete figures, surrounded a small man made lake. It had a Tolkeinesque feel to it, at least the Tolkein as depicted in the movies. It turned out not to be Tolkein but themed on Monkey Magic that campy, poorly dubbed TV show from Hong Kong, I identified figures of Monkey, Piggsy and a person seated on a horse that i remembered from the show.
From there we went to Ham Ninh and lunch, and then returned to Duong Don't via a Pepper Farm and a Fish Sauce factory.
There is not really much to see in a pepper farm. The pepper trees/bushes are staked to upright posts and grow about 3 metres high. The pepper corns were not yet ripe and there fore there was no processing going on. Black pepper is the dried raw pepper corn, white pepper is further processed with the outer covering removed.
A small retail outlet sold the dried pepper, I bought half a kilo for $5 and a mixture of pepper, salt and garlic that tasted devine and i am already dreaming of how that will taste when sprinkled onto a nicely cooked steak. I spent some time dipping sections of a fruit into various concotions made of pepper and other ingredients. All good. I don't know the fruit it was small and had a texture and taste reminiscent of quince just before it was truly ripe.
The Fish Sauce factory had no guide so I wandered past vats of Fish Sauce, some being decanted into large tubs. I watched the finished product being siphoned into the bottles that were then capped and hand labelled and boxed. Low tech.
That finished my day in Ham Ninh.
The Bludger is dreaming of mouth watering steaks with Pepper and Garlic Salt.
Nick Smith
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