Thursday, September 1, 2011

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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