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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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Monday August 29: Phu Quoc, vietnam

I had to change hotels today. I had originally booked a couple of nights at the Sea Star Resort. I had a seaview cabin. It was well appointed with a fridge, minibar, aircon, comfortable king size bed and TV. I also had a nice comfy lounge chair with a balcony overlooking the garden and ocean. All in all i was quite happy there although the service in the restaurant was poor. There was a note in the hotel information asking guests to be patient with restaurant staff as they were being trained. The note looked old and I suspect it will still be there in the future. There was no evidence that the staff were being trained or had learnt from any training.
My new hotel is the Mai Spa Resort. It is only 100metres further along the beach than my old one, but by road it is a 10 minute walk. I have seen no other guests, although cabins are being cleaned so maybe someone else is around. The cabin is also well appointed, but has no TV not that I am missing that. Most of the resort is under construction with a new pool planned, several cabins under construction and new paths being laid. At the moment I am using a series of stepping stones to reach my cabin and the restaurant.
I am happy with the accommodation, paying $40 per night, in high season this room would command over $100.
The weather stayed wet again all day, although it did ease up late morning. This gave me an opportunity for a small walk along the main street towards town and find a place to eat for lunch. I could now see that my location is not far from the outskirts and it would be an easy walk weather permitting.
For lunch there were several options despite many restaurants being closed and boarded up. Closed for the low season or just until the evening? I am not sure. I investigated a tapas place, but found nothing on the menu that appealed to me, so I moved on. I settled on a place, called Red River, that despite having only one couple inside looked clean, prosperous and had a good variety of menu choices. The couple turned out to be Canadians living in Houston and were very friendly. We soon got chatting and shared lunch, beers and a few stories for a couple of hours.
I returned to my room and wiled away the rest of the afternoon.
For dinner I decided to venture out to the night market. I chose a gap in the rain and hired a ride on a motorbike into the market. The market follows a street maybe 200metres long. A lot of stalls seemed to be shut. One end of the market is almost entirely devoted to bling, it consists of jewellers selling bright shiny things and decorated shells plus bracelets etc. Also to be found are traditional Vietnames hats, tshirts and the like. The opposite end of the market is primarily food. I settled on a place that advertised itself as a BBQ and had a variety of fish and shellfish on display. I selected a large skewer of chicken chunks interspersed with vegetables. This came with a bowl of rice for 50,000 dong, about $2.50. The place was called "Cat Food".
I had just sat down when the Canadian couple walked past. John and Pam joined me for dinner and we shared a few more beers and stories. The weather had closed in again and it rained quite heavily, fortunately we were seated well under cover so remained dry.
The lady who appeared to be the head waitress, or possibly the tout to attract customers, adopted me (us?) during the course of the meal. I had actually noticed her earlier, hard to avoid noticing someone in a fluorescent yellow top. She was limping and during the evening as we "chatted" I had a closer look. From the swelling it looked like she may have broken her big toe or at least suffered a crush injury in the region where it joins the main foot. I ended up holding a block of ice on her injury for some time.
Phuc was her name and she spent most of the evening sitting next to me, returning after serving customers. I am not exactly sure what was going on. I know the protocols and expectations when a waitress adopts me in a seedy bar. But I am not sure what happens in a reputable restaurant. The other factor was that she barely spoke English, and I don't know any Vietnamese, so the "chatting" was mainly pigeon English and sign language. If she had less than honourable intentions, she was unable to get the message across to me or I am too stupid to read the messages - a distinct possibility.
As I write this on the Tuesday the weather has improved, there is still a strong breeze, but the waves are slightly smaller than yesterday, the sky is lighter, although still overcast and the sun managed to break through for a few minutes.
It is time for The Bludger to go exploring.
Nick Smith
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Monday, August 29, 2011

Sunday 27/8/11: Duong Dong, Phu Quoc

The rain continued throughout the night, with no evidence of it easing. My previous post describes a trip into the town and watching a boat washed up onto the beach.
What has struck me about the place is how few tourists there are. There are plenty of resorts and guest houses and a number of restaurants catering for their needs, but the cafes and restaurants are empty. Often I am the only customer, often I walk by and see only the staff sitting, waiting, hopefully that somebody may drop in. Probably the rain is keeping many tourists inside and they are not venturing beyond their resorts, indeed I was driven in side in the mid afternoon by heavy rain and ended up watching a movie on TV.
While in town I visited Bobby's Ice Cream for a coffee. Not a bad coffee. Only 3 others were in there, all taking advantage of free wifi. At the Swiss Viet coffee where I had a very good hamburger there was only myself until the end of the meal when someone else dropped in. At the Dog Bar where I dropped in to check it out there was one other, although he was joined in time by 3 more. By their talk and actions I reasoned that they were either Expats or possibly sex tourists on a longer term stay, whatever their visas would allow. I ate my evening meal at Chez Carole a restaurant not far from the Dog Bar. Only a dozen customers, the place looked deserted with this few. I had a nice meal of BBQ Prawns on skewers there and listened to a duo on a guitar and banjo crucifying some jazz standards.
During the course of the day I saw two motor accidents both, oddly enough, at the same intersection. The first involved a bike and scooter both travelling side by side in the same direction. I didn't see what caused them to come together but the cyclist ended up on the ground. A low speed crash and no obvious damage done. Later a pillion passenger fell off a scooter and ended up soaked as he landed in a large puddle. I think that he was not holding on and simply slipped off when the scooter unexpectedly leant in one direction. Once again no damage and both rider and pillion burst into laughter.
The Bludger is weathering a storm, boredom is not far away.
Nick Smith
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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The sea is a harsh mistress

Not my words, many others have said them before. This morning I witnessed a shipwreck.
I took a trip into the local town Duong Dong, to explore, find a bottle of Gin, find some new accommodation and planned to have lunch. Also high on the priority list was a cheap plastic raincoat. I might have mentioned that it is wet.
The town is built around a river which exits into the ocean, actually it is the Gulf of Thailand here. Fishing boats line every inch of the river bank. The town itself is quite small, and being Sunday many businesses were shut. So I wandered the town and took pictures of boats and a small temple perched high on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the river entrance. As I wandered I noticed some men on a wall looking out to see. I thought that they may be waiting for a boat to return. When I reached them I could see that they were looking at a boat not far off the shoreline and within the breakers. It was a reasonable sized boat, maybe 150 metres long possibly longer. It was immediately obvious that the boat was in trouble, as no skipper would deliberately sail such a boat that close to shore.
The boat must have lost most of it's power as it exited the river and entered the ocean. The boat was still pointed seaward to present it's bows to the waves. It thus still had steerage and some forward propulsion. The helmsman did a magnificent job keeping the bows pointed into the waves but it was a losing battle as the boat was slowly drifting backwards towards the beach. This continued for some minutes until there was a sudden roar from the engine. I suspect the propellor had struck the sand and sheared off or the engine had been kicked out of gear maybe to prevent damage to the propellor. But it was the final straw as the next wave swung the bows to starboard and the following waves completed the effort of turning the boat broadside and then pounding it into the beach.
Fortunately the hull was flat and the waters shallow the boat remained upright and the crew could be seen still walking the decks although the waves were now breaking over the side and sending up huge sheets of water. Not a total disaster, if the weather eases up this boat should be able to be refloated.
The Bludger is reclining on his balcony, keeping dry on the outside but wet on the inside.
Nick Smith
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August 28: Sea Star Resort - Chau Doc Island - wet wet wet

Oops, I think that I made a boo boo.
With my holiday coming to an end I had decided to spend a few days on a beach with palm trees, soft sand and the comforts of a nearby beach villa. I have the location, I have just got the timing wrong.
I arrived late yesterday, Saturday, in light rain. During the evening the rain increased, to the extent that I postponed an evening walk to explore.
Over night it rained heavily, a true storm, water even found it's way across the balcony and under my door into the room, fortunately stopping at a doormat.
The beach and resort grounds are soaked this morning. The waves are pounding on the beach, there is a continuous roar of the surf, it sounds lovely. The rain alternates between moderate and heavy. Lower lying parts of the resort are under water. Water runs in streams along the pathways making them slippery. The maintenance staff are busy digging trenches to direct the water away.
The sky is non existent, only low grey clouds can be seen.
It is wet. Soaking.
The Bludger must work out whether to stay or move on to somewhere drier or at least more options above and beyond reading in his room. However it is pretty cool here, I am dry, the sound of the rain and the surf. It is still warm.
Nick Smith
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August 26: Chau Doc - evening

Following from the earlier post I made my way back to the floating hotel and had a couple of beers in the bar. Part of the complex had a restaurant and I could also eat where I was. I was comfortable, had a good view and by my third beer decided that eating where I was was a nice lazy option. I asked for the food menu and decided on what I wanted to eat. I waited for the waitress to come back and take my order. I waited, I could see her sitting doing nothing as I was the only customer at this stage. I waited. I finished my beer. I got up and paid my bill and walked out.
I was a little peeved at the lack of service. Probably I don't understand the Vietnam service ethics, definately I had been spoilt by the very attentive service in Cambodia, where the waitress would hover until you ordered. But I was peeved and decided to talk with my feet. The waitress gave me a bored look as I left. My message was obviously wasted.
That actually meant that I needed to hit the streets again to find food as I didn't want to give my business to the restaurant as it was part of the same complex. I decided on a cheap bowl of noodles from a local restaurant or even a street vendor. My path led me past the "Victoria Hotel" my guide book describes this as "seriously stylish" and possessing the best restaurant in town. It certainly looked grand and dressed in shorts and shirt I considered myself under dressed to be there. But after a small internal debate over, dress standards, food quality, cost, environment I decided to check the menu. It was expensive by local standards but not western standards.
I entered the bar area, a large open space with solid varnished wooden bar stools, tables and chairs plus a health amount of comfy chairs and couches for relaxing. The restaurant was behind a door to my right and as I approached the door opened for me. I was greeted by a Maitre,d in a impressive white jacket with brocade on the chest and sleeves. 'Table for 1 please"
At first sight the restaurant was opulent. Hand carved wooden tables and chairs, lots of dark wood panelling, views over the river, pot plants, mood lighting an an atmosphere of calm and quiet. Done in an old Colonial fashion, where money had been no object, this reminded me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, as the movies depict it not the present.
I was served by a tall slim waitress. Not a classic beauty, but her uniform which consisted of a white flowing tunic over white ankle length pull up pants and I presume a blouse of some description gave her a look of elegance and refinement. She smiled, understood my order and by the end of the dinner I had realised that she watched me like a hawk and was always present when my plate needed taking away or my glass filled. If not present a simple glance in her direction would have her over in a flash. That is what I call service
I could see about 7 waitresses all dressed the same, all looking slim, tall and glamorous, and I was the only customer. Maybe this is what heaven is all about, maybe I should repent my wicked evil ways. The restaurant could have seated about 60 diners plus more on a balcony.
I ordered a glass of White wine, South African, pleasant, but nothing to write home about. (Except I just have!). I then turned my attention to the Menu, it was written in Vietnames, French and English with an adequate dish name describing the item. I ordered "traditional steamed Vietnamese rice paper rolls" and "squid prepared in Kampot Pepper and chilli sauce".
Before my meal I was brought an "amusee bouche" this consisted of a pork parcel on a slice of cucumber. It was delicious. It had a drizzle of sweet chilli sauce around the plate. Without thinking I smeared the cucumber with chilli and burnt my mouth. Damn that was hot!
Next came the steamed rice paper roll. In Australia I have seen deep fried and fresh, never steamed, so this was a novelty. I was presented with a plate consisting of 3 rolls with a small amount of salading and a slice of yellow stuff between the rolls. I think it may be bean curd, as I have seen similar presented on or with Sushi. There was a spicy dipping sauce also.
The rolls were lovely, freshly prepared, with just the right amount of stickiness in the rice paper so that the roll stayed together when bitten, but didn't stick to plates or fingers. That feeling of being in heaven was still upon me.
About this time I noticed that the tunics worn by the waitresses were a lovely citrus lemon in colour. I could have sworn that they were white when I walked in. I doubted my initial observations but then reasoned that they were white and that they had now changed their tunics. I asked later to confirm this and they had indeed changed. For me that level of attention to detail is rare, a novelty. Maybe I should eat 5* more often.
By the time the Squid main meal arrived I was not really hungry. The entrée was a generous size and would have been sufficient. I managed to force it down however, the sacrifices that I make for others. The squid was properly prepared and tender. The pepper sauce was delicate and looked more like a thin gravy around the food. The chilli sauce was served seperately. The pepper sauce was my dissapointment. A food critic may have said that the sauce was delicate so as not to overpower the squid, I was expecting something a bit more peppery and needed to use the chilli to bring out the flavours, even then a good dose of pepper would have improved it in my view. That is a slight criticism of an overall excellent dining experience, I cannot fault the preperation, presentation or service. It was overall a surreal dining experience.
If ever you go to Chau Doc do yourself a favour and have at least one meal at the Victoria Hotel.
The bludger is not sure if heaven can improve on this.
Nick Smith
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