Saigon and Phu Quoc Island
06.06.2012 - 13.06.2012
Arrived in Saigon, or to give it the official name - Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, home to 7 million people and apparently 5 million motorbikes,so you can imagine the traffic madness on the streets (and usually the pavements too). Stayed for three nights at the Saigon Backpackers on Pham Ngu Lao which is he backpacker centre of the city, back in a dorm for the first time in a while to save a touch of money but meant late nights and early mornings as people with the disturbance of people coming and going.
On our first full day we set off on foot through the early morning traffic (don't think there is a specific rush hour - just a constant rush) to see the sights of central Saigon. First stop was the War Remnants museum detailing the Vietnam/American war. The war crimes section about the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on civilians by the US was particularly moving, showing how the effects are still being felt with people still being born with horrendous birth defects due to the highly toxic dioxin found in Agent Orange and other 'weapons'. Also interesting was the vast collection of photographs from war photographers, most of whom were killed in the conflict. Also visited Re-unification Palace, originally built as the presidential palace of South Vietnam in the 1960's, and kept exactly as it was in 1975 when the war ended with the fall of Saigon - the design was strangely reminiscent of a bond villains secret complex.
On our second day we took a trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels for a fascinating look at a part of the tunnel complex the Vietcong built during the war. The tunnels stretched hundreds of miles and were used for escaping after guerrilla attacks, for moving undetected, transporting supplies and even for living in for long periods. At Cu Chi we got to crawl through about 100m of a tunnel which had been widened for 'larger' western visitors, still it was incredibly tight and claustrophobic, moving was really hard work and the heat unbearable, you can only imagine the conditions for the Vietcong with rats, snakes, spiders, toilet waste, dead soldiers etc all down there and bombs raining above ground. The tunnels also contained booby traps to get the US troops who volunteered to go into the tunnels to flush out the Vietcong - surely this would have been one of the worst jobs in history.
Celebrated Graeme's birthday while in Saigon with a curry at Mumtaz (not the same one as back home but very good and a nice change from SE Asian curries), followed by a few beers while watching the football. I also had to stock up on a few new clothes (the sweat, suntan lotion, deet, etc have all taken their toll), the markets of Asia only seem to sell one type of shorts - big and ugly, luckily Saigon has some nice little boutique clothes shops were I was able to get some slightly more aestheticly pleasing stuff including a very nice pair of Paul Smith shorts for £6!
Final day around Saigon we took a trip to the Mekong delta. Much like the other organised trips we took in Vietnam it was very touristy, frustratingly delayed setting off and included the obligatory stop at a handycraft place so the driver/guide could get their commission. Still it was interesting to see the way people live by the water. Got to sample some of the local fruits, whisky, honey and coconut sweets, took a little bike ride until the path was blocked by a rabid dog, and also got to hold a python which was pretty horrible but at least I got a cool photo from it.
So we left Saigon thoroughly exhausted from the constant buzz of noise and traffic and set off for a few days R&R on Phu Quoc Island off the southern coast of Vietnam. The journey didn't start well when our sleeper bus turned out to be a regular bus so no sleeping for me that night, however it was the first bus to arrive on time which was lucky as we'd already bought our tickets for the 8am ferry.
After 2 and a half hours on the boat (witnessing lots of people being sea sick), we arrived on the small island which is a world away from Saigon. There's only one tarmacked road and even this is just a thin strip with rubble run offs along the sides for passing vehicles, the other roads are incredibly bumpy dirt tracks. There are no street lights meaning a torch is essential at night, mass tourism hasn't taken off yet so you don't get the constant barrage of offers for motos, taxis, massage, marijuana etc which you get everywhere else. Our accommodation for the three day stay was a rustic little bungalow just a few meter from the beach and complete with hammocks on the porch and a huge spider in the bathroom. It's the perfect location for chilling out with a book, watching the sunset on the beach and eating some great sea food.
Rented a motorbike to get around, although some of the roads are so bad and you have to go slow that at one point two kids on a push bike went zooming past us. Started with a ride to a waterfall in the centre of the island which was pleasant and then continued on to the other side of the island to Sao Beach. Located down a long and bumpy track, this is my favourite beach I've ever been to. A quiet stretch of the softest powder white sand, warm shallow water that stretches way out to the small fishing boats, palm trees at the top of the beach and thick jungle covering the hills behind.
The only disappointment from Phu Quoc was that our snorkelling and fishing trip which we booked for the last day was a bit of a wash out, light drizzle and cloud throughout the day in addition to the downpoor the night before meant it was hard to see any coral or fish under the water. Despite this Phu Quoc was still an amazing place to relax and recover from the madness of Saigon - however if anyone is thinking of going you should do it soon, an international airport, proper road network and huge beach resorts are all being built so unfortunately the quiet rustic charm might not last much longer.
Before leaving on the early ferry there was just time for one last breakfast of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) from an anciently old woman preparing it at the side of the road, this dish has been a staple of my diet for the last 3 weeks. So I left Vietnam with some fantastic memories, yeah there were a few disappointments early on and some things were a bit touristy but still it's an amazing country, the cities are mad and hectic but a great experiences and make arriving at the chilled out and beautiful places like Hoi An and Phu Quoc all the better.