Day 28: Phu Quoc Island Tour

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Today Pati and BeeBee slept in until  5:30 am. Apparently there is no rooster on this island. There is an alarming (?) device outside above the sliding doors that periodically chirps 8 times, even when the doors are closed and locked. Its noise is annoying when they sit outside on the small patio, but muted by the whirling of the large overhead fan when they are inside.

They received an email from their tour director confirming an 8:30 pickup. By 8 am, they were headed back to their room after breakfast when they were stopped by a young woman wanting to know if they were the people for her snorkeling tour. BeeBee said no, since their guide was coming at 8:30. But it was their tour; her boss told her it was an 8 am pickup. Hurredly gathering their towels and swimwear from the room, they had an 8:15 start. The guide showed them a map of the area their boat would visit; this area contained many islands, which the guide called “Iceland.” Pati wondered at first how a map of Iceland would be useful here, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Pati also asked her if the weather was always this nice, and she said “Yes, there will be waves.” This was not reassuring to Pati, and doubt began to creep back in.

Their first stop along the way was at a pearl sales center (a.k.a. tourist trap), where they listened to a self-important huckster explain why his pearls are better.This past-his-prime Australian explained in coarse, sexually-explicit terms how pearls are harvested from their shells. A passenger on their Mekong River cruise weeks ago had described how crude some Australian males are, and here BeeBee heard the proof of it. After this, Pati and BeeBee walked through the sales center (as they were expected to do) but emerged empty-handed, to the disappointment of their guide (perhaps expecting a commission). But Pati and BeeBee are hopefully past the young&foolish phase of life.

The van continued on to the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island. Here, pulled up on the sand, were several long wooden boats. The guide selected one of the boats, and they climbed on one by one, trying not to tip it over into the muddy water. The boat putted out to a much larger boat owned by the snorkeling tour company. Ony by one, they climbed out of the smaller boat and up over the side of the bigger boat, without a ladder, only helping hands. Once they were all on board, an argument ensued between the small boat owner and the guide. Pati and BeeBee could only assume that the argument was about the fee, and so they moved farther away from the arguing pair. Eventually, money changed hands, the smaller boat putted away, and the guide rejoined them. (Pati suspects that he must be to blame, since he did not tip the smaller boat owner, but he had not prepositioned tip money for an unexpected tender boat.)

The larger boat also had an upper deck for sightseeing, and so that is where Pati and BeeBee spent the first half hour on their way to their first snorkeling location. Counting all the tables, benches, and lounge chairs, BeeBee estimated that at least 60 passengers could be seated on the boat, but this trip carried only Pati, BeeBee, the guide, and four crew members.

When they seemed to be approaching their first destination, Pati and BeeBee came back downstairs to change into swimwear. The “changing room” was, as on the earlier snorkeling trip, the ship’s bathroom. This room was possibly 30″ wide by 6′ long; one end contained a complete toilet, and the other end contained two large buckets filled with water. There was almost enough room to stand between the buckets and the toilet, but at least the toilet seat and tank cover were available to lay clothing on. The sliding door was glass (no privacy), but Pati stood guard for BeeBee.

Resuming their seats, they noticed that the boat rocked more and more in the heavy waves. Luckily, neither of them got seasick, and eventually they arrived at their first snorkeling spot. Donning fins, masks, snorkels, and lifejackets, they went down the ladder into the waves and struck out for the shore where the coral was. Very quickly, they were far from the boat and in 2 to 3 foot swells. Pati decided they should return to the boat, and they started swimming back. Halfway back, they saw one of the crew toss a tethered lifesaving ring toward them. Reaching it, they were pulled to the boat and clambered back up the ladder. (Good call, Pati!) The next spot might be calmer, the guide said, and the boat started moving again through the heavy waves.

The next spot was calmer, with several other boats of snorkeling passengers, and they were soon back in the water again. This time, however, BeeBee’s right leg was protesting the swim, and they considered returning to the boat. BeeBee discovered that swimming on her back to get to the snorkeling spot was ok, and so they resumed heading toward the coral bed. As they were passing a group of swimmers from another boat, a (French?) woman called out to them in accented English. She had on a lifevest and was supporting a young (Asian?) woman who was not wearing one. “Please help her. She is a survivor and I have to look after my children.” The older woman attached the younger woman to BeeBee’s arm. BeeBee didn’t mind, because she had on a lifejacket. But Pati was worried about BeeBee and so he also took the young woman’s arm and began to swim with her toward the boat she identified as hers. Very shortly, they were met by a young man wearing a lifevest, and he took the woman from Pati. “He is my husband,” she said in very good English.  They all waved goodbye. Pati and BeeBee resumed looking at coral for a while before returning to their ship. This second spot was much better!

As they drip-dried, the ship’s crew prepared lunch for them: soup, rice, vegetables, and a whole fish (which BeeBee believes the crew caught from the back of the ship earlier on their trip). (The fish looked at BeeBee. BeeBee’s stomach looked back but lost the staring contest.) The crew also brought out a huge platter of (cooked) sea urchins and a sauce to use with them.  To BeeBee, what they actually ate seemed to be mostly sauce. There were at least 20 on the saucer; Pati and BeeBee managed to eat 5 of them. (Full disclosure: they had already seen the price list for this delicacy: 20,000 dong for each one.  To eat the whole platter would cost $20, and what they ate was not appetizing enough to be worth $5. But they were curious and wanted to be polite.)

(After lunch, BeeBee told Pati that what she was thinking about during lunch was pizza. Pati said that he was, too.)

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Fishing boat with many lights

Immediately after lunch, they set off for the third snorkeling site. They passed many islands and saw what they believed were fishing villages, but the crew spoke no English and the guide disappeared except when they entered or exited the boat, so there was no one to ask.

The third site was also calm and provided the best underview views of coral. They had the site to themselves for a long time, and then another ship appeared with many snorkelers who persisted in swimming into them without looking first. They had seen anough by then, and were happy to leave.

After they returned to the boat, it was a short 30 minutes back to port. Another small boat tied up alongside, and they essentially dropped into this boat. They made it back to shore without tipping over (a miracle, Pati thought). Back in the tour van, it was another short 30 minutes back to their hotel.

Pati took this opportunity to return to their own pool for some calm water. BeeBee took the time to review their planned itinerary for the day and discovered that somehow they had missed “Bai Sao Beach, a hidden treasure, a perfect beach with white sands and turquoise waves– it‟s the beach you‟ll be day-dreaming of for years to come!”

(Goodbye, Miss Hanh.)

At about 6 pm, they walked out to Le Bistrot across the road for dessert. They had the signature dessert, Bistrot, which is pistachio, hazelnut, and coconut ice cream, with chocolate syrup, crushed nuts, and a chantilly (cookie). Paired with white coffee, this is the perfect dessert.

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Terrace Resort swimming pool reflections

And then back to their hotel for internetting and early bedtime, to recover from a very tiring day.

 

Day 27: Can Tho – Phu Quoc Island (take a flight)

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This morning Pati and BeeBee got up at 5 am for a 6 am start. (The local rooster slept in until 6.)

Meeting their guide in the lobby, they walked quickly to the boat dock, where they clambered on board a small tourist boat with 10 chairs (one each used by Pati, BeeBee, the guide, and the boat captain) and not much more. While the tour description used the word “leisurely” to describe their boat trip on the Mekong to see the Cai Rang floating market, it was really full throttle, because they were on a tight schedule.

After about a half hour on the river, they reached their destination, the floating  wholesale market that supplies the retail sellers.These boats were larger; each one specialized in one or two fruits or vegetables. The cargo of each boat was advertized by a few of the items tied to the top of a large pole at the front of the boat. There were huge piles of pineapples, red onions, watermelons, tomatoes, and other produce. Tourist boats full of passengers converged on this produce flotilla and merged loosely to steer slowly though the middle for the best views. Threading through the produce and tourist boats were smaller boats each containing one local occupant. And finally there was the small boat containing the lottery ticket salesman with his upright display board, who sold to the sellers.

By 7 am, they had exited the floating market and were on their way back to the dock. Almost as soon as BeeBee had asked about the many clumps of green plants floating in the river and growing at its side (water hyacinth), the boat captain steered toward a much larger ship at the water’s edge, tied the boat up to a tire on the side of the bigger ship, hurried to the back of their boat, stripped off his shirt and trousers (down to his boxer shorts), and jumped over the side. This is when Pati and BeeBee began to think that they might miss their flight.

However, the boat captain had hurredly explained to their guide (in Vietnamese, of course) that garbage had fouled the motor and he was going to fix (or at lease assess) the problem. Soon he climbed back  on board, donned his shirt, untied the boat, walked back to his chair (leaving a trail of Mekong water behind him), and resumed piloting the  boat in his dripping underwear.

Apparently he had not fixed the problem, since he explained to the guide that the boat was moving more slowly because of the motor. Again the prospect of missing their flight came to mind, but, in fact, the boat had docked and they were back at their hotel for breakfast before 7:30, as the guide had promised.

By 8 am, they had finished a hurried breakfast and checked out of their hotel. The car ride to the airport went smoothly, and they had checked in for their flight, passed through security, and were seated at their gate by 8:30 (Try that at Dulles!) for a 9:05 boarding.

(Thank you, Mr. Vinh, for a very rewarding visit to Saigon and Can Tho. We will miss you.)

They had seats 1A and 1B on a small 72-seat prop plane. Of course, the plane loaded from the back, but no one had managed to fill their overhead bin by the time they got to their seats. (There is no underseat storage in front of the first row of seats.) As usual, they first checked for the nearest exit. The door to the cockpit was directly ahead of them, so that wasn’t the way out. Then they saw that their emergency exit door contained the window beside BeeBee. Convenient!

The flight was a short 50 minutes and their luggage was among the first to appear on the conveyer belt. Pushing their luggage cart, they exited into a warm day full of almost overwhelming offers for taxis. There was no sign with their name waiting for them. One of the taxi vendor ladies persisted until she found out their hotel name. She then went away “to call the hotel” and came back to say the hotel had never heard of them, and they should just take a taxi there. She did help them log onto the internet, by providing the password for wifi at the nearby coffeeshop. Pati decided to call their previous guide for help, since he had never been given a phone number for the guide on Phu Quoc. Mr. Vinh came through again, and soon a driver arrived to take them to their hotel. The hotel receptionist told them that their room had been upgraded and was ready for them. The tour coordinator called soon afterward to tell them that the hotel had made the mistake; this seemed to be confirmed when three maids arrived to finish preparing the room.

After cooling down in their lovely room, Pati and BeeBee had a refreshing swim in the pool about 50 feet from their small patio.

Pati and BeeBee then set off to find the beach. The receptionist gave them a map and verbal directions. As soon as they stepped outside, the helpful hotel policeman/porter pointed them in the wrong direction. After this hot detour, they found the beach and a shady restaurant. Since it was just after 2 pm, they decided that it was time for lunch. The wait staff specialized in ignoring customers. Eventually they were waited on and received almost all of their food. (Pati’s rice bowl came but without rice. He didn’t really want the rice but he had paid for it.) Their lunch was finally over at 4 pm. They will not go back there.

After walking back to their hotel (a shorter trip back), Pati had another swim in the pool while BeeBee enjoyed the internet.

They ventured out again after dark (it was only marginally cooler) to investigate potential restaurants and laundry providers. The road to the beach was dark, and, although they have small flashlights, they decided to save that walk for another evening. They returned to their hotel for a good night’s rest before tomorrow’s excursion.

Note: They have many pictures for this blog post but are unable to upload them this evening. They will be added later.

 

Day 26: Ho Chi Minh – Mekong Delta – My Tho – Can Tho

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Following an early breakfast, Pati and BeeBee checked out of their Ho Chi Minh City hotel at 7:30 this morning.

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After leaving the city, they drove between rice fields to their first stop, the gigantic happy Buddha in My Tho in the Mekong Delta. 

They also visited the Vinh Trang Pagoda.

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They then boarded a tourist boat to travel around four small islands. Pati, BeeBee, their guide, and the pilot were the only people on a boat that could comfortable seat 10. At the first island, they were given tea with honey and bee pollen and snacks (banana, peanuts, ginger).

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Next, they were passengers in a hand-rowed sampan boat that drifted under the shade of coconut trees through the Mekong River‟s natural canals. (They are now featured in the home movies of passengers in other boats coming from the opposite direction.)

At the next island, they enjoyed seasonal fruit and tea and were entertained by local musicians performing southern Vietnamese folk music.They watched the local production of hand-made coconut candies, followed by a ride in a small cart pulled by a small horse.

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The next island was Phoenix Island, where they had a delicious six course meal, including soup, shrimp, summer rolls, fried rice, thin coconut crisps, and tea. The featured ingredient in the summer rolls was deep-fried tilipia.

After this, the tourist boat took them back to the dock. They then continued with their drive to Can Tho, two hours farther.

After checking in to the hotel, their guide made reservations for them at the Nam Bo restaurant near the hotel. At 7 pm, they met in the hotel lobby and walked the short distance to the restaurant. The guide had chicken with rice; Pati and BeeBee shared a Four Season pizza. They had a very good conversation about Vietnamese customs before going back to their respective hotels. Tomorrow comes early!

Day 24 extra: the unofficial night market, or shopping in the hotel room

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Patti and BeeBee have encountered an unusual price  list in many of their hotel rooms on this trip. It generally states that if you want to buy anything from the room, then you will be charged the amount given on the list.

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The item commonly listed is the laundry bag, typically costing around $7 USD. (Sometimes only the laundry bag is mentioned.) Some lists include everything that is not fastened down. The oddest item that Pati and BeeBee saw  listed was the door lock (over $100 USD). While some items seem desirable enough and easy to pack (e.g., towels), others seem impossibly hard to pack even when the price is quite reasonable (e.g., a lamp for $17 USD at one hotel). (No, the lamp pictured did not leave the room in their suitcase.)

The price list is always given in US dollars; sometimes it is also given in the local currency. Pati asked one of their guides why this list exists. He was told that tourists from a certain country (unnamed here, but not the US) tend to pack up everything and take it home with them. BeeBee supposes that providing this list, which offers everything for sale with prices, makes it easier for the hotels to recover the costs of stolen goods without troublesome police involvement.

Your hotel room is the new Night Market.

 

Day 25: Ho Chi Minh – Cu Chi Tunnels and city tour

This morning, Pati and BeeBee were picked up at 7:45 am and driven to the Cu Chi tunnels just outside Ho Chi Minh City. During the Vietnam War, the guerillas (resistance) built a labyrinth of narrow tunnels, where they hid during bombing raids and staged surprise attacks. This area has been developed into a large exhibit showing how the guerillas lived and fought during the war. Particularly disturbing are the examples of traps the guerillas developed for injuring and killing soldiers.

Pati and BeeBee climbed down into one of the tunnels that has clearly been enlarged for tourists, although it is still quite confining, and traveled about 30 meters underground. They also dropped down into a small space representing a hidden entrance to a tunnel. BeeBee had to be lifted out, since the top of the hole, once she was in it, came up to her armpits. Pati was able to climb out unaided.While the guide did a very good job explaining the exhibits and the war, he advised them not to watch the video at the end of the tour, saying it could ruin their visit to Vietnam. They skipped the video, but may try to find it online when they get home again. 

After this, they drove back to the city for lunch.

Lunch was followed by a city tour that included the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the General Post office, the Opera house and downtown Saigon.

The War Remnants Museum (previously named the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes) originally opened in September 1975. It displays old military equipment and other related items from the Vietnam War, including (in the courtyard) larger exhibits (e.g.,an F5A fighter and a UH1-Huey helicopter). Inside, on the second floor, are many photographs from the Vietnam War, mostly of soldiers. On the first floor are many more photographs, and they are even more disturbing, of civilians that were wounded and those affected by Agent Orange and phosphorus bombs. The ground floor displays posters and news stories from the Vietnam War era.

The Reunification Palace, formerly known as the Presidential Palace, was the site of South Vietnam‟s surrender in April 1975. Parked on the front lawn near the fence are two tanks, representing the ones that broke down the fence on that day. On the roof is a helicopter.

Notre Dame Cathedral, the General Post Office and the Opera House are all beautiful examples of architecture from the French colonial period.

Today’s tour would have included a visit to the Ben Thank Market (Night Market), but Pati and BeeBee had already visited that on their own yesterday. Instead, they visited a shop for some small souvenirs.

After this, they were dropped off at their hotel and their guide marked several good restaurants for dinner on their map.

They decided that they would like to have American food and walked about a mile to Pizza 4P for dinner. After this came dessert at a Baskin Robbins nearby. They then walked back to their hotel for internetting and bed.

Note:Their guide is passionate about the history of Vietnam and delivers historical nuggets with both barrels blazing. As to his appearance, think “bad cop” from Terminator 2 with a gravelly Chicago gangster accent.

Day 24: Nha Trang – Ho Chi Minh

This morning Pati and BeeBee watched dawn over Cam Ranh Bay again; and again, it was a muted view.

After breakfast and packing, trying to balance suitcase contents to meet aircraft weight limits, they decided to take advantage of the beach coupon that came with their room: two lounge chairs, two towels, and a large umbrella on the beach across the road.

They spent about two hours on the beach, shaded with a good breeze, and took lots of interesting pictures of sand, waves, and umbrellas.

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(Some pictures will be posted here later. The internet has been troublesome for two days now. Posting was not possible for most of this time, and now adding pictures is the problem.)

Returning to their room before noon, they checked out, leaving their luggage in hotel storage.

Then they enjoyed their last lunch in Nha Trang at their favorite restaurant, Ponagar.

Returning to the hotel, they were picked up for their ride to the airport. (Thank you, Mr. Tue.) The flight left on time, but was about a half hour late in landing, spending that extra time in a holding pattern. Sitting on the taxiway after landing, they observed five more flights land, each about two minutes behind the one ahead of it.

Exiting the airport with their luggage, they were met by their new guide and driver. The normally 5 minute short drive took more than a half hour in the crawling rush hour traffic.

After check-in, they immediately walked out to the night market nearby for dinner in the recommended local restaurant, Pho2000. The curry chicken with banh mia was delicious. Prominently displayed on one wall were two large pictures of the restaurant staff with Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. Several other tourists stopped to look at these pictures and photograph them.

Successfully navigating (both ways) the many road crossings in just 200 meters between their hotel and the night market, they were back to their room by 8 pm.

Here they bought a Kindle book, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace,  that was recommended by their guide and read much of the long introduction before going to bed.

Tomorrow they have a 7:45 am start.