Published: November 29th 2008November 14th 2008
Our introduction to Vietnam was a little bumpy. At the border (on the muddy bank of the river) they told us we would have to go through a heat sensor. We didn't. We did have to hand over money to officials behind desks with no explanation though. We were then herded to a restaurant and all sat down together and had to pay too much for terrible food. We re-boarded a different boat (we weren't told, and were lucky to have only left the water on the other boat). Arriving in Chao Doc some cyclo drivers practically grabbed our bags saying they would take us to the bus station. The drove round the houses and instead took us to an agent, who sold us overpriced tickets ($10 each!) for a bus to Rach Gia (or Richard Gere as Mike likes to call it) - the mainland town for the island of Phou Quoc.
We were sharing the mini bus with at least 1 smuggler. He had big duty-free style boxes of cigarettes straped all around his body under a loose fitting shirt. Any customs official who didn't spot that needs firing. The bus went on and on, with the horn
going constantly for no reason, as is the fashion in Vietnam. Eventually, the bus stoped and they kicked us off. It was dark and we had no clue where we were. We thought we must be there. 2 women behind a desk of a sort of make shift travel agent wrote us out a ticket for 60,000 dong, but we had no idea what it was for! We tried all kinds of gesturing and phrase book assisted conversation, but to no avail. They spoke not a word of English. We didn't hand over any more money, and were just about to walk off when another mini-bus arrived and we were gestured to get on. Dubiously we did and a couple of hours later it arrived in the real Rach Gia. Which was a total hell hole. Again, we were dropped in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Again we tried to ask the girl at the desk where a hotel would be. Again, she spoke no English. Again and mystery mini bus arrived and we boarded. It took us to a hotel, but it was full. It took us to another and it was also full. We had not
clue why. This second hotel was on a strip of similar places and we were passed from one to the next until one had a vacant room. It was horrible. It was full of bugs, all over the ceiling and bed. There were big black hairs on the pillows. It was 200,000 dong, which is very expensive. We took it.
We went out into the town in search of food and bug spray. We found neither. The town was packed but there was nowhere to eat but roadside noodle stands! It's better to go hungry than to to eat noodle soup. Besides, they wouldn't have understood us. We bought some bread for the morning and went to bed in the horrible room (wrapped in our own sheet so as not to touch theirs and to stop the bugs falling on us. There was nowhere to hang the mosquito net). By morning the ants had taken over the bread.
We boarded the boat to Phou Quoc, and island described in the Lonely Planet's shoestring guide as 'off the beaten track', 'deserted white sand beaches', 'untouched reefs', 'mass tourism is just ramping up' and advising readers to 'get there before
they pave paradise'. It sounded lovely.
Before reaching the island, everyone on the ferry was puking. Seems the Vietnamese don't travel so well. Staff on the boat advised us to get a ride with their moto drivers who could 'take us to hotels suitable for foreigners'. Mildly offended by this, we took the public bus. However, not knowing where we were going and having no-one to explain to us, we just stayed on until they made us get off in the middle of town. We were promptly mobbed my moto drivers, all yelling at us and thrusting hotel business cards into our hands and thus preventing us from discussing where we wanted to go. We ran away and hid in a restaurant where we ate another gross and expensive meal (never eat boiled gouds. It is like giant boiled cucumber). We were feeling pretty crap by this point, having had a very long journey, very little sleep or nutrients. The restaurant had very nice but very expensive rooms and we decided to stay and recouperate for the night. Unfortunately Mike got sick with a bit of a bug, so we had to stay 2 nights while he recovered.
When Mike was better we set off to explore and try and find somewhere on the beach to stay. Phou Quoc was very built up compared to any island we had previously been to. It had a full on town centre for a start. Walking down the beach, it was crammed with big flash resorts from end to end. Whoever wrote the Lonely Planey entry cannot have ever visited this island. It was the most touristy place we have been to yet on our travels. Those resorts can't have popped up since the book was published in March. The beach was pretty nice but the resort builders had clearly capitalised on this - to a degree beyond it's beauty. Also, everywhere was full again. Why is it suddenly high season? We found one place that had a room but it was $70!!! Normally we pay about $3-5, maybe $12 for a really nice place. Maddness.
Another day we rented a 'ped to drive up the bumpy dirt tracks to the more isolated coves around the island in seatch of somewhere more low-key to stay. We found a couple beautiful beaches but again there was flash resorts on them! Very
dissapointing. So we ended up staying above the bar the whole time. The room was nicely done out but had real problem with the power and water. The air-con never worked and the room was like a storage heater. Overnight it was 33 degrees in there. There was no hot water and no water atall overnight. Our lights went out all the time. Quite annoying for a $15 room. There was a balcony though with quite a nice view over some roofs to the sea.
We decided to spend the rest of our time being productive: one day on a diving trip and one day on the nice beach, even if we couldn't stay on it.
The diving trip was fun! It was cool to just not be students and to be treated like fully competent divers. We did 2 dives. The dive master was a bit quick so there wasn't much time to linger and look at the fishes! The coral was nice, but not crazy amazing as described in the book. No better than Ko Tao (Thailand) anyways. I cut up my feet on the fins on the first dive and fortunately was given a different
This is on our room's balcony
type for the second dive (you wear little wet-suit booties!). Much better. On this dive Mike's tank came unclipped from his back, so I had to fix it. By the time we were done the divemaster had dissapeared. We surfaced, found him and went back down. But we were kicking against a massive current and I was finding it really really hard and wasn't making any progress. When I was nearly out of air we had to come up again. Stupid dive master still hadn't noticed! We weren't too far from the boat tho, so it wasn't like we were cutting short the dive. Having said that, we still weren't getting anywhere fast on the surface so they send the little boat out to get us! Not bad getting rescued. Can't wait to go diving again!
On our last day we set off for a day on the lovely beach (Bo Beach) we had discovered on our moped. We decided we would take the first flight of our trip (not counting the one to Singapore) out of Phou Quoc to Saigon. We couldn't bear the idea of the boat or of Rach Gia again! We stopped by the airport,
and when we finally got someone's attention we realised we didn't have our passports (guest houses keep them in Vietnam!). So we went back to the hotel, via an ATM to pay for the room, got our passports, returned to the airport, again via the ATM. At the airport everyone had gone on lunch for 2 hours! Argh! You would have thought they could have mentioned they were about to go on lunch! They were all wandering round or sat behind the desk with a stubborn 'closed' sign up. We made a fuss until someone sold us a ticket. Bear in mind it is crazy hot (35) in Phou Quoc.
At last we made it to Bo Beach for a lovely day at the seaside and a very expensive lunch at the resort. The following day we took a very smooth and very quick flight to Saigon aka. Ho Chi Minh City.
There are more photos below