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Published: March 4th 2017
The Cambodian-Vietnam border is a funny little place, not like any other border crossing I have done before. I was going to do my usual solo-crossing, which would mean a motorbike or tuktuk from Kep to the border, then a motorbike from there to the Vietnamese town of Ha Tien, and then the ferry across to Phu Quoc Island (primarily to visit the Vinpearl Safari). But there is a tourist mini-van which does the same route, with the ferry included, for US$18 which is probably cheaper than doing it by myself (the ferry is US$10 alone). So I took that option.
The leaving time was supposed to be 10.30am but was, naturally, quite a bit later. It didn't really matter because the ferry wasn't until 1.30pm. Normally at a border crossing you have to take your passport to the Customs or Immigration and get it checked and stamped. At this border the van driver just takes everyone's passports in a pile to the counter - nobody checks anything against the individual person. Then all the passengers just sort of stand around waiting until the driver returns with the passports. It's weird but actually much easier than otherwise. The only issue
was that they had stamped my passport with a one month exit date when my visa was for three months. I said this to the driver and he says "no, it's fine, let's go". I said it wasn't fine and he said it was. I don't think he was even paying attention to what I was saying. After several attempts I finally got him to take it back to the counter and the officer there simply changed the 3 (for March) to 5 (for May) with a pen.
In Ha Tien, at the place we stopped to collect our ferry tickets, the guy there tried to get people to exchange their US dollars at a rate of 20,000 Vietnamese Dong per dollar because "on the island they only exchange at 18 or 19,000" (the exchange rate is 22,000 per dollar) and because "the only ATM on the island is right up the top a long way from the town" (obviously, being a tourist island, there are ATMs everywhere in the town). Only some people were fool enough to change their money with him. I had a one hundred dollar note in my wallet, which is staying there until I
get to Saigon and can change it at a bank, but I also had several hundred thousand Dong as well which I had got in Sri Lanka of all places - a girl I met there had just come from Vietnam and couldn't find anywhere that would change Dong so I swapped her Sri Lankan rupees at a direct exchange rate.
Phu Quoc Island is apparently pronounced as either "foo cock" or "poo cock" with both being acceptable. There was a bit of madness at the pier with scrums of motorbike and taxi drivers vying for the disembarking passengers. There were some mini-buses there as well which appeared to be the cheapest option, and I got a seat in one for 50,000 Dong (coming back to the pier when I left the island, the fare with a ticket from an agent in town was 30,000 Dong). There's only one town on the island, named Duong Dong. Most backpackers stay at Long Beach a bit south of town but I just got off in the town centre and found a place called the Kim Phung Guesthouse for 200,000 Dong (about NZ$12).
I really only had two plans for Phu
Quoc. The main one was to visit the Vinpearl Safari, a major new zoo which had opened about a year ago. The second was to look for Indochinese silvered langurs. Phu Quoc Island is the stronghold for this species of monkey but I knew of another site on the mainland where they were supposedly reliable, so if Vinpearl Safari didn't exist I would have skipped the island entirely. Phu Quoc is basically a tourist beach resort now, with everything being more expensive than it should be, so I didn't want to spend too long there.
The next morning I went to the zoo on the free bus. The Vinpearl Safari still has an exhorbitantly expensive entry fee, at 500,000 Dong (about US$22), and I can't see the price coming down. Strangely, if you buy a ticket from any travel agent in town, the cost is the same (instead of being more expensive as agents usually are). The free bus runs from Duong Dong up to Vinpearl Land and Vinpearl Safari, which are more-or-less beside each other at the top of the island. Handily, one of the bus stops was about two minute's walk from my hotel. I think you
may need to have purchased a ticket for one of the attractions in advance to make sure of catching the bus, because they may not stop otherwise. The first bus starts at 8.30am and takes about an hour to get there. They come back from the zoo every hour between 1.30pm and 4.30pm. The zoo is open 9am to 4pm.
The zoo is pretty big, and divided into two sections, a walking route around the zoo and a bus-ride around the safari. The safari bus is included in the entry ticket price, they run every fifteen minutes and the whole ride takes half an hour. The park is pretty quiet - probably because it is so expensive to visit - so it is likely the buses never have many people on board. Photography is really not an option through the windows either, or at least not if you want good photos. On my bus the guy doing the commentary used both Vietnamese and English so everyone knew what to look for, but the information given was brief.
I found the bus ride a bit ordinary. I think they have tried to put too many enclosures (seven of them)
into the ride so for the first half you seem to always be going through double gate systems which destroys a "safari" feel. There are two tiger enclosures and a lion enclosure. All the safari enlosures are well-wooded - they have just put fences up around actual forest - but the big issue is that the ungulate enclosures are heavily overstocked. The first enclosure is for dozens of sika, sambar and blackbuck; the fifth (after the three for big cats) has white rhinos; the sixth is mainly African antelope and giraffes; the seventh is zebra and eland (and possibly wildebeest may still be there). The rhino enclosure is looking rather the worse for wear already, the African antelope one is even worse, and the zebra one is devastated - just churned dirt under the trees. I doubt even the trees will survive in the long run.
To give an idea of numbers, there are 14 white rhinos in the fifth enclosure. The sixth enclosure currently has around twenty giraffes with another twenty-ish soon to be released in there, as well as lesser numbers of impala, waterbuck, gemsbok, eland and others. The seventh enclosure has 180 zebras in it. That's
one hundred and eighty zebras. It is a ridiculous number, and they share it with at least tens of elands.
The walking route around the zoo is quite extensive. On the map it is further divided in two, one part labelled "Zoo" and the other labelled "Primate World". Despite the name, Primate World is not devoted solely to primates although I rather suspect that was the original intention. Instead two of the cages have tigers in them (there are quite a lot of tigers at Vinpearl), and further along is a series of small mammal cages containing coati, binturong, and Owston's palm civet. Most of the primates are Asian or African species - gibbons, langurs, macaques and baboons. Getting any sort of good photos was virtually impossible due to a combination of the sun's glare off the perspex windows, the way perspex starts to cloud with age, and the thick mesh around the windows. I particularly wanted to get photos of the Indochinese silvered langurs but I could not.
Probably the best animals at the zoo for me were the klipspringers, small African antelopes which live on kopjes and cliffs. They have pointed rubber-tipped hooves which make them
look like they are standing on tiptoes.
I was at the zoo for most of the day (five hours or so), so the monkey-search had to wait until the following morning. A large part of the island is still covered in forest with 60%!o(MISSING)f the land area being covered by the Phu Quoc National Park. I had found a handy website which discussed the best places to see wildlife (I think it was phuquocislandguide but the site won't load for me now, so not sure). Apparently there are stump-tailed macaques on the island.
Most of the national park is closed to the public, and there don't seem to be any trails, so wildlife-spotting is done from the main roads. The highway which runs between Duong Dong and Bai Thom on the north coast seemed like the best road. I spent the morning along here and saw very little. The only mammal was a variable squirrel, similar to the ones at Kep National Park but with a white tail-tip (the subspecies here is harmandi
which is endemic to the island). I found one good trail, signposted as being a site for seed regeneration, but the only animals I
saw on it were some thick-billed pigeons. Despite the island's proximity to the mainlands of both Cambodia and Vietnam it does seem to retain a lot of larger animals, and I think if you spent several days just cruising up and down the roads in the morning and evening you'd probably see some nice wildlife.
I had been going to leave Phu Quoc the next morning, but check-out time at my hotel was at noon, there was a ferry leaving at 12.45pm, and it was still only 11am when I got back to Duong Dong from the national park, so I decided to leave now. I would be able to find a cheaper hotel at Rach Gia on the mainland, and from there I could go find Indochinese silvered langurs at the "reliable" site I knew of.
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