Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Phu Quoc Days 6 - 9 (planning is awesome & wrap up)

Day six, we caught a taxi to the airport in the morning. The taxi driver immediately turned on some techno beats to "wake us up" and we hit rush hour traffic with the throbbing music pumping. It was the perfect accompaniment to the orchestrated chaos outside and made for a very memorable drive. I made one last attempt to capture the scooter madness on film. Or digital disk.
Our flight was only an hour and soon we disembarked, ready for some tropical island bliss. Phu Quoc had been hailed as one of the best, most unspoiled tropical islands in the area. People were especially fond of it because it hadn't yet been taken over by big touristy resorts. It's had huge growth in the last 5 years, but there is still a notable absence of mega resorts or chains, the biggest and nicest place in the area probably only had 50 rooms or so.

I had wanted to book a beach bungalow on Phu Quoc before we left, but certain male members of our party insisted they didn't want to be tied down to a specific itinerary. I had spent four hours just to find that one place open, almost everything was booked when I was looking a couple weeks prior to our trip. When the guys balked, I just gave up on going to PhuQuoc altogether, but somehow once we were in Ho Chi Minh, it seemed like a good idea to everyone. (in face, we followed the EXACT itinerary in Vietnam I had sketched out that the "non-planners" originally rejected) And of course now EVERYTHING was booked solid, but a travel agent found us rooms at this place:
Please note the woman holding the snake. And the lovely beach, umbrella shelters and recliners. None of these things were present and the lack of a python was especially devastating. There were no chairs, no umbrellas, and even worse, no beach at all because they had expanded their property to the waters edge and added a seawall. And planted nasty leaf dropping small shrubby trees along the seawall that you didn't want to sit under. But thankfully, they had added some other charms not even found on their brochure!

Giant horse sculptures galloping down the road leading to the rooms! As our taxi drove down the driveway, I will never forget Kevin saying "This looks great!" and I'm sitting there, looking at these WACKO huge animal statues everywhere thinking "Oh man. This is NOT a good sign"

Sure enough. Our rooms....yuck.

Dirty walls that desperately needed paint, the most uncomfortable beds ever, nasty old furniture and the smell of mothballs permeating everything.

Kevin & Kelley did get a nice big poster of a topless woman in their room, unfortunately their amenities also included a cockroach in Kelley's shoe the first morning. Oh, and did I mention the metal roofs with some sort of fruit tree overhanging them? And how the fruit would drop in the middle of the night with the most startling loud racket - so loud it sounded like a car had crashed outside or something had exploded in a trash can? I was seriously scared to death when it happened the first night, but after a couple more times that night, I figured it was nothing dangerous. Besides, there were obviously about 20 dogs outside barking to protect us, so I was sure everything was perfectly safe.

Thank goodness the beauty of the island made up for our less than ideal lodging (at $30 a night it felt like a complete rip off). We had lunch on the beach, some of the best & cheapest food we'd had yet. Every restaurant had little charcoal grills going, with a selection of fresh prawns, calamari, fish, etc for insanely cheap. We had chili rubbed grilled squid, fried tofu w/ chili & lemongrass, Braised fish in caramel sauce and tons more food. I felt much better. We took a quick dip in the water after lunch, only to find a mysterious tingling that soon turned to strong stinging. Apparently that section of water had swarm of little clear stinging Jellyfish. Thus ended our afternoon swim.

Our hotel had decent scooters to rent for cheap, so we decided to go explore a bit. Kevin and Kyle had been itching to drive a scooter since we'd arrived, but I was terrified. I have almost never ever driven a motorized two wheel vehicle in my life. (once I did a little loop on shauna's dirt bike, and that is the only thing that gave me the confidence to do the scooters) But I pushed past the fear and figured it out. And had SO MUCH FUN. I loved it, really. And I loved going fast, even with a stupid ill fitting cheap-o helmet. It wasn't neccessarily the safest thing I've ever done, and as per usual, there was some crazy traffic as well as a quick jaunt through a super crowded street market.

We rode for 45 minutes and ended up at this gorgeous beach at sunset. Notice the complete lack of beach hotels or sunbathers? It was completely deserted. Amazing

The group with our rides. It was only after the sun set that we realized we had to ride back in the twilight with no goggles - on the way their our sunglasses protected our eyes, but now it was way to dark for even that. We got lost for a while in the main town, but finally found our way down to the beach about 1/2 a mile from our hotel and proceeded to gorge ourselves on fresh seafood and wine. We're talking four huge grilled prawns for about $3 - in fact everything we ordered cost $2-$4 dollars. It was amazing. The bill for four of us, including "several" bottles of (somewhat nasty) vietnamese wine was $50.

Did I mention we were only 5 feet from the ocean, our toes curled in beach sand? LOVELY.

The next morning we had a snorkeling tour, and I snapped some more great shots of our hotel sculptures while we waited for the bus to pick us up. Creepy.
The giant crab

"Monkeying" around

Seriously creepy

Evil goat wearing eye-liner

The best hotel slogan ever, especially for a crappy weird sculpture park hotel.

Our bus ride to the south of the island was interesting...we were crammed into a hot, no air conditioning van (you know those 12 person ones with little jump seats?) and proceeded to drive 30+ minutes on dusty bumpy dirt roads. Apparently the little tourist zone where we stayed is pretty much the only paved part of the island.

When I saw these beautiful squid fishing boats I freaked a bit - I get seasick easily and the bigger the boat the better - luckily they weren't for us, we were on a relatively large boat.

We did hit some rough waves, but I had taken a dramamine so I was fine. After chugging slowly for an hour, we went into a group of islands and stopped to do some fishing. After about five minutes, I caught my first fish, the 2nd one caught on our boat. Two minutes later, I caught my second fish. 5 minutes after that, I caught my 3rd. Kyle didn't catch a single one, Kevin caught one, and Kelley finally caught one right as the boat started pulling away with her line still in the water.
We snorkeled a bit and then had lunch - and yes, they served the fish I caught and yes, I ate one. Yum. And yes, it still had skin, bones and a head when I ate it. No problem. The snorkeling was ok, quite a few fish, but pretty normal wear and tear on the coral, a lot of it was dead. Still fun though.

After several hours of snorkeling, we headed back to land and the bus took us to a remote beach with the most beautiful sand I have ever seen. Super white and super fine. The guy below was selling ice cream bars to the Western tourists.

The woman below was selling fresh creamy tofu with ginger sauce to the Asian tourists. I really wanted to try it, but wussed out, fearful of the safety of her homemade goods. And don't even get me started on the difference between asian & western beach snacks.

On the way back to our hotel, the bus broke down for a few minutes and imagine my surprise to find out the engine was nestled between the drivers seat and our seats.

Thankfully they got it going relatively quickly and we were on our way, through the potholes, breathing red dust through the windows and over the rickety bridge we go!

Oh, did I forget to mention the sculpture park on the beach side of our hotel? Completely separate from the entrance one? This was supposed to filled with water I think and each swan's head would be up to my shoulders almost. In the background, you can see they started reproducing some different famous structures around the world including the sydney opera house and Malaysia's twin towers. And there was a guy on horseback. It was a jumbled psychotic mess.

Thankfully cocktails on the beach were just a short walk away and they were only a buck or two each.

We had another lovely dinner on the beach, here you can see how close we were to the lapping waves. One weird thing about the town is that supposedly every hotel was completely booked up because it was the peak of high season. But it was super quiet, tons of room on the beaches, restaurants were often empty. We kept wondering where all the guests were....even our resort was supposedly full, but we rarely saw more than 2 or 3 other couples at a time.
The next day we laid on the beach all morning, took some jellyfish-free dips in the ocean and then flew back to Ho Chi Minh after a final beach lunch. We had a rotten time in the evening trying to shop and find a new place to eat. We finally ended up back at the Temple Club we'd eaten at earlier in our trip, but it suddenly seemed very expensive compared to the beach places in Phu Quoc. Kyle ordered a pineapple juice that arrived completely rotten and smelling like nasty sulfur. I tried it and confirmed it was disgusting. What is with last nights in a place being sort of lame??

And then it got even lamer. Two hours after dinner, Kyle started throwing up. Two hours after that I joined him and we missed our taxi to the airport to fly home. We laid around all day recovering and were able to fly home the next day. Menards were not so lucky, Kelley didn't get sick till she was on the plane to Hong Kong. Yuck. Kevin felt ill but never actually puked. Lucky guy. Who knows what it was, I was sort of feeling off after lunch and all afternoon, but it didn't fully hit me till after dinner.

Overall, Vietnam was hard, but awesome. I retain my firm belief that I would much rather plan a trip before we leave, rather than do all the leg work once we were there and have to settle for less than ideal accomodations. (although our lodging "find" in Ho Chi Minh did work out really nicely)

Is it worth going to a country where you are almost guaranteed to get food poisoning at some point? I think so, in fact, I am almost getting used to it. When we first got home, I had a hard time showing a lot of enthusiasm for the trip because we got so sick at the end, but with time...memories fade and only the good remains. I love that.

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