Another public holiday in Cambodia means another long weekend! This time I headed to Vietnam with my flatmate and very good friend Rachel. I’d only been to the neighbouring country once before and Rach had never been. Just beyond the Cambodian border is a large island, Phu Quoc, which used to belong to Cambodia but is now Vietnamese. We decided this tropical paradise would be an ideal destination for our romantic getaway!
We had arranged everything through a travel agent as the last unplanned border crossing didn’t exactly go to plan (see An Idea for an Adventure, Backfiring). Turning up at the “bus station”, we sat on a kerb for a while before some fellow travellers turned up and together we wondered about whether we were ever going to leave Cambodia. The couple, a French woman and Indian man, lived in Phnom Penh too and had holidayed on Phu Quoc twice before. The woman was particularly talkative and assured us that it would be a wonderful holiday if the weather was “shiny”. A tuk tuk turned up and promptly drove us all to a completely different part of the city. There we boarded a bus and trundled off through appalling holiday traffic towards Vietnam.
Three hours later and the bus stopped so we and our new friends could get off. We piled into a mini van and drove to the border. I got chatting to the driver in Khmer who was then under the illusion that I spoke a lot more of the language than I actually do but we managed to communicate pretty well. The border crossing involved lots of waiting but was very simple overall. The driver took our passports (always a worrying moment) and disappeared (more worrying). When he returned he drove us over the border and we waited a little longer in Vietnamese customs. Finally we were back in the van and on our way. Ten minutes later we were in Ha Tien, the border town and port for the ferry to Phu Quoc.
We had to wait a couple of hours for the ferry but eventually we were on one of the noisiest boats ever! Finally disembarking on Phu Quoc, we were offered a ride with various other travellers to our guest house. Rachel had booked our accommodation and we had a lovely private room with ensuite and our own balcony! That evening we walked down to the beach to watch the sun set. The monsoon season had started so the clouds prevented us having much of a view but it was great to sit on the sand and enjoy not being at work and the cool sea breeze. We then had that well known Vietnamese dish: hamburgers.
Our first full day was “shiny”! As we didn’t know what to expect the rest of the holiday, we decided to make the most of the weather and head down to what is considered the most beautiful beach in Vietnam. A woman ran a moto renting business out of the guest house but after we admitted neither of us had ever driven a moto before, she told us it would be stupid for us to drive ourselves and we’d probably die if we tried. So as we were discovering the best chocolate pancakes in the world, she offered to drive us herself. The trip took close to an hour and the very bump, muddy track at the end was not fun! Both Rachel and I hobbled away as we said goodbye to our chauffeur, after agreeing a collection time later in the afternoon.
The beach was totally worth the journey. To be honest, I don’t think words are needed so just imagine sunbathing on this sand, eating fresh watermelon and swimming in this sea.
The journey back was was hilarious (for me) as Rachel’s bikini had dampened her shorts and she kept sliding inappropriately close to our driver. That evening we watched the sunset before walking to the local night market, known for fresh seafood and pearls. The whole island is synonymous with the pearl trade and there are endless shops selling the precious stones (are they even stones?). The rain made the night market a little less fun but it was very interesting to see all the stalls. Dinner was a wonderful seafood restaurant we’d been recommended by the hamburger guy from the night before. Much more Vietnamese!
The next day we woke to cloudy skies. Pleased with our decision to enjoy the “shine” the day before, we headed into town to look around some pagodas. At the first one we were handed a bag of vine covered food parcels by a friendly monk. I’m always up for eating new things but Rachel is one of the fussiest eaters known to mankind! With our new bald friend hovering a few feet away, I eagerly unwrapped the mysterious bundles and took a bite. It was sticky rice with nuts and coconut … I think. Unsurprisingly, Rach was not a fan! We smiled at the monk and then carried the food around for the rest of the day, presuming it would bring bad luck or something to throw it away.
The second temple was interesting too (no free food). I particularly enjoyed watching the harbour opposite – a real taste of local lifestyles.
The last temple was beautiful. Built into a craggy outcrop, it overlooked the stormy sea and was topped with a lighthouse. There were even dying kittens waiting to greet you at the top of the steps! And if you left your friend alone, they were approached by a smelly old man who offered them cigarettes (sorry Rachel).
After we sat and watched the waves crashing into the rocks for a while, we walked towards the local market street. We crossed the main river on the island and got another glimpse of local life!
The market itself was not exactly what I had anticipated. There were no touristy things at all and unless you wanted a vegetables or live chicken, duck, frog, or fish, there really wasn’t much to buy.
Picking our way back through the filthy streets, we headed into town once more. On our way to the guest house, we got caught in a mega monsoon and were very glad we’d bought ponchos the night before!
The rain persisted all day but thanks to good conversation and speedy wifi, we weren’t bored. We visited the night market again that night and Rachel went on a pearl shopping spree! The jewellery varied a lot but much of it was catered to Asian taste (most tourists on the island were Chinese or Vietnamese) and therefore a bit too glittery for our liking. But some of the simpler designs were gorgeous and we successfully bargained an excellent deal for Rachel’s new treasures.
Our journey home was long. Very very long. We booked all the way through again but this time it just didn’t work as well. We got picked up from our guest house at 9am and arrived with enough time to catch an earlier ferry. The crossing was rough and I was constantly calculating how long it would take me to swim to shore. Once we arrived, my initial worries about finding our next transport link were abated when I disembarked to see a little Vietnamese man holding a soggy sign with the word “LEMON” written on it.
We were joined in our mini van to Cambodia by the French and Indian couple from our journey down. The border involved more waiting. First at a cafe where we handed over our passports once more, then at the border itself when we had to wait for a few people to get Cambodian visas. Once in the bus, we started to drive in the complete opposite direction to Phnom Penh. We ended up at Kep, a seaside town where we dropped some people off and picked more up. Then we drove to Kampot, my favourite place in Cambodia. More waiting. I even had a meal. Then a load of minivans turned up. Yay! But there wasn’t one going to Phnom Penh. Anticlimactic. By this time it was 3pm. We eventually got a minivan at about 4pm but there wasn’t enough room for our luggage in the back. Their solution to this was to rotate the front row of seats 180 degrees and use the newly created space between the driver’s seat and the passengers to store the bags. Rach and I ended up being the ones going backwards.
Our long journey was placated somewhat by a stunning sunset as we arrived in Phnom Penh. It was truly beautiful. Thanks Rach for the photo as I didn’t have the energy to get my own camera out!
I had a great time in Vietnam overall and I really enjoyed spending time with Rachel. But, for me, the country just doesn’t compare to Cambodia. The people are less friendly, the food was not as good, and the general atmosphere of the place was less inviting. I was certainly glad to be home when we finally rocked up in Phnom Penh ten and a half hours after we had left Phu Quoc that morning.