Sunday, 31 December 2017

Vietnam, day 5: A Trip to the Beach - Naht!

Con Son, Vietnam
18 May 2017
We were woken early by roosters cawing and frantic hotel guests running up and down the stairs near our room. Unable to get back to sleep, we walked down a couple of blocks to the local market, where I stocked up on pineapple and jackfruit for later. Breakfast was at our new favourite waterfront cafe (Con Son Cafe), where I sipped at a pineapple juice (it's my second favourite fruit ok!) and Yannick tried out a bac xiu - like a normal Vietnamese coffee, but with MOAR condensed milk.
Feeling adventurous, we rented a motorbike from our hotel! Yannick's helmet was green, and mine was silver like a space cadet. Neither of us had ridden a motorcycle before, let alone driven one. I'm actually quite afraid of motorbikes because both my uncle and grandfather were in serious accidents which left huge scars across their pates. However, the roads were wide and practically empty, with just the odd bike or vehicle puttering along, and there were no extreme hills, so I felt that this would be the absolute best opportunity to ride one. What didn't assuage my fears, however, was watching Yannick get the hang of how to work the beast. He actually picked it up fairly quickly, but it was mainly my deep trust in him that got me through it. After cruising around the block a few times, we were off!

Though a bit wobbly, it was really quite fun to ride the motorbike! Yannick had to be extra vigilant because of all the potholes in the road, but the ride was wonderfully scenic and we wouldn't have been able to travel so far cross country without a motorbike as public transport isn't a thing.

Along the way, we saw an abundance of wildlife, including cows, goats, monkeys, and lizards.

The temperature was hot and humid (as it always is on Con Son), so feeling the wind rush past us as we zoomed along the coastal roads was refreshing.

Before long we had found Bai Naht, a beach that had been recommended to us by a local and through blog posts. When we arrived, there were two guys swimming and they remained in the water the whole time we were there! They must love swimming. We alternated between swimming and sunbathing. It was very exposed and there were no patches of shade on the beach, but as it was before half past ten, experience informed us that sunbating would be fine (though we were wrong). At one stage, some monks arrived in a taxi and frolicked about for a bit, which was quite a sight! The lady monks swam with all their clothes on (including head scarves), while the male monks stripped down to their pantaloons.

As is often the case in Vietnam, just across the road from the beach appeared to be some sort of landfill, though luckily we couldn't smell anything unappetising. It's always a slight shock to be surrounded by gorgeous lush hills on one side, a sweeping sea vista on the other, and then see a rubbish heap dumped squarely in the middle. Unfortunately, for all the country's wonderful scenery, it's not uncommon to see empty crisp packets bobbing along a winding river or an abandoned plastic bag sailing along in the breeze. However, we do our part by not littering, and I've learned to try to enjoy the good views over the bad.

After applying some sunscreen, we zipped off further down the coast to a wharf. Yannick never did fully manage to get the hang of stopping or starting the motorbike, but it's the thought that counts and we didn't crash so that's something. The wharf was a lot more built up than I expected it to be, with several shops and eateries on either side.

On the way back to the main settlement on Con Son, we stopped to get a closer look at a roadside shrine that was beautifully decorated with lanterns and incense, and surrounded by forest. A local woman tried to tell us something, but the words and gestures were unfortunately lost on us. She had a cute little puppy that stuck close to her ankles. 

Across the street was a strange building that looked like a hotel that had been abandoned part way through being built. It would have been a coveted location for the views over the hills and the sea. Perhaps one day construction will be finished and it will rival even the Six Senses resort that lurks on the other side of the island. 

On the way back to our hotel there were plenty of downhill sections in the road, so we had fun coasting down those. We parked and went to our room to have quick showers and it was at this point that Yannick realised he had been pretty badly sunburnt from our time on the beach. We resolved to be more careful in the future and not assume that European sun rules are the same in Southeast Asia. (Oddly enough, I was completely fine and not even a tad pink. This could be due to the fact that I had been sunbathing on our apartment's terrace in Singapore for the last couple of months and was therefore more accustomed to sun worship.)

As it was a muggy afternoon, we visited Infiniti Cafe for a bevvy break. We both ordered cocktails (a Blue Hawaiian and a margarita) and Yannick had a bite to eat. While taking a reading break, we were amused by the cafe owner attempting to feed her small child lunch and being rebuffed. He wanted to watch TV shows on the iPad and play with his firetruck instead. Returning to our hotel, we napped for a time before heading out again.

The road to Ong Dung beach was narrower than we expected, and had some construction work that we needed to bypass. Once we found the sign, we parked our motorbike and began the walk through the jungle. A scruffy puppy, who was at the start of the path, followed us the entire way! I think he wanted food but we had none to give. When we were nearly at the beach we spotted a jungle rat who made aggrieved barking noises as though we were a threat to his safety and scurried off into the underbrush. We discovered that there were a few houses down near the beach, and the puppy stopped following us there.

Though very rocky, we found a not too uncomfortable place to sit and read. When the pointiness became unbearable, Yannick found a plank of wood and gentlemanly laid it down for me to sit upon. Two guys came down and went snorkelling for a bit. Yannick and I discusses the pros and cons of living by Ong Dung beach. On the one hand, you can swim and snorkel whenever you want, but on the other you have to carry your groceries down a long winding jungle path. Luckily there were no sandflies or mozzies, but a persistent ant kept crawling up my leg (yes, it was definitely the same ant every time).
Walking back up the jungle path, we saw loads of monkeys! They were running and swinging and fighting with each other, and this one monkey would make a very loud hooting noise which made him sound much larger than he was. Powerful lungs I suppose. He should train in opera.

We drove back and dropped off the motorbike at our hotel. After hanging out for a while, reading and eating pineapple on the balcony, we then went in search of the night market but it was nowhere to be found.
Instead, a tiny popular eatery drew our attention. While perusing the menu at the entrance, a little girl approached us and asked our names. Once we replied, she told us hers and then grabbed our hands, swinging them around and smiling sweetly. Aside from us, the patrons seemed to be mostly highschool-aged kids who raucously laughed with their friends, slurped on iced coffees, and endlessly scrolled through their phones. A cute one-eyed dog ran around from one end of the cafe to the other checking on everyone. His good eye was big and shiny and perfect for making puppydog eyes at people in case of food. The kitchen staff were run off their feet with so many customers (we were lucky to get a seat), and our orders took a while to be brought out. The green tea I had was strong, and Yannick was mightily impressed by how delicious his ciku smoothie tasted. They had run out of bun bo, so Yannick instead opted for a kind of toasted sandwich similar to a banh mi. Our whole order came to 45,000 dong, which is $2 USD. As we left, the large table of youths called out "buh-bye!"

Friday, 15 December 2017

Vietnam, day 4: Island Reconnaissance - Pancake Zone Identified

Con Son, Vietnam
17 May 2017
On the morning of the 17th, we caught an Uber ride from outside our hotel in HCMC to head to the airport. A few minutes into the ride, our driver made a phone call and suddenly passed the phone back to me. I was flustered, but after a brief conversation, it transpired that the driver had called one of his friends who spoke English to find out if we needed to be dropped off at the domestic or international terminal. How nice!
Soon enough, we had boarded a small propeller plane and spent time cloud spotting on our way to the Con Dau islands which lay 236km due south of HCMC.
Once we landed, we found the shuttle bus that had been sent from our hotel and on the drive there were given a lot of useful information (including good beaches, motorbike rental prices, local specialties, snorkelling info, and a recommendation for a noodle place).

Our hotel was small but comfortable. We had a room on the first floor with a balcony overlooking the street and a mango tree.

Wanting to explore, we quickly headed out for a wander of the town. Though Con Son is the largest settlement in the Con Dau archipelago, it had a strong village feel to it. While there were a considerable number of buildings including hotels, restaurants, and houses, there was also a lot of empty space. Sometimes you'd walk past a block filled with buildings and then cross the street to find yourself staring into an open field with a cow lazily grazing in it. 

There was also a large amount of construction materials and equipment lying around unused. Just around the corner from our hotel was a big pile of sand that a local dog had taken to lying on much of the day, and a dump truck gathered rust further down the road.
It was a five minute walk from where we were staying to the waterfront, and in that time we were greeted numerous times by families and schoolgirls in uniform cycling past. It was like the typical celebrity feeling of Vietnam, but on steroids. I guess that makes sense as there are considerably more tourists who visit HCMC or Hanoi than Con Son. One very young girl waved to us on the back of her dad's motorbike, and when Yannick waved back she froze, arm suspended mid-wave, a look of utter shock on her face.

Just as we reached the waterfront it began to rain so we found a seat at the Con Son Café to wait for the worst of it to pass. We were given free glasses of green tea, and Yannick had a proper drip coffee. While steeping in the aromas of our caffeinated beverages, we could overhear the telltale sounds of an action movie being played on the owner's iPad.

Though there was a warning sign at the start of the wharf, we watched a group of Vietnamese tourists walk out unconcerned, so we followed suit. 

There were several old fishing boats, as well as round rowboats. We had never seen such a design before, and wondered if there was some benefit to round rowboats as opposed to the more common...boat shaped rowboats.
We continued our walk along the waterfront in an attempt to reach the long hotel- and bar-lined An Hai beach. However, we found ourselves in a weird abandoned construction site where trees had grown atop the shells of partially built houses, and were separated from the beach by a fence and then a small gully of aquatic vegetation which may or may not have contained snakes or other hazards. Though tempted to take the shortcut, we made the wise decision to go all the way around, back to the street and along to a beachfront bar that we walked through to access the sea. This seemed to be a totally normal occurrence for the bar staff and they didn't give us a second glance. I felt odd to walk through a place of business, but we could find no way to access the beach apart from this method.

We walked the length of the beach being followed all the while by a couple of fascinated dragonflies. Clearly we smelled excellent to them or some such thing, as they flitted around our legs like wasps after the scent of lemon juice. Luckily they had no desire to eat us or sting us. I spotted a tiny beige crab scuttling along, and Yannick at first thought it was tumbleweed blowing across the sand.

Deciding we wanted to see the other beach that was very close to town, we walked back through the streets (more inland this time) and were barraged by yet more cheerful greetings! It seemed that almost everyone on the island was friendly and keen to say hello to us, including two men in green army uniforms on motorbike. Our stroll took us past many small homely eateries, corner stores, repair shops, and stray dogs. At one stage we found a manicured park with pretty roundabouts. After that, we rejoined the boardwalk and passed next to a paddock where goats and cows roamed.

Bai Lo Voi beach was less scenic, but also less built up in that there was not a single hotel or bar built onto it. We waded a little, and then sat on the concrete steps that led back up to the goat field, planning on what to do the next day. Scattered around our feet were some items of refuse: mostly discarded bits of broken fishing materials such as parts of nets or lines, but also evidence of feasts like dozens of rambutan skins.

On the way back to our hotel we discovered that the wharf area we had visited that morning was a popular late afternoon swimming spot. In fact, it felt as though the whole town had come to have a post work or school swim. A number of food stalls had also been set up to cater for the increased appetite of the swimmers. As we did not swim, we weren't yet hungry enough to eat so we returned home and read on the balcony for a time.
For dinner, we chose an upmarket hotel restaurant called Villa Maison. Though undoubtedly one of the fanciest places in town, the prices remained astoundingly affordable and even offered English menus. Though the waitress had limited English ability, and we had zero Vietnamese ability, we made good use of Google Translate to work out the answers to questions.

We worked out that the vegetarian banh xeo contained no egg or dairy, so I tucked into the Vietnamese rice pancake (filled in this instance with shredded veggies and tofu) while Yannick had spicy fish. We both enjoyed a glass of rosé, and were surprised by the abundance of wildlife. Having sat outdoors on the terrace next to a small garden, I was enthralled by a couple of toads who croaked and leapt around. My favourite part was just after a jump, when they sat still and bolt upright, their chunky arms held straight, sticky fingers splayed on the dirt below them. Cats, lizards, and a really big moth also made an appearance. Apart from the wildlife, we had the entire place to ourselves, and as we were about to leave the owner came to thank us for dining. She told us that they had only opened five weeks before, and asked us if the service and food was up to our standards. We told her that everything was delicious, and suggested registering on TripAdvisor so that we could leave a review. She informed us that the weather should improve soon, and invited us to come back another time. As we left, our waiter said to me shyly "You are very beautiful." I got the sense that she had rehearsed that before approaching me, and it was very sweet. Con Son was quickly becoming my favourite place in Vietnam, and by extension, the world.