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.