Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Vietnam, day 10: I’ll Eat My Hat! Kaboom.

Con Son, Vietnam
23 May 2017
With a little time to kill before our flight, we returned to Nice Cafe, where we sat upstairs to enjoy the view and chill. Then we packed up our belongings and checked out of the hotel, picking up a packet of hat bang while we still had the chance.

Hat bang is a specialty of the Con Dau Islands. All along the footpaths, you see clusters of almonds laid out in the sun in preparation. These are not normal almonds, but Indian or Malabar almonds, which are thinner than any almond I've seen before.

There was an option to purchase a savoury version of hat bang, or a sweet version, and after a short deliberation we picked the latter as Yannick and I both have quite a large sweet tooth. We snacked on the delicious sugared almonds in the tiny airport as we awaited our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Throughout our Vietnam trip and beyond, I would sometimes randomly exclaim "hat bang!" because I liked the sound of it.

Our plane was small, and we ascended the stairs behind a cute old man in a beret. The flight was uneventful, and once we landed in HCMC, we called an Uber to take us to the bus station. Our driver took us through some interesting backstreets, where we saw a plethora of fabric stores, a Baskin and Robins, and some guys with large jars of water that held Siamese fighting fish. The Uber driver pulled over at one point to collect his takeaway lunch to eat after he dropped us off.
The bus station was far more confusing than it ought to be, but after some bumbling we ended up with two reasonably priced tickets to Ben Tre. We found the correct bus without much difficulty, and soon were on the road. Along the way we listened to audiobooks and gazed out at the scenery, which became increasingly more swampy as we approached the Mekong Delta.
Upon arrival in Ben Tre, we quickly booked a hotel and caught a taxi directly there. What made that particular hotel stand out was that it was run by a Kiwi guy, and we figured a little reminder of home would be nice. We knew that we had been delivered to the right place when we saw a large sign hanging from the front of the building reading "Go All Blacks!" We met the owner and his advanced age proved to be a significant barrier to his comprehension of Yannick's job description. Although we explained to the best of our ability, it seemed that he thought Yannick was some kind of mix between an IT specialist and someone who personally created 'The Lord of the Rings'. We chatted for a while and found out that he was originally from Kerikeri. He introduced us to his Vietnamese wife and the student who worked for them part-time. They were all so friendly. Although we normally avoid going on predesigned tours, they gave us loads of information on their different tours and we could tell that the places visited would be inaccessible to us if we headed out on our own. We booked the tour for the next morning, and eagerly awaited seeing a coconut factory.

The student was kind enough to write a translation note for me regarding my dietary preferences, which would make eating out much easier. The original note said that I don't eat MSG, which I asked her to remove because MSG is delicious! And it's vegan, so I figured also restricting MSG might mean missing out on the only vegan option at some places. Hilariously, if you type the Vietnamese phrase for "I do not eat meat" into Google Translate, it pops out as "I am not safe", though if you add in the accents it translates correctly.

We couldn't miss out on having a swim in the pool, even though it was much colder than I was anticipating. I greatly enjoyed cruising around on an inflatable. After a nice warm shower, we read on hammocks for the afternoon, and then were shown a large mural map by the student and given directions on how to get to a nearby recommended restaurant. We were provided with an umbrella and a torch, as there weren't many street lights, and off we went for some grub. The directions were straightforward, and much of the walk was along the riverside. Some dogs barked at us, and we saw a dead snake and many fallen coconuts.
Arriving at Garden Restaurant, we were surprised by the size of the establishment, which had several different seating areas and a small bridge over a narrow manmade canal. There were hardly any other patrons, and our waiter was weirdly attentive. He handed us only one menu, which we had to share, and stared at us expectantly. However, he didn't wait at all long and kept interrupting by suggesting dishes for us, not allowing us to ponder the menu in peace.  

I ended up simply following the waiter's advice and ordering a yummy dish with mushrooms, veggies and noodles, as well as a plate of fried tofu. This was far too much food, but the price was surprisingly cheap.

Yannick clutched a freshly macheted coconut as we waited for his hotpot to get to temperature. He made the mistake of nibbling on a birdseye chilli, which was far too spicy on its own. Annoyingly for how soupy the hotpot was, he wasn't given a spoon. After eating our fill, we walked back along the river, this time passing by a very noisy karaoke shack. The participants seemed oddly nonchalant in their singing, yet gestured for us to come join them and I got the feeling that they were having a ball of a time despite their lacklustre performances. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Vietnam, day 9: Coral and Cauliflower - Buffet Beneath the Waves

Con Son, Vietnam
22 May 2017
All night a storm raged around the Con Dau Islands. We would fall asleep in a lull of rain, only to be woken shortly by deafening raindrops pelting the roof. Even when the storm moved away, and we could count eight seconds between the flash of lightning and the peal of thunder, we could feel the building rock. For all our good intentions of going to bed early, the rain coupled with noisy hotel guests banging about the corridor at ungodly hours meant that we didn't achieve a perfect eight hours' sleep.  Tired as we were, we were excited to go snorkelling, so we threw on our clothes and rushed down to the shoreline. 
Though it had been hours since any rain, the storm had an impact on our day. The seas were choppy (though thankfully I didn't experience any seasickness), and the island that we had been planning to visit was swapped for the larger Hon Bay Canh.

The boat captain told us of how sea turtles laid eggs all around Con Dau and Bay Canh boasts one of Vietnam's largest turtle conservations. During nesting seasons, forest rangers work day and night to protect the turtles as unfortunately, poaching is still an issue.
Once the boat was anchored, we were given snorkelling masks and sent out into the water! With the waves, it was a bit disconcerting at first, as I was afraid that the water would go over my snorkel and I would inhale liquid. I needn't have been afraid, as the waves weren't that large and Yannick helped me though the rise in panic. Before long, we were floating around and gazing at all the different fish and coral. Another of the storm effects was that some sand was tossed up from the seabed, meaning that in places visibility was murky and the bright colours of the coral didn't stand out as much as it should have. However, we did find some really good patches where the colours stood out like neon, and even in the muted areas, the experience was brilliant. Coral sprouted from all over the sea floor in so many different shapes and colours. One of the most common types looked exactly like a brain, and was named accordingly. There was also a type of coral that looked like a mushroom, another that was super pointy, and one that looked like a cauliflower. We saw hundreds of fish: in schools, on their own nibbling at algae, flitting in and out of coral, big fish, tiny fish, and even one jet black fish that I followed for a while like chasing a shadow. Yannick hoped to catch sight of a stingray but missed out. We saw sea cucumbers instead (which I initially took for knobbly logs).

Back aboard, we snacked on fruit and drank tea and coffee. We chatted with the English guy who ran the company with his wife, and also the two other snorkellers for the day - Phong and Nicole. It was lovely to have such a small group, and I felt very grateful for picking Rainbow Divers over another company. (We saw another boat pull up near us at one point that looked like it could fit a couple of dozen passengers, and that would have been a much less personal experience.) We chatted about our housesitting days and where we were from. Phong, who was visiting from the US, told us about how his parents were from Can Tho and fled Vietnam during the American War. They were housed in a Malaysian refugee camp for a time before being granted placement in the US. Wanting to try out Phi Yen restaurant now that we had discovered its top secret location, we invited Phong and Nicole to dinner that night.
Before heading back to Con Son, we stopped once more at another snorkelling spot. I was exhausted, so stayed in the boat, but Yannick went out for another paddle around. When we found ourselves back on dry land, we beelined for the hotel and I passed out immediately, in desperate need of a nap. I was very unaccustomed to swimming, or any other exercise apart from light walking.

In the evening we went for a wander of the town. It was our last full day on the island and we were keen to take it all in. We walked past the square where the market is held everyday, and then visited Villa Maison one last time for the amazing passionfruit juice.

On the way to the waterfront, we passed through the main intersection in the town, which has one of the only traffic lights on the island. We sat on the concrete retaining wall by the pier for a spell, until the biting bugs became too annoying, and then wandered through a park.

Once darkness fell, it was time to meet for dinner. I ordered a chanh da (lemon juice, sugar and water) that was becoming a favourite of mine, and as usual, the staff attentiveness was lacklustre. As for the food, it was fairly unimpressive aside from a hella moreish plate of garlicky morning glory. For dessert, Phong led us in a hunt for chè, aka dessert. I was unconvinced that we would find a designated chè place, considering how small the town was, but lo and behold! A chè place was found. I don't think I'll ever get over having beans or sweetcorn in dessert... They ordered two chès, with mung beans and coconut milk and jellies. I was too full to partake, but Yannick said they were surprisingly tasty. Phong spoke a bit of Vietnamese, and was able to teach us a few handy pronunciations and phrases, such as "do you have vegetarian food?" With full bellies and heavy hearts, we returned to our hotel, our last evening on Con Son spent. 

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Vietnam, day 8: Consulting the Coracle - Prophecies of Cocktails

Con Son, Vietnam
21 May 2017
As it was our second-to-last full day on the island, we decided to get our asses into gear and look into going snorkelling, having heard that the Con Dau Islands were some of the best locations to do so in the world.
But we couldn't start our day without a visit to a nice cafe! Literally. Its name was Nice Cafe. And it lived up to its name. My peach iced tea was delicious, and Yannick got his coffee fix in the form of ca phe sua da, one of his all time favourite beverages. Our table was upstairs on a balcony overlooking the main street and all the way to the distant mountains. A half coconut shell served as our table's ashtray, and the only other patron at that time was a soldier in uniform.

And before finding a suitable snorkelling company, we had to drop by the market to purchase some fresh fruit for the day. Yummy! I missed having a kitchen, or even just a knife and cutting board, and seeing those juicy mangos was torture without the means to eat them. I had bought one when we were staying at a hotel before, and peeled the skin off with my fingernails, digging into it with my teeth, but as you can imagine it was too messy an experience to repeat. 

Then we wanted to ensure that we saw the tiger cages with ample time before they closed, so we sped on over, quickly dipping our feet in the sea on the way. The tide had washed away evidence of the rambutan feast that we had seen the other day, but one of the funny round boats had washed ashore. Apparently the name for these is "coracles". 

The French were the first to use Con Dau as a place to house prisoners, and built the first prison on Con Son in 1861. In 1940, the French constructed what are now called the "Tiger Cages", a series of cells that are now live in infamy. The Americans continued to use the cages during the American War, to incarcerate political prisoners from North Vietnam. The cages were deliberately built away from the main prison, though an alleyway, and were not known to the outside world for some time.

The cages were built at the bottom floor of a two-story building, with a long walkway above so that guards could poke prisoners with long sticks through the bars, and throw down quicklime to burn their flesh and blind them. The photos above show the two main buildings in the complex: the one above having been reconstructed (note the barrels of lime), and the one below showing the semi-destroyed tiger cages.

In 1970, Tom Harkin, a US congressional aide travelled to Con Son along with a few other government representatives and a translator, having been told of these nightmarish tiger cages by a former prisoner who was held there. He had been given very specific instructions on how to find it (including to traverse a vegetable patch behind the main prison), otherwise it may not have been found for many more years. They saw the horrendous conditions: prisoners with burns, sores, and mutilations calling out for water. In July 1970, Life Magazine published an article by Harkin on the tiger cages and sometime later they were torn apart, the prisoners moved to other prisons or to mental institutions.

Having been recommended the company Dive! Dive! Dive! by a fellow hotel guest, we wandered over to where Google Maps claimed it to be, only to find Phi Yen! Why, that was the very restaurant that we had been looking for the night before! Oh Google, why you so wrong? Phi Yen was not only a restaurant, but also a hotel, and a sign for snorkelling led us inside the lobby. The price of the options was rather steep, so we left with the notion that we would shop around. Just down the road we saw an identical sign, this time leading into a shop called Rainbow Divers. A note on the door read that they would be back later, so we decided to rest for a while at An Hai beach. However, we only walked a few meters down the road when an English couple on a moped pulled up next to us asking if we were looking for Rainbow Divers. It turned out that they were the owners and quoted us a much more reasonable price for a day out snorkelling. We agreed to return to the shop at 18:00 to sort out the particulars.
With an abundance of choices for beachside cafes, we selected the one that we had walked through for beach access on our first day on the island. We drank cocktails and made great reading progress, with a spectacular view to look out on. If that's not paradise, I don't know what is.

It so happens that that cafe changed my life and made the Mai Tai my new favourite cocktail (though since then, every Mai Tai I've had has been different and never as good as that first one and I'm constantly chasing the thrill of that first high).

That evening, we bought water and Oreos at a corner store, returned to Rainbow Divers to plan out our snorkelling trip for the next day, and then had dinner at the waterfront where everyone on the island goes swimming as the sun sets. Yannick ate meat grilled in betel leaves, and I got some corn on the cob and roasted sweet potato. We had a quiet night in after that, as we would have an early start in the morning. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Vietnam, day 7: Two Tickets To the Reptilian Gun Show

Con Son, Vietnam
20 May 2017
Sipping on freshly blended juices and sweet iced teas had quickly become our morning ritual, and Infiniti Cafe was one of our top spots for its rustic charm and friendly (though very hands-off) staff. 
If you wrack your brain hard enough, you may just recall that Con Son is an island. I know, right?! Crazy! #islandlife. And even though Yannick's sunburn had not yet released its fiery talons from his back and shoulders, I had a strong hankering for the beach after missing it for one whole day. So, we held a Google Image Search session over our breakfast drinks in order to work out if the beach near the airport had trees under which Yannick could shield his scalded flesh. Perhaps it's due to the relatively low visitor count to the Con Dau Islands, but if you search for a beach or prison by name (and trust me, those are certainly the two things you will search for the most here), you're sure to find a confusing melange of photos that cannot possibly be the same beach or prison. Therefore, you have to scroll until your tired fingers can scroll no longer, and attempt to ascertain how many of the photos look to be the same place. This kind of research in Vietnam is often determined by a very small margin. And in fact, I once looked up a restaurant in Hanoi and scrolled through dozens of photos of meat, convinced that the restaurant was lying when it declared itself to be vegetarian, only for Yannick to assure me that it must be some sort of bizarre smear campaign (and indeed it did prove to be a restaurant catering solely to herbivores). But getting back on track, we were about 65% sure that our intended beach for the day would have trees available as sun shields, so we hired a motorbike from our hotel and set off. This one worked a bit more smoothly than the one we'd had the day before, except for a mildly alarming engine light that signalled to us that something we couldn't hope to fathom was amis in the deep crevasses of the bike.

Along the way, we passed by the entrance to the Six Senses Resort, which we had heard whispered tales of. Apparently Angelina Jolie had rented out five of the resort's beachside villas in 2011 to contain her entire sprawling family. Another tasty nugget of info I picked up from an online review was that the resort had a high street of sorts, which was where a few eateries could be found, including an ice cream parlour that provides unlimited scoops to guests. Unlimited ice cream!

As we pulled off the main road, we found that the dirt path that led to the beach was muddy and puddle-laden due to heavy rain in the night. As Yannick had only taken up motorbike piloting two days before and was still firmly in the 'learner driver' category, we decided that it would be too much of a risk to ride the path. Instead, we pulled over in a jungly patch of foliage and set out on foot. Yannick, taking a leaf out of a Victorian lady's book, walked with an umbrella over his head to protect his delicate skin. It's never fun to be badly sunburnt, especially when you have to trudge along swamps masquerading as paths. A surprising number of taxis and motorbikes passed us as we went.
Once we arrived at Bai Dam Trau, our ears were assailed by obnoxious music being pumped out of a beachside bar. There were more food and drink stalls than we had expected, and we immediately plotted a course for the edge of the beach that was farthest from the noise. Fortunately, there were trees!

We settled in under a swathe of pine trees next to a rocky outcropping. As we were so far from the action, we weren't bothered by passersby - few people walked out to the very end of the beach.

I alternated between sunbathing and shadebathing, reading or simply enjoying the scenery. Aside from the ants who would crawl up our legs, it was a very pleasant beach day. 

At one point, Yannick noticed that a lizard had taken up residence on a stick right next to my foot. He stared at us and allowed Yannick to take pictures. After a while, he ran off but would stop intermittently and do press ups. My theory is that he was trying to steal me away from Yannick. He came up and was like "Hey baby", trying to charm me, but I don't speak lizard so that didn't work out for him. Once he realised he was spurned, he left but would alternate short sprints with a set of reps to show me what I was missing out on.

It was quite interesting to be on a beach that was so close to the airport, and we could see planes landing every so often. This reminded me of Lyall Bay in Wellington, where there’s a similar set-up. We unsuccessfully tried to photograph the planes in their descent, always snapping them slightly too late so it looked like the planes were crashing into the hill.

Once we had become too fed up with brushing ants off our legs (they do tickle so), we found a table at a beach bar and rested there for a spell. It took a long while for us to acquire drinks, the staff being completely disinterested in us, but we eventually were served passionfruit juice and it was worth the wait.

I chilled in the hammock and we read some more. Ants couldn't get to me so easily there! Ha. Foiled, ants! Not long before we left, a couple of puppies frolicked and tumbled near Yannick's chair and they were adorably rascally. 

We made the ride back to our hotel just in the nick of time, with heavy rain clouds threatening to unleash a downpour at any second. With astounding good luck, we had a few giant raindrops land on us as we were pulling into the hotel's lot but avoided driving in a storm.
A few hours later, once the rain had stopped, we went in search of Phi Yen restaurant. Google Maps seemed confused as to its exact location, but we did see a place with people sitting at tables so we entered to inquire after a table. We were greeted, but they didn't seem to understand why we wanted a table, so we instead returned to Villa Maison. Our San Pellegrino was kept cold in a champagne bucket, which made us feel fancy, and we watched twitchy geckos and clumsy beetles as we wined and dined. Though no toads made an appearance, a night with French rosé is always a good night. 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Vietnam, day 6: Chilli Supplements for the Most Jacked Fruits

Con Son, Vietnam
19 May 2017
Yannick's sunburn had not magically disappeared overnight, so we slathered him in aloe vera gel and decided to avoid the beach that day.
We returned to Infiniti Cafe and enjoyed the quirky surroundings while sipping on some juice for breakfast. I resolved to be adventurous and order the Vietnamese tea. I'm glad I tried it, although the taste was too reminiscent of seaweed for my liking so I stuck to green tea and Lipton from then on.

Taking a quick detour to the market, I bought a pineapple which had been skinned in that attractive spiral way, and the fruit vendor threw in a little bag of chilli salt for free! Though I wasn't a big fan of the pineapple chilli salt combo, I went mad for it with jackfruit.

Once we were suitably fructosed up, we perused the museum Bao Tang Con Dau, which was a surprisingly modern building and free to enter. There were far more exhibits than I was anticipating, with a range from prehistoric fossils to the French colonial era and beyond.

We read much about the 'prison period' of Con Dau, which I'll get into more later when we visited the actual prisons. Long story short: humans have an astounding capacity to be massive dicks to each other. I think most people would be shocked to find just how cruel people can be. 

For afternoon refreshments we returned to Villa Maison and had tea, ca phe sua da and passionfruit juice (which is already the most amazing thing, but they make it THE BEST here by straining out the seeds and shaking it around in a tumbler so that it gets icy cold but ice isn't left in to water it down). Once I expressed admiration for the beautiful teapots, the owner told me that they're made in Vietnam from imported Spanish clay. In a dining area adjacent to us, we could hear a large party eating lunch and having a great time. Various dishes would be carried in, leaving delightful smells to waft over us.
After retiring to our hotel room to suffer the heat of the day laying down watching Netflix, we set out again to see one of the prisons. 

Trai Phu Hai is the largest and one of the oldest prisons in the Con Dau archipelago. The French established many prisons across the island during the colonial period to incarcerate the most dangerous political prisoners that they didn't want on mainland Vietnam.

This particular prison had ten of these large cells in which up to 250 prisoners at a time could be housed, naked and shackled by the ankle to long metal bars. The solitary cells were similarly horrific.

During our visit, we were joined by a large group of Vietnamese tourists. Apparently it's not uncommon for people who were imprisoned on Con Son or their family members to come on a trip to see the prisons. Perhaps it provides some sort of closure for them. As well as the cells, there was a kitchen and a church (which had been built in the time of the American War and was allegedly never used).

From there we took a short walk and intended to enter the tiger cages, but they were closing for the day. So instead, we went to the Hang Duong Cemetery. On the way was a rather imposing set of gates that led to a temple.

Known as Den tho Con Dau (or simply: Con Dau Temple), this is where many funerary ceremonies are held before remains are deposited at the cemetery. Photos don't do it justice, as it was not only a large temple, but beautifully designed, with intricate draconian roof carvings and pleasing topiaries.
Then, as we attempted to pass through the cemetery's archway, a man emerged from a small incense shop, miming that we were not permitted entrance as our clothing was too small. Everyone else we saw going inside the cemetery had donned trousers, and knowing that we wouldn't survive being outdoors on Con Dau in trousers, we made peace with the fact that we would never see that cemetery.
Our journey back to our hotel was fraught with danger! Only a short way down the gravel road leading away from the cemetery, we could see a dogfight taking place a few hundred meters away. We watched from a distance, unsure of how to proceed. I thought that they might settle down after a few minutes, but when a passing motorcyclist was chased, sharp teeth nipping at his retreating wheels, we figured that we were stuck. There was no way we were going to try walking past them, and as far as Google Maps was concerned, that was our only option out of there. Scoping out the possibilities (one being stampeding wildly through the jungle hoping to reach another road at some point), Yannick spotted a taxi driver in the cemetery's carpark. With the use of gestures and Google Translate, we were able to convey the direness of our predicament and he very kindly agreed to drive us down the road so that he didn't have mauled tourists on his conscience.

After some chilling at the hotel, we had dinner at a rudimentary noodle restaurant and then moved on to Bar 200. The menu was an eclectic mix of tropical and continental (such as baked beans on toast), seemingly because the owner of the bar was South African. We enjoyed our cocktails - a pina colada and a cosmopolitan - and had a brief chat with the owner before settling in for the night with some more Netflix using our high-speed data plans, which worked much better than the wifi.