Driving from Dubai to Salalah, a very long journey…

I just had to visit Salalah.

Located at the  southern end of Oman, I had heard tales of the Khareef season, the rain, greenery, and mists, contrasting with the hot, endless summer in the rest of Arabia.  Continue reading

Unique Umbonium …

Shell collecting is my free-time-passion, every weekend some reason is made to feature a beach outing, be it all weekend or an hour or two. My reasons are that it’s healthy to be outside, walking miles along beaches is good for me, recording the collecting is environmentally helpful, especially with all of the off-shore construction in the region, added value now with involvement with environment groups, interest is slowly growing in the work achieved so far.  Continue reading

Driving the Jebel Al Harim road to the Rawdah bowl, Musandam peninsula, Oman

Dubai to Rawdah, Oman via Jebel Al Harim..

Dubai to Rawdah, Oman via Jebel Al Harim..

https://goo.gl/maps/4s88f8tMV3U2

 

On a separate trip to Musandam, a visit to the mountain of Jebel Al Harim beckoned. Inland from Khasab and on the route via Wadi Bih to the town of Dibba on the east coast of the peninsula. Sadly the Dibba border is only open to GCC nationals, so a retracing of the route is required if you are not blessed with such a document….  Continue reading

Sri Lanka- To the North, July 2015

I love Sri Lanka.

Colourful, vibrant, busy… a place to go to lift your spirits.

This visit was a Northern trip, up to Tamil land. Not too much in the way of tourism as yet, but that’s the time to go.

It’s an easy trip from Dubai, well served by airlines and Emirates has the advantage of a 2.40am flight, arriving at Colombo at 8.40am so with a quick plane sleep, the arrival day is hit the ground running.4WD hired from the airport, all fairly painless and off to the road to Kalpitya, via Negombo and Chilaw. Apart from the hair-raising driving, a relaxing first day.

Colombo Airport to Dolphin Beach resort...

Colombo Airport to Dolphin Beach resort…

An overnight stop at my all time favourite resort of Dolphin Beach on the Kalpitya peninsula. Discovered in 2013, it’s my Sri Lanka home and every chance I get, I go there. A small tented paradise, the best host, wonderful food and happy staff, bliss, a “feet in the sand” break.

Dolphin Beach to Mannar Island...

Dolphin Beach to Mannar Island…

 

Day two saw us off via Puttalam and the coast road through Wilpattu National Park,with prosciutto sandwiches & cool-box courtesy of Dolphin Beach. Researching the road on the net, there isn’t too much information, it’s not tarmac, subject to military closures, completely off the main routes, impassable in the rainy season but luckily, not as bad as expected.Road reference is B379.

The road passes through Puttalam, signed to Mannar. A tarmac road until close to the park entrance with a Naval guard post on the river bank, but we were waved on through without any check down to a small bridge to cross the river. On the other side to the right is a Park office, but the gates were open, no-one was visible, so in we went. I had read that a fee was payable but there was no-one on the road bar a couple of safari jeeps.

There is little access off the road to explore, the coastal side turnings are all entries to small Navy bases replete with No Entry signs. Only a couple of turns into the park, but as journey timing was uncertain, it was time to push on. Beautiful birds on occasions, but it was a long dusty track with jungle on either side. A good shortcut as the alternative route is skirting Wilpattu inland, which is a much longer journey.

Exiting the park, the check post showed no interest so on we drove. It’s apparent that you are entering a region where the long Tamil War ravaged the countryside and lives. Poor villages, semi-destroyed, with many charity, government and NGO signs, some re-development, a real mix of poverty and charity, but all mainly unfinished. Roofs of new build villages were plastered with sponsor’s names, but often unfinished, with the resettled living in some rough conditions. Close to the park the road, now tarmac, is fairly poor.

Passing through Arippu, a prominent ruin on spotted on the coast. A Doric house lived in  by the British Governor, Sir Frederick North,  built in 1802 to supervise the pearl fishing which was once prevalent in this area. Close by is a strange tower, with no apparent use, reputedly holding lit fires at the top to guide the pearl fisherman back to shore. A brief stop to explore, a quick stroll along the beach just to check whether there any shells, but the powerful monsoon seas were sweeping the beach clean.

Onwards to Mannar joining the B403 and crossing the lagoon and long causeway to the island, past some beautiful areas and plenty of birds. There is a Bird wetland reserve at the entrance to Mannar lagoon.

Vankalai Sanctuary, comprises Puliyantivu island, Tiruketiswaram, Pallimunai, Vankalai and the strips of land on either side of the causeway connecting the island of Mannar to the mainland. Covering about 4,800 hectares, it consists of arid-zone thorn scrubland and pastures, waterholes and tanks, sand dunes, mangroves, salt marshes, lagoons and sea-grass beds and maritime grasslands.

Mannar town is at the end of the causeway, which was busy, colourful and vibrant, traffic as usual in Sri Lankan towns was busy, but not so many cars up here. Mainly mopeds, bikes, buses and small lorries.Passing through town to the next hotel, Shell Coast resort, we headed up the island. As there is only one road to the end of the island and Talaimannar, finding the hotel was fairly simple. A beautiful drive across to the southern coast through groves of glorious trees, then hard right onto a sand track, a couple of kilometres along, Shell Coast resort is tucked back into the dunes and vegetation.

Checking out the accommodation options on the net, there were not a lot of choices on Mannar and Shell Coast seemed to be the only place that looked to be of a good standard. Lovely staff and food, an odd little bungalow to sleep and bathe in, but it only used for a base. It was fairly expensive by Sri Lankan standards, the resort had only been open a year, much to do but the lovely hotel manager made up for any shortcomings.

A walk down to the coast, 5 minutes away, for a quick check down the beach revealed a mass of plastic and fishing waste. The beach area for the hotel is kept clean, two poles at either mark the boundaries, a little clean haven amidst miles of rubbish in either direction. During monsoon you cannot swim on the West coast, the sea is too dangerous and rough and the Mannar locals scathingly referred to the mess as “coming from India” accompanied by a nod to the north..but no-one cleaned it up.

Heading off to Talaimannar to visit the end of the island, we passed by the railway station which during 1914-1964 was a part of the train and ferry link to India, arriving at Dhanushkodi on Rameswaram island off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India. After cyclone damage in 1964, this service was not resumed.

The road to the tip of the island runs on the eastern side and setting off to see how close we could get, we spotted some fishing shacks and lovely tranquil seas so stopped for a walk along the beach. Mounds of shells in every direction, it was a shell collector’s heaven. Lambis and Pyrum Turbinellum in heaps behind the shacks, with plenty of other findings. After a walk to see “Adams Bridge”, a faint mound of islets in the direction of India, we returned back to collect. Quite what the local fisherfolk made of these two tourists gathering discards, we’ll never know, but friendly smiles all around.

The inevitable Navy base blocked off access to “Adams Bridge” formerly known as Ram Setu. It is a chain of limestone shoals between Rameswaram island off India and Mannar island. Previously accessible via a navy boat trip, there is now no access.

Geological evidence shows this bridge was a former land crossing between the two countries. On the western side, during monsoon the waters were rough and boats do not sail but on the eastern side, the waters were flat calm. When monsoon moves to the Indian ocean during the winter months, the situation is reversed.

Heading off to a point on the eastern side of the peninsula ( i.e. the only road we could find) flat, turquoise seas and long beaches, littered with shells greeted us. Followed by groups of children and men for photography sessions, we were surrounded by smiling faces, lots of chatter, then posing for my camera but, after the obligatory photos had been taken, there was no interest in seeing the results so we were left alone to collect shells. It was hot and humid and further along the beach was a Navy outpost, consisting of a shack and rickety lookout. The guard came out and invited us to drink coconut in the shade, chopping a fresh one; we shared it gratefully, had the chance to see his quarters which were dismally primitive, but he was happy to be in service, paid and housed.

Mannar to Jaffna...

Mannar to Jaffna…

Loaded with shells and images of this barren island, vibrant colours on the temples, clothes and homes we set off for Jaffna past the busy market. Leaving by the same causeway we set off. Not far down the road a temple across the lake looked promising so a quick stop to catch the atmosphere. Not too many people, several families helping the elderly members down the steps into the lake for the Hindu ritual bathing. A tranquil place.

The road to Jaffna passes through several small villages, the coast is all mangrove swamps in this region, and getting to the coast looked difficult so plenty to see in Jaffna. Hotel of choice was Charty Beach resort, again, not much choice in the North. Tourism is mainly local, Sri Lankans from the south, Indians from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil population is evident in the North, more vibrant sari’s and much darker skin colour.

Jaffna sits on a lagoon with causeways out to the various islands. The town is under re-construction and development but signs of the long war were visible everywhere, bombed house, bullet holes in walls. The causeway to Kayts island, where the hotel was based on Chaddy beach was under re-construction so it was a muddy, tortuous ride across. Chaddy beach is a popular one for Jaffna locals, the resort was basic, no food on site, but the rooms, were large clean and comfortable and anything mimed for, little English spoken in this area, was provided.

 

Heading off to discover all the islands that make up the barrier between the ocean and Jaffna we hit upon Punkudutivu with yet another long causeway connecting. Beyond this is Nainativu with the temple of Nagadeepa Rajamaha Vihara. Driving across this remote and sleepy island the road ended at a jetty which was packed full of stalls and people. Nainativu is only accessible by boat but visible in the distance. As it was fairly late, the boat trip was ditched and Jaffna was the food destination.

The next day the intention was to make our way along the North coast to Point Pedro, the furthest tip of the North Eastern part of the island. Beautiful palm-lined beaches, temples and small villages were on either side of the country road and we took our time, stopping, sightseeing and enjoying the slow pace in this rural area.

At Selva Sannidhi, the coast road is no longer open to the public. A large area beyond is military and after several tries to cut through off-road via small tracks through the jungle, barbed wire, guard posts and mine fields thwarted the attempts so a long detour had to be made to hit the coast around Alvai.

This part of the coast has wicked coral reefs offshore, and as fishing is the staple of life, ingenious channels have been created to allow boats access to the shore. Finally Point Pedro, next stop north, India and to the east, Thailand, across the vast Bay of Bengal.

Feeling very large, white and European amongst the welcoming locals, the first people we saw at Point Pedro were two other Australian tourists! The only ones seen all day… An old fort, lighthouse, it was a sleepy provincial town. Bicycles, Tuk Tuks and small tractor type transports filling the streets, pi-dogs sleeping in the shade, and the occasional villager swaying down the street, balancing goods on their heads.

Heading off to the long sweep of beach around the Point, access to the sea shore was not intuitive. Luckily the GPS found the way in and the road ended at a large Catholic church, with a Statue of Christ appearing to hold back the sea. Calm, flat seas, it was a beautiful place but the sunset wasn’t too far away, so it was time to weave our way back along the roads to Jaffna.

The missed restaurant was found, a little place called Mangos, close to the temple in Jaffna centre. Leaving the choice to the waiter, we ate fantastic Dosa… I didn’t know what they were either… huge rounds of folded, fried Indian bread with a selection of dips, all vegetarian, absolutely delicious, more were ordered!

IMG_2497

Delicious dosa at Mangos restaurant, Jaffna….Not to be missed if you are in town…

Wandering around the streets later I found a sari shop. The choices of fabric, design and colours were so difficult to choose from and the owner was pleased to sell me a length to make up a dress, however planned dress is still on the “to-do” list !

 

Jaffna to Trinco...

Jaffna to Trinco…

A long drive down to Trincomalee the next day. Heading off the main road to meander down the coast, it was unclear on the map whether the coast road ran all the way down or whether we would have to cut inland. Try and see, being our usual motto, we did. Through sleepy villages, still in Tamil land, beautiful beaches, bird-filled lagoons and mangrove swamps were interspersed with rivers and ports.

 

Finally, the road ran out, so a walk along the beach to the narrow estuary. Fishermen were bringing in the nets, men strung out along the beach, hauling in the net by hand.We arrived as the small catch was poured onto the black sand. It wasn’t much and the village was poor, small bamboo huts were homes for these folk.

 

Heading back to the car a Nautilus find, broken but still a Nautilus, tossed up on the back of the beach or discarded from the nets.. A prize !

A long detour inland around the estuary, past vast waterholes, some loss of way, resulting in some questionable routes but eventually Trinco was reached. Outside of town a quick beach stop, caught up in conversation by a fisherman, a gift of tiny olive shells, his wife cleaning piles of them to sell for jewellery making.

The resort was small and simple, but homely, run by a Sri Lankan and his Italian wife, a small hotel in the most idyllic location. It was terribly hot, a walk down the beautiful beach yielded nothing to collect so a leisurely meal, a few drinks by the flat calm sea and it was bed time. Heading into Trinco centre the next day, exploring the town, it was humid, oppressive and tiredness was kicking in, we hadn’t stopped exploring since we arrived. The decision was mutual, time to cut the visit short and head back to Dolphin Beach for an extra day.

Organised, a quick pack and on the road again. The route is straight across the island with beautiful scenery, its so green and lush, with water buffalo, farming and few cars.

The road passes through Anuradhapura, a major town in this North central province.  Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka and is today a Unesco World Heritage site.The ancient city, considered sacred to the Buddhist world, is surrounded by monasteries covering an area of over sixteen square miles.

We did a random drive through; hurrying to get back, we ended up driving through part of the Ancient city, having taken a wrong turn.The monuments are spread out around the city and feeling weary, a little taste from the car seemed enough. The temples,statues and monuments were spectacular, to be re-visited…

Dolphin Beach welcomed us, a swim in the pool, Sri Lankan curry for dinner with a good bottle of wine, an early night..a whole day of shelling ahead.

This part of Sri Lanka seems to have the best opportunities for finding shells. Fishing villages, discards from the net are always walked along. So the collection grew. Leaving the excess at the resort for the guest basket, handing out Lambis to all the children, we packed away a few to not hopefully cause any issues at customs. Taking shells out of countries is subject to their laws plus Cites agreements for rare shells, but customs are looking for traders as opposed to beach collectors.

The next day customs stopped us, on opening the hastily wrapped bag he looked at the barnacle-encrusted offerings and waved us through, home with our small treasures, memories of the travel, the wonderful people; Sri Lankans are friendly, happy, cheerful people and every day the smiles, even in extreme living circumstances, were the first greeting. Outside of Colombo, a vast sprawling city, choked by appalling traffic queues, I have never felt unsafe.

Information:

Flight:

Emirates: Currently 3 daily flights and one via Maldives.

Hotels:

Kalpityahttp://dolphinbeach.lk

Mannarhttp://shellcoastresort.com

Jaffna: Charty Beach resort – I can’t find it on the internet now. Booked on Booking.com but it no longer appears… !

Trincomalee: Bella Nilaveli Hotel, also disappeared. Plenty of choice in Trincomalee though.

Driving in Sri Lanka: Not for nervous drivers, if driving south allow plenty of time to cross Colombo. Traffic is dire in the city. Outside, apart from the toll road south to Galle which is virtually empty, care needs to be taken, bicycles weaving, pedestrians wandering, cows roaming and tuk-tuks, buses and lorries drive without much regard for others.To the north, roads are quiet.

Drivers can be hired for not much more than the cost of car rental, most car rental companies provide a driver.Having given dire warning, we have always driven in Sri Lanka.I have had plenty of closed eyes, foot on imaginary brake moments…

Driving licenses:

The government of Sri Lanka has decided to ease the driver’s license registration process for tourists traveling from abroad. From August 2014, travelers will be able to register their driver’s licenses directly at the airport when entering the country. The process of registration will take approximately only ten minutes and the license acquired will be valid for three months. Our hire car company completed the formalities for us in advance with a faxed copy of the driving license.

Visa: Use the government site :http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/

Online visas usually received within 48 hours.

Food:

Sri Lankan curry varieties are excellent for breakfast lunch and dinner.

Plenty of choices but out in the remoter areas, not too many other options.

Supermarkets in the North have limited choice. I always pick up Saltine crackers, water, juice and fresh fruit for the car journeys.

Health:

Take travel medical insurance out. You never know…

I carry mosquito repellent and anti-bite lotion. Bactroban, ( I am always delving around in beach rubbish looking for shells and have had a few wounds), High factor sun and lip protection and Headache tablets, so far I’ve survived!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shells, 2015 gallery… in progress.

Discovering Barr al Hikman, Oman- October 2015

Barr al Hikman, Oman has been on the “to visit” list for a while and finally a decision was made to spend 48 hours exploring the peninsula.

Barr al Hikman Route Oct2015

Located in the centre of Oman’s East coast in Al Wasta Governate, it is a vast desolate area made up of sabkha (salt flats) and rocky ridges.  Continue reading

Vietnam re-visited October 2015: Phu Quoc Island.

A stormy departure from Ho Chi Minh, bumping through the rain clouds, I’m always a bit tense in the small plane and turbulence scenario so it was a relief to head down to Phu Quoc. It’s a short flight, around one hour in the air.

Meet and greet at the airport and off to the resort, a couple of hours late after the cancelled flight earlier from Con Dao. I’d chosen the Daisy resort, small chalets on the hill above the road into Phu Quoc. Very pleasantly surprised by the resort, it was lovely, fairly new, well designed and a lot of care had gone into the planting out of the terraced gardens.

Motorbike hired from the hotel, a quick change and we were off out. Since my visit in 2013, the change was apparent, development of hotels and resorts and the associated small shops and restaurants that come with tourist infrastructure.

Day one- to the Eco-isle...

Day one-to the Eco-isle…

Very late in the day we pushed off to a small ecological island we had read about towards the North east. It’s an hour at least by motorbike and once off the main road the track is pretty difficult, a heavily rutted mud-bath, but a daily journey for the local villagers.

After several wrong turns, we finally found the island, which appeared to be closed. Climbing over the barrier, no-one around, so no-one to stop us, there was a slightly dangerous rickety structure over the tide channel onto a small causeway leading to the island. What had obviously been an idea to make money had turned into an overgrown abandoned idea. Carefully treading along the path we reached the furthest point, deciding to follow a different path back, we ended up fighting our way through jungle to regain the causeway. With grass and shrubbery waist-high, all I could think about were mosquitos carrying dengue fever, lying in wait for my tasty British ankles..I was very relieved to get off it !

The next day taking the coastal track to the North west tip of the island, which in 2013 had been an insight into the life of the small fishing villages, was a complete shock.

Day two -to Ghanh Dau via a track not now recommended....

Day two-to Ghanh Dau via a track not now recommended under any circumstance, take the main road….

The track was appalling, huge trucks carrying for construction had churned the surface into deep ruts and the rain had made it into a mud bath. As a passenger, it was a pretty awful ride. Soon there were “No entry” and “Turn back” signs , but as usual we had to go and see why.

The track ended abruptly, a massive storm had washed the road away, but along the beach there was a strip of sand that looked as if it could just take the bike.

And it did … soon we were back on the dire track, startling locals as we skidded along. What was noticeable was that most of the small communities had gone, vast tracts of land were fenced off with land clearance and massive construction in progress, with guards and no entry signs and then finally a vast development stretched down to the beach, cutting the track off completely. Managing to negotiate the worst bit of track we had seen so far, I did get off and walk at this point, we hit the main road at the side of what appeared to be Vietnam’s answer to Disneyland.

A massive them park has been built and constructed since our last visit and was open for business . It was quite unbelievable to stumble across it. Huge hotels, a massive ferris wheel and rides, Safari park, golf courses all under construction. It will be vast when complete. Lining the sides of the roads were scooters, in every direction, the workers transport.

Pushing on past, through the vast area under development, we finally reached the small village at the tip of the island. Here, life took a step backward, poor and undeveloped, the village had grown but it was still a ramshackle existence.

The beautiful beach at the point was now on the tourist path, the restaurant had expanded and a villa resort was now occupying part of the coastline. The food hadn’t changed, wonderful Vietnamese prawns, cooked with tamarind, scallops with garlic , a lovely rest looking over the Gulf towards Cambodia’s islands only a few miles away.

An elderly Viet shouting and pointing as we moto’d off after lunch,the drama was identified a puncture, kind gesticulating found us at one of the little repair shops on the side of the road and finally the puncture was repaired so it was a trip back on the main road.

Passing acres of pepper farms, prevalent on Phu Quoc with a roadside stop for home-grown peppercorns to bring home, then onwards through a swamp area, I noticed people and shacks in a forested part. Slowing down to see why there were people in this inhospitable flooded area, there was a small settlement, families living on rickety platforms with plastic and shreds of tarpaulins protecting them from the rain. Behind this was a massive rubbish dump and realizing we were seeing people living in an existence we could not imagine, we drove on, quietly saddened to see such extreme poverty.

Heading back through town to dinner at the Night market and noticing a shop selling live fish and molluscs, a quick stop to check out the wares.

Duong Dong town is large, the fishing port is the centre and there is a busy night market, now expanded to include gift stalls as well as the fish restaurants lining the sides of the road.

All the stalls have their wares displayed to choose from and it was a hive of activity. Choosing prawns,squid and a mollusc named Volute, the food was perfect. The Volute was an experiment, and the beautiful shells were chosen to come home with us. Stir-fried with greens and spices, it was delicious .

The Harbour area is bustling, locals and tourists, working or passing the time of day. The port is constantly busy, roadside vendors selling fish, food, trinkets and prayer items for the small shrine on the rock by the sea.

Day three ... southern round trip..

Day three … southern round trip..

On the last morning, the skies were heavy with rain, so it was decided to head to the other end of the island, escaping from the storm clouds. A trip straight across to Rach Ham to walk out on the jetty into the bay. It’s about one km long, the bay is too shallow for the larger fishing boats and on the last visit it was a hive of activity. Not so this day, but it was a breezy walk away from the humidity onshore.

Around the jetty there are small stalls selling all sorts of fish, dried fish, fungi,wood, roots. I was dying to know what they were used for, but no-one around spoke enough English to tell me. Coming across several stalls selling live sea-horses, I finally found someone who told me they are deep-fried as a snack…. hmm, well, everything is eaten in Vietnam, but seeing them floating around, waiting to be sold and fried made me decide it was time to move on before I started to save the seahorses.

Calling into the ferry port of Bai Vong for a quick drive around the jetty to check out the ferries, all wonderfully named “Superdong”, plenty in port waiting for their sailing times to the mainland ports of Rach Gia (2 hr 30 mins journey time and Ha Tien (1hr 30mins journey time) on the mainland. then another developed road, where two years ago it had been a mud track leading down to the busy port below An Thoi.

Phu Quoc is famous for it’s pearl farms and pearl jewellery, some fabulously expensive items for sale in various exclusive shops, but I wanted to add something to the golden pearl earrings and pendant I had bought previously. Phu Quoc pearl farm was revisited, where I had met an Aussie expat, managing the fishery part. Two years on he was still there, thinking of moving on, the same thoughts as in 2013. The Pearl collection was added to, my visa card took a beating so we wandered outside for a free drink (customers who bought, benefit). It’s all slightly scruffy but with magnificent views down Long Beach back up to Duong Dong town where we could see massive clouds gathering and rain spreading down the coast towards us.

Leaving the farm, resigned to getting wet, we headed into the black thunderclouds and narrowly escaped a soaking. It was time to pack, dine and head back to the airport to catch the flight to Ho Chi Minh for the Dubai connection.

A Business Class upgrade on Emirates was a perfect end to the trip and I will be returning to explore more of this fascinating country. Central and North Vietnam are waiting for me !

Phu Quoc’s transit from sleepy island to Vietnam’s jewel in the Gulf of Thailand reminds me of the development of Cyprus into a tourist island.Cyprus has been my home since 1987, when I arrived the development was fast and frantic, concrete structures rising along every inch of the Kato Paphos coast line. The whole town turned into a tourist industry and Phu Quoc in the Duong Dong area will eventually be similar. It’s happening now but it’s at the start, it is a place to visit now, a few years hence it will be somewhere quite different.

 

Information:

Flight Dubai-Ho Chi Minh-Dubai: 

Emirates fly daily from Dubai at 09.40 arriving 19.40 Tan Son Nhat international airport (SGN)

Return departure 23.55(SGN) arriving 04.50(DXB).

Alternative Emirates route with a connection in Singapore is also available.

Airlines flying to Phu Quoc from Ho Chi Minh:

Hahn Air Systems, Vietjet, Jetstar, Vietnam Airlines.

I chose Vietnam airlines for timings to suit my journey.

Hotel:

http://daisyresort.com

booked on booking.com

Motorbike: available from hotel for a cost.

Ferry timetable link for Phu Quoc to mainland:

http://www.phuquocislandguide.com/phu-quoc-island-ferry-schedules-fares/#fastferry

Pearl farm:

http://www.ngochienpearl.com

 

Vietnam re-visited October 2015: Con Dao Archipelago.

Having visited Vietnam in 2013, I was keen to go back and an Eid holiday early October 2015 seemed the perfect time.

Originally the idea was to base travel around the Hoi An area and discover the coastline and sights, but reading weather reports, it didn’t seem like a wonderful time to be travelling around on a motor-bike as it’s the rainy season during October and its pretty dismal being wet on a bike, so a re-think was required.

Con Dao archipelago and a re-visit to Phu Quoc island was the new itinary and duly booked. An overnight stop at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh for flight connections was conveniently close to be within walking distance from the airport.

Con Son Island, the only inhabited island in the Con Dao archipelago,  is a 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh. Not a huge choice of hotels on the island, ranging from the uber-stylish Six Senses, to various small hotels.

Con Dao camping was my choice (I wasn’t feeling uber enough financially for the luxury SixS’s). A short taxi ride on the island road to town was an introduction to the idyllic scenery of the archipelago. The road has been carved around the steep mountains for access to Con Son, the town and the fishing port at the far end of the island.

Con Son view...

Con Son view…

The island has only 30km of tarmac road and few tracks, the mountain terrain is completely inhospitable and the army have the only access to the other side of the island.

Con Son was home to the infamous penal system for Vietnamese nationalists imprisoned under the French colonial era and subsequently the Americans kept the prisons running during the Vietnam War.

Many Vietnamese make the visit to the island to pray and leave offerings at the shrine, we were told the majority of these visitors are from Hanoi area.

My plane was full of families with huge flower arrangements, at first I thought it may be a public holiday, but after arriving, I understood it was the normal tribute for respect of those who were lost in this lonely place, where families come to pray for those who were lost over a period of many years .. It is hard to understand the attrition of war, earlier and later, conditions here must have been dire, when it was only a penal colony under French rule and then the Americans took it over. I hate to think of the abuses, it was, at that time, a war we had little understanding of .

I didn’t want to examine the prison and the infamous “Tiger Cages”, how the West could have continued the atrocities, it’s beyond my scope of thinking, there must have been reasons, but to me,the suffering in Vietnam during the war years is beyond belief, the West shouldn’t have been there ..but they were and those who experienced Vietnam, must have memories they wouldn’t wish to share …

Appropriate sculpture for a penal island...

Appropriate sculpture for a penal island…

There are 16 islands in the archipelago and are now part of the Con Dao National park. Turtles species and dugong are amongst the endangered species protected within the park.

The scenery is spectacular, Con Son has a huge sweep of bay protected by outer islands, and there are some popular swimming spots off the promenade.

Con Dao Camping was the choice of resort and I wasn’t disappointed. Basic A-frame rooms opening onto the beach with a glorious view,it was all that was needed.

Con Dao Camping ... on the beach

Con Dao Camping … on the beach

Off out early on the first morning, a walk down the long beach was a must and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sand dollars, hundreds of them...

Sand dollars, hundreds of them…

Hundreds of tiny sand dollars lay exposed on the sand, as it was low tide and I found some lovely specimens of Malleus alba. Bi-valves were prevalent, with a few damaged gastropods . Time to get on the road and explore, looking for more varieties…

The trusty steed...

The trusty steed…

The best way was to travel was on a small motorbike, so we headed off to the fishing port at the end of the road, opposite hon Ba Island. The fishing port was languorous in the heat of the day, activity seemed to be at a slow pace, but as always, there were portside shops and drying fish spread out alongside the dock.

Further down the road was a huge area of dredged sand, so it was time to check out the shoreline. The area was full of Vexillum of different varieties and also the dreaded sand fly.

On arrival at the camping resort we were warned about sandflies all over the island,and duly stocked up with the Deet on sale, slathered it on, but my hunting had taken me into the sea, so my ankles were now Deet-less …and I paid for it! Looking down and wondering why my ankles seemed to be flecked with black dots, I realized and started to beat them off .. too late,the damage was done and continued, unbeknown to me … I’ve always been fairly immune to bites, so wasn’t too worried about it and casually we headed back to town with a good collection of beach finds.

A small rest on the pier gave us a glimpse of the life …

In Vietnam, the food is a huge draw, there aren’t too many places to eat in Con Son, but a row of restaurants behind the camping resort led us to choose Ot seafood restaurant.

OT dining.

OT dining.

Choosing from the large tanks of fish and shellfish, everything ordered was delicious and fresh! Basic décor, friendly staff, little English spoken, but adept at understanding my hand-signals,it made it the place to eat for the stay.

Crab for dinner...

Crab for dinner…

Mosquito coils lit, sprayed with every repellent I had brought, it was time to sleep…which didn’t happen, the sandfly bites, innocuous at first, suddenly turned into an itch, which got worse and worse. Once scratched, it’s a vicious cycle and finally I slept for a short while, with ankles wrapped in wet flannels.

As dawn broke I was back out on the beach (covered in Deet) to be greeted by local ladies taking their exercise before the heat and humidity of the day started.A loudspeaker was broadcasting over the town, a female voice, strident and clipped…was it an impending disaster being announced by civil defence ? Had I been spotted hoarding sand dollars? Was a tsunami approaching? .. very disconcerting,what was going on? but watching the local ladies continue undisturbed, striding down the beach, I could only assume all was well .

Early morning view at Con Dao camping, after a sleepless night...

Early morning view at Con Dao camping, after a sleepless night…

Unable to resist the lure of even more sand dollars , I did my morning workout by bending and collecting and watching the tranquil sunrise appear over the South China Sea , a glorious spectacle. Within 5 minutes dark clouds appeared over the mountains behind me, thunder and lightening and the heavens opened. Time to retreat…Finding refuge in the beach restaurant of the resort and requesting a coffee from the only person around, later discovered to be the resort maintenance man, I was served an interesting Vietnamese coffee .. thick grounds filtered down into an inch of ice cold water .. okay, well, when in Vietnam … it certainly woke me up ! Querying the exhorting broadcast later with the resort manager, she sheepishly explained that the daily early morning broadcast was the news. TV, Radio and Internet access is not common over the island, so each day a 6am government broadcast gave the locals a morning update on the news.

Storm coming in....

Storm coming in….

Later on the weather cleared and as always, a visit to the local fruit , vegetable and fish market was on the agenda. After experiencing Asia, one of my trip highlights is to seek out the local markets. The display of fruit and veg, the variety of different foods on sale, catches of the day and the colour of local life is a magnet for my camera.Pictures speak the words…

Con Son beaches are few, but visiting them all was a priority, so off we hurtled on the trusty bike. By the airport is a muddy track to one large beach, getting there was an achievement in staying on the bike. Plenty of potholes and remembering the dire warning I read somewhere, that in case injuries cannot be treated on Con Son, with its limited facilities, an airlift by helicopter is needed, which comes with a $5,000 advance payment, I will say here that much care was taken.

A beautiful beach, with food shacks and hammocks awaited us and as always, a long walk ahead beachcombing. Quite limited on the shell collecting side, I trawled through the tideline and came up with some wonderful Sea beans and tree fruit cast up on the shore … this part of my collection started in Borneo and Vietnam yielded a wonderful selection for the Bean jar.

It was hot and humid, so a plunge into the sea for a float, just taking in the beauty of it all was a welcome rest…. Time for a beer, maybe some food too, if we could understand what was on offer to make a choice.

Heading up to the closest food shack, there were tanks of live seafood, some interesting choices but it was too hot to eat, so a fresh coconut quenched the thirst and it was then onwards to the next stop.

Vietnam is the land of the hammock, everywhere you go, there are hammocks, there are stands in some areas for “take your own hammock” use, it isn’t unusual to see a motorbike stop by two trees, hammock unrolled and attached and instant sleep by the occupant, understandable in this humid climate.

Hammocks are useful....

Hammocks are useful….

On the opposite side of the peninsula there was no defined road to the beach so another scary bike-slither down a muddy road onto the most beautiful white sand beach. The Airport runway edges out into the sea, but the resourceful locals bike it at low tide to the opposite end. Several bikes came past with bags of shells and fish, heading to the market for sale, no-one else around on this white sand paradise.

Time to leave this little island and head across to re-visit Phu Quoc.

An early morning flight, taxi organized for the short airport journey, off we headed.

First sign of change was our Vietnamese taxi driver stopping talking on his mobile, and trying to explain something. Language barrier matched the airport barrier, hmm, obviously airport was closed, assuming a flight delay, we asked him to take us to the fabulous Six Senses resort , the closest stop, surely they would welcome us for breakfast, we didn’t look too scruffy……..

Offloaded at the entrance, the welcome was superb, escorted to the beachside dining room, a personalised tour of the breakfast fare on offer, wonderful. Homemade smoothies, Turkish poached eggs and a selection from the cold room, this was turning the day from bad to luxurious. Free wifi meant a check up on the flights and new connections with the advantage of guest watching, some falling into the “ very interesting” category, the spectacular sweep of the Six Senses bay, highlighted by the rising sun, all in all, the best decision made.

Our taxi driver returned, perfectly on time and off to Ho Chi Minh we went.

Seamlessly moved onto the next flight, tight for time at Ho Chi Minh, but playing on my metal hip limp and using the Government and crew immigration check to bypass the queues…always smile nicely, its such a polite society, it meant we had time for a coffee before the next flight for Phu Quoc, see my next post …

Information:

Flight Dubai-Ho Chi Minh-Dubai: 

Emirates fly daily from Dubai at 09.40 arriving 19.40 Tan Son Nhat international airport (SGN)

Return departure 23.55(SGN) arriving 04.50(DXB).

Alternative Emirates route with a connection in Singapore is also available.

Airlines that fly from Ho Chi Minh to Con Dao Islands:

Hahn Airlines

Vietnam airlines (operated by Vietjet) my choice.

Be aware that flights can be cancelled with little warning.

Hotel:

Con Dao Camping Hotel

I used booking.com.

Day tripping to Dalma Island…

 Dalma Island location

Dalma Island location

Dalma island is situated in the Arabian Gulf, part of Abu Dhabi emirate and has been on the “to do “ list for a while. Everywhere that is possible to visit in the UAE, will be visited!

Dalma can also be referred to as Delma Island: the road- signs, as normal in the UAE, are a mix of interpretations of the Arabic translation. Luckily with this name not too much guesswork is required !  Continue reading