A to Z Challenge: B is for Beaches…

Participating in Blogging from A-Z challenge (April 2016) with a sea-shore theme…

Beaches have their own meaning for different people. Holidays, sun-bathing, swimming, fishing, clam-collecting, walking, water-sports and so on, the list is long.  Continue reading

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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

Indonesia, Lombok, October 2014

Travelling from Jakarta to Lombok is approximately 2 hours, Jakarta airport is fairly fluid and relaxed. Garuda was the airline choice, there are many to choose from, but working on the premise their safety record showed up the best and had the most suitable flight times, it was the airline of choice. A comfortable flight, fabulous visibility, I was pinned to the window watching Java and Bali pass below me.

Lombok is a large island dominated by its volcano in the north. Tourism revolves around the main town of Mattaram and there are a few scattered luxury resorts to the south, but little else save for back packer hostels.

Staying slightly outside Mattaram meant a hire care was necessary. The island is too large to cover by motorbike and the 4wd booked was not as advertised- however, the car rental company didn’t quite realise we are not your average tourist when it comes to exploring off road, we do take cars where others don’t, so off we headed without making too much of a fuss…their mistake !

Over the week the west and southern section of the island was covered. Mattaram Town is a melee of small streets, packed with people,buildings, motorbikes, cars, small trucks all jostling for space. It was noisy and hot,with lots of character, but sadly couldn’t be avoided when trying to head off to quieter areas.

Picking up on a hint from a fellow traveller, we headed off to find “Pink Coral beach” … crossing the island on the main two lane highway, dodging bicycles, trucks and pedestrians was a slightly fraught journey until we reached the dirt road that took us to the  south-eastern tip of Lombok. Here the track was rough and our inadequate 2wd rental was put to the test. Reaching the tip, some spectacular views, high on cliffs with sheer drops down to an unforgiving sea, it was time to get back to the safety of the terrible dirt road.

Pink Coral beach had a long undrivable track down the cliffs so it was time to do some walking and not think about the journey back up . At sea level, the pink sand was an unusual sight, ground from the red coral reefs offshore with idyllic turquoise seas, it was a remote paradise. Some small beach shacks, a few boats disgorging passengers, but further down the beach, not a soul in sight. Lying in the sea, in this remote place, I thought of how small my world was and how much is out there to be seen …

Back on the road again after the long haul back up from the beach and turning left off the track, we were heading to the south coast, it was a long and bumpy ride through jungle, with lizard sightings – no photos, they moved too fast !  A small village miles from anywhere indicated we were closer to the south, the villagers were poor, homes are raised wooden structures, some with makeshift walls, with usually a washing line and the inhabitant’s clothes on hangers under the cover of the palm roof : there is no visible furniture, only hammocks and raised platforms for sleeping, a fragile life in this humid area.

The south coast was spectacular, but with no-one visible anywhere.We could have been the only people on this coast… A track to the beach was found and bumping down it to the sweep of a vast bay, some huts to the back , we were completely alone. The tide was high and about 1km out there was a rock formation that marked the reef . Each sweep of coastline repeated this wild and idyllic seascape. As the tide dropped, the reefs became populated by villagers collecting shell fish for food.

In one of the stops, Monkeys were on the high cliffs and we saw them scampering down the cliffs out onto the exposed reef .. there was little of interest shell wise, until I came across a juvenile lambis chiagra (missed the photo opportunity), left in a rock pool as the tide had retreated. Beautifully defined, it was a prize on an otherwise barren beach and was not left behind…

Further along the coast we came to Kuta, a dusty backpacker town, handwritten signs, kaftans and wifi cafes, one or two luxury resorts tucked away behind high coconut matting walls, idyllic beaches, one could just lose themselves here in this escapist place.

Ikat weaving is traditional in Indonesia and in Lombok there are several villages where the traditional craft is still carried out. Sukarara is one and traditionally women must learn the art of weaving before being considered as marriageable.

Invited into a weaver’s house, I watched this age old craft with interest, 2 generations of women were sitting on the ground creating the most intricate of textiles, surrounded by small children, chickens, dogs and poverty . A buy was inevitable and it’s a treasured part of my souvenir collection. Leaving the village, I came across the Co-operative, a wonderful treasure-house of woven textiles.

For someone like myself, who loves fabrics, it was utter heaven .. I didn’t know what to choose, but finally settled on a beautiful blanket, sofa throw and a “piece of fabric that if you are inventive will look great anywhere ” item … it decorates my chair, love it to bits.

Wonderful memories of this beautiful place, Indonesia is still on the to do list; its such a huge nation,with so many different islands to visit .

One thing that struck me about our journey, Indonesia is a very colourful and tolerant Muslim nation. Coming from the Gulf, where clothing is traditionally black for women, it was such a change to see the women dressed in a respective fashion according to their religion, but with such vibrant colours and patterns. It is the largest Muslim nation in the world with over 62% of the world’s Muslims, but it is a way of life that mixes with other religions and creeds, seemingly without conflict in the under-developed areas of the nation.

Living in the Gulf, where Sharia law and religious ideals are part of everyday life for nationals and expatriates, it was refreshing to see the Muslim world from another perspective. I’m used to the prayer calls, the Abaya and Hijab are part of everyday culture. The Friday mosque parking hazards are just part of Dubai and I respect it, I’m choosing to live in a country that applies Sharia law, but it was a different and refreshing view on Islam and the acceptance of integration without the same restrictions applied to those not of the faith . Maybe its because there is a high level of poverty and faith is part of survival without expectation .

Indonesia is vast, this visit only touched a tiny part of it .. I search on Google maps and can see for me, another visit to a different area is surely part of the plan..Nusa Tenggari, Papua, Timor..where do I go next ..?

Some Eastern sunsets to close my story…