In the blink of an eye, I found myself in Phu Quoc. With a flight from HCMC to Phu Quoc of only 40 minutes, we barely had time to get comfortable into our seats that the captain announced the cabin crew to prepare for landing. Such a short flight makes it convenient for a weekend getaway on what is reputed to be Vietnam's paradise island.
Eadaoin (pronounced A-Deen) is a friend I got to know in Ho Chi Minh City through some colleagues of mine. In the approach of a long weekend to celebrate Vietnam's reunification, she asked if i'd be keen on joining her and a group of lads for a weekend of sunshine and fun in Phu Quoc. Now, when did anyone have to convince me to go on a weekend trip? It's with great pleasure that I said yes and booked my flight right away. Literally 30 seconds after sharing my flight information with her, she said: "Tough luck! All of my friends bailed, so it will be just the two of us." Well played, Eadaoin... Well played... All jokes aside, she's a good friend and it didn't matter whether we would only be two or 10 people on that trip. All I was looking forward to was to enjoy a relaxing weekend on a quiet island. On my latest football training session, one of my teammates asked if I had plans this weekend. When I said I was flying out to Phu Quoc, not only I realized that two of my teammates were also going, but we were also on the same flights. Turns out we will be six people in total after all. Sorry, Eadaoin, no romantic getaway this time!
Mango Bay Resort
If there's one thing in life that I like, it's definitely to get a good deal. While Vietnam is generally cheap when it comes to finding accomodation, you still need to pay attention to the level of amenities that are included in your booking. The Mango Bay Resort was recommended to me by three different friends, so I knew I was in for a quality stay. The resort is located about 20 minutes north of the city center - away from the noise and business during tourist season, but still easily reachable by motorbike or taxi. The whole resort consists of individual studio houses completely detached from one another for an optimal level of privacy. The restaurant offers delicious gastronomic dining under the stars on a wooden terrasse by the sea. While staying on the resort, it is possible to take part to yoga, tai chi, massage sessions, and even cooking classes. This time, I didn't get to try those options out. Let's see if I ever come back here with someone special. No offense to Eadaoin.
On our first day on the island, the half-dozen of happy campers drove down south to the An Thoi Port for a full-day island hopping. Despite the unfavorable weather forecast, we still took a chance on this particular day and it paid off well. We got picked up by our private driver at 9:00am and went on picking up the other four on the way. The drive to reach the harbour was of about 45 minutes and for that, we probably had the coolest taxi in the world. As soon as the pack was gathered, the driver asked us if we like karaoke. He then pulled a microphone out of the glove compartment, setup the wifi on his iPad and asked us to choose a song. Next thing you know, the six of us were singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the back of a seven-seater - in a very Wayne's World-like fashion - on our way to our privately hired boat... Excellent! Throughout the ride, we went back and forth between western classics and jewels of the Vietnamese pop culture. At some point, some of us even joined the driver and sang along a Vietnamese song. While the driver excelled at multitasking in simultaneously driving and singing, the most courageous ones of our group probably massacred every lyric of that song with our poor pronunciation of the Vietnamese language. Though, it was still good fun!
One of my favorite activities while travelling is to go on a full-day boat trip and hop on different islands. A friend who had previously visited Phu Quoc had shared with me the contact of a travel agency organizing such trips in the An Thoi Islands - Phu Quoc's southern archipelago. At 10:30am, a young man awaited us at the harbour ready to bring us to the adventure. The boat was all ours, including a crew of three people to sail the boat and guide us around, and we only paid 600 000 VND (about 25 USD) each for the whole thing. The perfect deal! The day started with a cloudy sky, which made us hesitate as too whether or not we should push our trip to the next day. Sure enough, an hour later the sky was clear and conditions were perfect to enjoy a few hours of snorkeling in different areas around the archipelago. Too bad there were not so much to spot except a few fishes and a deplorable amount of plastic wastes. The latter made me very sad... At lunch time, we threw the anvil in clear turquoise water and walked to the beach for a brief photoshoot session. While having a blast building human pyramids, a young local came and asked us if we were keen on joining their family for lunch. At first, we were a bit skeptical on the honesty of this proposition. We just had information from our tour guide for the day that the fish was sold at a shocking price of 700 000 VND per kilo. That price was obviously a tourist scam, but we still agreed as a group to join the very large family for a beer. How much could a local beer cost, right? As soon as we sat at the long table, beer, shots of whiskey and bowls of food kept appearing before us. As much as we agreed only to have one single beer with the family from Hanoi, those crabs and fish look too darn delicious to resist further. Of course, it only took a minute until one of us surrendered, and when they did, everyone else followed. That's probably what we were all waiting for not to be the first one to surrender. Fish hot pot with rice followed, and fresh fruits for dessert. When the meal ended (and after a heavy dose of "Mot, hai, ba, yo!" on the counter), we understood that this was not a scam but simple locals showing their ways to us travellers. We insisted on leaving a monetary contribution, but they wouldn't accept. We ended this happy moment with a series of group photos, went back to the boat and sailed to the next island.
On the next island, we were greeted from our boat by a group of tattooed men, with their "chicks" to an improvised party on the beach with electronic music blasting from a giant portable speaker. Honestly, we were not sure if those guys were simple locals trying have a good time or straight up gangsters. Nevertheless, we happily joined their group on the improvised dance floor and made sure not to make eye contact with any of the girls there because... well, you know...
Our last stop of the day was at a floating restaurant. In the middle of the archipelago, a floating fish market lays on the water. Those tiny huts are built to harvest fish and sell them to terrestrial restaurants, but also host passersby for the freshest fish you have ever had. We decided to stop at one of those floating huts and tried a serving of grilled king prawns accompanied by stir-fry noodles with vegetables. Short after our meal, we headed back to the port and called our favorite party on wheels: the taxi karaoke.
We ended the evening at Rory's Beach Bar after refreshing up at our quarters. This bar was reputed by the Lonely Planet to be "the" spot not to miss for a fun night out. To be honest, besides from the bonfire on the beach, I wasn't impressed at all. Cocktails are relatively cheap. For 90 000 VND (4 USD), you will get a basic drink (Gin & Tonic, Cuba Libre, etc.). Evidently, ambiance was not included in the package. After an hour at that bar, we simply left and headed back to the resort.
SuOI Tranh Waterfall
On the second day, the group had agreed to meet at the beach for a relaxing time. The weather was perfect! Strong sun and no clouds at sight. Because of that, Johnny - already suffering from a second degree burn from the boat trip - decided to pull back, as his back was of the same complexion of that of a lobster. Eadaoin and I thought of renting a scooter to meet them. Can you believe it costs 250 000 VND one-way by taxi to get from the Mango Bay Resort to the center, but only 150 000 VND per day to rent a scooter? It was a no brainer. Only one little detail got us thinking twice about that scooter rental. That being that foreign tourists (which we are) are not allowed to drive a scooter in Vietnam unless they are happy holders of the International Driver's License (which none of us had). Basically, we had to calculate whether or not it was worth the risk to rent a scooter without that licence. The story doesn't mention whether or not we ended up renting those scooters, but we did go to the beach for a few hours of fun in salt water.
From there, the six of us drove to the Suối Tranh Waterfall that was reputed to be a real gem. The entry fee to the site was of 10 000 VND only. This surprisingly low cost to access the park should have been a red flag on its own. When we entered, two elements caught our attention. Those being the amount of real size fake animals, and the deplorable amount of garbage laying over the ground. That taught us two things: 1) the park management prefers investing in "embellishing" their natural gem with horrific fake animals rather than hiring handymen to maintain its cleanliness, and 2) too many local tourists don't have the self-discipline of cleaning up after themselves.
Starfish Beach & Floating Restaurant
On our last day, we drove about 45 minutes to the North of the island to a beach called Rach Vem. Two main reasons brought us there. The first one was to observe starfish on the beach. Indeed, this beach is reputed to be the host of thousands of starfish along its shore. The second reason was to have lunch at Sơn Hải Quán, a family-ran restaurant that is suspended on wooden deck. The restaurant also farms fish right under the dining area. It doesn't get any better than that! The fish you eat there is as fresh as it could possibly be!
The first segment of the ride was very fast and smooth on the main road. We could go as fast as the law permitted without any complications. However, the second segment of the ride was a totally different story. It was all bumpy and muddy, full of potholes to avoid at a speed that could have been beaten by foot. It was still very enjoyable, despite the handful of times when stomping in the mudd was required to keep the balance on the scooter. When we finally reached the beach, we learnt that we were out of season to observe the starfish on the beach. Apparently, the best time to see them is around January. I guess I will have to come back. We still sat down at the restaurant and ordered a round of Ca Phe Sua Da, a cobias filet and some stir-fry noodles with seafood. The owners were very impressed with the little amount of Vietnamese we knew. It's always appreciated when travellers coin a word or two in the local language.
After a late lunch, we drove back to our quarters where we barely had time to enjoy one last drink on the deck before catching the airport shuttle that was provided to us. We caught the plane on time for our 40-minute flight, until the next time on a peaceful island located within an arm's reach. I can definitely see myself flying there every now and then to escape the Saigon madness.