Phu Quoc: In the shadow of the dragon

Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, 100 kilometers off the southwest coast and administratively part of Kien Giang Province. In fact, Phu Quoc is nearer to Cambodia, which is just 15 kilometers away.  Philip and I took a short flight from busy Ho Chi Minh City to this tropical getaway which has become increasingly popular among the Vietnamese as well as foreign visitors looking for a place to relax. We were there at the invitation of a potential client who is hoping to build a resort that will be genuinely environmentally sensitive and sustainable.

A Village called 'Fishing'

The site that we were looking at was best seen from the water and our stepping-off point was from this village.  When we asked our host the name of this place he replied, simply, ‘Fishing’.  Perhaps he’d misheard our question. What’s this fishing village’s name? “Like I said – ‘Fishing’.”

The house in 'Fishing' where our boat ride would begin.

Many of the homes in this village were built on pilings on the beach, allowing easy and rapid access to the small fishing boats which made up the community’s fleet.

We embarked on our trip from this traditionally built home.

As I looked back at our embarkation point, I could see that we had been in a very traditional style of structure.  It was almost totally thatched while most of the surrounding homes in the village depended on tin roofs and sides for protection. Big thatched awnings protected the west-facing home from the afternoon sun. It was also nice to see the shade offered by the carefully maintained palm tree canopy along the water’s edge.

Mountain, forest, beach - a perfect combination overlooking the Gulf of Thailand

As we left ‘Fishing’ village, the coast became wilder and less populated.  The land rose quickly behind the beach and its forest. It was this small range of mountains that would form the backdrop of our ‘run’ along the coast to our destination at the mouth of a small river.

Larger boats shelter in the estuary.

As we entered the river estuary, we came across another fishing village.  Just as well; it transpired that our boat’s engine was misfiring and needed some running repairs. Fortunately, a  relative of our skipper lived in this village and would have the necessary tools at his house.

Taking a break for running repairs.

I managed to take a few pictures of the ‘business end’ of this waterside home, as our skipper and his brother-in-law fixed our boat. One of the passengers availed himself of the inviting hammock and nodded off within seconds.  Meanwhile, Philip bombarded our host and potential client with questions.

A weathered wheelhouse

Our craft was tiny compared to this more typical fishing boat, though what it lacked in size it made up for in tidiness and seaworthiness.  It was just a little lacking in the mechanical department but we were soon on our way again, heading up-river.

On the river's edge.

The village soon petered out and the river banks were untouched apart from one or two isolated homesteads complete with fishing boat. This scene reminded me of  northwest Florida’s the Intracoastal Waterway, which had numerous ‘hurricane holes’ for fishermen to take shelter as the storm approached.

At the bend in the river

 

We had the river to ourselves and as it narrowed it changed in character as mangroves became more prevalent. We were now in a part of Vietnam’s pristine National Forest which the government is keen to preserve as well as invite visitors to interpret and enjoy. We felt completely alone and at ease in the beautiful surroundings.

Why use your arms to row when your feet will do?

But we weren’t alone. Utterly relaxed, as if out for a quiet Sunday paddle round the lake, this lone rower was also on his way up the fast-narrowing river. Where was he going? Why was he using his feet to get there?  Here was an expert whose means of silent transport shamed our party, as we discussed the pristine ecology of the forest while puttering through it in a smoky diesel-driven boat.

The end of the trail for us. Time to turn round.

It was only as we turned round and headed back down stream that we realized the true majesty of the mountain range that formed the heart of this section of the National Forest.  The river had a special beauty but it was the mountain that was really awe-inspiring. It’s profile was magnificent and rose spectacularly from the flat, river delta. But it was the untouched stands of trees that made the biggest impression on me, living as I do in British Columbia one of the world’s largest sources of lumber.  Where I live, mountains don’t look like this because almost all of them have been logged, in many cases several times over the last 150 years.

In my face; this is the dragon.

The return trip along the river was truly memorable, with the mountain looming in front of the boat one moment and then lining one bank as we exited a  bend. We were immersed in nature, privileged to have been given  permission to sail in restricted waters. We were inspired by our surroundings and the opportunity to create a center for the interpretation of this National Forest.

Heading for Home

Philip and I were very lucky to have experienced Phu Quoc from a point of view to which very few of its visitors ever have access.  From the fishing villages, their unique buildings, across a beautiful secluded bay along a pristine river edged by mangroves to a mountain of stunning proportions; what a way to remember this island! As we boarded our flight to Ho Chi Minh City we vowed to return to this lovely place, hopefully to help it retain its places of peace and beauty.

Contemplating Phu Quoc

Ca Mau’s Waterworld


Ca Mau is land’s end. As far west and south as you can travel in Vietnam. It was described by Phong as laid back; more relaxed and much wetter than the big city or even the Mekong Delta and its myriad waterways.  This we had to see! There are two flights a day at Ca Mau Airport; one in and, on the same plane, an hour later, one out. Which means that you have to stay overnight. We had plenty to see and several meetings to attend, so 24 hours in Ca Mau was not a hardship.


I had never seen anything like the apparent flooding, as we descended into Ca Mau.  The fields were saturated and what looked like roads were, in fact, canals and drainage ditches. I once flew over the south of England after serious flooding and was impressed by the water in the fields below but it was nothing like Ca Mau in its ‘normal’ state.

Once on the ground, and heading to our first meeting, we quickly understood how people adapted to the local conditions.  Roads were very narrow and ran along the tops of dikes. Homes were built on lower ground and were reached by bridges across the endless canals that ran either side of the dikes. So, for most people, the canal was literally their front yard.  Behind their homes lay cultivated, saturated fields.

The dikes acted as important barriers. On one side of the raised, packed-mud wall, the water was brackish and supported a considerable amount of shrimp and fish farming.  On the other, the fields were fed by freshwater, enabling a quite different form of agriculture. Rice, fruit and vegetables flourished in this hydroponic paradise.

Every region of Vietnam seems to have it’s own distinctive type of watercraft. Ca Mau’s shallow-drafted boats are ideally suited to the canals which, in fact, were far more important as a means of transportation than the impossibly narrow roads.The trees that line the banks of the canal are not only decorative, they provide shade, help stabilize the bank and, through their root system, absorb some of the moisture from the precious upland. We reached the sea at Song Do and found ourselves at the mouth of one of the region’s wide rivers.  This is one of Song Do’s main streets. Every home and business opens onto the river because everyone has a boat by which they earn their living, either fishing or by providing essential services to the fishing fleet.

A narrow service road serves the waterfront shops.  This clothes store, however, depends on the waterway for its business and so positions its shop front accordingly.

Traversing the ‘streets’ of Song Do was a fascinating experience. The concrete bulkhead in the background is the only protection from flooding for the homes built beside the canal system.


Not everyone visits the store by boat.  And this service road for the waterfront provides enough dry land to support a small daily market.

Hospitality is taken very seriously in Ca Mau. Even at 4pm.  It would be an insult to one’s guests to send them home with an empty stomach. This was our third meal of the day and was not our last. Everything on the table was grown or caught within a radius of a few kilometers. Forget the ‘100-mile diet’; this was a ‘less than 10-mile feast’!


Route One is Vietnam’s most important road and starts in the north at Hanoi. It runs the length of Vietnam, through all of its largest urban areas. Ca Mau is land’s end and the southernmost point of Route One.  This ferry is part of Route One and will soon to be replaced by a bridge. I felt a long way from Hanoi as I joined the evening’s ‘rush hour traffic’ boarding the ferry.

Hoi An: Another world.

After a rather depressing morning’s drive along Da Nang’s poorly planned water front, we left the beach and headed a little way inland along the northern bank of the Thu Bon River to Hoi An. What an antidote! In 1999, Hoi An was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This ancient trading city was once Southeast Asia’s most important port and has been visited over the centuries by seafairers from all over the world and settled by several diverse ethnic groups.

You have to buy a ticket to get into the heart of Hoi An.  It helps pay for the ongoing renovations and is the least you can do to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating place. Our business partner, Phong from Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat insulted but kindly paid the $9 for his two guests to join him on a tour of the city.

The streets were quiet in September, no doubt much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers.  It was very warm and humid and there were thunderstorms most afternoons. But it was wonderful to experience Hoi An without the crowds and coach-parties.

Once upon a time, these were the homes of merchants.  Now they are shops that house merchandise. These buildings are fascinating, with their narrow fronts, deep wood-paneled rooms and internal courtyards that were essential in bringing natural light to the center of the homes. What were once bedrooms, now open onto a gallery that animates the upper floor.

Several layers into another of the former merchant houses, this bedroom is protected from the noise of the busy street. The windows have shutters but no glass. Deep overhangs protect the rooms from rain while enabling air to circulate through the internal courtyard.

Some of the most important homes faced the quayside which, in turn, overlooked a sheltered arm of the Thu Bon River.  The homes across the water are located on An Hoi Islet, once an island on the river delta. The ‘islet’ is now a peninsula. The waterfront market brings much-needed activity to a quayside that in former times would have been packed with boats.

This waterfront bar opens onto a tiny sidewalk. Across the street the wide quayside provides pedestrians with plenty of room. So, why not reduce the sidewalk to a minimum by introducing several planters and extending the seating onto the street? An example for us all in how to circumvent building codes !

This is a working boat and Hoi An is a working town. While tourism is an important – no, essential – part of the economy, there is a definite sense that the city, which has a population of 120,000, has a life beyond catering for visitors. Fishing, for one, is an important economic activity for Hoi An.

The covered, wooden Japanese Bridge, complete with its own temple (to the left) is Hoi An’s iconic structure.  It’s in every guidebook and every visitor must visit the bridge and photograph it.  How often do it’s two docents have the bridge to themselves? It was too good a moment to miss.

The Japanese merchants and their families were important residents in Hoi An. But so were the Chinese who built temples that were too big and certainly too ornate to install on a mere bridge.  This may be the city’s only other visitor the day that Philip, Phong and I were there.

When the sidewalks are narrow and, in any case, are full of bicycles and motos, it’s probably safest to walk in the road. Decked out in dark pants and starched white shirts, we blended seamlessly with the locals as they went about their business (Phong is on the left, conducting the tour).

Hoi An is a city full of restored buildings but this new street, just steps from the Japanese Covered Bridge, is built to a simple set of design guidelines.  It works, apart from the light poles. But I feel strongly that we can forgive Hoi An this error (and, anyway, they will no doubt be replaced in due course…)

A typical row of shopfronts. The beautiful, weathered aquamarine wash on the plastered dividing wall was a common color choice.  I was also intrigued by the stone bases on which the wooden columns rested.  I wonder what they were for?

Not all of Hoi An’s temples were designed for maximum impact. This one reflects the intriguing ‘layered’ architecture of the city.  It seems that there is always something just beyond one’s vision, out of reach…

Across the Delta

It was still dark when we left Ho Chi Minh City, heading Southwest to Can Tho and the heart of the Mekong Delta. We were entering a region a little smaller in area than Switzerland, with a population a little larger than Chile’s. The Mekong river system – the world’s 12th longest – rises high in the Himalayas, travels 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) through six countries and drains 307,000 square miles of land. The Mekong Delta is one of Southeast Asia’s great food baskets, producing considerable quantities of fish, shrimp and more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

Once out of the city, the land pattern of the delta began to emerge.  Our route to Can Tho was punctuated by one bridge crossing after another as the road carved its perpendicular course across the myriad waterways that comprise the Mekong river system. At each major crossing, a bustling town would cling not only to either side of the road but also along each riverbank, accentuating a crossroad of land and water.

Crossing a typical bridge.

Our first stop was for breakfast. I had experienced many a dreary halt at highway rest-stops in North America or ‘motorway service stations’ in Europe. So imagine my surprise to encounter the Vietnamese equivalent and find it so utterly superior to its ‘Western’ counterparts that it did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A series of large thatched, open-sided pavilions sat away from the road among lush landscaping, carefully designed to reflect the natural vegetation of the region.  Breakfast was Bun Bo Hue, a traditional light but flavorful broth of beef and pork with rice vermacelli and the fragrant leaves of numerous local herbs and water plants.  Coffee was dark, strong and iced  and served by the glass. Not a Starbucks in sight, I’m pleased to add.

The nicest rest-stop I've ever visited!

Driving in Vietnam is tough, even for the Vietnamese. We were lucky enough to be passengers able to take in and discuss the sights of the Mekong Delta as our driver negotiated buses, trucks, motos, bicycles and numerous road works along a four-lane undivided highway that allowed an average speed of no more than 45 miles per hour. The highway was closely lined with home-businesses, mostly aimed squarely at the many thousands of travelers who filled the endless fleet of small buses.

A brick-kiln deep in the Delta

Eventually, we arrived in Can Tho where we were scheduled to attend an important day-long conference on investment in the Mekong Delta.  While the conference was interesting enough, it was the side meetings with provincial leaders that provided the real purpose for the long drive. It also gave us an excuse to take a quick look at the Victoria Hotel, next door to the conference venue.  One of a French-owned group of six hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Victoria in Can Tho exuded simple charm and laid back elegance. Each hotel includes some interesting form of transport that allows its guests to better experience the place in which they find themselves. At the Victoria in Can Tho, a remodeled rice barge called The Lady Hau cruises the river at breakfast and sunset for the benefit of the hotel’s guests.

The Victoria Hotel, Can Tho. Quiet, understated elegance.

Unfortunately for us, we had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City that evening, ‘racing’ back across the Mekong Delta in order to make a detour to Ben Tre before sunset.  Ben Tre is one of the thirteen provinces that comprise the Mekong Delta and is famous for its coconut plantations and rice paddies. Fifty-one years ago, it was the site of the first large-scale military action of the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong forces led by Nguyen Thi Dinh engaged the 23rd Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Today, the city of Ben Tre (from which the province takes its name) is a proud and bustling riverside community with tree-lined roads, carefully-laid sidewalks and several pleasing parks. Most roads lead to the waterfront where, during the day, a floating market gathers and in the warm evenings families stroll.  Sunset on the Mekong Delta was the perfect way to end an exhausting day full of impressions and moments that will live with us for ever. As we left Ben Tre and headed north towards Ho Chi Minh City, Philip and I knew that one day we would return to this region of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Sunset on the Mekong, across the river from Ben Tre

Memories of Towns by the Sea

I could have taken the 30 minute direct flight from Saigon to Quy Nhon but instead, a few friends and I decided to rent a car and explore the coastal landscape of south central Viet Nam.

The eight-hour drive along the famous National Route 1A to Quy Nhon was definitely a long journey. For those of you who are new to this part of the world or Viet Nam, National Route 1A (a two-lane highway) traverses the entire length of the country from Ha Noi in the north and to Ca Mau in the south.

We made several stops at small villages for fuel and food. As one would expect, we passed many inland towns along the narrow road, hectare after hectare of farmland, rice paddies and coastal villages.

 

Hectare after hectare of farmland by Philip G

 

In some places, the road was very narrow and winding. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in a “conga line” of trucks, buses and cars, led by, yes, cattle. It was like a snake weaving its way along the contours of the mountains and through the valleys.

As the road skirted the shoreline, we were in awe of the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. This brought back many memories. When I was studying in Rome, our class rented a bus to tour the southern cities of Italy. I remembered many beautiful coastal towns, marinas and beach communities clustered along the Italian Amalfi Coast.

 

by Amalfi-coast, Italy

 

There was always a “picture perfect” moment in each town, as it nestled on the shoreline with its deep blue water and beautiful beaches.

The City of Quy Nhon is in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. It was once a French trading port and later an important American military base. And it is just as beautiful and breathtaking as one would imagine for this part of the Pacific Coast. Quy Nhon, there is no doubt in my mind, is a hideaway treasure waiting to be discovered.

Our SUV had trailed heavily loaded trucks, tourist buses and a few mopeds for hours. We were happy to get off route 1A and finally arrive.

 

Quy Nhon City on the horizon by Philip G

 

The approach to Quy Nhon from the south is spectacular; the blue-green water of the Pacific is very refreshing, the calm and undisturbed beach stretches as far as your eye can see, the white-topped waves gently caress the shoreline and the majestic view of Quy Nhon gradually comes into focus on the horizon to welcome us to its hideaway coastal location.

Quy Nhon is geographically very different from my home town – Tat Cau which is located on the southwest coast of the delta region. It is about 190 Km (120 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City to the East. The image I remember when I left Viet Nam as a child was of my village photographed from the boat before the sun set.

 

A village built on the edge of the river by Philip G

 

Tat Cau is neither a beach town nor a coastal city. It is a village built along the edge of the river near the Gulf of Thailand.

Water ways were the main transportation routes in Tat Cau. Boats were the vessels that transported goods and people throughout the region. Water was everywhere. There were barge/ferries for transportation, boats for living and for fishing and boats for transporting fruit and other food. Every morning those boats gathered on the water’s edge near our town center or at the water taxi stop to sell fresh fruit, fish and vegetables to local merchants.

 

Tat Cau town center by Philip G

 

Back then when I was a child, beach towns like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau were far away places where rich people vacationed in extreme luxury – at least to us. Those places were like a dream and only existed on postcards and old pictures that were sent to us from wealthy relatives on their vacation.