From Rags to (Relative) Riches

That about sums up the second leg of our Mekong journey from Rạch Giá to Phú Quốc Island after leaving Cần Thơ.

Rạch Giá will not make my list of favorite places in Vietnam.  It’s a classic port town – squalid with an unvarnished and slightly menacing vibe.  It’s the only place we’ve felt uneasy thus far.

Riding in, we hit a wall of traffic as well as searing heat and humidity.  The streets were a maze, and with the heavy traffic, nearly impossible to navigate as we tried to find our hotel.  A kid jumped out in front of H.J.’s bike and squirted him right in the face with what we hope was water.  Like I said, nice place.

Since we only planned to stay one night here and take a ferry first thing the next morning to relatively expensive Phú Quốc, we booked a cheap hotel room ($11/night).  It was about what we expected –  an interior room with bad lighting and eau de ashtray.  Beyond that, it was not unclean, and it had WiFi and a safe place to park our bikes.  It would do for one night.

Or two nights, as it turned out.  You see, the ferry only has a limited amount of space for motorbikes, and the next day was already full.

We were bummed to be stuck in such a place but determined to make the most of it.  I went hunting online for sights to see, things to do, etc. and turned up … nothing.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  So, we declared the next day a work day – found a little cafe, mainlined cà phê sữa đá, edited photos and posted a blog entry – leaving all our time at the beach to just relax.

Having survived a second night in Rạch Giá, we departed the hotel bright and early the next morning for the ferry, leaving ourselves plenty of extra time for contingencies.  We were more than a little intimidated by the ferry.  Having dealt with the likes of US Customs and Border Patrol and America’s favorite government agency after the IRS, we could only imagine what getting motorbikes on a ferry might entail in a socialist country.

Pleasantly, it turned out to be an easy process: unload stuff off of bikes, hand bikes off along with some more cash to the boat guys, and board ourselves.  We got on early to snag good seats, only to find that seats are assigned, which explained why everyone was hanging around the dock or at little nearby coffee stands (pro tip: board at the last possible second to avoid spending more time bobbing in the water than necessary).

Since we were already on board, we installed ourselves on the open-air deck up top to watch the loading process: motorbikes being lashed with ropes to the front of the boat, and everything you can possibly imagine being loaded onto all decks – packages and luggage, crates of eggs and other perishables, wrapped Christmas presents, live chickens, electronic equipment, children’s bicycles, and an unaccompanied, terrified dog in a too-small crate (very upsetting).  Honestly, if someone had loaded a cow on board, I would not have been surprised.

Miraculously, the little hydrofoil masquerading as our ferry did not sink under the weight of all this stuff and a maximum load of people, and soon, we were speeding away (“no wake” zones don’t exist here), leaving the polluted and silt-laden harbor behind for clear open waters.

Though the top deck was closed during our departure, people soon flooded upstairs, desperate for a cigarette.  This is Asia, and it had been 20 minutes, after all.  We went up for the “fresh” sea air; it was better than sitting underneath, even with all the cigarette smoke.  People were happily chatting away, smoking, drinking tea and beers.  Then, waters got rough, and things got grim.

I’m proud to say neither of us got seasick, but at least half of the boat did.  People were retching everywhere – into plastic bags, over the side of the boat, in the bathrooms, and even on the interior floor, as we saw a crew member rush inside with a mop.  I challenge even the most ironclad stomach not turn a little watching and hearing so many people get ill.  But, we persevered.  Beer.  Beer was the key. 

Upon arriving in Phú Quốc, we planned to seek out lunch, check into our hotel, and then hit up the Red Boat Fish Sauce factory.  As I mentioned earlier, visiting this factory is the reason this island made our agenda.

We managed to accomplish lunch and checking in, only to nap the afternoon away.  Oops.  Unfortunately, I awoke feeling seriously ill … again.  Determined to overcome and enjoy the beautiful scenery after suffering Rạch Giá, I ordered a forced march down the beach – we made it about 25 yards.  Ritz crackers and seltzer it was for dinner.

After recuperating and adding a few days to our stay, we set about asking locals where the factory might be located.  No one had heard of Red Boat.  Suspicious.  We were told that all the factories were along the harbor, which is fairly small – surely, we could find it ourselves by driving around a bit.

You can guess how that went.  We came back to the hotel after an hour or two so I could email both the company and another blogger who had done a tour herself for more information.  I also stumbled across a video on the Red Boat website of DC chef Spike Mendelsohn touring the factory and struck gold … a shot of the actual sign outside the factory with the address on it.  We hit the pause button, plugged that address (along with the parent company name – explains why no one knew Red Boat) into H’s phone, and away we went.

You may be asking yourself: what is with this Red Boat obsession anyway?  Simple: they make the best fish sauce in the world using only two prime ingredients: wild-caught black anchovies and sea salt.  Their liquid gold is beloved by chefs around the world for its sublimely smooth and complex taste and its lack of a fishy smell.  If you’ve ever smelled a bottle of any other fish sauce, you know what I’m talking about.  You may have even thrown it out immediately.

Alas, the tour was not meant to be.  Two more hours of riding and searching yielded nothing, and eventually we succumbed to hunger and accepted defeat.  We still had a few more days on the island and decided to hold off on further searching in the hopes that someone might email us back.  Sadly, the news wasn’t good – Red Boat only gives tours in English a few times a month, and the guy that does so is in NYC until the end of December.  Why didn’t I think to email them in the first place before coming all this way?

On the upside, Phú Quốc is not exactly a terrible place to while away a week.  White sand beaches (some of which are totally secluded), sparkling turquoise waters, lush greenery, delicious seafood, warm sunshine, and cool breezes – all this for just a fraction of what you’d pay in Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, the Bahamas, Mexico, the Maldives, etc.  Sure, there are some very fancy and pricey resorts here, but we were quite happy in our no-frills, beachfront bungalow for $35/night, and I’ll tell you why:

  1. Vietnam is still a developing country – not developing in the euphemistic way people always seem to refer to any non-Western country – but truly developing, everywhere.  New buildings, roads, bridges, you name it – it’s all going up, all over the country, every day, at almost all hours.  This means that Phú Quốc is no longer the sleepy little island it was a few years ago, figuratively and literally.  There is constant noise and dust from construction, there are tourists everywhere (though few Americans), and food and drink prices are much more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam.  While it’s no Cancún (yet), it’s no longer an unspoiled, undiscovered paradise.
  2. Again, this is Vietnam, and Asia in general, so standards of sanitation, cleanliness, etc. could be vastly improved. There is trash all over the place, and untreated waste, both human and chemical, invariably finds its way into the ocean.  And of course, there are the omnipresent motorbikes, so the air quality, even here, could be better.
  3. The water had some small jellyfish.  Eek.

Given all this, it didn’t make sense to completely blow our budget on ritzy digs – instead, we blew it on food and booze and managed to squeeze in some reading, work, sunbathing, napping, and off-roading practice along the beach.  Like I said, we were happy with that at $35/night.

After all that time recharging our batteries (riding here is more exhausting than it sounds, lest you think we are on a permanent vacation), we hopped like pros back on a ferry to the mainland, this time arriving in the town of Hà Tiên near Cambodia.  We took back roads, hugging the border, and headed for the largest Maitreya sitting Buddha statue on a mountain in Asia – our reason for coming this way.

Our plans were maddeningly foiled by a cabal of three: a guard who refused to let us take our motorbikes up the mountain road, and two dudes on motorbikes who just so happened to be there, ready to ferry us up on the backs of their own bikes.

Sorry, but not a chance we would leave our bikes and bags with everything from computers to the camera to emergency credit cards in the hands of strangers for hours.  Our instincts were later confirmed to be correct by a local, who called the experience “suspicious” and a “racket”.

Totally bummed out, we continued on to our destination for the evening, Châu Đốc.  Châu Đốc does not see a lot of international tourists; around 6,000 – 8,000 pass through a month, most on their way to or from Phnom Penh.  I would venture to say that Châu Đốc sees virtually no tourists on motorbikes, given the dumbfounded stares, double takes, and open-mouth gaping that came our way.  It was actually a pretty gratifying experience – one kid lit up like he had seen Santa Claus when he saw me on my bike.  Old Saint Courtney spreading motorbike foibles, bad puns, and tales of wine across Vietnam.  Yes, I like the sound of that…

Anyway, Châu Đốc was another one of those “we wouldn’t have come through here if not for X” stories.  Long-term travel seems to go this way, and, so far, it has been excellent to us.

Châu Đốc is a decent town – we enjoyed an evening walk, sampling a bunch of street food and taking in various Christmas performances, but the real highlight was our hotel: Murray Guesthouse.  We loved this place.  Our room was enormous and well-appointed, and the bathroom was stellar, boasting a separate shower with rain head, soft towels, and tons of counter space.

And the beds … oh, the beds.  Let me tell you something about beds in Vietnam.  They suck.  Someone here spread the rumor that a plywood platform topped with a 2 inch piece of foam is great for sleeping.  That person should be sent to North Korea for 10 years hard labor.

Ok, not really – that is a terrible fate I would not wish upon my worst enemy.  But you get my point – beds are bad here … but not at Murray.  The owners pride themselves on having the most comfortable beds in Châu Đốc, and it’s easy to see why.  The mattresses and pillows are firm but plush, and the bedding fluffy, soft, and brilliantly white.  They searched all over Vietnam to make the best bed possible, and it was so wonderful our plans to wake up at sunrise stretched well past 7:00 am.

When we finally arose, we met the Australian husband of the owner, Wayne, over a breakfast of fruit, eggs, bread, and his own homemade Lao-style sausages (so delicious, I regret not asking for more).  He also makes his own bacon, bakes, and has a huge workshop in the basement – a real Renaissance man who’s currently an international healthcare consultant, though he has many past professional lives.

Since we missed seeing our Buddha statue, Wayne advised us to check out nearby Núi Sam (translation: Sam Mountain) for amazing 360 views of the area, and they didn’t disappoint.  Then, we had to be on our way, but not without a few setbacks for good measure.  My luggage rack broke and needed re-welding.  Then, I left my gloves sitting on my gas tank as we drove away, not noticing I wasn’t wearing them until H pointed it out 10 minutes outside the city.  My poor, poor, patient husband.

Against all odds, my gloves were retrieved at very different locations along the highway after a 15 minute search, and we sped off again toward our next destination.  We braved torrential rain on the bikes (I was terrified) and then the total darkness of night with a dodgy headlight and no streetlights on a pockmarked road (terrified to the nth degree).  Finally, we arrived in Cần Thơ.

Cần Thơ?  Ok … so yes, we have been here already.  But, we had to come back in this direction anyway to get north, and why not take the opportunity to see our friends at Mekong-Logis?

We were welcomed back with big handshakes from Fredo and Nhung and hugs from Linh.  I almost cried, I was so happy.   It may sound strange and/or insincere since we barely know her, but Linh is a truly special person.  She radiates love, warmth, intelligence, empathy, and kindness, and she made us feel so welcome in Vietnam.  We will never forget her and hope our paths will cross again one day.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye again, for now.  Our journey (and visa schedule) now pull us northward.

Peace, love, and happiness –


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