Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Phu Quoc by Motorbike for Tet 2010

So Dudley (my housemate with a Russian built Minsk motorbike) said 'I'm thinking of going to Phu Quoc by motorbike for Tet!' Well, Phu Quoc is at least 2 hours by boat from Vietnam and much nearer Cambodia. So I thought about it for a few minutes, then asked him how you can get there. He said there's a ferry from Rach Gia on the Southern coast, and it might take motorbikes. So I asked a few people about it and was told you cannot get there as the ferries don't take motorbikes. They knew people who had tried or they had tried themselves and it is definitely impossible!

I mentioned this to Dudley and he said the Vietnamese always tell you things are impossible when they don't really know something, which is true, they do. So I had a search around on Google and came across a video on YouTube which showed a trip by motorbike from Phu Quoc to Ho Chi Minh. I txted Dud and told him and he replied it's all on like Donkey Kong then. And so it was...

We had nearly two weeks for Lunar New Year, so on Tuesday morning early at 9am we set out, to the local post office! Dud had a parcel to pick up before setting off. It took nearly an hour as I waited outside, but eventually he had it and Donkey was on his way.

The next 5 or 6 hours were extremely painful. I was riding my Honda Wave, which is a city bike and not really ideal for long journeys. I had strapped my big heavy bag (I never travel light) along the seat and it was gradually working its way forward, leaving me less and less seat for my boney arse. For the last leg to Can Tho I tried putting the two bag straps over my shoulders and carried it on its end with most of its weight on the seat, which was a lot more comfortable.

With just one ferry river crossing and millions of bridges over the lovely Mekhong delta we eventually arrived at our way point, found a hotel for about $10 a night each room, had showers and went out to see the highlights of Can Tho have a couple of beers and eat dinner. After wandering around for a while we decided to eat at the night market. We ordered crabs claws in a tamarind sauce and kho muc which was supposed to be squid but turned out to be dried squid which was as chewy as old boot leather. The crab claws had almost no meat in them and we both gave up after a few minutes of cracking and trying to get the no-existent meat out and ordered pork and chicken with rice from another stall, which was edible.

The next morning about 9.30 we set off and decided to take the longer but more interesting 61 road to Rach Gia. There was a road which was totally straight, numbered 80, on the map, but it looked a little boring.

About 1 or 2pm we arrived in Rach Gia and after searching around for a hotel mentioned in the Lonely Planet we were met by some guy offering us tickets to Phu Quoc on the Savannah ferry. After talking to the hotel owner they could sell us two tickets but could only offer us 1 motorbike passage and if there were any cancellations they would let us know in the morning. So we booked with the hotel owner, dropped out stuff and went out to see what Rach Gia had to offer, which wasn't much. But as we walked along We saw an office for Superdong II ferry. We decided to ask if they could take two people and two motorbikes and they said they could. So we went back to the hotel to cancel with Savannah before returning to the office and booking us on Superdong. He gave us our tickets but nothing for the motorbikes, which surprised me. He said motorbikes weren't ticketed and we just had to turn up the next morning at 7am and we would get them on. When we got to the hotel the owner said he had some bad news for us. We had to pay for the booking we had taken. He wanted 30,000 VND (about £1) of the 270,000 VND each. We argued him down and got it for 20,000 each, so it wasn't too bad. He told us we should go to the Superdong office the next morning and confirm our motorbikes. But this proved unnecessary and a waste of time. We did that and a man led us to the boat which we could have just driven to ourselves. After a nervous half hour we paid them about 150,000 VND each and saw them load our bikes onto the boat. After a couple of hours of all systems go we arrived at the beautiful island of Phu Quoc.

Watching the men unload our bikes was worth the 30,000 VND it cost us each. The Minsk especially is very heavy and not something I would want to lift off a ferry for a pound. We decided to stay at Long Beach for our week on the island. As we had just had Christmas and New Year, when I had gone to Cambodia, we were both a bit broke. So we needed to find somewhere a little on the cheaper side.

The first place we came across after getting to Duong Dong and then finding the road that ran near the beach was $25 a night for nothing much and we decided to keep looking, the next few places were offering rooms at around $17 or 18, and we were starting to get a bit tired after the long journey. Near Eden bar we had tried all the bungalows and had just about given up when we saw a closed gate and decided to try one more place, without much hope. The lady at the bungalows turned out to be very friendly and helpful and although the bungalows were all taken she said we could stay in reception that night and she would have a bungalow free the next day. So I slept under a mosquito net on a mattress in reception that night and Dud slept on a hammock outside with a mosquito net over him. The next day Dud moved into some bungalows nearby as she only had one bungalow and he didn't want to sleep outside again. He moved into the bungalow next to mine after a couple of days. She charged us $7 between us for the first night and $10 for the really nice bungalow. It had cold water, as most places do on the island, but not too cold, so it was not a problem.

We spent the next week getting suntans on the lovely beaches, eating fantastic food, especially at the Oasis restaurant near our bungalows, which has wi-fi, and serves delicious western food including shepherd's pie, fish and chips and chicken pie, as well as strawberry crumble with custard, and very reasonably priced, too. The beach at Bai Sao is particularly attractive, with the clearest water you'll ever see and the softest sand. We also did some biking around the island and saw just about everything it has to offer. My worst experience was when I got a puncture about as far as possible from home as we were riding through the National Forest on New Year holiday when most places were closed. I had to ride about 10 kilometres with no air in my front tyre until we came across a small motorbike repair shop, which also sold petrol which was great as I was almost out and still had a way to go on the fast darkening, dusty, stony roads that epitomise Phu Quoc. We were absolutely covered in red dust, dirty and tramplike and were exhausted as we pulled into a posh seafood restaurant not far from our bungalows, by now in total darkness. We hoped they would serve us as we were starving, and decided to splash out on a barbecued whale size Red Snapper, and of course they were happy to take our money. The food was fantastic and worth every penny.

After a day or two sunbathing to recover from the around the island trip we decided to take a "see four islands, snorkel and lunch" organised tour for $15. The weather for the whole trip had been fantastic and it was no different this day. The minibus picked us up around 8am and almost immediately took us to a pearl selling place. A reason why I rarely take these organised tours. It was full of hundreds of tourists all trying to buy pearls and about as much fun as breaking your leg. After half an hour of purgatory we carried on to the boat. About an hour of chugging along we arrived at the first stop for snorkelling. After snorkelling in Tioman Island in Malaysia the snorkelling was very disappointing, with little colour on show from the coral but quite a few small fish. We then stopped at another beach for a swim and lunch on the boat, which was quite filling if a little uninspiring. The promised seafood noodles tasted more like rat and had no seafood whatsoever. I paid 30,000 VND for two sea anemones. The type you see everywhere with sharp black spikes. They cut off the spikes, cook them and there is just a little stuff inside. They were quite tasty though.

Then on the way back you can either snorkel again or fish. Apparently the snorkelling was much better this time but I chose to fish and really enjoyed the fishing. I got lots of bites and luckily caught the first fish of only two! It was only little but it was a fish and I'd caught it LOL Oh so proud...

After a short trip we arrived back at the pier and back to terra-firma. The next day we had to leave the island, and because we had left it late to book the ferry we had to go to Ha Tien which meant an even longer journey back to Ho Chi Minh. This time we did go on the 80 road and made it to Vinh Long. Unfortunately all the local restaurants were full that night, so after walking all over town and being turned away we ended up in a tourist restaurant that gave us two dishes exactly the same even though they were supposed to be very different.

The next morning we left about 10.30 after Com Tam or broken rice and chicken or pork and iced tea, near the hotel, which had cost us another $10. That day I got another puncture on the way, this time on the rear, but not too far from a repair shop, so it wasn't too bad and we eventually arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City around 3pm.

So whatever people tell you it is possible to go to Phu Quoc by motorbike! You may not want to go too far for a couple of days after getting back, I know I didn't. But it is all well worth it, with some lovely sights of the Mekhong, some interesting towns along the way, a fantastic challenge that is hard to beat and a wonderful island to relax on and enjoy. Altogether we travelled about 800 kilometres going to the island, around the island and back home to HCMC.

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