Monday, November 15, 2010

Phu Quoc Island

On the way to the airport we knew we were leaving the big smoke behind; the high-tech telephone connections:

A city where only billionaires can afford to buy new cars:

But we were going where the air is cleaner, the beaches long and white and the pepper and fish sauce the best in the world. Where the roads were congested but with a different type of beast.

Phu Quoc island. The pearl off the coast of Southern Vietnam, known to the Cambodians as Koh Tral and where the seat of choice is the hammock. We headed for Freedomland because there is really no other place you should stay in Phu Quoc.

Freedomland is rated number one on Tripadvisor and it is easy to see why. Peter and Rita go out of their way to make your stay comfortable and make you feel at home. It is not your typical resort stay; it is more of a cross between a homestay and countryside retreat. We stayed in their Sunset bungalow which had two rooms and two bathrooms.

Our bungalow

The girls bathing alfresco

Our beautiful outdoor bathroom

Phu Quoc is a tear-shaped island 50kms north-south and 25kms east-west at its widest; rugged peaks and hidden beaches dominate the North while long stretches of white sand dominate the South. Freedomland is roughly smack in the middle of the island on the west coast, located in the forest but a short 15 minute walk to the nearest beach. Mango Bay was our local beach hangout; the sheltered bay there is ideal for a swim and relax on the beds by the beach. There is also a resort at Mango Bay where you can have a nice meal or massage after a hard day at the beach.

What sets Freedomland apart from standard resorts or hotels are the nightly meals which are eaten together with other guests at the big blue table. The food is amazing. Peter being Vietnamese AND a foodie just means trouble. When he mentioned the first night that he was afraid there wasn't enough food I was a little apprehensive but as they brought the appetizer out, then the next appetizer and then the main course I was stuffed fuller than the proverbial turkey.

BBQ night at Freedomland


Angie helping out

Hing and Peter in the kitchen

The BBQ nights were special; BBQ's were prepared with charcoal as you could take your pick of chicken skewers, fish, prawns, squid and have it cooked directly for you. Not to mention the numerous salads on offer, all washed down with a Freedomland cocktail or Saigon beer. Some produce was freshly picked nextdoor; we went on a pomelo hunt one afternoon.

Peter and Angie checking the produce

And the pepper in Phu Quoc is top notch. We visited a pepper plantation in-between beach and hammock time.

We tasted the green peppercorns right off the vine. They have a very strong, fresh bite to them.

Got rice? Tali's fave food

We visited the Tranh waterfall on the east of the island. It was a refreshing place to have a swim given that the waters off the coast weren't exactly cooling.

Compared to the high intensity of Saigon, Phu Quoc was a welcome change. I imagine it's what Phuket or Koh Samui were like 20 or 30 years ago before the crowds came. Most of the roads on the island are not sealed so when there has been some rain the roads became really slushy. I guess that's part of the charm of Phu Quoc.

Angie chilling

Bai Sao beach

It was sad leaving Freedomland and Phu Quoc behind. We made some great friends there and it would have been easy to while away on the sand or in a hammock for a little bit longer.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


If you were a motorbike I don't think you'd want to live in Saigon. I mean, if there are over 3 million of you on the road there are just too many options if you were looking for a motorbike partner. Much rather be in a place where there are less options..but that's just me. In a city of about 8 million people, 3 million motorbikes is not a number to sniff at.

Me seeing what the fuss is all about

Taipei might try; Bangkok may get close; Beijing or Shanghai only pale in comparison. Saigon is where Honda is making bank. Flying into Saigon, rows upon rows of streets teem with what look like worker ants from a distance but as the plane descends further you can make out that the little black things moving very quickly are in fact motorcycles. It is one crazy city. But amongst the craziness, there is a certain order to the madness which you often find in Asian megacities. Then there is the certain buzz; you can see why Tony Bourdain finds it his favorite place on Earth. Oh, and I guess the food ain't too shabby either...

Touching down in the city we felt that anticipation of discovery. We were met with a pleasantly empty immigration hall with super-friendly staff. The girls wasted no time in winning over the locals....

A quick and reasonably painless wait for our visas on arrival and we were set to go. I felt mildly sorry for the girl in line next to me who didn't have USD or Vietnamese dong to pay for her visa but she should have known... luckily they had an ATM nearby. We saw a familiar ATM on the way to our hotel. In fact, there were a large number of Commonwealth Bank and ANZ ATM's scattered all over Saigon. Guess they're not making enough money in Australia ..cough..cough.

We stayed at the lovely Ma Maison hotel in District 3, off the crazy main road and down a few alleyways. It's about as quiet as you can get in Saigon. Natasha and her team at Ma Maison really go out of their way to make you feel at home; from the welcome juice to the fresh tropical fruits to the personalised service they are a class act. If you're looking for a small (they only have 12 rooms) boutique hotel in Saigon that is in a quiet, local area I'd certainly recommend it.

Ma Maison is right in-between a banh mi vendor and a pho vendor so I knew we were at the right place. Banh mi is a Vietnamese baguette, essentially an Asian cold-cut sandwich. But boy is it good! There are a million variations but a standard banh mi would have some type of meat (roast pork, chicken), pickled radish and carrot, coriander, mayonnaise, pate and fresh chilli. Pho (pronounced 'fur') is beef noodle soup that has become a Vietnamese icon, traditionally eaten at breakfast but now is available 24hrs a day. Our banh mi vendor charged 10 000 VND ($0.50AUD) for a sandwich so I was in heaven... where else could you get this much goodness for 50 cents!!

From left; cold cuts, chicken pate, pickled radish and carrots

Surprisingly I did not put on any weight over this holiday... Over the next day we visited the central Ben Thanh market, got a banh xeo(savory crepe) fix and managed to also visit a day spa that my sis-in-law Bel recommended. Ben Thanh market is the main marketplace in central Saigon that sells everything; from durian to snake wine to chopsticks.

Ben Thanh market

Banh xeo! and cha gio - spring rolls

Banh xeo cooked over charcoal

We managed to get to Banh Xeo 46A in the afternoon for a Viet pancake fix. Banh Xeo are Vietnamese savory pancakes made out of rice flour and stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts eaten with lettuce dipped in a fish sauce 'dressing'. Banh Xeo 46A is 'THE' place for Banh Xeo in Saigon - there are many imitators in and around the main place but don't go for anything less. Their cha gio or fried spring rolls are great too so we polished off a plate of them also. Call me a stickler but food just tastes better cooked over charcoal and that's what they do at 46A. No fancy Miele gas burners here....

In-between Banh Xeo and Ben Tranh we managed to get to L'Apothiquaire day spa for a swim and scrub. Well, Nat went for the scrub and me and the girls went for a swim. The water was a bit cold but it was refreshing nevertheless. My sis-in-law recommended the place from her visit in 2009 and it was well worth it! We got to visit Notre Dame Basilica and the central post office which is a beautiful gothic remnant of French Indochina.

Notre Dame cathedral

Central post office

On our final day in Saigon we visited Cholon - Saigon's Chinatown. We payed our respects at Thien Hau (or Tian Hou) temple which pays worship to the goddess of the sea. She is known here in Macau and Southern China as 'A-Ma' or grandmother.

Thien Hau temple

There are many interesting murals within the temple depicting life in Southern China in the 19th century. Some show Lion and Dragon dancing and other murals depicting monks and European sailors.

On our final night we visited the park across the way from our hotel. There were heaps of people exercising from playing feather shuttle hacky sack to jogging to dancing a strange form of 'Zumba' that i'm thinking of incorporating into our ZAiA exercise classes. After all the touring and eating and dancing we needed some decent R and R; next stop - Phu Quoc island!