Food Glorious Food

One of the problems with  rapid tourist growth on an island is that things get thrown up in an hurry to meet the ever growing demand. Here on Phu Quoc the “strip” from what was the old sleepy fishing village  down to the end of Long Beach is just that a strip lined with restaurants and travel agents selling excursions. The local catch here is squid and prawns plus some local king fish. The rest is brought in from the mainland by boat.  So the locals who threw up a shack with tables and chairs and a makeshift kitchen with the loo in the middle of it were somewhat hampered for choice. Some bright spark ( all puns intended) came up with the idea of cooking the three staples on a BBQ and then tossing some rice or noodles onto the plate and serving it. The rest quickly followed and that is the choice down almost the entire strip. Great for a backpacker getting a few days of rays after a long trek through Vietnam before heading off to Cambodia some 3 hours away but not so great for the two week holiday maker. Then try us on our 4th week here and you realise why we are leaving before planned and also heading off into Cambodia.

I really haven’t been good at recommending places to eat on this blog unlike many other bloggers. One man’s meat is another man’s etc etc. But let me assure you that we have had to kiss an awful lot of frogs to get to being able to say where we most like to eat and we have suffered during the night and often all the next day in that quest to find a prince. Most Vietnamese just don’t know how to BBQ and of course what they don’t use that night goes back in a freezer and then is defrosted again the next day and so on until it is sold. health and safety would have a field day here.

However before we eat we have to have a sundowner or three so where do we go for those? Most restaurants are happy that you sit and just have beer but the majority are on the increasing busy main road so we look on the beach.

This one should be the king of all bars

Headland bar

 

it sits on the headland between the two parts of Long Beach and gets the cooling winds as well as some great views and sunsets

Sunset on Phu Quoc

 

It should be packed but it is run by a gloriously inefficient Vietnamese lady who rushes about doing almost nothing. 20 mins to order a beer and then 20mins for it to arrive. Who knows where she goes or what she does. It is a fact of life and maybe an endearing feature of the local people that they have no memory at all. It is not even the last person they talked to syndrome. Ten paces from the table they took the order it has gone from the mind as if it were never there they wander away and start on some other task and you sit there expecting within minutes a couple of cold bottles of beer to arrive. 10 mins later they wander past your table without a flicker of memory that they ever took an order from you. So you need a bar where the bar person  is close to you and the supply with no distractions in-between. This one is rough and ready but hits the two key objectives

Sundowner bar

 

Yes those are infant school class room chairs and yes you sit on them. It is like being back at the parent teacher meetings where the teacher in oder to rush you along sits you in little Freddies chair so you can view his scribblings, but the beer cooler is 5 paces away and the guy sits within feet of you and has nothing else to do and no real distractions. You can even get squids and fish from him and his BBQ is clever

BBQ

 

a kitchen sink !!! Now before i discovered the delights of an outside wood oven I used to do a load of BBQ and have a Webber at home. I went one time to buy the attachment they sell that gives you a workspace on the BBQ and realised that to buy it i would need to take out a fourth mortgage on the house. This local lad has solved that problem instantly clever fellow.  I’ve never been brave enough to eat anything from him but have seen others do it though to be fair i have never seen them ever again.

So after the sunset and the beer to the restaurant

Canadianand there is the champion after 4 weeks of testing. It is just by La Veranda Resort if you are ever down this way. The place is run by a Vietnamese family but they have a Canadian ex restauranteur as an advisor. He sold his house in Vancouver at the height of the housing bubble and bought a motor home for the summer to tour around visiting friends in Canada and invested the rest to pay for winters in the sun on Phu Quoc. He stayed at one of the cottages the family rent and offered to help out in return for beer and food. He also bought with him his 250,000 tune music library and each day he compiles two playlists one for lunch and one for dinner. As he says the music therefore matches his mood or hangover and we have sat there some evenings feeling maybe he wants everyone to cut their wrists. However the food is good, not a BBQ in sight and because as he in a very unCanadian way boasts that his place is by far the most popular on the beach or on the strip the turnover in food is very rapid.

A second place mention must go to Ganesh the indian restaurant who not only serve great curries but prove that you can take locals and turn them into good waiters. They bring in teams of Nepalese managers, head cooks and supervisors and train the local workforce. it is an impressive organisation with staff eager to serve you and never once forgetting why they are in a restaurant and wandering off to look at the sky.

All this is making me thirsty and hungry so I’m off

 

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Expat Bars

Apologies for no posts but the internet at the Paris is down and looks likely to remain so. We have moved hotels now and I am on line again

It was a good time to leave the Paris Hotel as groups were beginning to arrive. Two days ago a group of Germans arrived some 20 in all . 18 of them were Chinese/Germans and were clearly here to have a good time.

In the early 1970’s Monty Python did  a sketch on the then new phenomenon of package holidays and what they were like. One of the lines from it was ” and swimming pools full of huge Germans building pyramids.”

Would these German living and speaking Chinese follow the same pattern set in the 1970’s I wondered. Well yes and no in fact as with the advancement of technology building human pyramids in the pool is clearly passé. Instead enter the underwater camera. So 20 people jump into the pool and one with the camera faces the other 19. the 19 then take a deep breath and down under they go . the photographer takes the photo and all 20 come to the surface. Loads of laughing and high fives and bellows follow as the water erupts around the pool . But wait the photograph missed out on his/her photo so let’s do it again. what fun, what a super game, isn’t everyone else enjoying the noise and the fun we are having. In fact lets do it 19 times and see if we can empty the pool of water and submerge a few bed chairs. No thy haven’t changed at all.

Oh yes expat bars. let me just say that I’m not on about the bars in major cities frequented by working expats gathering at a favourite watering hole at the end of the day.

i’m on about the ones in seaside towns where clearly an holidaymaker has at some stage sat on a beach and said to the partner “you know this place needs a decent pub let’s stay and open one “.

I remember in Goa in about 1990 venturing out of a Taj hotel one evening and finding such a place with a large “just opened” sign on it. A couple from Manchester had just rented it and were busy turning  it into an English pub replete with pint mugs and fish and chips on the freshly painted menu. ” Been a dream of ours “they said “just what the area needs ” said his wife. ” Been here in the monsoon” I enquired . ” no but we get a lot of rain in Manchester ” they chorused. Hmm I thought as i finished my beer and left them dreaming of crowds of Brits spilling out into the roadway night after night. Two years later on another trip there was an empty building and a for rent sign in Hindi outside.

Phu Quoc boasts a couple of these dream places.

Expat Bar 1

My cheap laundry place is alongside the Safari run by  a Brit. I popped in to check it out and it was er empty . My beer was more than I pay in the hotel and almost double what the two nice bars nearby charge. Small wonder I thought why no one is there.

The other is American, Down Home Alabama

Expat Bar 2

and had 10 or so guys gathered around the bar. Mine host was in the middle of them . To a man they were clearly on long term holidays here for the whole winter and staying at the various hostels around town. Everyone knew everyone else and ranks were closed as new comers entered. Mine host was as uninterested and I ordered drinks from the young Vietnamese waitress. They cost even more than The Safari indeed more than most of the hotels on the strip.

The bar was more a way for the owner to have a few mates around for a beer and get them to pay for them. Opposite was a local Vietnamese bar and there were a few more long stayers there who clearly had either fallen out with mine host or couldn’t pay the crazy prices. The bill took ages as mine host couldn’t drag himself away from his crowd.

Cross two more off the list.

In Cyprus when we lived there loads of people  followed that dream of running a pub in the sun. Few make a go of it and they pour their woes out on expat forums. New lifers I call them as they always talk about a “new life” and when it goes wrong they are always “gutted” that people who said they would support the pub by being there everyday didn’t. “We were gutted” ” We came here in good faith ” etc.

It is normally best left as a dream . Shouldn’t it be sweet home anyway ?

On The Beach

No, not the Neville Shute novel but a stroll further down Long Beach heading south from the Hotel Paris . That said while in Mui Ne I found tucked away in the shelves of the Villa Aria library a Neville Shute book. It was an old Penguin paperback book and this edition was published in 1968 and at that time sold for 3 shillings and 6 pence or 16P in new money. Clearly in an hotel built just 6 years ago it hadn’t been there since publication so someone recently had bought it from a secondhand bookstore or a charity shop in the UK and then carried all the way to Mui Ne and left it. What stories the book itself could tell and how far it had come before being abandoned. It was a book called the Pied Piper which I personally had never heard of but as it was in excellent condition I sat down to initially glance through it. The book turned out to be an excellent read and I didn’t put it down again till I had finished it. The story is quite a simple one set at the beginning of the Second World War and the characters in the book are of a generation that has now gone from the world with values so different to todays. As just a study of how people have changed it is interesting but the story is good too.

I thought I might download it from Kindle so that my whole family who all seem to be linked to my own personal Kindle account could read it too. I was surprised to read in the blurb on Kindle that is considered his finest book and quite a classic now. The book now sells on Kindle for £8 a copy so it’s not only peoples values that have changed over the years !

So what about the stroll ? Well I wanted to look at the development that continues apace here on Phu Quoc and once past a couple of very large bungalow style hotels full of very large Russians ( it is by the way a fallacy that they don’t come here in numbers) I came across my first new multi floored hotel under construction

New Hotel 1 Phu Quoc
Quite quickly there followed another one

New Hotel 2 Phu Quoc
These two that finish off the Long Beach development and are under the flight path of the new international airport I talked about in a previous post. There are only 5 flights a day at the moment so no real issues with them

Small aircraft lands
But as it grows that will increase and wannabe holiday makers coming here in a few years will need to be careful where they pick to stay as night flights thunder over their rooms in the wee small hours of the morning. Cue a song think

Now regular readers will know that I make great personal sacrifices to bring you news of things about the places I visit and Phu Quoc is no different. To find out more about the tourism industry here I positioned myself on a bar stool at Rory’s Bar on the beach and asked the friendly owner over a beer or several what is it like to be in tourism.

The owner is Chinese Australian and speaks with a very broad Aussie accent . it is quite strange looking a this small very Chinese person who says to you ” good day mate ” . Though vey much a part of the development of the Island she seemed somewhat sad that the small fishing villages that were 6 years ago pretty much all that was here have gone and hotels are busy taking their places. That said she was enthused that on Feb 3rd the Island would finally be connected to the main grid by an underwater cable that has been laid. Electricity prices are four times what they are on the mainland of Vietnam and this she says is the cause of the high prices. Electricity is by far an hotel’s biggest cost here as it is for the bars. Got keep the beers ice cold she said ” if the tinny doesn’t stick to your hand when it come out of the fridge it is Pommy beer she said too bloody warm”. Hang on a Chinese girl calling me a Pom what is the world coming to.

Will prices come down ? I asked, absolutely she said . Well personally I think pigs might fly long before that happens but we shall see.

The other exciting development she told me about after another beer had arrived in front of me ( you see how I sacrifice my poor liver for this blog) is that the Party ( central government ) is thinking of making Phu Quoc visa less . Holidaymakers arriving on the island would not require a visa ( US$45 a pop) as long as they just came here and returned to their country. Checks would be made at the port and the airport for trips to the mainland that the visitor had a visa but otherwise no cost and no hassle with getting one from an Embassy or on arrival.

It was at that point that I was grateful we had come this year to see the developing island. With no visa in place this joint will take off and now I could understand ( though after so many beers I couldn’t get off my bar stool ) why they are planning these two huge developments further south on the island. Villas, hotels, shopping malls, time shares all make sense now.

This by the way is where the first monster is going to be built stretching from here for about 6 miles down the coast and a mile or so inland.

New Town Phu Quoc
Pretty isn’t it and all along this bit of coast are small fishing villages and lots of dense jungle. Soon English footballers and Russian oligarchs will be owning it all instead.

White Sands

Never mind riddles off the sand I found some white stuff.

Took a trip down to Bai Soa beach that is on the south east corner of the island some 15 kms from the Paris resort.

The sand as you can see below is white

Bai Soa North

I had expected the beach to be quite deserted but it seems most people with motor bikes make their way down there and by lunchtime the place was very busy. God knows how the riders put up with the dust roads with cars and trucks passing them on a regular basis and leaving them driving in a fog of dust and grit. There can be no real delight in the 45 minute journey.

This is the view looking south along the beach

Bai Soa South

along with the bikers there are plenty of tour buses heading down to the beach that do pick up from your hotel. We chose just to grab a cab from outside and drive down thinking it would be quite cheap. However it is becoming clear that the taxi drivers eagerness to stick the meter on is for a good reason. Everywhere else in Vietnam and indeed in most South East Asia countries it is the first battle to be overcome. In Bangkok last month we were left on the side of the road by a cab that refused to go on the meter and was holding out for a ransom to take us to the airport. Here the guys can’t wait to get the meter on and going. The locals barter for a fare here not the other way around tourists go on the meter. Watching the meter is almost hypnotic as the figures dance round on the screen.

In Mui Ne 2 kms on the meter was about 20,000 dong (70p) here 50,000 dong . Okay not huge sums for a westerner but quite a sizeable mark up for the almost monopolistic Sasco taxi company here on the island. The fare down for 15 kms was 400,000 dong  ( £12) which is double the meter fare for the 20 km trip from Bangkok city to the airport.

Bai Soa beach boasts three bars and restaurants all selling the ubiquitous BBQ shrimp or squid or kingfish the menus are identical as are the prices all very egalitarian.

Bai Soa Beach Bar

Interestingly the bar we used was the first one I have been into where the loo wasn’t in the kitchen. Every other restaurant in 4 weeks here has had it right in the cooking area with the exit pipe from the gents urinals always going into the washing up area. Still at least you get to see how your food is cooked and with the usual lack of a lock and with the door also warped you can ask the cooks how they are doing as well.

On the way back the cab stopped at the Coconut Tree prison and asked if we wanted to go in and visit. Luckily we had been told all about it by a couple of Brits we met in the bar the night before and so told him to drive on.

Yes I know you weren’t there and are therefore none the wiser about such a nicely named prison. So let me tell you the name belies the actual place. the prison was built in 1950 by the French to incarcerate  “freedom fighters” while they battled the uprising . I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American while in Saigon this time and the book is all about the fighting though no mention of the prison.

It’s real notoriety came however later under the puppet government set up by the Americans. The Red Cross on two visits in 1968 and 1972 reported incidents of torture and the museum there now has graphic graphics of the types of things going on. Nails into body parts and the barbaric idea of slowly boiling prisoners until they told them what they knew about plans etc.

Some 1,200 bodies have been found so far in the jungle surrounding the prison and it is thought some 4,000 perished at the hands of their torturers. A rather sobering part of any holiday down here in Phu Quoc.

 

Mein Gott Das ist Kalt

The weather for the last week has not been great, lots of cloud and the evenings especially if sitting by the sea have been quite chilly. Okay I do know it is all relative and those of you in Europe or North America would laugh at my “quite chilly” but without a light sweater it is parky.

Judging by the sea temperature the weather apart from around Christmas has obviously been colder than normal as well. It’s not the English Channel but it is colder than the Med in say July.

The Paris resort boasts quite a large and very new swimming pool as well

Pool Paris Resort Phu Quoc

It provides a nice alternative from the sea especially when the jelly fish come visit for a few days.  So far we have been lucky but around the headland where most of the hotels are they are having an extended stay and only brave souls are venturing in.

However the pool which is topped up with fresh water everyday is even colder. Now don’t please take my word for this. We have at the moment quite a few new arrivals after the Christmas and New Year people have departed the island. Many of these come from what I still term East Germany and quite a few obviously first came to Vietnam when, under their former communist rulers it was one of the few places that they could visit . Otherwise they made do with a visit to the Baltic Sea off their north coast around the Frisian Islands.

The sea there wasn’t and isn’t in summer known for it’s warmth but on entering the pool here without exception I have heard them say ” Mein Gott das ist kalt”. My God this is cold and they are back on their bed chairs after a length at most.

The Frisian Islands was of course the setting for the book The Riddle of the Sands by Erskin Childers published in 1903.

I reread it the other day sitting on a bed chair almost as a precursor to what will be an avalanche of books about the First World War which will be hitting the bookshelves in 2014 the hundredth anniversary of the start of the War.

There is a fellow blogger I read occasionally who is busy working his way through the Guardian/ Observer’s best 100 novels ever list and The Riddle is number 37. The blogger didn’t like it as he felt it was more a sailing book with some intrigue and got bored by all the nautical stuff.

However to most critics it is a book that first bought awareness to the British public that Germany under the Kaisar presented a real threat to Great Britain.

The idea that a German Navy stronger than the British Navy could escort fleets of barges from ports along Germany’s North Sea coast and land troops along the east coast of England caused major concern when the book came out and outright panic in some towns on the coast. Childers use of accurate maps and copious plans plus the fact that he worked in government added such realism that he was called before parliament to answer questions.

His book almost single handedly convinced the public that Admiral Fisher’s campaign to build more Dreadnought battleships was right and soon public meetings were shouting the slogan ” we want eight and we won’t wait”. Churchill said that the building of the two new naval bases at Scapa Flow and Rosyth before the First world War was a direct result of the book and the invasion fear and indeed at the outbreak of hostilities Churchill then at the Admiralty told his aids to find Childers and employ him as an advisor.

No doubt over this next year the book will be turned into a TV series or such like.

The cloud has meant that we have seen some rather spectacular sunsets as we head out to the various bars along the beach for a sundowner. This is the view that greets us over the first beer

Sundowner Phu Quoc

Actually it wuld be rather nice to watch the sun go down from one of thesestrandkorbe

they are called strandkorbe and are a two person  beach chair made of wicker that are only found on the German North Sea coast. Very comfortable and of course provide great protection from the wind on three sides.

Carruthers ( that would have to be his surname wouldn’t it ?) the hero of The Riddle must have seen loads of them as he sailed around spying on the German Imperial Navy.

Internet Woes

Christmas and New Year are over and our daughter, son in law and son have flown back   two to Hong Kong one to London.

I took Christmas off from blogging but planned to return to blogging before the New Year, however the internet connection has let me down and only today do we seem to have anything remotely like a decent connection.

We flew into Phu Quoc a week last Monday to the new “International” airport that has been built halfway along Long Beach which is where all the tourist development is. 10 minute taxi ride and the Paris Resort hove into view. The plan was to stay until Jan 7th and then head off again but Phu Quoc has kind of caught our fancy. Whenever I write that I’m reminded of the Remington shaver ad of the late 1970’s with Victor Kiam saying ” I liked the shaver so much , I bought the company” apparently it was one of the most successful TV campaigns ever and I guess  that is why I still still remember the catch phrase.  So we are now here till Feb 1st when the Tet holiday starts and lasts for 9 days. Everything here is full for the holiday so the plan is to head back to Saigon then as the city is empty  (everyone is at the beach).

Phu Quoc is relatively unspoilt for Vietnam and apart from the road from the airport every other road is  packed earth rather than tarmac.

The hotels stretch down Long Beach and the beach is dotted with sea food joints selling shrimp, squid and local fish. Everything is more expensive that Mui Ne or even Saigon but it has a rustic charm that Mui Ne lacked and dare I say there are far far fewer Russians here. In Mui Ne I was constantly reminded of A.A. Gill’s remark about how he felt the people of certain nations should “get out more” to improve their sociability but that  “when the Russians do you rather wished they hadn’t ” !

The Paris Resort is a couple of steps up from a backpacker place but cheaper than the other large hotels on the strip. A French guy and his Vietnamese wife run it and give it an homely feel as they are always around chatting to customers and helping out. They are surrounded by eager but amateur staff all falling over each other which we have got used to here in Vietnam.

Phu Quoc itself is about 50 kms long and 27 kms wide and apart from Long Beach the other beaches are harder to get to and more deserted so they say.

There is plenty of development going on now with several high rises being built and just past the airport there is planned an almost Dubai styled complex of hotels, villas and shops. So the ” International” tag on the domestic airport will no doubt come into its own. Any money on when the first Russian charter from Moscow will touch down ?

So we thought stay and enjoy it while it is still relatively unspoilt though quite how logistically they intend to build this huge complex on an island miles from anywhere is anyone’s guess.

Still let me quickly cover the usual stuff from the Paris Resort.

The view from the breakfast table

Breakfast View

then the view down the beach which here includes the iconic leaning palm tree so necessary in every travel brochure

Down the Beach

and finally the view from my bed chair

View from Bed chair

I know, but someone has to be here. Still you can see why we are staying longer can’t you?

We have now survived not one but two gala dinners. These are compulsory affairs and perhaps unsurprisingly were both exactly the same. Same food, same table cloths same everything. I think I would prefer that they just added US$25 to the bill rather than put everyone through the gala dinner but that is just me. I am as I have said no great fan on “the buffet” and this is especially true when they are attended by other than British and North Americans. Americans probably out do Brits now in their standing in line culture but both nations seem to do it rather well .We stand stoically in line and shuffle forward toward the laid out dishes. We accept as our lot when the person in front scoops up the last of a particular dish we had our heart set on and move on to other dishes without complaint.

This is not so when other nationalities are concerned . These people have no concept of a queue nor the etiquette involved in being in one. Plates are seized, children are trampled as they then fight for the dish they want. Whole trays of food are emptied onto single plates, shed loads of food is carried triumphantly back to their already heaving reserved tables and the Brits are left with whatever remains after the shock troops have gone. On neither occasion did I get near the fish BBQ which seemed to be a French reserve nor did I see a glimmer of the meats which was in the German area of influence but the bread and rice were nice.

Let’s hope the internet is now back but I won’t hold my breath. Hopefully chat to you again tomorrow and a very happy new year to you all.