Horsing Around

Well happy year of the horse. It arrived at midnight last night here in Vietnam and we had a front row seat.

Quite by chance we are staying at The Renaissance Hotel right on the river. only let me say  because they were doing great rates over the Tet holiday as normally this is a business hotel. It also boasts a rooftop swimming pool and river views.

Little did we know that in the field on the other side of the river from the hotel was where the fireworks to celebrate New year are launched.. It was almost in the room. The show lasted for 15 minutes but the build up in terms of the thousands upon thousands of motor bike riders pilling into the area to watch the fireworks started around 8 p.m. Roads were blocked as were pavements/motor bike parking areas. Walking became almost impossible and we retreated back into the hotel clutching a few supermarket beers.

At midnight all the ships on the river started to sound their hooters, fog horns and whistles and the field opposite erupted.

Fireworks Tet Saigon

The show had begun. This was right outside the room window.. The huge crowd in the streets around the hotel started to clap and shout

NEW Year Tet Siagon

and we started to oh and ah as well.

Great Firworks Tet Saigon

The moment the show was over everyone started the mad scrabble to get back to their bikes and head home to family and friends. I had constantly been told that most people leave Saigon for Tet but it looked last night that an equal number arrive into Saigon for the festival. They actually travel with their crash helmets on the train ready to either hop on the back of a friends bike when they arrive or take over a family bike from someone who has gone to the family home elsewhere.

Coming back it from Mui Ne before Christmas it was a little disconcerting to find so many people in the railway carriage wearing their crash helmets. It looked like they knew something about the ride we were about to embark on that we didn’t . How bad was this train going to be we wondered with so many people sitting with helmets on. It seemed an age till most took them off.

This morning it was the turn of dragons at breakfast as a troop of entertainers arrived to dance

Dragons Phnom Penh

They seemed to scare the children more than entertain them but the guests certainly enjoyed the spectical.

Dragon Dance Phnom Penh

you could even feed them apples off the table.

It was not a morning for an hangover though

Dragon Band

This guy could bash that drum like crazy and being an atrium the sound echoed and was amplified. It was deafening.

To round off the morning we had to go to Flower Street. It is in fact normally the main street in Saigon and is usually a 4 lane road that dissects the city. However the authorities close it off and put huge flower displays on it for Tet.

Of course the start has to feature the horse

Year Of The Horse Tet Saigon

 

It is an amazing show, flowers as far as the eye can see. Crowds of locals flock to it and have their photos taken, thousands and thousands of photos. Like the Japanese before them the Chinese and the Vietnamese seem to do nothing but take endless photos of each other and themselves. They pose like professional models and pout and preen with the best of them. The latest idea seems to be to jump in the air as the shoot is taken so all up the street all you can see is see people leaping . All very odd.

Colourful Saigon Tet

 

Of course they dress beautifully and add so much colour to the flowers

Flowers in  Saigon

 

Certainly a very different New Year. It is rather nice the flower tradition and the idea of peach tree blossom coming out on New Year’s Eve is quite special.

Still we quickly went back to being western and went to the pub to watch the rugby.

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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

 

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 ?

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.