Ok another installment in this post-travelogue. I told Lauren that this writing was slow going and she thought it was a good thing and maybe I could use it to extend the experience to the remainder of my time here. It was such a great trip I do want to savour it, so let's get on with it.
Jono arriving on New Year's Eve was fantastic. It was a celebration without having to do more than have a picnic in the hotel room. At midnight we were hanging out on the balcony drinking in the city's night sights and sounds as only a few "whoops" went up above the usual Ho Chi Minh bustle. It was pretty romantic, although I am not sure that I am conveying it well here.
For the next few days we checked out the city and the market with all of it's visual and olfactory intensity and fake everythings. I took Jonathan to some of my favorite places in District 1--the totally non-Starbucks wannabe Trung Nguyen cafe (where guys play checkers and watch soccer and I have never seen another foreigner even though it is in tourist ground zero), Go2 in the backpacker zone, the boulevard park on Le Lai. I was so happy that he liked these spots as much as I do, because I had spent so much time in August and September wandering the city and looking forward to sharing it. HCMC was all done up in lights for Christmas (much more so than KL) and there was a definite holiday feel to the place, which made it even nicer than when I was there last.
On January 3 we flew to Phu Quoc island and it was exactly the tropical island experience I was looking for. The people on the whole of the island were great (even in the non-touristy places) but this was especially true of the folks at Beach Club (kind of a cheesy name for a very uncheesy place) where we stayed the first five nights we were there. The staff were so warm and sweet we got a good feeling as soon as we met Kum at the airport; he was so genuine and smiley. One of the first things we did when we got to BC was walk down the perfect light brown sandy beach and go for a swim in the warm and salty water. There were some significant waves that day but I didn't mind being thrown around a bit. I felt like that was the moment I had been living for for the last 1/2 year. Swimming with Jono at my side I could let all the stress of my internship drift away into the ocean.
The next days at Beach Club were made up of a lot of laying in hammocks, swimming, eating good food, reading and watching the other guests and trying to figure out their stories. The weather off-shore was apparently very bad and the ferry (that we planning to take) wasn't running for most of the time we were on PQ. We stressed a bit about not being able to get off the island, but there are certainly worse places to be marooned.
We tried to leave on the 8th but there were no ferries running and all flights were booked up for a week. We tried to go standby but we were not even given a speck of hope of getting on. As we left the airport dejectedly we were approached by several guys offering to take us to a fishing boat that was taking people across. We'd heard horror stories about people getting off of the small wooden boats surprised that they survived the trip. We decided to wait it out a few days get on a wait list for a flight and consider the fishing boat as an emergency option I hoped we didn't have to take.
Our last two days on Phu Quoc were two of the most memorable, mainly because we rented a motorbike and explored the island in the late afternoon. PQ is famous for its sunset and it did no disappoint. The first day we rode down a red dirt road through a couple of small villages where the people looked like they were living in a traditional way, fishing and farming. I should say that although Phu Quoc has a number of guest houses and a couple of bigger hotels, it is far from built up and once you get out of the beach-tourist area you are really in the southern Vietnamese country-side as if you were not on a beach resort island. Phu Quoc's other industry is producing it's famous fish sauce and that evening we passed what initally looked like a prison, but on closer inspection was probably a fish sauce factory. I tought maybe it was a combination of the two as the very pungent odor of "aging" fish should be enough to make penance for any crime. On the second day we checked out the village of Ham Ninh and we met a couple of very friendly and rambunctious boys, whose pictures I am sure Jono will include when he posts. They got a really good belly-laugh out of seeing their pics on the camera display.
On January 9th we decided to treat ourselves to this buffet barbeque on the beach. It was 15 USD per person, which is insanely expensive compared to what you can generally eat for, but we went for it. Tasting some of Jonathan's food I got a bad feeling but I didn't say anything about it and proceeded to help myself to unlimited desserts. I wish I had said something then because in the middle of the night Jono was violently ill. I will spare you (and him) the details, but when we heard that the ferry was finally running again the next day I was prepared to let it go because I was sure he wouldn't be able to make it. I also was not feeling 100% but we medicated ourselves and took what could have been our only safe option for getting off Phu Quoc. Some how we managed to drag ourselves all the way through the trip which included a bumpy bus ride, rising and thumping waves on the boat and finally a motorcycle to get to a hotel. When we arrived we collapsed for the rest of the day. The town the ferry took us to is called Rach Gia and it is kind of a rough but prosperous port town that Lonely Planet says is known for smuggling. Given our state we only marginally explored it, but at least we were now on the mainland and would not, as I feared, miss getting to Angkor Wat.