Vern: Leaving Cambodia and crossing into Vietnam was a lot simpler and less corrupt than entering Cambodia. The only fake tax was on the Vietnamese side. A 'health official' wanted a dollar for filing a form on which we declared that we didn't have any contagious diseases. Andrea challenged him on the arbitrary fee, to which offered that if we could produce an International Inoculation Certificate we wouldn't have to pay. Unfortunately for the official we have these, and in pristine condition. Still in the UK, before we left on our round the world adventure, we'd spent about £100 each on vaccinations which were supposedly mandatory to enter certain South American countries. Not once were these ever checked. But now, finally our certificates came into use. Our £100 certificates saved us exactly one dollar. Ignoring the disasterous economics, we walked into Vietnam with our vaccine cards held high and gloated while other border crossers fished out a dollar and paid the official. Without a hint of guilt, he tucked each bill into the front pocket of his trousers.
At the harbour of the border town, Ha Tien, we took seats aboard a hydrofoil which took one and a half hours to deliver us to Phu Quoc island, our first destination in Vietnam. This small tropical island lies below Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, and we found out later that Andrea's dad, Scott, spent some time here when it was a US POW camp during the Vietnam war.
The ferry docked at the end of a 800m long concrete pier which was clogged with motorbikes waiting for family members on the ferry or supplies from the mainland. The dark green sea curled round its struts. Three metres wide should have been sufficient but the honking, overloaded motorbikes forced their way through, leaving us pedestrians walking a tight-rope to the palm tree clustered shore. Despite smug nay-sayers scoffing at us arriving on the island without a hotel booking we found a simple guesthouse in Duong Dong, the only town on the island. After checking in, we went for an evening stroll. We decided to eat dinner at a pavement soup stall opposite a harbour full of turquoise and red fishing boats performing a subtle Mexican Wave on the tide. Seated on squat plastic stools only a few inches above the sidewalk I spooned up 'pho ga' (chicken noodle soup) from the bowl held between my knees. Andrea artfully twirled the noodles around her chopsticks. I think it was a little too early for Vietnamese dinner-time because locals came and went, stopping just long enough to snack on a fertilized duck egg. Fortunately these eggs appeared to be at pre-foetus stage so we didn't have to listen to any crunching!
The following morning's sun quickly burned away the cloud cover and it looked like it would be an ideal beach day. And a scooter would be the quickest way to get to the sand. At the scooter hire shop, the salesperson unveiled their new Honda Dream. "New new," she said stroking the sleek, shiny black plastic. She popped up the seat which still smelled like new leather and handed us two polished helmets. "New new," she said again. Her tone was part pride, part warning: if the helmets or the scooter came back with a single scuff, things would get complicated! I straddled the machine and Andrea slotted in behind me. Key turned, on-switch pressed, I twisted my wrist ever so slightly on the accelerator. The scooter hurtled forward and in a split-second we were bang in the middle of a traffic circle perpendicular to oncoming traffic. Luckily there wasn't much. I tried to turn the scooter to face the same way as everyone else on the road and we launched uncomfortably forward. When we halted again, Andrea jumped off and retreated to the pavement. At this point I realised that I knew nothing of the forces acting on me. It suddenly dawned on me that there is nothing intuitive about riding a two-wheel craft. I accelerated for a third time, and for the first time I'd gained enough confidence to lift my feet up off of the floor. I stop started all the way around the block and then went around again, ever so slowly trusting the scooter to keep me upright. When I returned to the hire shop, Andrea asked if I was feeling confident. I was forced to admit that I wasn't. I think that if I spent a day on the scooter slowly circling the island I would have eventually built up some confidence but at this point I was in no position to set off down the road with a passenger. We'd seen a couple in Siem Reap, both with their left arms and left legs bandaged up and there was a good chance that we would've ended up that way. So I handed in my Man Badge, and apologised to the salesperson. We wouldn't be hiring a scooter today. She made a weak attempt to suggest that I instead hire an older, less powerful scooter, but I regretfully declined and we were doomed to walk to the beach. To rub salt in my wounds, a young local man scooted past us, texting with one hand and holding three fluorescent bulbs under the other arm.
Long Beach, which runs almost the full length of the east side of the island was a wonderful beach. The sand is not as white, and the sea not as teal, as Phi Phi's beaches, but the ocean is warm and deep, and great for swimming. Resorts and beach bars all spill out onto the sand, and lots of sunburnt Russians stretch out on loungers. We read in the sun, swam in the waves and snorkeled a little, finding nothing but crabs in cages.
At a restaurant on the beach, we enjoyed a noodle dish and fruit shakes, with sand between our toes. Like every tout in Vietnam, a stranger interrupted our conversation with, "Hey you! Where you from?"
"South Africa," I answered and turned back to Andrea. Usually this cuts off the questioner before he gets going because unlike if I'd said UK, Germany, USA or Australia, he doesn't know any facts to rattle off to warm up the prospective client.
"I saw Rhinoceroses from Africa on TV," he said, startling me.
"You did? Yes, that'd be Africa."
"And lions," he continued.
"Yes those too."
"And elephants. And whales?"
"Yes whales and sharks?"
He shuddered, "Ooohh, sharks. Do you like South Africa?"
"Yes, I do. Do you like Vietnam?" I asked.
"No? Why not"
"It's not good."
"Do you like Thailand?"
"Or Laos? Or Cambodia?"
Before we got to the bottom of his dislike for all the countries in the region, he was called off for some reason and he wondered off. He was the first and last Vietnamese who knew anything about South Africa and even more unusually he made no attempt to sell us anything, and as such I quite enjoyed the intrusion.
We stayed on the beach until sunset. This is rather straightforward for a couple of sunset junkees with no commitments, but seemingly less so for a family man: "Let's gooooo," whined a teenager.
"Come onnnnn, dad," her younger sister chimed in.
"Just wait until sunset," said the father flipping out the screen on his video camera. The little red light flicked on and he zoomed in an out on the setting sun while his family complained. He'd have to edit out their voices in post. After ten minutes though, he succumbed to their pleading, shut off the camera and they left. All before the sun even licked the horizon. What a shame - the sea turned to mercury and the sky lit up like an orange lava lamp. As if scripted, the silhouette of a fisherman in a bamboo vessel resembling a large half-coconut-shell drifted across the ocean under the orange orb and into the dark. It was a film-maker's dream but all the poor father got was the sun slipping down and ten minutes of his family's objections. It clearly wasn't his day.
At night a small street near our guesthouse was closed off to vehicles and pedestrianised. Stalls set up, lit fires in barrel-barbecues and laid out a huge variety of fresh seafood on ice. We ummed and ahhed over the spread and eventually settled on squid, scallops and stir-fried vegetables. The BBQ scallops, served still sizzling in their shells dressed with spring onions and crushed peanuts, were eye-wateringly delicious and instantly became a nominee for the best meal of our entire adventure. We ordered a second plateful out of sheer indulgence.
For dessert I bought mangoes from a street vendor. We hadn't haggled yet in Vietnam (which is crazy because we soon learned that EVERYTHING is negotiable) but had just overheard a Chinese tourist bargaining down the price of a watermelon so I was inspired to start. I low-balled the vendor, he countered, I upped my offer slightly and then we came to an agreement. I felt I'd won that round. Inconveniently though, I'd just drawn money from the ATM and so had to awkwardly shuffle through a stack of bright blue 500 000dong bills, and lime green 100 000d bills to find the 25 000d I owed him. The vendor's sad eyes ogled my stash while he bagged up my mangoes, so unfortunately my victory wasn't nearly as sweet as my dessert.
The next day we went diving in Mui Mong Tay bay on the north of the island and around a small satellite island which the dive company's optimistically call 'turtle island'. The visibility was poor and there were only a few fish amongst the disparate network of hard and soft coral. Our most interesting sighting was a bottom feeding fish with a square mouth and what looked like retractable chopsticks which prodded and poked the ocean floor to stir up micro organisms.
Sailing back along the coast, we watched the colourful boats trawling, the men and woman in tubs throwing nets, and the families sorting through the day's catch on their house rafts. A large quantity of that haul is fermented in barrels and transformed into 'nuoc mam', Vietnamese fish sauce used in almost every one of their iconic dishes. The best nuoc mam is supposedly created by micro-producers on this island and these Phu Quoc producers are apparently lobbying hard for similar naming-rights to those which are enjoyed by the Champagne region in the wine industry.
At the night market that evening curiosity led us astray and we found ourselves scraping out the insides of a sea urchin--a delicacy--which was gritty, flavourless and disappointing. Our taste buds however insisted that BBQ scallops reappear on the menu, so the evening was a seesaw of culinary highs and lows, and as such was an appropriate prelude for what Vietnam held in store for our palates.