Con Son Island, Vietnam

Week 2, Con Son Island

Con Son wasn’t originally part of our Vietnam itinerary.  After booking our flight to Thailand for the 17th October, we arranged to link up with friends in Vietnam 11 days later. This suited us, as we never intended to stay in Thailand for very long, but use it as a stepping stone for our onwards travel. We ended up spending days 1-4 in Bangkok before flying to Ho Chi Minh City. The plan was to find a nice beach south of the city for a mini holiday before our friends arrived.

Before doing much research we thought it would be easy to head to Vietnam’s south coast from Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that there were not any holiday style beaches south of the city. With our flights to Ho Chi Minh already booked and over a week there until our friends flew in to meet us, we needed to come up with a plan.

Looking at the map again I noticed Con Son. After a little research we were intrigued. However, at over 3.5million VND each for flights (GBP 120), it wasn’t looking like the cheapest option and this almost changed our mind. But, I’m definitely glad we went, as the extra bit of money we spent was definitely worth it, and I’d go again for longer next time.

We visited Con Son as the weather was beginning to become more changeable (the start of the low season), we had a mix of rain and sunshine on our visit.

As our tiny plane descended into Con Dao airport, it felt a bit like we were entering Tracey Park Island from the Thunderbirds!

The runway takes up the entire width of that section of the island and nothing but a concrete wall separates it from the beach. There were few western tourists, and most of these seemed to be staying at the Six Senses, which was way above our budget at £360 a night!

We had been told we could rent motorbikes from our hosts at the Airbandb homestay we had booked, but we hadn’t anticipated being picked up from the airport on a motorbike!

Our host, Hue, spoke very little English and her French husband Lionel was away on business when we arrived. She introduced herself as we came out of the tiny arrivals room and asked if we rode motorbikes.

“Errrrrr…” Alex looked at me, shrugged and said “Yes?!”.

She loaded my small carry on case onto her own bike and kindly carried my 36 litre rucksack on her back, Alex loaded his 65 litre rucksack onto his lap and I got on the back (after helmets were handed out). Luckily, their place was five minutes from the airport and our first motorbike journey was an easy ride.

Thus began our introduction to driving motorbikes. If you are planning your own trip, get your international driving licence before you go to avoid voiding any insurance you might have. UK residents can find out more about getting theirs, here.

Our rides from the airport

We didn’t know it at the time but Con Son would would turn out to be our highlight of Vietnam. The cheaper flights often sell fast and it is a popular destination of many Vietnamese holiday makers, keeping the island a path less travelled by western tourists. We discovered this is rare in Vietnam, especially if you head to any of the top destinations like Ha Long bay or Hoi An. I’m not sure if it will remain so, as we saw lots of roads being built to more secluded places.

After dropping our bags off and eating some of Hue’s amazing and very reasonably priced food I decided I needed to give driving the motorbike a go. Learning with someone on the back isn’t the easiest way to learn, however, I managed OK (apart from when I ran over a snake).

Con Son's quiet roads
Con Son’s quiet roads

We spent our days driving round the island, exploring local beaches and sampling local food. The main town has a long promenade with crumbling French-style streetlamps – where you can see turtles and rarely dugongs. You can also pick up some amazing street food here including Banh Mi.

Our first banh mis!

There’s also a lovely little beach that we swam in at dusk one evening.

Swimming at dusk at Bai Lo Voi

We did an epic trek one day which involved walking down the beach on the north side of the island. The walk to Đầm Tre needed timing correctly with the tide, or else we would be stuck wading through the sea around the airport’s runway wall. The walk along the beach took an hour or so, followed by a jungle trek. For more information about this walk, click here.

The wildlife on Con Son is amazing and included giant black squirrels, crab eating macaques, not to mention the turtles, and possibly dugongs and dolphins.

After a long slippy walk through the jungle, we arrived at a Rangers Station, and despite not having a ticket, they let us through and we swam out into the coral reef. We didn’t venture far out enough to the deeper reef that was in a healthier condition, but there was still some amazing snorkelling.

I sat on a rock and watched Alex swim out further as storm clouds began rolling in.

We made a dash for shore and got caught in the start of a wonderfully tropical rain shower. There was nothing for it but to recline in a hammock and see if it would pass, but as time ticked on we became increasingly aware that we needed to make it back along the beach before high tide, and that we had a two hour hike ahead of us.

So we slipped and slid back along the forest trail, through newly formed streams that cascaded across our paths, before eventually navigating along the beach and back onto the bike.

Driving along Con Son’s coastal paths was such a delight, and we were often joined by one or two white herons, who took flight as we passed.

On our second to last day Lionel arrived home and he recommended a good spot on the local beach to snorkel, which was wonderful, despite the poorer visibility due to the rain.

You know you’ve fallen in love with a place when you really don’t want to leave, and that’s how we felt on our last day, when we finally did have to say goodbye. In fact, we nearly didn’t leave as we almost missed our flight, only realising when we double checked our departure time during a leisurely lunch on the beach, and then having to make a mad dash back to pack and then rush to the airport, but maybe that’s another story!

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

21st October – Saigon

We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City after sunset, a steady tropical rain drummed the roof of the arrivals terminal at Tan Son Nhat.

As our Airbandb host was no longer able to help us with our pickup, we ordered an Uber. Normally, Uber removes any worry about a language barrier – you just put in your destination, the driver accepts it and you are on your way. Unfortunately, this was not the case here, as our driver kept repeating “Map”, and even pulled over outside the airport until we could convince him of where we needed to go. After some confusion, we eventually showed him our Airbanb’s location on Google Maps, he seemed satisfied enough, and finally set out into the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City.

Nothing prepares you for the hustle and bustle of traffic in Vietnam’s busiest city – all the more chaotic in the evening tropical downpour – scooters, blaring horns and bumper to bumper cars.

It had been raining a lot. As we neared our homestay, the taxi driver slowed to plough through great puddles of water. We finally arrived, and waved goodbye to the driver, who, bless him, was waiting to make sure we got in OK. We quickly gathered our bags, bracing ourselves against the the rain, and fumbled about trying to find the entrance to our homestay. We rang a few doorbells, and finally someone called us in through a gate. Here we met the charming Uncle Nam, who ushered us in out of the dark wetness and into our room.

After taking an obligatory selfie with Uncle Nam, and exchanging a few words on Google translate, we set out once again into the chaos, navigating rivers of motorbikes and cars, to go find ourselves some sushi for dinner – and we found it in the form of a fantastic busy little restaurant which had their kitchen on the street, fantastic sushi for pennies!

Day 6 – 22nd October – The Motorbike Tour

After a good night’s sleep marred only by a fight with our first cockroach, and the screeching meows of the hostel’s cat, we woke up and prepared ourselves for the motorbike tour that Ruth had organised the night before. Only $9 each, this ‘not for profit’ tour was led by students from Ho Chi Minh’s University of Medicine who wanted to learn a little more English, and we were to see all the sights of the city from the back of a motorbike!

After whipping up a improvised dragonfruit and rice cracker breakfast, and waiting for another deluge of rain to pass, our guides appeared outside the hostel. We had a guide each, plus an extra who wanted to learn the ropes. The group was led by Duang, who spoke amazing English and really put us at ease with her conversational tone. Jumping on the back of the motorbikes, we set off into the city.

We were led through Districts 7, 4 and 1 to the famous Ben Thanh Market.

Our guides parked the motorbikes with one of the many parking officers around the square, and the bikes disappeared into the system.

Glorious colours, sweets, and trinkets awaited us in the market, although we were advised not to part with our money here as it is a very overpriced place to shop (it was great to have local advice like this).

We found the bikes and resumed the journey to Bến Nghé and the very French Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, and Saigon Post Office, with pretty Parisian street lights outside. Ruth cracked up here as she found some ‘Ruth’ lip balm (a Vietnamese-American brand, also lots of people think that the name Ruth is either a man’s name or surname here).

Then we scooted over to the Independence Palace. The building’s grand facade, including tanks and jet fighters, sweeping lawns and an impressive fountain, invited us in to learn more.

Also known as the ‘Reunification Palace,’ the current building was a product of the Vietnam war, re-built from scratch in 1966 after the previous palace was destroyed by two members of the Republic of Vietnam Airforce who rebelled and diverted from their mission of bombing the V-C (Viet Cong).

The architect designed the building in the shape of a Chinese character meaning ‘good fortune’, and it featured many floors hosting stately meeting rooms, bedrooms and the fascinating bunker, the latter of which still had plenty of war maps and diagrams of the Republic of Vietnam’s final movements. Another highlight was the roof section, featuring a Huey helicopter and an open space for the South Vietnamese president to use as a ‘relaxation area’ – but he ended up using it as a party space.

After the palace, our guides whisked us through more traffic to the eerily deserted south of District 7, home to the richest residents of Ho Chi Minh City. High rises and fast food chains, it was a world away from the bustling, compact neighbourhoods throughout the rest of the city.

We finished off the day with a visit to a noodle restaurant of Duang’s choice. With her assistance, we ordered two To Lon (large) Phở Bó, Vietnam’s iconic noodle dish with beef.

Duang opted for the Bun Bo Hue, a delicious prawn-based broth with thick udon noodles, beef and sausage. All very delicious and made delectable with lashings of hot sauce, dried chilli and lime. We also had the nuoc sam to drink, a sweet and cloudy ginseng cold tea.

Unfortunately, there was a little confusion here as we discovered we were expected to pay for the girls’ meals. Duang explained that they were only given an allowance to cover parking and petrol by the organiser.

Turns out that that this ‘not for profit’ organisation pocketed a great deal of the $9, and there was no communication to us about paying admission fees and food etc for our guides. Nevertheless, we settled up with no hard feelings (towards our guides) and headed home for another rainy night at our hostel.

The motorbike tour was fantastic – a great way to see the city, just as the locals do everyday. On top of this, we made a great friend in Duang, who we were to see again in just a weeks time.

It was time to pack up and get ready for our journey to the island of Con Dao.

Day 1-4 – Bangkok, Thailand

Day 1

Phew! After 24 hours of travelling, including a 6 hour layover in Cologne and an 11 hour flight, we finally touched down in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. Thailand are 6 hours ahead of GMT, so even though our watches were set to the local time of 9am, this felt more like 3am to us!

We made our way through the pristine airport, abuzz with staff and attendants sweeping the floors, wiping works of art, and planting impressive orchid floral displays, and quickly realised that there was something special in the atmosphere here in Bangkok.

We grabbed our main luggage and quickly made our way down to the Airport Rail Link and set off into the very impressive Bangkok public transport system.

There was a slightly eerie, sombre and repetitive jingle playing over the train’s speaker system, along with screens showing black and white images interspersed with people dressed in black being interviewed that looped with the music. As we looked around the cool, spacious carriage we notice that the majority of locals were also dressed in black and white. Then, as we skimmed the skyline of Bangkok on the Skytrain we saw the first billboard dedicated to the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX of Thailand; the jingles, displays and dress were all because the date of his cremation, one year after his death, was fast approaching.

After four trains, plenty of sweat and many friendly, helpful guards helping us on our way, we finally jumped off our BRT bus at Wat Pariwat, where we very quickly became confused about which way to go to reach our homestay. Fortunately, (and unknown to our host as we discovered later on), the security guard for this BRT stop had hand drawn a map with directions to the Fahsai Homestay.

This was our first introduction to a local neighborhood in SE Asia. On first appearance, with its crumbling buildings, mazes of head-height electrical wires, staring locals, dogs barking aggressively and rubbish everywhere, a uninitiated western visitor could be forgiven for thinking this was a run-down and intimidating place to be. But we soon learned that this was not the case at all!

Trundling our backpacks and wheelie suitcase through the hot, potholed streets we eventually found our turning, which followed a path alongside a very stagnant stream (with the help by way of some useful pointing from a friendly local) – here, finally, was our Fahasai Homestay.

Sliding open the front gate, we finally entered our little slice of paradise after 24 hours of travelling.

Nittaya, our host, came and greeted us “Sawasdee!”. She showed us to our room, which was a gorgeous traditional style wooden Thai bungalow, complete with our own ensuite, shower, TV and air conditioning, the latter of which we put on immediately as it was beyond hot in this little wooden sauna!

The lovely Nittaya and her family offered us some delicious lunch, as our airplane food had finally worn off. It was a sort of glutenous soup with chicken and vegetables, followed by a rather potent sweet ginger and miscellaneous root vegetable dessert – “food is medicine”, as Nittaya said, and this food would be good to settle our stomachs after so long traveling.

24 hours with barely a wink of sleep finally took its toll and we slept for 3 hours as thunderstorms rolled overhead, before awaking momentarily not knowing what day or time it was.

We made ourselves get up and get acquainted with the local area, resolving not to sleep again until that night.

Wandering out into the stunning garden, surrounded by fruit trees of varying types (jackfruit, papaya, noni fruit), Nittaya recommended that we take a look at a local night market, which fortuitously took place on Wednesdays.

Back in the alley that linked our homestay to a more main road, what had been a quiet, still, stagnant stream was now alive with bats swooping low to catch the insects that swarmed from the waters. And so we strolled out into the fading evening, with the remnant puddles and pools of water from the storms under our feet, and after a little searching based on Nittaya’s instructions, we finally found the market.

Located in an alley nestled within Wat Dok Mai (literally called Wat Dok Mai on Google Maps), this long sprawling market had it all! Steaming piles of fresh hot food, vats of various stocks and stews bubbling away, fruits of all colours shapes and sizes. It was great to experience a place that was frequented by locals (the first of many truly authentic experiences which have come to be the holy grail which we seek in every new place we travel to).

We finished the night off with a trip to a local restaurant which came highly recommended for its seafood. As we sat on the shores of the Chao Phraya, feasting on squid, prawns and other vibrant and colourful dishes, we toasted to the end of our first day, and to the very beginning of our travels!

Day 2

Fresh faced and somewhat refreshed, we headed out to the tropical garden, where we joined other travellers for breakfast (it was a soup similar to that we had the day before, with a side of rice and prawns this time and a few cowslip creeper flowers in the broth).

Shortly after breakfast, Pop (Nittaya’s husband) passionately introduced us to his home brewed coffee, and told us its story, from bean to cup. His coffee plants grow on his own plantation in the south of Thailand. Pop explained that coffee isn’t commonly grown in Thailand, as many farmers believe that the final payout is not worth the effort. Pop has done the maths however, and realised that coffee really does sell quite well when it finally reaches the cup.

Pop ran us through a demonstration of how to roast the coffee beans by hand. With only a little stove and a small brass wok, Pop meticulously stirred and blew on the beans as they curled and squeaked in the heat, sending paper thin husks of the beans’ skin soaring high on the acrid smoke. We all had a turn of course, before grinding the roasted beans in a special grinder, then percolating them.

The taste was quite unlike the slow roasted varieties we are used to back home, much stronger and bitter to taste – fortunately Pop had some honey made by bees from his own coffee plantation – knowing the bees pollinated the coffee that we were drinking was just extra special! A highlight was tasting the naturally caffeine-free coffee flower tea, and learning how this had to be carefully picked as not to disturb the normal coffee harvest – it tasted delicious too.

Afterwards, Pop opened the doors to his family home, much of which he keeps as a museum. He informed us that over 100 years ago his Brahman family served at the palace, eventually becoming musicians in the later years. Pop proudly showed us his family’s treasures, asking us to guess what items were used for and letting us handle many trinkets.

Amongst the myriad of gifts and memorabilia from his family were silverware, intricate furniture, wardrobes and chests, a working gramophone and telephone, and weapons such as an WW2 English navy knife (this interested Ruth particularly, as her Grandfather served in the navy).

Donning our hats and suncream (it was a scorching hot 32 degrees day), we made our way into the centre via the trusty BTS bus to Silom. Here we walked through the bustling commercial district to Lumpini Park, where the midday sun blasted back into our faces thanks to the wide, sprawling plazas. We found a spot of shade, where we could see little igrits hunting tiny little fish, and even the park’s infamous resident monitor lizard.

We then began a sweltering and long walk past china town, towards the Golden Buddha, stopping only for an overpriced phat thai in an air-conditioned restaurant (worth it). The Golden Buddha, sitting peacefully atop Wat Traimit, is actually made from 5.5 tonnes of solid gold and is the world’s largest golden statue. 

This solid gold Buddha – or the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, to give it it’s full name – was a hidden treasure for may years. In the 1800s it was swaddled in plaster to hide its true wealth. It was only when it came time to move the Buddha in 1955 that the true value of the Golden Buddha was revealed within its casing.

It was back on the street, outside Wat Traimit, that we learned our first lesson in ‘scams’ and looking after ourselves. As we looked at our map (tourists alert!) a man who seemed to be in charge of the Tuk Tuks approached us asking if we wanted a tuk tuk ride to the river (which by coincidence was our plan).

We had a vague idea that we needed to get to a specific port to head up the river to Wat Pho. From our map, we could see that we could pick up a river taxi from nearby N4 stop. This man explained that the river taxis wouldn’t pick up in that direction of travel and that we needed to go to N1. He offered us a tuk tuk for 20baht. Having not yet ridden by tuk tuk we couldn’t really gauge if this was a cheap scam (we’d read about infamous 10baht tuk tuks in our lonely planet… but Alex had miss-remembered this as 2baht) or genuine, but we decided to give it a go.

We didn’t get dropped off at the N1 river taxi stop at all. Where we actually were, it transpired, was a private boat ride company. We were offered a seat and the lady quoted us 1300 baht for our own boat. We had to laugh at this, whilst this was only £30, this was way over our daily budget. She wasn’t helpful in explaining where we needed to go to get to N1 (we were close) but she didn’t push us into a sale.

We walked away, our tuk tuk driver was keen to take us where we needed to go (we assume because his friend that offered us the ride wouldn’t be getting his commission). It took about 20 minutes to walk to the right place. The official, government taxi boat ended up being 30 baht for us both (35p each) and we got a longer ride as we were further south, so no harm done and we could tick ‘tuk tuk ride’ off our list!

After this we decided no more tuk tuks. It seems like the going price for a legitimate one that won’t take you to a friend’s shop or service is between 70-200 baht, depending on who you ask and how much they are willing to bargain. One driver told us he wouldn’t go to less that 70 baht, as under this price he wouldn’t take us straight to our destination.

Having no real idea how much was too much (and no real way of double checking the price indicated in our Lonely Planet) we decided to go back to using the very reliable public transport system for the rest of our trip (this did involve some long walks as some parts of the city aren’t connected to the public transport system yet.) Oh yes, and Ruth is calling total BS on what the guy leading this scam said about the N4 taxi boat only going south, we stopped at N4 going north on the way to Wat Pho.

It’s when people say stuff like that, which makes no sense when you think about it logically, that you sense is crap but as you are unsure you go along with it, it’s only in hindsight you realise what total crap they have told you, but at the time it didn’t sound right either. 

Wat Pho, or the reclining Buddha, is very impressive! I had visited when I was in Bangkok 10 years ago. As we entered the main temple Alex was wondering where it was and I casually pointed to the huge head (it’s so big you can only see parts of it at a time), his reaction was brilliant. We wandered around the surrounding gardens, peaceful in the late afternoon sunlight, the scent of frangipanis carried on the river’s breeze. The grounds were expansive and we even stumbled upon some monks at prayer, unperturbed by our presence.

From Wat Pho we headed towards the palace. Because of the impending cremation plans for the late king, the palace was closed, as we meandered past women in formal black attire and men in official military uniforms, we saw many black and white drapes being erected.

We eventually made it to Khao San Road, and there ventured for dinner –  not a peaceful experience. Here we found nothing but peddlers pushing their wares of scorpions on a stick, cigarettes and annoying toys. What was once a place enjoyed by locals as well as travelers has become a sticky tourist trap, and in my eyes is not the real Bangkok. This is the only part of Bangkok that many backpackers see. We went as Alex hadn’t been before and I am in no rush to go ever again.

The next morning I woke early to offer food to the monks as the pass by the house barefoot to the local temple. Pop is devoutly religious and we couldn’t offer food the day before as it was Buddhist day and pop spent the day in his meditation room praying and offering gifts for his late mother and other spirits. We gave rice and refreshments which they collected in a basket, following pop’s lead we then knelt on the floor to be blessed. It was a touching experience and one I’m pleased I woke up early for.

Pop explained that Monks do not buy food, but rely on donations. It is also a great honour to have a man enter into the priesthood and many do so for a few years or so. Before Alex awoke I had the chance to practice some yoga on the veranda outside our bungalow. Despite being breakfast for a large family of mosquitoes, it was worth it.

Once Alex was up and about we asked our host about somewhere good locally to swim, she gave us an address and we braved the local motorbikes for the 2km ride to the swimming pool. I sat side saddle as that is what I’d seen the local women do. I would not recommend this! The Olympic pool was quiet and totally off the tourist track, they were still setting up so we sat sipping a cold can of drink in the shade away from the midday sun. The pool was blissfully cool and deserted, save a few local boys playing in the shallows.

After our swim the coolness didn’t last long. Back in the heat of the city we got a taxi back to our homestay and stopped by the local temple Wat Pariwat to feed the fish by the river. Later we visited the local restaurant again and toasted our last night.

We departed early on 21st October and made our way back via the trusty public transport system, more people dressed in black and white now in the last few days before the King’s memorial day. Bangkok it’s been fleeting but we are ready for Vietnam….