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Friday, February 3, 2023

Exploring the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc and Phuket

Having the plan to closer explore the Mekong Delta for a long time already, I took the good chance this November to fly to Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City from Chiang Mai, which is offering more and more destinations to fly directly to neighboring countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) such as China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam.

Departing Chiang Mai International Airport in the afternoon of November 2 with VietJet Air, I arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport after two hours on 17.50 just in time before it was getting dark. Immigration was speedy, especially as Germans don’t need a visa entering Viet Nam not longer than 15 days. Changing some dollars into local “dong” (1 USD=22.000 dong), I was greeted by a guide from Footsteps Indochina Travel to bring me straight to my requested hotel near the centrally located Ben Thanh Market. The three-star Hoang Ngan Hotel (www.hoangnganhotel.com.vn) offers 55 brand new guest rooms with modern facilities and the White Night Restaurant with an opulent breakfast buffet. On the first night, I walked to the not so far colonial Rex Hotel, where I met friends and had the official Saigon Cocktail at the Roof Top Garden Bar to enjoy the views of nightly Saigon.

The next day was reserved for a walking city tour, including the Temple of the early Hung Kings, the Zoo and the visit of the History Museum in Ho Chi Minh City with objects of the prehistoric period, Bronze Age, Champa culture and the brilliant stone sculptures of the Oc Eo culture of Southern Viet Nam. In the afternoon, the two best examples of classical French colonial architecture were seen, namely Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office. Also, a walk through the former “Rue Catinat” was in order, ending in the Majestic Hotel down at the Saigon River. The memorial of “Tran Hung Dao” reminded me that the Vietnamese were already victorious against the Mongols in the 13th century, later to beat the French and American aggressors of modern times. In the evening, the new amazing Bui Vien Walking Street was visited.

Before leaving to My Tho on November 4, I inspected the popular Ben Thanh Market to have the first Avocado Shake on this tour. Checking out from the hotel at midday, I took the taxi to the bus station of Thao Chau, where the bus to My Tho left at 13.15 for 70,000 dong. Arriving with a delay at around 15.00, I met my friend Mr. Thanh, who owns the travel agency of Mekong Tour. He checked me in at the downtown Chuong Duong Hotel for two nights and then we had a Snake Head Fish dinner at the Mekong Restaurant along the Tien Giang River. Early next morning I joined the gymnastic exercises of people near the memorial of anti-French rebel Nguyen Huu Huan (1830-1875) and then made an island tour of Turtle Island, Coconut Island and Unicorn Island to enjoy a boat cruise through orchards, nipa palms, visiting a bee farm, home stay and the Mekong Taste Restaurant to have delicious fruits.

Coming back to the port, I walked to My Tho Market and ended up at a street café near the old French railway station. Actually, there is not much night live in the cities of the Mekong Delta when compared to Thailand. Next day I checked out from the hotel at midday to continue by bus from My Tho via the new suspension bridges over the Tien Giang River to Ben Tre and Tra Vinh for some 105,000 dong.

After two hours in the bus, I arrived on 17.00 in the bus station at Tra Vinh and was transferred to the city center, where I opted to stay for one night at the Duy TungHotel, which was very near to the Tra Vinh Market. Having a typical “pho” beef noodle soup, I walked down Dien Bien Phu Street to the colorful Chua Ong ChineseTemple. Next morning, I visited the first Wat Kampong Khmer Temple and hired a taxi out to the picturesque Ba Om Pond at Chua Ang, where is the attached Cultural Center of Khmer people. The whole area seemed to be the so-called Wat Angkararajapuri of the 17th century, being a kingdom of the Khmer Krom. Being back to Tra Vinh, I checked out from the hotel and went by a hired taxi for 900,000 dong on Highway No.60 to neighboring Soc Trang.

The taxi had to pass a Cao Dai Temple at Tieu Can and two ferry points over the Tien Hau River for 40,000 dong each. Before reaching the excellent Phu Qui Hotel in the center of the busy town across Hai Ba Trung Street (www.phuquihotel.com), I visited the impressive Khlaeng Khmer Pagoda, one of the more than 100 Khmer temples in the province. Near the widespread Soc Trang Market it was possible to taste the sweet pudding apple. Staying two nights in Soc Trang, I had the whole next day to survey the town and the famous sites of the Khmer Museum near the Khleang Pagoda, the lively Mahayana Buddhist Dat Set or Clay Pagoda, which has eight huge burned and unburned candles to display, Nuoc Ngot Freshwater Pond as the lung of the town, and last not least the Khmer Doi or Bat Pagoda, which features trees with a great number of bats hanging down from the branches. A group of old men is playing characteristic Khmer musical instruments until sunset, while some young girls performed the “apsara” dance. The ancient temple is originally named Wat Mahatuk and there is a sanctuary for the Black Goddess Yeah Mau. The town is also famous for its annual boat races held on the Maspero River down to the sea. Called the Ok Om Bok Festival, it is for moon worship and falls on the full moon day in November to be also compared with Thailand’s Loi Krathong Festival.

Leaving the hotel in the early morning of November 9 by moto-bike, I headed to the bus station and bought a ticket for 150,000 dong to Rach Gia in Kien GiangProvince. The first leg of the bus on Highway No.1 led to Hau Giang and Can Tho City on 10.00 for two hours. At the Can Tho bus station, where rice and fish curry was for lunch, I had to switch the bus for the second leg up to Thot Not and then down along a heavily settled canal road to the new Rach Gia bus station, where I arrived at 15.30. From there I finally reached the Thien Trang Guest House by taxi, which is just 100 meters from the speedboat port for the island of Phu Quoc and near the huge Vietnamese temple for anti-French rebel leader Nguyen Trung Truc (1838-1868). A metal statue is made from him in front of the temple.

Having made a ticket reservation at the port for 330,000 dong with the Superdong speedboat to Phu Quoc on November 10, I was now 280 km away from Ho Chi Minh City and at the Gulf of Thailand as part of the Pacific Ocean. Early next morning, I had an egg and French baguette breakfast and Vietnamese coffee and departed on 7.00 to Phu Quoc, which was reached after two and a half hours. Holidays could start now until November 16.

Arriving at the east port of Bai Vong, I headed to the recommended Hai Anh Guest House near the Ham Ninh Fishing Village, but chose to continue by moto-bike to cross the island to Duong Dong Town at the west coast of Phu Quoc, where I stayed for six nights in the centrally located Ngan Giang Guest House near the Cao Dai Church for 20USD a night (www.ngangiangmotel@gmail.com). Phu Quoc is the biggest island of Viet Nam with 593.5 square kilometers and has approximately the size of Singapore or Phuket in Thailand. Called the Pearl Island, Phu Quoc has a new international airport and there are flights to Moscow, Irkutsk and Vladivostok inRussia and Taichung in Taiwan among others. From Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport “Bangkok Airways” flies to Phu Quoc. Visitors can stay up to 30 days without a visa for Viet Nam. A huge investment and building boom has created luxury hotels such as the Radisson Blue, Moevenpick, InterContinental and Novotel among others. The popular Saigon-Phuquoc Resort and Spa (www.sgphuquocresort.com.vn) offers 100 bungalows and villas, two restaurants and three bars. Diving, snorkeling, fishing and tennis and golf services are available. The hotel is conveniently located along the 20 km “Long Beach” in the south of Duong Dong. Highly recommended is the Anh Duong seafood restaurant nearby. At the natural port, where the Duong Dong River empties into the sea, are the two temples of Dinh Ba Thanh Mu and Dinh Cau. In-between is the unique local restaurant serving fresh seafood, though the new night market is offering more and more alternative eating places. At night, tourists can see the row of fishing boats catching squid under special green lights.

On November 12, I joined a guided sightseeing tour with Red River Tours, when we visited a pepper farm, pearl farm, Sim Wine factory, fish sauce production place, and rural honey farm. Also visited were the scenic Ganh Dau Cape in the northwest part of the island, an impressive temple for the hero Nguyen Trung Truc, a forest park and a big fishermen village at Rach Vem Beach, while on November 13, for 300,000 dong, I took an afternoon bus at 13.30 to An Thoi in the south part of the island to inspect the longest cable car of the world with its 7.899,9 meters built by Sunworld and reach an idyllic beach at Hon Thom or Pineapple Island (www.sunworld.vn). The Coconut Prison in An Thoi with the so-called “tiger cages” was also visited before heading back to Duong Dong on 18.00.

The days in Phu Quoc quickly flew by and I had to leave my hotel in Duong Dong at 5.00 o’clock on November 16 by taxi to be at the Phu Quoc International Airport to catch the early flight at 8.00 back to Ho Chi Minh City and transfer to the international airport for the flight by VietJet Air back to Chiang Mai, which I reached at 13.30 in the early afternoon. I wondered how long Phu Quoc will stay one of the last paradises in the world.

After one week in Chiang Mai to celebrate the annual Loi Krathong Festival on November 22-24, I decided to fly to Phuket in the Andaman Sea to see how the island can be overcrowded without any harm, especially after the cancellation of Chinese tour groups because of the tragic boat accident when 49 people had died recently. Flying with “Thai Airways” via Bangkok to Phuket on November 26, I arrived at 19.40 in the evening and was picked up by a German friend, who was living in Phuket for a long time.

Passing the memorial of the two sisters Thao Thep Krasattri & Thao Sisunthon near Thalang, who had resisted a Burmese invasion in 1785, we headed straight into the Phuket town center, where I booked a room for 550 baht a night (1 USD=32 baht) at the old “museum” Thavorn Hotel until December 3 (www.thavorngroup.com). From there, it was easy to do the daily excursions around Phuket.

Visited and surveyed were the following attractions:

  1. Patong Beach and Soi Bangla: 15 km from town in the west Patong is Phuket’s most developed beach with Soi Bangla as the center for entertainment. There are numerous leisure activities along its 3-kilometer long crescent bay. It is 30 baht to go there by a truck taxi from Ranong Street.
  2. Phi Phi Island in Krabi Province: The most important island visited from Phuket some 40 km east, which is much overcrowded and flooded by daily visitors. It is 600 baht to book a tour there going by a cruise ship from Rassada Pier.
  3. Phuket Museum: The museum in Phang Nga Street is telling the story of the Peranakans (“babas”) being Hokkien Chinese working as laborers and tin miners to become prosperous in the age of tourism. Shown are clothes, foods and accessories. Entry is free of charge.
  4. Rawai Beach and Sea Gypsies Village: Passing Chalong Bay 11 km in the south of Phuket, this palm-fringed beach is good to study about the life of the 2,000 sea gypsies (Chao Le) living there or taking boats to outlying islands. It is 40 baht to go there by a truck taxi from Ranong Street.
  5. Kata Beach and Kata Noi: 20 km from town in the southwest Kata is more family oriented but is beginning to be overcrowded. The smaller Kata Noi further south is dominated by the Kata Thani Beach Resort Hotel, but the best part of the beach is at the rocky end, where is the best place for swimming. To go there is by a truck taxi from Ranong Street for 40 baht, but the last truck taxi back leaves at 16.40. If you go back by a normal taxi, it comes to 600 baht.
  6. Khao Rang and Walking Street: The nearly 500 m high hill northwest of Phuket Town gives the finest views of Phuket Town and the surrounding islands with a bronze statue of Phraya Ratsada Nupradit as the Governor of Phuket during King Rama V’s reign more than 100 years ago. Old Phuket has many renovated houses in Sino-Portuguese style and especially Thalang Street is made a Sunday Walking Street. To go from Phuket Town to the airport, it is 700 baht to rent a taxi.

Departure from Phuket International Airport to Bangkok was on December 3 at 7.20 with a transit stop at the airport and flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on 13.15. It was good to be back at home again.

Written by : Reinhard Hohler

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