It’s fair to say we were left slightly underwhelmed after a month in Cambodia. Yet we remained positive that Vietnam would bring us a new set of exciting adventures and experiences.
We started our journey on the island of Phu Quoc before travelling up to the city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Both Laos and Cambodia had the scars of a bloody and sad past, of course Vietnam was to be the same. There is evidence and memories of war in every direction. At the same time as sadness I also felt the Vietnamese are proud of this history. It shows their strength and pride which they obviously value dearly – how many other countries can actually boast winning a war against the USA?
Despite being off the coast of Cambodia, Phu Quoc is Vietnamese territory. I thought perhaps it would be a mix of cultures but I was wrong and straight away we noticed vast difference between Cambodia and Vietnam.
The island is large and it’s not efficient to explore both north and south ends in just a few days. We chose to stay in the south away from the main tourist areas (as we usually do) which turned out to be a good decision. The aptly commended ‘most beautiful beach of Phu Quoc’ was just a 15 minute moped ride away from our bungalow. Sao Beach may not be a match to the white, empty beaches of Koh Rong but it was still beautiful. Rows of sun beds line the sand which you must rent at £10 for the day. Unfortunately, despite the beach itself being clean, fresh plastic is constantly being washed ashore and floats in the shallows. The Gulf of Thailand seems to harbour plenty of litter that floats from one coastline to the next – something that you just have to accept when beaching here.
One attraction that we probably would have headed to if we had stayed an extra day was the ‘Coconut Prison’. A prison occupied by the USA during the war where horrific acts of torture were put upon the Vietcom. We learned more about this place at the war museum in Saigon.
An Thoi Islands
Another perk of staying in the south of the island is the accessibility to the An Thoi Islands. These are a cluster of small islands that trickle off the southern point of Phu Quoc. There are countless boat trips on offer taking you to a variety of different islands. We decided to do a tour run by Johns Tours which took you to two islands and provided a tasty lunch.
The first island ‘Shadow Island’ was purely for snorkelling. There is reefs and coral all around these islands and shoals upon shoals of fish swimming around them. Though my snorkelling experience is limited this was definitely the best snorkelling I had done. Unsurprisingly a lot of the coral looked fairly bleached but there were still some patches of coral alive and swaying in the water. The towers of coral created a city like appearance with tons of nooks and crannies for crabs and octopus to hide beneath!
A delicious lunch of soup, rice and fish was served to the boat as we travelled to the second island. When we arrived at May Rut island a portion of the guests boarded a smaller boat taking them to the beach. Taking a quick glance at the mediocre looking beach Brad and I decided to get back in the water and do some more snorkelling!
As with most environmental sites, I’m not convinced the best care is being taken to preserve the area. I saw Asian tourists standing on and breaking the coral several times (they know this is wrong since when confronted, quickly stop). Before the first snorkelling stop everyone is told over the loudspeaker that it is against the rules to harm the coral but no one listens and no penalty is enforced.
Cambodia’s food culture wasn’t that strong with only one dish leaving a lasting impression on me: lok lak (beef in gravy with a black pepper and lemon sauce). Therefore I was ready and willing to jump into trying more new food in Vietnam. Already on Phu Quoc Brad and I tried a ton of new dishes and fell in love with them! Mackerel in tomato sauce with fresh bread: absolutely delicious and actually a brilliant and fresh meal to have at breakfast.
Pork ribs cooked in a clay pot: pork forms a massive part of South East Asian diet but not once have I eaten pork as rich and succulent as these ribs! I don’t know what’s in the sauce but it’s so so good.
Potato pancake with egg: another insane breakfast that we ate at our bungalow. The pancake was the creamiest potato food I have ever eaten – just dreamy!
Egg coffee: not a food dish but a type of Vietnamese coffee which involves an espresso, egg with sugar and condensed milk. We have tried a couple of these coffees since our first in Phu Quoc and none have matched up. The best coffee I’ve ever had, hands down.
Ho Chi Minh City
It took us the best part of a day to travel by ferry and bus to reach Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as most people still refer to it. We spent two days exploring this vibrant city and fell in love with it. Unfortunately we were so caught up with absorbing the city we barely took any photos!
That first night we did some ‘research’ and watched Somebody Feed Phil (on Netflix) the Saigon episode for some food inspiration. The following day we went on a self-guided food tour of the city and stuffed ourselves silly on the tastiest Vietnamese food!
Phó: the go-to breakfast food for the Vietnamese. Traditionally the soup is left overnight to cook and then raw beef is put into the steaming broth to cook when served alongside vegetables and chilli. Brad and I went to a small restaurant very popular with the locals called Pho Bo Phu Gia who first stir-fried their beef in garlic and beef fat before adding it to the stock. Needless to say it was incredible. After trying several other Phós I can happily say this is probably the best one I’ll ever eat.
Bun Cha: Actually a dish from Hanoi this sweet, sour soup is packed full of flavour! I have eaten a million and one Asian soups over the fast few months and this is definitely my favourite. The pork patties are fatty and delicious, plus the correct way to eat the dish is to dip spring rolls in the broth – not going to argue with that!
Banh Mí: essentially a sandwich, but with a particular set of ingredients that make it extra delicious. Banh mí stalls are quite literally dotted on every street across Saigon. Picking one that has that extra special touch is the secret! We found a lovely old lady down a picturesque side street who’s ingredients looked fresh and decided to eat there. Oh my word! I’ve eaten many sandwiches in my lifetime (my friends know my love of bread) and nothing even comes close to this woman’s banh mí! We went there again the following day and it was equally delicious (we also tried a couple of other stalls and they were no where near as tasty). The fillings are a blend of butter and pâté, cold cuts of beef, pork or chicken (or a combo), pork ‘floss’, vegetables, a secret sauce and chilli. Banh mí is basically an art and this lovely lady is Picasso.
Chocolate: you may not realise it but Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of Cacau after Brazil! A shop called Maison Saigon in Ho Chi Minh creates a ton of chocolate treats from the Vietnamese Cacau and they’ve done a fantastic job. The chocolate is naturally a lot fruitier than chocolate we would normally eat in the U.K. We ate a brownie and had a hot chocolate, both of which instantly became the best of that thing I had ever had. I was totally chocolated out but didn’t regret a thing!
Cau Ba Quan: a small restaurant which is actually just a small kitchen and some plastic tables and chairs on the side of the road. It’s owned by a Vietnamese lady who lived in Texas for a while and then came back to Vietnam to start her own eatery. The food is a fusion of flavours with a speciality of amazing seafood. Brad’s Cajun river prawns and my clams were a delight! Plus you get the free street entertainment which for us included a fire breather!
Cu Chi Tunnels
Situated around 2 hours from Saigon is Cu Chi, now a popular tourist attraction since it’s home to hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels. These tunnels were a vital part of the Viet Cong’s war tactics. The guerrillas would live, fight and hide in these tunnels. They would sneak up on the enemy, assault a surprise attack and then retreat into the hidden tunnels. The US army would run after them, falling into the gruesome traps that had been laid out in the forest. It was this type of fighting that gave the Viet Cong the upper hand.
The tour was incredibly interesting and gave you the opportunity to go into the tunnels yourself. Let me tell you now, they are tiny! Not to mention super sweaty and pitch black. Oh, and they have been widened to allow us bigger boned western tourists to actually fit in. When we compared the entrance for tourists with one of the original entrances it was quite a shock – the US would not have stood a chance infiltrating these tunnels!
The thought that actually went into the tunnel system was impressive. They had thought of the smallest details which may mean the difference between life and death. For example, smoke would rise from the underground ‘kitchen’. The smoke would need an escape route above ground but this might compromise their position. A very small tunnel would lead to a crack in the surface where water would be placed absorbing the smoke and keeping their location concealed. Genius!
A week of travel full of new tasty food is a good week indeed! Ho Chi Minh City was full of life, delicious food and tons of culture – it rivals Bangkok for our favourite city title. Vietnamese people are friendly and helpful and we have felt very welcome in their country. Out of all the South East Asian countries we have travelled thus far, Vietnam seems to have kept it’s identity the most. The people here are proud of their culture, they have literally fought and died to keep it!
With plenty more exciting places to visit in Vietnam, we continue North.