Two weeks ago I left Saigon for some quiet time on Con Dao. I needed a tranquil place to recover from jet-lag and exams. Turns out it was the perfect place. So I didn’t write a blog post for two weeks, and my good camera never came out. The first week was a blur of bad sleep and amazing rainstorms. The rain there roars down, and when you think it can’t get any louder it does. The town is on the east side of the island, most of the island is a national forest. You can see the black clouds coming over the mountains and you know you have about five minutes to find shelter. I ignored them one day, when I was floating in the sea, and rode my scooter home through a downpour so heavy it was like riding along the bottom of the ocean.
I stayed at an inn with only 8 guest rooms. There were six women running the place, and it was like having 6 moms. They knew my breakfast order, kept refilling the fruit bowl in my room so much it became a challenge to eat it all before it spoiled. After being there for a few days I became part of the landscape. People starting saying hello to me. The little girl who sold lottery tickets on the beach would run up to me with that day’s offering. I never did win, but the tickets are very attractive.
The national park is home to some bad monkeys. I went there once and saw no reason to go back. The best beach was by the airport and I spent most days there. There are only a few flights a day to the island, you can mark time by the flights arriving and leaving. There’s a restaurant there, with showers and hammocks and shady places to lounge. They serve up enormous piles of calamari, fresh from the sea. At night you can see the squid boats just offshore with their giant lights, luring the poor things up to the surface to become my lunch. They cook and eat everything here. I’m having a vegetarian time here in Saigon. The number of different creatures I’ve eaten in the past two weeks is overwhelming.
Con Dao was originally a prison island, when the French were in charge. The U.S. then added one more prison while they were here. The grim history of the island keeps a lot of people away, and the place does feel heavy with ghosts. There is a martyr’s cemetery on the island, and people fly in from all over Vietnam to visit it and pay their respects. They tend not to go to the beaches. I visited all the prisons, there were a lot of rainy days to fill. The American Prison had such an air of grief I couldn’t enter the buildings. It was as if a strong current of suffering was flowing out from the buildings. I took one picture from outside the door of one of the cellblocks, and it was hard to stand in the flow even for the short time it took to take the photo.
On the south side of the island is the fishing village, and great views of the sunset. Riding back into town after dark the road on the south side of the island is populated with bats. Busy hunting bats. They were swooping in from either side of the road, and some of them coming straight at me. Smaller than Australian fruit bats, bigger than British pipistrells, and really scary coming at you out of nowhere. The ride back from the airport beach was around the north end of the island, no bats there but lots of frogs leaping across the road, and fireflies.
I never wanted to leave the island, but today was the day. The flight and AirBnB booked and paid for. I had an inauspicous start to my time in Saigon today. First I choose the wrong taxi rank at the airport and paid nearly London prices for the ride into town. Got to my AirBnB and at least that was fine. Then tried to use Grab taxi for a cheap ride to the English language bookshop I’d found online. He took me halfway there and dropped me off in a giant roundabout, not sure why. I walked the rest of the way, being shooed out when I tried to visit the giant pink Catholic church. Also, no idea why. When I found the bookshop it was a hole in the wall with some mouldy used books, at the end of a muddy alley. Not what I was looking for. I decided to walk back into the centre of town, rather than wrestle with another disappointing taxi experience. There was a tasty looking Bánh Xèo place down an alley, but I thought my luck had been so bad thus far that I shouldn’t risk it. I walked back to the centre of town, past the beautiful post office (Bưu Điện), and found the book street and the book I was looking for. Ah, a change in my luck! Then I found the western supermarket, so I could restock my peanut butter and chocolate supplies. Turns out there are quite a few people making chocolate here now. I have a visit to the Belvie factory lined up, and the Marou shop. There may be more places to visit, how exciting.
I dumped my finds back at my room and went to the restaurant next door for some dinner. It’s called Secret Garden and has a vegetable plot in the back garden seating area. There was someone working in the garden when I sat down, and it took me a few minutes to figure out that he wasn’t weeding the garden, he was trying to catch a rat. Tasty. Despite that the food was very good, and the mint tea came with slabs (really they were too big to be called anything else) of dried ginger and a bowl of honey.
I’m back on my terrace/minigolf course now. It’s started to rain, which sounds lovely. There’s also some sort of concert going on down the road, that sounds less lovely and I hope it stops soons. This is a blurry post, but “Hi!” I’m back from paradise. My internet connection is weird and I can’t see how the photos are showing up, or edit them. I’m going to publish this anyway, and tomorrow I can fix it up at a coffeeshop with decent wifi. Maybe from the Marou Chocolate shop. Yum.