I’ve been intending to make this post for a couple of months now, but instead of complaining about being busy and blah blah blah, I’ll just get into it.
Over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday I had 2 weeks off of work and my buddy Hans and his wife came to visit me from Laos. His wife, Nut, had never seen the ocean in her life, so beaches were in order.
So, off to Con Dao! For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Con Dao is an island in a remote archipelago off of the southeastern corner of Vietnam. This trip was my fourth or fifth time there, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite places in the world. The entire archipelago is protected, outside of the town of Con Son, which only has 5000 people. The marine area around the islands is also protected, and is an absolutely fantastic site for SCUBA diving. It’s a wild, woolly place with lots of wild animals, and long, clean, deserted beaches… For now, that is. There are big plans afoot to develop the place for tourism, and while there used to be only 3 flights a week with only 24 seats, there are now 4 flights a day, on much larger planes. They’re still having trouble attracting the number of guests they’d like, however the first couple of times I was there I was the only tourist I saw on the island. That’s slowly but surely changing as access improves and the word spreads of how beautiful the place is.
However, much like in one of my first posts, “My Hanoi Curse”, I seem to have a Con Dao curse. Every time I go there it’s cold, raining, gray… This time was no exception. The result is that the only really good shots I got were random macro shots and pictures of my girlfriend.
Not only were the weather conditions poor for photography (and for motorbike riding, for that matter…), the local SCUBA shop couldn’t get their compressor running, and so no diving was possible. Unless, of course, I wanted to go with the other shop, Rainbow Divers, and they’re asking $250 for two dives. Insane. Not sure why they believe they deserve to charge more than almost any other operators on the planet at the moment, but I wasn’t buying into it.
I did actually have a fantastic time while I was there, but that was mostly because of the people I was with, and the fact that all of them seemed to be willing to do quite a bit of motorbike riding and swimming in the wind and rain.
So, the couple of images you see here are the only good shots I was able to pull off. Believe me, Con Dao is absolutely gorgeous, and one of my favorite places to visit in Vietnam. I’d like to show you some nice landscape shots, but sadly, I only have shit photos to “show off”, and so I won’t bother.
After a few days on Con Dao we headed back to the mainland, and not too long after Hans and Nut headed back to Laos. Bye guys. That left me with another week free from work, and nothing to do with it. I decided to check out Vietnam’s other large southern island, Phu Quoc.
Phu Quoc has been developed for tourism for much longer than Con Dao has, however the whole northern section of the island is a huge, virgin jungle. It’s also wild and woolly, and quite impressive to fly over. I was extremely excited for my trip to Phu Quoc, and seeing how I was going alone I figured I was going to have all week to explore, plan, and take photos.
Unfortunately I found Phu Quoc to be rather boring, at least as far as a photographer is concerned. I biked and trekked all over the island, and despite the island being quite beautiful, high points on the island are both very difficult to access and heavily canopied in jungle, which doesn’t lend itself to landscapes.
I discovered very quickly that, not surprisingly for me, I was completely put off by the tourist beaches. They seem to be completely gentrified, with areas used only by Vietnamese, areas used only by rich foreigners, and areas used only by backpackers. Also, you might disagree with me, but sitting on a lounge chair, staring at the beach and being served beers and un-authentic tourist food for a week sounds like the most dull thing imaginable. I’d want to shoot myself after a few days.
I seemed to like the parts of the island that the tourists aren’t meant to enjoy. Namely, the town Duong Dong had a few spots that I really liked. The harbor, with the boats coming in and out each day was great for some shots, and the bridge in town was great. The bridge is actually a long raft that’s chained in place, and every few hours as the boat traffic builds up on either side of it, they disconnect it and push it aside to the river banks and allow the boats to come in and out. By the time they push the bridge back in place there’s a great big clot of traffic waiting on either side of river, and there’s a big flood of motorbikes and pedestrians that come over the bridge. I found myself standing on the bridge photographing this event several times. The bridge operators had no problems with letting me stay on the bridge as it was pushed back and forth, so I was able to find a great spot to get photos.
Another thing that Phu Quoc is great for is sunsets. There are many big collections of rocks in the shallow surf surrounding the island, making great places for good sunset silhouettes. You can walk literally 5 or 10 minutes away from the tourist bars on the beach and find yourself almost completely alone, watching the sunset near these beautiful outcroppings of rocks, scratching your head and wondering why all the backpackers prefer to be sat on their ass and listening to British pop music instead of enjoying the quiet and solitude that the majority of Phu Quoc has to offer.
I also dig the market area in Duong Dong, which is right off the northern side of the bridge via the muddy, rutted track they happen to call a road. Markets near fishing ports are always great to shoot in, and if you’re wondering what daily life is like in a southern Vietnamese village, then I suggest to sit down in a cafe near the Duong Dong market and watch life go by for a while… slowly, that is.
One afternoon, after shooting a sunset photo with some coconut palms in the foreground, I decided it was beer o’clock and I severely needed a cold one. This is a common occurrence after a day of riding and shooting photos. There was a little Vietnamese spot opposite the road from where I was shooting, and I was about to pop in there, sit down on a tiny plastic stool and swill several Tiger beers, but then they suddenly started blasting awful Asian club techno at full volume, and I realized I needed a different venue.
I hopped on my rented motorbike and drove further down the beach on the red dirt road that surrounds the island, and came upon the Phu Quoc Pearl operation. I suppose a pearl diving operation isn’t where you’d expect to find a drink, but there was a sign out front saying something to the effect of “good food, great music, cold drinks, and good company.” Sounds good to me!
I had found my local watering hole. I spent the next several nights getting smashed and hanging out with Grant and Jerry, the two New Zealanders that are running the place. Phu Quoc, in my mind, is great for two reasons – the dense, undisturbed jungle with it’s waterfalls and wildlife that can be explored with a bit of effort (but which are bloody difficult to photograph), and Phu Quoc Pearls, with it’s cold beer, good music, and odd conglomeration of customers who have all taken the effort to get the hell away from the tourist bars to find somewhere a bit more removed and interesting. I managed to get another great sunset shot at the little village down the beach from the bar, and a couple of hangovers.
I blew off my opportunities to go diving while I was there, mainly because of the other divers I met along the way who complained about low visibility and seeing nothing but sand while they were there, but basically on the last night I was there, Jerry told me that there are absolutely fantastic places to snorkel around the island, and for $20 and a promise of seafood dinner and beer he’d be happy to show me the spots he goes to swim. This advice, taken from a pro diver who lives on the island, would have been appreciated earlier in the trip, but it’s enough to make me curious to go back. That, coupled with an offer to let me go under water with their local divers and watch how they harvest pearls has got me itching to go back to Phu Quoc and dig a bit further under the surface.
So, there we have it. Maybe not the most exciting adventures I’ve ever posted about, but there were enough decent shots to make a new post nonetheless. I have another post written already, and quite a few good shots from the last couple of months, so more soon. And I mean it this time.