Beautiful Burma

16 04 2015

Burma has just been celebrating Thingyan, the Theravada Buddhist New Year. If you think you’ve missed all the action, don’t worry…

In Burma, there’s always something interesting and eye-catching going on!

Early morning markets are the locals’ favourite gathering place. Shopping & socializing seems to be a popular combination all over the world!

Shopping for flowers  Local cooking

Markets

Buddhist initiation ceremonies are taking place in pagodas all across the country. You might even see a Buddhist initiation procession.

Celebrations Festival time

Train stations always attract an interesting crowd.

The slow train  Yangon railway

Waiting around

Sunrises and sunsets are the moments when magic happens!

Sunset fishing Ubein Bridge Stupa susnsets

Schwedagon

Meeting the locals is best in Burma – Generally fun loving, warm hearted people, full of smiles.

Myanmar smiles

KidsFriendly monks

Smiles

Thanaka kids

There’s always something happening in Burma!

Farming Romance

-oh well, maybe not always ;-)

News flowers make me sleepy





The City of Flowers

14 04 2015

About an hour east of Mandalay, the road suddenly climbs, ascending the Shan Plateau. Dusty plains make way for green hills, palm trees are replaced by large oaks and the heat drops to a pleasant, comfortable temperature.

When Burma travellers arrive in Pyin Oo Lwin, they often wonder whether they are indeed still in Burma.

There are Victorian horse carriages riding through town, it gets chilly at night and where are the ubiquitous pagodas?!

Horse and Cart

Burma?

Which way?

Far from a typical town, but nevertheless very Burmese, Pyin Oo Lwin will show you all kinds of fascinating sights, both in town and around.

Flowers and sweaters are the most sold items at the markets, but you should also find some tasty food on offer -if the junior shop assistant isn’t too busy that is.

The shops

Flower stands

Good food

Fresh meat
Enjoy the multicultural vibe at the local eateries and tea houses. Two of our personal favourites are Krishna (South Indian curry) and Barista Khine coffee shop!

Curry & coffee

Eating out

Pyin Oo Lwin’s  most famous feature is without a doubt the National Kandawgyi Garden.

Perfect garden

English country garden

Roses and pagodas

In old British hill stations you would typically find a few red coloured remainders of colonial times.

English house

Strawberies

Cake

Architecture

There are some great day trip opportunities, such as taking the local train across the Gokteik Viaduct, or hiking down to the Dat Taw Gyaint waterfalls.

Waiting around

Waiting for the train

Burmese engineering

A bit of food

The scenery

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 





Money matters: Vietnam

10 04 2015

Money to Burn

Money – how much to bring, where to get it, how to exchange it – is one of the most befuddling and boring parts of any holiday. Nobody likes to think about it, and sources of advice often disagree on the best approach to take.

Let us simplify matters.

In this post, we’ll explain everything you need to know about money in Vietnam – so that you can get back to the exciting business of looking forward to your holiday.

 

Currency (dollars vs. dong)

The official Vietnamese currency is the dong (VND), but US dollars are also widely accepted in areas that receive a lot of tourists. In general, however, most transactions are conducted in dong.

The highest denomination note in Vietnamese dong is 500,000 VND – but be careful, as it looks very much like the 20,000 VND note! Other notes are: 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 and 200,000 VND.

As of March 2015, the following are guideline conversion rates:

1 GBP = 31,700 VND

1 USD = 20,800 VND

1 EUR = 27,800 VND

1 AUD = 21,500 VND

In places where dollars are accepted, you will often find that you’ll pay a higher price than you would do in dong – as the vendor decides the rate of exchange, and usually rounds the price up to the nearest dollar.

 

Changing cash

You can exchange cash in Vietnam at many hotels, banks and bureaux de change.

US dollars are by far the most widely accepted foreign currency for exchange in Vietnam, followed (very distantly) by the Euro. British pounds, Canadian dollars and Australian dollars are not widely accepted, and where they are the exchange rate is usually terrible.

If you intend to obtain a Visa on Arrival (VOA) in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos (more information on getting your visa here), you must bring enough cash to pay for it in USD, as no other form of payment is accepted.

 

Card vs. cash

Vietnam remains a predominantly cash-based society, so most restaurants and shops (with the exception of large international chains) will not accept plastic. Instead, it’s best to carry enough cash for everyday transactions.

Despite the lack of card facilities in most establishments, ATMs are common in Vietnam. The rates of exchange here will usually be worse than you’ll find at exchange desks in banks and hotels, but this is nonetheless a convenient and reliable way to withdraw cash while you’re on holiday.

 

Travellers’ cheques

Travellers’ cheques are something of a dying breed, and we don’t usually recommend them for travel in Vietnam. The alternatives are just so much easier.

If you do opt to use them, USD denominated travellers’ cheques are usually accepted at major international banks in big cities, but usually not in hotels. The process of exchange can also be more time-consuming than exchanging cash, and incur higher charges.

 

So what should I bring?

In our experience, the best and safest option for a holiday in Vietnam is to bring a float of USD (exchanged in your home country), and supplement that with Dong withdrawn from local ATMs in Vietnam. Ensure that you bring plenty of low-denomination US bills ($1 – $5), as these are useful for tipping and bargaining, and keep a wad of emergency cash (we recommend around 200 USD) tucked away somewhere in case anything goes awry.

 

How much should I bring?

We are always hesitant to recommend a daily budget to travellers, as everybody spends a different amount when they visit. A very frugal, budget-conscious traveller might buy very few souvenirs and eat at the cheapest roadside cafes, spending very little – whilst somebody with a bigger budget could easily spend many times more.

Most travellers find that Vietnam is extremely affordable, and if you are travelling on a restricted budget you will find that your Dong goes a long way – especially if you are prepared to haggle. The following guideline prices should give you a rough idea of how much you can expect to spend on a daily basis:

Soft drink or coffee: 10,000 VND

500ml local beer (bottle): 15,000 VND

500ml local beer (draught): 20,000 VND

Taxi (per 1km): 10,000 VND

Bowl of noodles: 20,000 VND pp

Simple restaurant lunch: 80,000 VND pp

Cheap local restaurant dinner (street food): 50,000 VND pp

Upmarket restaurant dinner: 200,000 VND pp

 

Should I tip?

Tipping is not generally the done thing in Vietnam, but in recent years the practice has become more common in areas frequented by tourists. As a rule of thumb, you are not expected to tip at restaurants or in taxis, but if a local guide, driver or boat crew has provided you with good service then a tip would certainly be appreciated.

As a rough guideline, a single traveller might tip a local guide 10 USD for a full day of guiding, with each additional person in a group tipping 3-5 dollars more. For a boat cruise, 1-2 USD per person is appropriate, while a cyclo driver, tuk tuk driver or hotel porter might expect a tip of around 1 USD.

If you decide to tip a guide or driver, it is customary to give the tip (sometimes in an envelope) at the end of the time spent with them.

 

Should I haggle?

Haggling is part and parcel of life in Vietnam – much more so than its more reserved neighbours, Laos and Cambodia – and you will find that bargaining and negotiation is going on all around you. This is a fun way to get involved in local culture whilst picking up some bargains along the way, but don’t get too carried away! At the end of the day, that last 10,000 Dong is going to be worth a lot more to the seller than it is to you.

We’ll be posting some great tips on how to haggle successfully soon. Watch this space!

We hope you found this post helpful in planning your money matters for Vietnam. If you have any other questions or worries, don’t hesitate to contact us via the comments below – or through facebook or twitter.





Thingyan: A survival guide for Burmese New Year

7 04 2015

With Burmese New Year just around the corner, we thought that now would be a great time to cover a little of the history of Burma’s biggest festival – and let you know what to expect if you find yourself caught up in the festivities!

Thingyan, which marks the transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries, is Burma’s anything-goes celebration of the new year. Unlike countries like Vietnam and China, where the new year is based on a solely lunar calendar, Theravada Buddhist countries like Burma celebrate a new year based on a lunisolar calendar (in which months are based on lunar months and years are based on solar years) – meaning that celebrations fall in mid-April every year. These days, Burma’s Thingyan celebrations are fixed to the Gregorian calendar and occur on the 13th to the 16th of April every year.

Water-throwing during Thingyan (photo: wowslider.com)

Water-throwing during Thingyan (photo: wowslider.com)

 

Legendary origins

Thingyan came to Burma by way of India, where it originated as a Hindu festival. During the three-day festival period, Burmese people believe that the king of the nats (Thagyamin, identified with the Buddhist deva Sakra and the Hindu deity Indra) descends to earth from the spirit realm and tallies the good and bad deeds of mankind over the past year. Rather like in the run-up to Christmas in the Western world, children are told that if they have been good their names will be taken down in his golden book, and if they’ve been bad they’ll end up in his dog-skin book (slightly more gruesome than a “naughty list”, but there you go).

Nats are the traditional spirits of Burmese indigenous religion, and although Burma has been a predominantly Buddhist country for many centuries now, a large proportion of Burmese still practise nat worship alongside Buddhism.

Buddhist temple altar

 

Thingyan Eve

The first day of festivities is Thingyan Eve. On this day, Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts (that’s three more than the usual five!), meaning that they can only consume food after sunrise and before noon, they must abstain from overindulging in sleep or lazing around, they must not wear perfume, cosmetics or jewellery, and they must not sing, dance or play music. Not much fun, you might think!

By the evening, however, festivities have begun in earnest – with song and dance performances as well as festival floats making the rounds. Women wear thanaka paste on their faces and yellow padauk flowers in their hair, while men perform songs called than gyat – in which they criticise and poke fun at anything that is wrong in Burma at the current time. This is one of the only times that a blind eye is turned to criticism of the Burmese government, corruption and general societal ills.

Dancers performing during Thingyan (Photo: htootayzar photo news)

Dancers performing during Thingyan (Photo: htootayzar photo news)

 

Water throwing

On the day after Thingyan Eve, called, a-kya nei, Thagyamin arrives in town. A cannon is fired in the morning, at which signal people emerge from their houses to place offerings of flowers and leaves outside their doors and to pour water on the ground in prayer.

It is today on a-kya nei that the Burmese engage in the most famous of Thingyan rituals – chucking loads and loads of water at each other. Everybody apart from monks and pregnant women are considered fair game, as bucketloads of water (sometimes icy!) are thrown in streets up and down Burma. Foreigners are not exempt, so you can expect to get pretty drenched during the course of the festival! Though the main purpose these days is to have a bit of fun, the act of water-throwing symbolises the washing away of sins in preparation for the new year.

Water-throwing during Thingyan (Photo: travelcake.net)

Water-throwing during Thingyan (Photo: travelcake.net)

 

New Year’s Day

After a-kya nei is New Year’s Day proper, when Burmese visit their elder relatives to perform a ritual hair-washing. On this day, Burmese people may make new year’s resolutions and perform good deeds (such as donating extra-tasty food to monks) in order to start storing up merit. Catching fish and releasing them into lakes and rivers is another tradition on this day.

 

Shinbyu

Shinbyu is the Buddhist ceremony whereby a young Burmese boy comes of age by entering a temple as a novice monk for a short period of time. Though only a few boys will remain to become fully fledged monks, nearly every Burmese boy enters a monastery for at least this short amount of time between the ages of seven and 20.

Novice monks in Burma

Novice monks in Burma





My Son: Vietnam’s Hindu legacy

2 04 2015
The ruins of My Son

The ruins of My Son

Such is the overwhelming ascendancy of Buddhism in Southeast Asia today that few people know much about the region’s Hindu past. In actual fact, ­Hinduism came to Indochina much earlier than Buddhism, and its legacy survives in Vietnam most vibrantly in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son.

This post will give you a bit of historical background on My Son and the ancient Cham civilization who built it, as well as an overview of its present condition and some tips on how best to visit the site today.

Entryway

FACT FILE:

Where?   In the Duy Xuyen District of Quang Nam Province, central Vietnam.

What?   The religious centre and sometime capital of the Champa Kingdom, which ruled modern-day south Vietnam from AD 192 until the kingdom’s decline and obsolescence by the 15th century. The monuments themselves consist chiefly of religious sanctuaries, tombs and temples dedicated to Hindu deities such as Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu.

When was it built?   Between the 4th & 13th centuries AD.

Who built it?   The ruins of My Son represent over ten centuries of development carried out by successive generations of the Champa Kingdom.

How big is it?   According to UNESCO, My Son consists of eight groups of monuments comprising a total of 71 individual structures. In total, the site occupies an area of just 1.42 square kilometres (0.55 sq mi).

My Son

History

The Champa Kingdom

The Champa Kingdom is usually dated from AD 192, when the ruling Dua Clan unified the various Cham clans in central and southern Vietnam to form a single state. Under the influence of Hinduism from India, the Cham people (whose descendants survive as an ethnic minority in Vietnam today) developed a rich culture in which indigenous and external influences were combined – including elements from the Buddhist faith as well as from neighbouring cultures such as the Khmers and the Chinese.

The fortuitous location of My Son in a small valley surrounded by high mountains meant that it was favoured by successive kings between the 6th and 8th centuries, and by the later 10th century, most of the impressive monuments still extant at My Son had already been built. In the 11th century the site suffered damage during a long period of continuous warfare, before King Harivarman IV finally made peace and took the throne in 1074, beginning a period of restorations and repairs.

From 1190 until 1220, the Champa Kingdom was occupied by the Khmers of neighbouring Angkor, whose army (under the direction of King Suyavarman II, the founder of Angkor Wat), sacked My Son and destroyed many of its temples. Subsequently, the Champa Kingdom went into a long period of decline, all but disappearing out of existence by the end of the 15th century. The latest surviving inscription to be found at the site of My Son is to King Jaya Indravarman V in 1243.

My Son

Rediscovery and modern history

Following the fall of the Champa Kingdom to the Viet, My Son was largely forgotten and fell into disrepair over the course of the ensuing centuries. In 1898 the complex was rediscovered by a Frenchman named M. C. Paris, and work began by French scholars and archaeologists to study the site’s inscriptions, art and architecture. Their report, published in 1904, continues to underpin scholarly understanding of the area today.

In the past century, My Son saw restoration works carried out by French scholars in 1937, then again between 1939 and 1943, and in 1999 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 440,000 USD allotted to its preservation and upkeep. US carpet bombing in 1969 caused a great deal of damage to the area, however, and unexploded land mines surrounding My Son have beset efforts at renovations and tourism alike.

My Son gateway

Construction

All but one of the monuments at My Son are built out of fired red brick (temple B1 is the exception, made from stone), with stone pillars and decorative sandstone bas-reliefs.

Since the construction of the My Son sanctuaries took place over the course of many centuries, there are many different architectural styles and construction techniques to be found here – some having survived in better condition than others. Art historians have identified six distinct architectural styles at My Son, spanning every period from the 8th until the 14th century.

In terms of construction techniques, not a huge amount is known about how the Cham fired their bricks, made their mortar and executed their impressive carvings. One hypothesis poses that the buildings may have been built from partially fired bricks before being hardened by fire in their entirety – although some scholars refute this idea. These questions pose challenges for renovators, who must use what little information they can glean to keep their restorations true to the original style of the buildings.

It's thought that My Son's reliefs were carved directly into the brick after the buildings were constructed

It’s thought that My Son’s reliefs were carved directly into the brick after the buildings were constructed

In addition to impressive carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology, the surviving buildings of My Son are decorated with written inscriptions in both Sanskrit and old Cham, documenting political and religious subjects such as the foundation of a new temple or the gift of treasure to a god.

Carvings at My Son

Carvings at My Son

My Son today

Despite considerable damage during the Vietnam War, My Son represents a well-preserved and very authentic – if rather overgrown – archaeological site, unique amongst tourist spots in Vietnam. If you’ve recently visited Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Burma’s Bagan plains, you may find My Son somewhat underwhelming! Nevertheless, the surrounding jungle scenery is lovely, and if you are interested in the ancient history of Vietnam you will find plenty to be fascinated by here.

My Son

Visiting My Son

My Son is easily accessible from Hoi An or Danang, both of which are fantastic places to visit and feature very frequently on our Vietnam itineraries. As it is quite a long journey (at least one hour) from Hoi An and there is little signage onsite, we recommend visiting with a private guide and driver to get the most from your visit. The best times to go are generally either early in the morning or later afternoon, when the tour bus crowds have dispersed somewhat and the weather isn’t quite as sweltering as it is in the middle of the day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To read more about the archaeological wonders of Southeast Asia, see our guide to the temples of Bagan, our top ten things to do in Luang Prabang, or our highlights of Angkor Wat!





New Year in Cambodia and Laos

29 03 2015

This month, starting on the 15th of April, we’ll be ringing in the New Year once again in Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

In countries where Theravada Buddhism forms the majority, New Year celebrations are calculated according to a lunisolar calendar, which means that they fall in approximately mid-April every year. Though customs differ from country to country, all are united by the performance of traditional music and dance, parades, the paying of homage at temples, the doing of good deeds to accrue merit – and, most importantly, the throwing of lots and lots of water! – Great fun!

Luang PrabangWhat’s in a name?

Though they take place concurrently, New Year celebrations have a different name in each country. In Burma it’s Thingyan, in Cambodia it’s the unpronounceable Chaul Chnam Thmey, in Thailand it’s Songkran and in Laos it’s known as Pi Mai.

The name “Songkran” can be used as an umbrella term for all of these festivities. Originally derived from the Sanskrit word sankrati, it refers to the transition of the sun into Aries, the first astrological sign in the Zodiac.

Image courtesy of freemages.co.uk

Image courtesy of freemages.co.uk

Dates

Both Lao and Khmer New Year are celebrated over a three-day period (April 14-16 2015), although in reality the festivities usually continue over a rather longer period.

It is actually year 2559 in the Khmer calendar this year. In Cambodia, the first day of the celebrations (Maha Songkran) is when Cambodians head to the temple to offer food the monks and receive blessings, spring-clean and decorate their homes, and prepare New Year food and drinks. The second day (Virak Wanabat) is when people make contributions to charity, give gifts to parents and elders, pay homage to their ancestors and construct sand stupas (more on this later. The final day (Virak Leung Sak) is the day of cleansing rituals and water-throwing.

In Laos, meanwhile, the first day of the festival is considered to be the last day of the old year, and is a day for making festival preparations and washing Buddha statues. The second day is a neutral day, belonging to neither the old year nor the new, when legend has it that the Lao do not age. This is the time when the Lao thoroughly clean their houses, and the water-throwing begins. The third day of the festival is the first day of the new year proper, when Lao families gather at home and give gifts to their elders before heading to the temple in the evening for a candlelit procession.

Image courtesy of WyndhamHollis quirkyguide.com

Image courtesy of WyndhamHollis quirkyguide.com

Water

In all Theravada Buddhist countries, water plays an important symbolic role in New Year festivities and is used to wash away the sins of the previous year in preparation for the new. At this time of year, people respectfully pour water on their elders, monks, and images of the Buddha – as well as using water to wash their homes.

Over the years, this subdued tradition has grown into what is essentially a giant, multi-country water fight, with anybody and everybody fair game for a soaking. Do not expect to be let off the hook because you’re a foreigner! For obvious reasons, leaving your camera at home is highly advisable during New Year celebrations in either Laos or Cambodia.

Laos and Cambodia are both at their hottest in April, with the mercury frequently soaring into the high thirties (Celsius), so you’ll probably find that getting buckets and buckets of water thrown over you is actually a rather appealing idea – but watch out! Some sneaky people like to fill their buckets with ice, so you may get a little more of a shock than you bargained for. Look out for people throwing flour and shaving cream too.

Merit-making

As well as the washing away of sins, New Year is a time for Lao and Cambodians to store up merit – a Buddhist concept which is thought to accumulate as a result of good deeds and translate into good karma throughout one’s life and into subsequent lives. Merit can be earned through making offerings, giving alms and food to monks, honouring one’s elders and through a variety of other New Year traditions.

Image courtesy of Laos Guide

Image courtesy of Laos Guide

Building sand stupas

In both Cambodia and Laos, a popular New Year tradition is the building of stupas or mounds out of sand. These can be built within the temple grounds, on the beach or on the shores of a river, and decorated with incense, candles, flour, flags, leaves, flowers and banners bearing animal images. The castles are built as offerings to Buddha, and it’s thought that this tradition earns merit for the builder.

Setting animals free

In Laos, another popular New Year merit-making activity is the setting free of small animals into the wild. Amongst street food, candles, musical instruments, balloons, sweets and other typical festival fare for sale in the streets you’ll find caged birds, frogs, turtles, fish and more – all ready to be bought and released into the wild in order to accrue merit for the buyer.

Traditional games

In Cambodia particularly, New Year is a time to play games, and you’ll see many groups of friends and families (both adults and children) outside engaging in traditional Khmer fun.

Where can you join in the festivities?

New Year is celebrated throughout the country in both Laos and Burma, and you will come across festivities wherever you go. Larger cities are probably the best fun, as the streets are turned into a giant water-fight and there is plenty going on that you can join in with! Luang Prabang in particular hosts many impressive parades and celebrations over the course of the festive season.





Côn Đảo’s Calling

24 03 2015

Reasons to go to Côn Đảo – by guest blogger, Kirsty Denison

con dao

Côn Đảo is an island of day-job, desk-bound fantasies; a place where cloud-topped, jagged mountains encase bays of turquoise and paper-white sands. Just an hour’s flight from frenetic Saigon, this 50km square patch of paradise is skirted by 15 other smaller islands and islets, making up the Côn Đảo Archipelago of South Vietnam’s Vũng Tàu Province. This is a place at once warmly familiar and other-worldly exotic. The town-centre, with its dilapidated pale-yellow buildings and lamp-lit seafront promenade would not be out of place in Provence, and tell of a complicated past under French Colonial rule. Outside of this comfort-zone however sit the winding jungle-lined mountain paths and unbeatable beaches that make this the most absurdly spectacular place I’ve ever visited. As I walk you through the reasons I believe you should immediately hop aboard a plane here, I’ll share some of the places and sites that made my five recent days here so incredibly memorable.

The Beaches

Imagine a Caribbean paradise beach; all multi-blued seas stretching out to a far-off horizon, cloudless skies, and sand softer than putty. Now take away all other tourists, any sounds and sights familiar to busy holiday destinations, and add a rich green backdrop of jungle wilderness: these are Côn Đảo’s beaches, or at least the ones I found and fell in love with.

The Hidden Beach by Bai Dam Trau

secret beach

We climbed the stacked grey boulders on the left-hand side of Dam Trau beach, hoping for a better vantage point for pictures and general horizon-gazing.  Feeling like adventurers, we reached the (very low) summit and congratulated each other before taking in the views. As Christopher Columbus must have felt when he set eyes upon America, there was a spring of excitement as we looked to the left, and upon what can only be described as every tourist’s dream-find: a  hidden cove completely devoid of other souls (a far-cry from the busy ‘official’ Dam Trau to our right). Two huge yellow buoys emblazoned with “Côn Đảo” sat on the shore, making this beach feel all the more strangely deserted. We’d somehow managed to arrive just in time at low-tide – 2pm the day we were there, but this of course varies – and the sea was far out enough for us to camp-out for a good few hours in a little tree-made cave to the right of the beach. With only the fish and a few strewn rocks for company, this little cove is as close to the deserted island fantasy as it comes.

Getting here involves a multi-staged approach. First, make a spectacular drive along Co Ong Road, past the incredible panoramic sea views, until you reach a little white sign saying ‘Bai Dam Trau’. Turn left, along a bumpy path until you reach some ramshackle huts servicing the ‘official’ Dam Trau beach. The women here will attempt to lure you with promise of fresh coconut juice and snacks, but resist – make your way left, scale the boulder’s shallow heights, and there you’ll find exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Six Senses Beach (Bai Dat Doc)

IMG_1143

These are the sands Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt walked upon during their 2011 stay on Côn Đảo, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this stretch of beach would be off-limits to those paying less than a grand a night for accommodation. The Six Senses Resort seems exclusive in every sense of the word, but bizarrely its beach – or at least the end away from the villas – is open to us, the great unwashed.

To reach this piece of paradise, give the well-paved resort entrance a miss and continue along Co Ong Road until you see a large sign with some beach rules written in amusingly translated English. To the right there’s a gap in the hedgerow, where a rocky slope leads down to the sands. You’ll be greeted with everything you’d expect of a 5* beach; an almost people-less expanse of white sand, curving round to meet mountains that feel as though they’re guarding the secrecy of this idyllic setting. There’s some OK snorkelling to be done in the strangely warm, crystal-clear waters, but the pure relaxation and sense of achievement at freely roaming a first class beach is surely enough for most.

The Drives and the Dives

con dao 3

If viewed from above, Côn Đảo takes the shape of a dog side-on. The main road starts at the airport, the nape of the neck, and flows along the outer edges of the pup’s underside. This is the kind of road that brings out the philosopher – and the adventurer – in everyone who has the sheer luck to pass along it. The front leg is rimmed with a mountain path looking out over the blue expanse of the South China sea, pleasingly interrupted by sight of the other islands. Wild jungle, and occasional pink blossom line the roads, and where there’s not ocean scenes, there’s great mounds of cloud-topped mountain in the distance to compensate. Sunsets – of the fast-moving, sky-burning kind – are best viewed from the south of the island, or the back of the dog’s hind leg. Of course, the only way to really feel these rides with every sense is by motorbike, but there are (expensive) taxis on the island for those who daren’t.

Along the east side of the island – the stomach, which seems appropriate – lies Côn Đảo’s town, where you’ll find a promenade, and neatly ordered, food-stall lined streets. Children, on a seemingly endless school-break, eat candy floss in among the battered French colonial buildings and towering palm trees. Motorbikes are almost  outnumbered by pushbikes – something you can only dream of in nearby Saigon – and drives through the town are relaxing, especially in the evening.

 The Dives

dive 1

Nothing much beats a boat trip across exotic waters, and if you’re going to do it on Côn Đảo then it’s best to do it right. Dive! Dive! Dive!, run by Côn Đảo guru Larry Bernier, is the most reputable on the island and operates a hand-built boat to sail you around the surrounding seas. Our trip took us to the south of Bay Canh Island, where turtles famously nest their eggs from May to November, and to the east side of Hon Tai (although trips vary depending on the day, and weather). Although my dodgy ears hampered my chances to dive, snorkelling was some of the best I’ve ever experienced; rich, vibrant coral circled by some incredible sea-life. My friend returned from a try-dive with a grin on his face, and an eagerness for more.

The History

“Teacher, beware of the ghosts” said my students as I told them of my planned trip to Côn Đảo, such is this idyllic island’s history (and infamous legend) as a brutal penal colony for, most recently, the French in the 1800s, and the Americans until as late as 1975. It is now considered one of the largest and most important historic sites in the country, as well as a memorial area for thousands of Vietnamese who come on pilgrimage to the island to pay their respects to the twenty thousand revolutionists and patriots who died at Colonialist and Imperialist hands. For foreign visitors, it can be hard for the mind to negotiate this horrific past with the tranquil nature of the island, though there are a few sites which can help the curious build a deeper understanding.

6

The prisons, all located along Ton Duc Thang and Nguyen Van Cuu Street, are a good place to start. Inside Phu Hai Prison, we found little in the way of information, just a courtyard flanked by ominous cells with scratched walls, hooks lining the edges presumably for the shackling of inmates. Our basic Vietnamese allowed my friends and I to locate a women’s cell on the right side of the courtyard, used by the Americans for their hundreds of female prisoners. The French kept only one; the revolutionary Vo Thi Sau, who was imprisoned at 14, executed at 19, becoming a national martyr and hero in the process (her grave, along with thousands of others, are located at the Hang Duong Cemetery on Nguyen An Ninh Street where people go to light incense at midnight, and to generally pay their respects).

With the help of workers who had congregated in the courtyard for lunch, we found our way to Phu Truong and the infamous “tiger cages”. Tiny cells with metal grilled ceilings are looked down upon from a walkway where guards would once have patrolled, throwing lime and faeces over the piles of inmates, often stabbing them with spears. Throughout the prison, stone replicas of guards and prisoners enact scenes of torture in place of detailed written explanations, and help to explain some of the brutality that went on here. For those who can face seeing the torture instruments and more gruesome descriptions of the abuse, there’s a large museum on Nguyen Hue Street.

Workers show us out, revealing the stark contrast of the prison's exterior

Workers show us out, revealing the stark contrast of the prison’s exterior

Getting There

To experience Côn Đảo for yourself, the only real option is to fly with VASCO (a subsidiary of the more well-known Vietnam Airlines). For reasons unbeknownst to most, the cheapest tickets are to be found on a Thursday evening, so strategise your booking accordingly and go direct through the website. The flight’s a beautifully short hour in a propeller plane (complete with complimentary water and wet-towels), flying low over Dam Trau beach for landing. Such is the remote nature of the island, accommodation is not as polished as on the mainland, but there’s a good range of options (Con Dao Camping gets a personal recommendation on account of it being cheap, decent, and on the beach).

Côn Đảo is an island in the midst of change; get here now before masses of others discover this beautifully wild location.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 143 other followers