Phú Quốc – A Prison, A Fish Sauce factory and departing

I had no choice but to be up early on Thursday morning, but that wasn’t a bad thing! It meant I would get to sample the delights of the hotel’s full breakfast experience. The sun was already up and shining when I pulled my curtains back at ten to seven.

A grand breakfast

A lovely walk in the sunshine took me to the resort’s main restaurant, which I hadn’t stepped inside yet. The place was empty – apparently I was the first person at breakfast, which has got to be a first for me!

The buffet was enormous. In fact by the time I’d walked around one side of it I’d forgotten what was at the start of it. There was a massive centre island offering loads of pastries, different kinds of breads, smoothies, juices and cereals.

Then around the edges of that were separate stations for all kinds of hot food – there was someone to cook you omelettes or any other kind of eggs to order, while other stations offered grilled fish, and the usual breakfast suspects – which I was definitely going to go for. I was surprised to see Laughing Cow cheese which I loved when I was a kid!

I was kicking myself for not being up early enough the previous day to have the restaurant’s breakfast then too.

I started with fresh juice and some granola…

…before moving on to a more traditional cooked breakfast with bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, some breakfast potatoes and beans.

Everything was absolutely delicious.

I took a quick step onto the beach again to admire the view then walked back to my room to freshen up before undertaking my first activity of the day!

Phú Quốc Prison and a Fish Sauce factory

One thing I’d really wanted to see during my stay on Phú Quốc was a fish sauce factory. The island’s apparently famous for the ingredient, and as I use it quite a bit in cooking, I thought a trip to a factory would be interesting. If a bit smelly.

Thus I’d signed up for a bike tour offered by the hotel which would not only take me to a sauce factory but also Phú Quốc’s Prison. That explained my early breakfast and why at 7.50am I found myself standing outside the hotel’s gym.

Soon a member of staff turned up and told me to wait inside out of the heat while we waited on the other tour participants to turn up.

After they arrived, we wobbled around a bit on our bikes to check they were ok.

I’ve got to mention it – it was then I first discovered that one of the other people on the trip was a bit… well there’s no two ways to put it… rude!

She pushed her bike up to the guide and said “This seat needs to be lowered”. She didn’t try to do it herself, or ask him if he could sort it please – it was more of an order. After he adjusted her saddle, she got on her bike and said “Let’s go then!” and wobbled off.

The rest of us stood there while the guide gave his introduction to the tour. Which meant the lady had to cycle back sheepishly. Lols! Served her right.

Then we were off – the cycling generating a welcome breeze as we pedalled out of the hotel and on to the main road. I was slightly nervous – and cautious – of the mopeds speeding past us!

A fair bit in front of us the road took a steep, long upturn. As the hill drew nearer and nearer I started praying we’d turn off before we reached it.

But we didn’t. 😩

Thankfully I managed to get up it without having to dismount! I was aware, though, of a certain lady moaning behind me, and when we pulled into the gates of the prison (just after the top of the hill) she was giving off about her gears not working and how our guide hadn’t checked to see how far behind she was.

By now it was really, really hot. After the hill climb, I was a bit sweaty, so I couldn’t wait to get inside the prison’s small exhibition building.

Phú Quốc gained a prison during Vietnam’s colonial era, but in 1967 US Army Engineers built a prison for the Saigon government to hold communist prisoners of war. The prison would, at points, hold 40,000 detainees. Pretty incredible when you think about it.

We walked into the exhibition which unfortunately was only air-conditioned by four fans in the corner of the building, each of which seemed to be aimed at the ceiling. So it took a fair bit of time for my sweat to evaporate – even after standing directly below a fan for a couple of minutes!

The guide left us to our own devices to look around the exhibition which was pretty simple – consisting of photographs and some displays of items in glass cases. It quickly became apparent that what had taken place at the prison was horrific.

After looking at the exhibit we were led outside and along a path lined with barbed wire, towards an area containing huts made from corrugated iron.

Just before we reached the huts we saw tiny, low cages on the ground with crouching mannequins inside them.

These – it turned out – were “tiger cages”, made by knitting barbed wire together on all sides. Of varying sizes, some cages meant prisoners couldn’t lie down or stand – instead being forced to remain in a stooped position. Just moving ever so slightly could lead to their skin being ripped by the wire.

A sign beside the cages told how they were used by the “American Puppet Government” to torture prisoners. They were placed outside meaning prisoners, dressed only in shorts, had to put up with whatever the elements threw at them – sun, rain or fog and mosquitoes and other insects.

I stood for a couple of minutes just pondering how terrible it must have been for the men kept in such conditions.

I heard the guide behind me asking someone if they were ok and turned round to see rude lady had been overcome with emotion and was sobbing.

Just beside the tiger cages was what looked like a shipping container. Inside shocked looking mannequins had their arms raised in a pleading manner. A sign beside the container explained this was a “Catso tiger cage” or disciplinary room.

The sign explained that the container would be closed tightly “therefore the prisoners lacked of breathing air, ate and drank sorrowfully, peed and pooped right at the cage, faced icy feelings at nights”.

After taking all that in, we moved towards the corrugated huts – which formed part of the B2 Zone of the prison. Another sign explained that this part of the prison had seen a couple of jailbreaks by “courageous, wise and unyielding revolutionary cadres” using escape tunnels.

Because of the wordy language like that you really had to concentrate when reading about the prison – it did make it a bit harder to learn about what had taken place there.

Inside most of the huts were grim representations of different torture techniques used against the prisoners. The picture below shows one of them – let’s just say they were horrifically imaginative.

After wandering around looking at the different mannequin displays, a staircase took us below ground. There was what was either an actual tunnel built by prisoners or a reconstruction of one – I wasn’t sure which.

I was surprised by just how narrow the tunnel was though. Moving along it must have been really difficult, and creating it in the first place must have been excruciatingly slow, hard work.

Emerging from the tunnel area, another group of mannequins were shown making a dash for freedom.

Walking around the corner we passed a cafe and some small souvenir shops before we were reunited with our bikes.

I guess I’d been hoping for a bit more information about the background of the prison and individuals held there – instead, the focus was very much on the different techniques used for torture and escapes. It was still interesting to visit, but I think you may get more from the experience visiting on a guided tour rather than just relying on the signage.

Next up was our trip to a fish sauce factory! Which I was looking forward to. We carefully navigated crossing the wide road and turned back towards the hotel, and that steep hill. The lady and her partner started cycling hard to get up the hill, as a result overshooting the entrance to the factory, so we had to yell at them to turn around and come back.

We parked up our bikes just outside the entrance to the main building.

Inside were vats presumably filled with fish sauce.

Our guide turned around and said, “fish sauce is made from anchovies and salt”.

And that was it!

Lololololols! I was a bit gutted as I’d been hoping for more of an explanation of how fish sauce was made – and at least a demonstration of the process! With hindsight, I should have asked. Instead, I stared at the vats for a minute and then wandered into an adjacent building.

It sold lots of differently sized bottles of fish sauce plus what was literally a million different varieties of dried fish and other things from the sea. The guide had wandered in so I asked him about some weird looking objects which he explained were different kinds of sea cucumbers.

He then asked if I was going to buy anything – I decided fish sauce was not an ideal item to pack in a suitcase in case of breakages so explained no, and when we both walked outside I saw everyone else was already saddled up and ready to head back to the hotel.

I don’t think they’d even stepped inside the bit with all the dried fish on display!

I’m pleased to say once again I made it up the hill without dismounting, and soon we were back at the gym we’d departed from just an hour and a bit earlier.

Again the lady gave off about her bike saying that it wasn’t safe and should not be hired out again and should have been checked before we left. The guide then asked us if we writing a review of the hotel to leave some positive comments about our tour. I braced myself at this point for the lady to explode but she kept her mouth shut!

I’m not sure I’d go as far as to recommend the tour. Because we were just left to our own devices at the prison and the factory you could just borrow a bike from the hotel and go solo without missing out on anything.

I was particularly disappointed by the fish sauce factory, however the explanation we got was very lols due to its brevity so I do award some points for that! And our guide was very pleasant and good-natured.

I walked next door to French & Co and had a quick iced coffee to refresh myself after the bike ride. A very smartly dressed man came in and started chatting to me about my stay at the resort, and what I thought of the food in particular. He handed me his business card – it turned out he was the “Assistant Director of Food & Beverage”. I thought it was quite nice he was checking up with guests. Back at my room I sat outside and caught up on emails, checked my finances and wrote a bit more of my blog.

I know that sounds boring but it was actually very chilled out sitting in the shade on a hot day with a beautiful view! I was still really full from breakfast, so didn’t bother with lunch, and after I’d had enough of writing I headed back to the beach for a bit more sun.

Before I knew it it was fast approaching 3 o’clock – time for my next activity at the resort.

A Vietnamese cooking class

I’d booked myself on to a cooking demonstration at the resort’s main restaurant. I didn’t know what it would involve or what to expect, as I pulled open the heavy door and stepped inside the air-conditioned building.

A lady asked if I was there for the class and asked me to take a seat before bringing me a refreshing drink with a grass straw.

About ten minutes later we (there were about eight of us) were directed through to one of the cooking stations from the buffet that morning. Two chefs, dressed in spotless whites were waiting for us in front of lots of bowls of ingredients.

One of the chefs explained that we would be cooking…..

Vietnamese pancakes! A dish I’d become very familiar with on my stay. I was slightly disappointed as I thought they’d be really easy to prepare but reckoned it would still be fun anyway.

I was paired with a lady from Seoul and we got underway, the chef explaining the different ingredients while we read along on a simplified instruction sheet.

Each pair of participants had individual stoves we could cook on so after making our batters, we got cooking – the lady from Seoul going first in our instance.

After the filling of seafood and julienned vegetables were cooked, they were placed aside and the batter was rolled around the pan to cook the pancake. The lady did quite a good job, and then it was my turn.

I did not do as good a job! My partner had had some problems controlling the heat on the induction stove, and when I took over I wasn’t quite sure what temperature the stove was at. But I’m not going to blame that! My pancake ripped a bit when I tried to flip it, but it still turned out kind of ok…

There was a quick explanation of how to make a dipping sauce to go with the pancake, and then the chef showed us how to serve the pancake in a rice paper roll. Video below!

After tucking in to our very fresh food, the chefs presented us all with an apron with “Lamarck University” on the front – it was a really nice souvenir of the class and my stay at the hotel!

I wouldn’t say I learned loads from the class, but I’d had fun and will be hanging on to the apron.

After saying our thanks and goodbyes I headed next door to French & Co again for a cake I’d spied on my visit earlier in the morning. Look at this!

A little honey cake which was BEE-licious. Geddit?

Setting off for Seoul

Back at my room, I began to get that sinking feeling you get when you have to pack up and leave someplace you really don’t want to leave.

I’d loved my stay on the island, and specifically at the hotel – I felt the most chilled I had in ages, which was exactly what I’d hoped for when I’d booked my stay.

It was time to depart, though, for the next part of my trip!

A knock on the door signalled the arrival of a porter to help me with my luggage, and we were soon trundling along to reception.

After checking out I sat and waited for my taxi driver to appear. He’d texted me via Line at four o’clock that afternoon to ask if I was ready, but unfortunately that was a whole two hours before I’d asked him to pick me up, and I wasn’t.

As six o’clock came, his car pulled up in front of the hotel and I bade a sad farewell to the JW Marriot. Night had already fallen as we made our way towards the airport.

Yet again there were quite a lot of laughs on our journey thanks to Google Translate, as I was asked if knew the Queen or if I had a billion dollars. Unfortunately, neither of those are true!

I also learned the driver thought he’d never be able to afford his own car, and that he’d also been sitting at the hotel since 4pm which made me feel terrible! 😩

Before I knew it we were at the airport. Yet again I gave him a 50,000 dong note in addition to the fare, and yet again he handed it back to me. I insisted on him taking it and he agreed to pose for a selfie. It had been really nice to meet someone living in a very different place and have a good chat with them!

My flight to Seoul – my next destination – meant a quick stopover in Ho Chi Minh, during which I’d have to not only collect my bag but change terminals too – walking between the domestic and international buildings. I checked in for my flight to Ho Chi Minh and made my way through security before wandering around Phú Quốc Airport’s numerous souvenir shops.

And it was there I saw the same Buddha statues I’d picked up in that nice souvenir shop in Ho Chi Minh. They must be churning them out by the hundreds of thousands – not as exclusive as I’d thought then!

There was also a pearl farm shop for anyone wanting to make a last-minute purchase.

After wandering around for ages trying to find the lounge, I eventually spied the entrance tucked away in a corner.

The lounge was pretty basic… it was a big wide-open seating area with some computers and a not very exciting buffet…

…while the cold drink selection wasn’t anything to write home about either!

What was impressive though was the WiFi – it was superfast! A speed test showed download speeds of 48Mbps which was perfect for downloading some episodes of EastEnders to watch on the plane.

Soon it was time to head down to the gate, where I wandered around the shops again – spotting some familiar-looking but not 100% authentic goods!

Onboard I settled back for the short hop to Ho Chi Minh, reading a copy of the Vietnam News…

…and trying – unsuccessfully to complete the paper’s sudoku. I never managed, despite hanging on to it for several days 😩

A quick transfer at Ho Chi Minh airport

After an uneventful flight, we landed at Ho Chi Minh’s domestic terminal at twenty past nine. That gave me two hours and fifteen minutes to disembark, collect my bags, change terminals, check-in and get through security. Anyone that knows me knows I love to get to the airport well before a flight so that two hours and fifteen minutes was cutting it fine for me!

My heart sank too when I saw that we’d have to get on a bus to take us to the terminal. However! As soon as myself and the two or three other business class passengers had boarded the bus, the doors slammed shut and we sped towards the terminal. Result!

My bags arrived at the belt relatively quickly, and just twenty minutes after landing I was outside, heading towards the international terminal.

When I arrived at the departures area I quickly realised that when I’d been looking for a shop on my arrival at the airport a couple of days previously, I hadn’t actually come across the departures area. Instead, I’d ended up on the weird floor below departures. The check-in floor was massive, and there were plenty of shops and cafes.

By now there was still just under two hours before my flight but I was still flustered – which is my excuse for trying to check-in for my flight at the Korean Air desk rather than that of Vietnam Airlines. I just saw the Skyteam logo and went for it!

Eventually, I found the right check-in desk, dropped my bags and began to relax a bit. Until I saw the queue for security – this was half of it.

Thankfully tucked around the side of that was a fast track queue which I had access too, so a couple of minutes later I was walking into what looked like a very recently refurbished Vietnam Airlines lounge.

Unfortunately, it was absolutely heaving – there were no seats anywhere. I asked at the desk if there was another lounge I could visit instead, and a lady offered to accompany me there.

That went slightly wrong though! We got in a lift, she pressed a button, we went down a couple of floors, and when the doors opened we were greeted by an empty corridor.

Back upstairs, we walked to another lift, and eventually I arrived in Vietnam Airlines’ other international lounge.

Unfortunately this one hadn’t been refurbished recently – it wasn’t nearly as nice as the first one I’d visited, but it would do the job!

I just had time to sort out some computer problems my Mum was having back home and tuck into a small selection from the rather random buffet (garlic bread and a hard-boiled egg anyone?) before it was time to board my flight to Seoul.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this flight – taking off at 23:35, it was due to land in Seoul at 06:30 so was an overnight flight. At only five hours long, though, getting a decent sleep would be tricky. By the time dinner was served I’d be lucky to get a couple of hours sleep.

I made myself comfortable in my seat which was very pleasant…

…and browsed the menu for dinner, deciding to plump for wrapped beef in lemongrass with rice noodles.

As we waited to depart, I studied the other passengers in business. Seoul’s known for being a very fashion-forward city, and some of my fellow passengers were very fashion. A latecomer to the flight looked like a K-Pop star, dressed from head to toe in a tight brown check outfit topped off by a black face mask and khaki bucket hat.

An elderly lady in brightly coloured clothes sported a pair of Balenciaga trainers. Fashion!

Less than 30 minutes after takeoff, my starter arrived. I’m struggling now to remember what it was actually, despite having a copy of the menu to hand! I think it was egg roll with pork and fish roll in piper lolot leaves.

That was followed by the beef which was really tasty.

My meal was washed down with a couple of glasses of Chablis – purely in the hope they would help me get to sleep of course!

As the cabin lights were dimmed, I put my seat in the sleep position, wrapped myself up in my blanket and after a bit of a struggle fell asleep. When I awoke the next morning, I’d be about to land in another country I’d never visited before.

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