Hoi An is a truly wonderful place. The Ancient Town is its deserved epicentre, but there is plenty around and about to keep one amused whilst that latest garment is being made. Transport options are plentiful and cheap. For USD$6 I got my hands on a motor scooter and convinced Mrs Bladdamasta to take a the 6km spin to An Bang Beach. It’s a bucolic trip once you’ve passed the last tailor shop.
The beach looks like it has been pounded recently. On the day there was an ugly maelstrom of currents and crumbling barrels churning up the brown water. I was fully prepared for a dip, and the water was a pleasant 23 degrees (I reckoned). There was a filthy undertow, though and the lifesaver didn’t appear to be on duty. Mrs Bladdamasta’s never been keen on the Puberty Blues pose on the beach watching her fella anyway, so it was off to lunch.
When you arrive at a Vietnam Beach you are generally waved at by the proprietors of restaurants that offer parking and a chair on the beach. We passed them by as I was aiming for the delightfully named “La Plage”. It’s at the of the path on the right as you face the beach. Mrs Bladdamasta has been missing her Sauv Blanc and La Plage served it by the glass. A Frenchman owns the joint and that is reflected in some of the options on the menu. The Snapper and Shrimp baguette was one of the highlights of the trip. We could have stayed for ages, but it isn’t wise to ride a scooter with diminished faculties in Vietnam. Next time in Hoi An, I’ll be visiting La Plage in a cab. Such a blissful place.
On the way to the less attractive Cua Dai Beach (which has been ravaged by erosion), I spotted my first Bia Hoi – “Bia Hoi Pho Co”. I returned later in the afternoon and grabbed the venue’s first beer of the day. It is pumped by hand from a box. The beer screamed home brew with a faint funk to the aftertaste and it had that low carbonation of a hand pumped beer. Hopefully not my last. I think that Bia Hoi Pho Co might rock later in the evening. As I was leaving sound equipment big enough to power Aerosmith was being shipped in. Funny place.
I’ve ventured to the heart of the Mekong Delta in a town called Vinh Long. We’ve covered a fair amount of territory in this part of the world travelling in a minibus from Ha Tien to Can Tho and have now spent an afternoon and morning in and around Vinh Long. It’s all about the rivers that cris cross the countryside. Towns are based on river junctions and there’s as many people on the water as there is on land.
There’s plenty of bridges but in some parts of the Delta the bridges can be too far away and the locals rely upon ferries to make river crossings. We hired bikes to ride on an island opposite Vinh Long and managed to experience one first hand. They are fabulous. There’s no time table. Two ferries just go back and forth. Whilst a couple of pedestrians make the journey, the bulk of passengers are one motor scooters. As the ferry nears shore, the locals fire up their bikes like it’s the start of Phillip Island. We witnessed at least four similar operations around Vinh Long and Cai Be. There is a very big bridge that crosses the Mekong some way west of the city, to which Australia contributed 66% of the cost and plenty of the expertise. Doesn’t appear to have dented the support for the Vinh Long bike ferries.
Whilst it isn’t dry, this part of Vietnam is pretty ambivalent to booze. There’s no Bia Hoi and the locals just love their Ca Phes and smoothies, shakes and coffee. The hotels in Can Tho do do cocktails and you can get a beer most places where food is served – but there’s almost no stand alone bars. If you do find yourself in Can Tho, the best place for a beer (333 or Bia Saigon) or cocktail is the rooftop bar of the Kim Tho Hotel. I took in the sun set and my wingman and I were by ourselves. 360 degree reviews can be had, and they’ve conveniently placed high stools all around the rooftop’s edges. No OH&S timidity here. I visited again in the evening and the night time views, particularly of the river and the party boats are quite fine. 12 stories up gives great perspective.
There’s a number of ways to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. By plane, by road or by speedboat. The Bladdamasta family had already experienced a minibus ride on Cambodian roads and a plane was a tad extravagant. Truthfully though, it wouldn’t be true to the Back of the Ferry creed if I didn’t force the family onto a 6 hour voyage. That said – 5 to 6 hours travelling across a freshwater sea and down a river is far more appealing that being cooped in a bus for not much less time.
Tickets are purchased in Siem Reap for USD$37 a head and include a pick- up at your guesthouse. Don’t worry if the mini-bus arrives at your hotel after the scheduled time of ferry departure – the ferry won’t leave until the ticketed passengers arrive. Also don’t be concerned if you think there is no possible way the mini-bus can accomodate you andcyour family of six’ luggage in what looks to be an already overloaded van. The driver is skilled in bag and human Tetris and even after we were on board he picked up another 3 backpackers. Once you arrive at the wharf, grab a seat downstairs for your luggage. Other than using the W.C., this is the last time you should go downstairs. It’s fetid and humid , with no ventilation.
The roof is where the action is. It is about 6 feet wide with quite small rails on each side. These rails double as a handrail for those using the running board to go down each side of the speedboat. We grabbed a spot close to the front which had a small alcove that you could hide behind from the head wind. This might sound a little risky sitting on flat roof motoring on a speedboat, but there was never a rock or roll to be had. The speedboat powers its way to Phnom Penh very smoothly.
The first two hours of the journey take you across Tonle Sap Lake and often there’s only water on each horizon. The occasional fishing boat is passed, but it is a flat open lake. Couple of hours in and the Tonle Sap Lake turns into the Tonle Sap River. Things get really interesting. Plenty more boats and a substantial number of houses and boats go past. Fascinating stuff. For the most part it’s pretty rural, but every now and then you sail through a big community, temples and all. Friendly waves (the human kind the whole way). For the first couple of hours I sat on the roof. After a while, I jumped down to the running board and hung on to the hand rail. That made for an extreme moment of Side of the Speedboat drinking. Unfortunately the Back of the Speedboat is not a great place. (I sculled that beer). Black smoke sails over your head and the engine thunders away from its exposed position.
Beer is everywhere in Cambodia. Every milk bar, restaurant, B&B and corner store stocks it. There is a real battle going on judging by the multitude of shopfront advertising. Angkor, Anchor and Cambodia beer are the big three, with Angkor (My Country, My Beer) probably winning out. There’s very little difference between the 3 varieties of Pale Lager. There’s two types of beer sold. Pale Lager – 5% and extra stout at a uniform 8%. I wasn’t able to get my hands an Angkor Extra Stout, but I had a crack at Black Panther. You are exhorted to “feel the power of the Black Panther. It was pretty harsh to be honest.
Prices are awesome. $1 cans and $2 long necks. Most restaurants and bars offer happy hours that are much longer than one hour. 50 cent draft handles is a popular price no matter where you are. As pteviously mentioned, the record was 25 cents from a bar in Siem Reap.
Phnom Penh also offers plenty of decent venues to enjoy a beer. Le Grand Mekong was the pick of those that I tried. 8 stories up and a sensational sunset view over the Tonle Sap and Mekong junction.
I took Mrs Bladdamasta for a bike ride to some markets in Phnom Penh. I’d hired a tandem and we gave the good citizens of Phnom Penh some entertainment as we huffed and puffed our way along the river bank. Phnom Penhians were whipping their phones out to get a photo of the two laoweis (yep, I know that’s Mandarin and not Cambodian) pedalling amongst tuk-tuks, (single) bicycles, vespas and trucks. Anyway, after a while Mrs B was querying whether I knew the way to the markets when I confessed a more circuitous route than promised. Just then the Kingdom Brewery sign came into view and the penny dropped.
We popped in the front door and I enquired about the tour. “Half an hour” was the reply. Mrs B snorted derisively. “Can you do it in 10 minutes?”. Looks were exchanged, a call was made. “Yes, sure”. So the fastest ever version of the Kingdom Brewery tour took place. 2009 was when things started and I think they said that the first beer was sold in 2011 (she was speaking very fast). The brewing equipment came from the Czech Republic and the bottling machines came from Italy. There’s five varieties – Dunkel, Dark, Max, Pilsener and gold. Most of their beer is distributed in Cambodia, but they export the Pilsener to Australia, Italy and Canada! Our guide was impressed that I’d actually tried the Pilsener in Australia.
It’s a big brewery, with canning and bottling facilities. They are making inroads with a number of Kingdom signs up around town on some classy looking establishments, as opposed to Angkor, that’s on even the smallest roadside convenience store. The climax of the tour is to have a beer (actually you get two beers for the $6 ticket, but Mrs B would not countenance any impairment of faculties on the Phnom Penh roads) in what is a seriously appointed bar. It overlooks the Tonle Sap and has great views to Phnom Penh’s burgeoning skyline. Mrs B was grateful for her Brunty’s Cider and I sipped a brewery fresh draft Pilsener. Just lovely. Definitely could have done with second given the energy expended on the ride, but Mrs B was now champing at the bit for the markets. Kingdom – worthy of a visit the next time you are in Phnom Penh.