Published April 2023 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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I hadn’t seen my parents for three years, since March 2020, when they left Vietnam on one of the last flights back to the UK before international borders closed due to the pandemic. For two of the intervening years, travel restrictions meant there was no way for us to meet in-person. Then, after borders reopened, in March 2022, my parents were in the middle of major changes to their domestic situation in the UK, so our reunion had to wait for another 12 months. We’re a small family – I’m an only child – and, despite my living on the other side of the world since 2005, we’ve managed to stay in close contact, regularly seeing each other for several weeks every year. The pandemic was by far the longest period in our lives that the three of us had not been able to meet. Finally, in March 2023, my parents got a visa, booked a flight and travelled to Vietnam for most of the month of April. I took some time off work in Sài Gòn and we travelled together in the hot and sunny southern provinces.
My Parents’ Trip | April, 2023
At 78 years-old, my parents are still pretty active and healthy; they’re also good, seasoned travellers. However, long-haul flights and time-zone shifts can take their toll (even when you’re young). Therefore, I suggested they take a connecting flight straight to Phú Quốc from Sài Gòn and I’d meet them on the island. There was also a nice symmetry to reuniting on Phú Quốc, since this was where we’d said goodbye three years ago. I, on the other hand, trying to avoid flying, would take a night bus after work from Sài Gòn to Hà Tiên, where I’d board a ferry to the island.
On a blazingly hot late dry season day, we all met under low-hanging coconut palms on the beach at Gold Coast Resort. In the evening, we took advantage of the happy hour and had cocktails on the pier overlooking the calm seas of the Gulf of Thailand and across to the Cambodian mainland. The next day, after lots of swimming in the ocean, chatting over meals and strolls along the lane to Gành Dầu fishing village, we opened a bottle of Champagne that my parents had brought from the UK and drank it on the beach at dusk with some snacks to celebrate.
After some time on the island – recovering from jetlag and adjusting to the time-change and climate in Vietnam – my parents and I departed for the mainland by boat and spent several days travelling overland through the Mekong Delta, ending in Sóc Trăng Province. Rarely visited by foreign travellers, Sóc Trăng has a large Khmer population and the province is dotted with hundreds of distinctive Theravada Buddhist temples. I’d previously explored the Khmer temples in neighbouring Trà Vinh Province while researching my Temple-Hopping Loop, but I’d never spent much time doing the same in Sóc Trăng. Although the cities and towns in Sóc Trăng are busy, bustling, and full of life and commerce, inside the temple compounds it’s a much quieter, calmer, greener (and gilded) world. While in the fishing port of Trần Đề we also visited a local whale worship temple, where the remains of whales and dolphins are interred beneath altars and the names of fishermen lost at sea are written on the walls. And, of course, this being the Mekong Delta, we ate extremely well at inexpensive local restaurants.
We took the ferry from the Mekong Delta to the Côn Đảo Islands. A favourite destination of mine and my parents, we’ve been visiting the islands since 2009 – there’s even a photograph of the three of us disembarking a plane on display in the Côn Đảo Museum. Côn Đảo is one of the few coastal tourist destinations in Vietnam that has, so far, managed to preserve its natural environment. Given our attachment to the islands, this seemed as good a place as any to celebrate my dad’s 78th birthday, which we did while staying at the fabulously located Orson Hotel.
For a variety of personal reasons, our family likes ports, harbourfronts and local cafes positioned so that you can watch the activites of the harbour: boats coming and going, being loaded and unloaded, passengers arriving and departing, and all the bustle, grit and romance that surrounds ports and sea journeys. Bến Đầm, the island’s main port, is beautifully situated at the centre of a large blue lagoon with green mountains rising all around. Bến Đầm has seen a massive increase in passenger ships and freighters in the last few years. We found an unpretentious cafe near the harbourfront where we could overlook the ships, the people and the commerce while drinking coffee, orange juice, coconuts and snacks. This became our go-to cafe during our stay.
The Côn Đảo has changed a lot since my parents and I have been visiting. Perhaps the most notable change is the island’s dining scene. In the past, there were only a few options for eating out in the evenings; now, the streets are lined with seafood restaurants and street food vendors. Beach House (located many blocks inland from the beach) is a small eatery down an alleyway out of the main town. The menu is an eclectic mix of Western and Asian dishes, including homemade pasta and many herbs and vegetables that are grown on the premises. The whole place is run by just two people.
We filled our days on the Côn Đảo with swimming, riding around the main island, and strolling along the beguiling waterfront road in Côn Sơn town. Hiking trails have opened up across the island, making remote beaches, peaks and jungles more accessible to visitors. We took a fishing boat across the lagoon to walk the Love Peak trail where a chorus of monkeys screamed from the treetops. It’s great to see hiking gaining in popularity across Vietnam. The nation needs more tourist activities like this – ones that are physical, outdoors and encourage interaction with the natural environment.
Towards the end of our stay, we took a speedboat to the outlying islands, something I’d never done before. We visited Bảy Cạnh and Hòn Cau islands: the former has a French colonial lighthouse which we hiked up to; the latter has a good beach and is the only other island in the Côn Đảo Archipelago with a natural water source apart from the main island of Côn Sơn. On the way back, our boat stopped at sea above a coral reef for some snorkeling. Although the coral isn’t extraordinary, the Côn Đảo is still probably the best place in Vietnam for snorkeling and diving. (I’ll write a guide to taking the boat to the outlying islands in the next few weeks.)
Whenever my parents visit Vietnam, the last few days are always a little difficult because all three of us are, in our own way, dealing with the inevitability of having to say goodbye soon. We spent the last couple of nights in my neighbourhood in Sài Gòn which I recently moved to, and had a lovely homecooked meal by Thảo at TP Garden. My parents left early on Saturday morning; I was already teaching my first class of the day by the time their flight departed.