After a couple of lazy days and nights on Nam Du, Loc and I decided it was time to move on. The obvious thing was to head back to the mainland but Loc had a hankering to check out the island of Hon Son, the first Superdong stop on the way back to Rach Gia. A snap decision made, quickly followed by a change to our ferry tickets and we were at the pier in time to grab the 10.15am Superdong departure.
Earlier that morning, we decided to tackle one last activity, an ascent to the highest peak on Nam Du island for the iconic view from the lighthouse and hopefully some nice snaps. It’s quite a steep ride on the little motorbike, particularly as it had to carry Loc and I and all our luggage. The last 150 metres were just too much, and I rode the bike while Loc finished on foot. I rounded the corner to the small military base that looks after the lighthouse hoping to find a parking spot from which we could scope the lighthouse and views. Instead I was greeted by a stern faced chap, military of course, who directed me to turn back immediately. Loc caught up, confirmed that the area was off limits due to some operational reason, and that was that. Dawdling a bit for some miracle to occur, we eventually made our way down to a lower summit and got off a few so-so shots. A quick check of the clock and we made a sprint down to the pier to board the Superdong for the short ferry ride to Hon Son.
In contrast to Nam Du, Hon Son is just one large rock of an island jutting out of the Gulf of Thailand; not the collection of pebbles sprayed about at the end of the line that is Nam Du. Because of its monolithic distinctiveness, Hon Son is recognisable for some distance as the Superdong approaches. Docking at the pier at the main town of Lai Son, there is usual scuttle of folk boarding and disembarking, with the usual frenzy but also with a surprising amount of order. Within a few moments, Loc has made contact with the local fixer, also a Mr Sau, a motorbike has been secured and a recommendation for accommodation gathered.
We lingered a while with iced coffees, at the huddle of tarpaulin covered shops where the pier meets the town proper. It was the middle of the day and no one appeared to be in a hurry to get anywhere soon. The town of Lai Son spreads away from the pier in both east and west directions, constrained by the ocean out front and the monolith of rocky mountain that appears to take up just about all of the land mass of the island. All residential area is limited to a sprinkle of small villages dotted along the hem of the island; apart from a couple of small gardens close to the villages, all economic activity revolves solely around fishing. From what we could gather, electricity on Hon Son is similar to Nam Du in that it is on for restricted periods in the evening. However part of the island was completely cut off from electricity due to some works, including the main town, which meant that you needed access to a generator. Anyway, this is a working island, there is nothing here yet that approaches anything in the way of tourist infrastructure, and we were happy to be on Hon Son for that reason.
Finally, we decided to check out the accommodation recommendation, a small guesthouse of two rooms perched above the town; the bed covers were a disturbingly bright candy red, but bearable, the windowless chamber below our room bearing a karaoke sign was rather foreboding. In the absence of any further information about the island we begrudgingly decided to take the room.
A quick freshen up and we were on the motorbike for a quick look around the island. The island isn’t big – only about 4 or 5 kms from point to point – so we figured doing a loop on the ring road shouldn’t take too long. First stop was a small village to the west of Lai Son, where we poked around its sheltered main thoroughfare, and purchased crabs at a small vendor that was boxing them for shipment to the mainland aboard the next Superdong.
A short hop from this town we stumbled upon a smudge of a beach, bai bo. On the white sand next to a large rock were a couple of beach parasols; a white table and seats sheltered under each of them. Neat as a pin the scene was irresistible. We trundled down from the ring road to find a small restaurant servicing the beach. An accommodation block was being built further along the beach but all the family running the place could offer now was their karaoke room. After they cooked our crabs and we had a nap in the hammocks, Loc and I decided that bai bo was too nice to pass up. So we moved our digs from the main town out to the beach. A couple of beds were rolled into the karaoke room and we got to stay in amongst an interesting array of lighting and sound systems for about 150,000 VND including meals.
Over the course of the afternoon and next day, we got to see and understand how the family manages their restaurant and patch of beach, which they clean meticulously. Only females were working, some three generations, led by the octogenarian matriarch Ba Nam Hoang. The property had already been in her family for three generations, and is currently managed by her eldest son and daughter-in-law with help from extended family. All her three sons at sea for extended periods with large fishing boats, hence why there were only women in the kitchen. The building of the accommodation block a little down the beach was evidence that this family was going ahead. All of this development seemed to be about getting the youngest members of the family into decent education options on the mainland.
Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, quite a few locals and government bureaucrat types dropped in for a drink or a feed. Indeed there were large groups feasting on shellfish and hotpots in the evening. Others would gather around charcoal burners on the sand having barbequed fish, deconstructed cardboard boxes serving as table mats. Later at night, groups of teenagers would huddle together in the darkness sipping on sugary drinks, sneaking the odd cigarette. It looked to be the “in” place for the youngsters to meet, and they’d dare each other to come over to me to swap an english word with me.
Like on Nam Du, the restaurant here isn’t ala carte in the sense that you turn up and order off a menu; you ring ahead and arrange what you’d like in order to give the staff enough time to collect the goods from the market, or you bring it in yourself like we had with the delicious crabs. Without a stable electricity supply, you just cant keep fresh produce on hand.
In between swims and feasting at bai bo, we managed a couple of circumnavigations of the island. There was one other beach, bai bang, but it was not well looked after and just had a shabby collection of thatch huts. The rest of the shoreline is rugged rocky coastline. The collection of villages around the island all have small fishing fleets; those who aren’t out on boats are engaged in cleaning and renewing nets. Indeed whole piers are covered with bundles of nets waiting for the teams of workers to unroll them and unpick them of the detritus that collects when the nets are dragged around the ocean floor.