I’m in prison on the Vietnamese island of Pho Quoc and guards are torturing their captives, hanging them upside down, pulling their teeth out, and administering electric shocks. Fortunately this is not real, but lurid depictions of scenes when the island was a prison camp for 40,000 prisoners back in the 1970s.
It’s a strange tourist attraction, a hangover from the days when Vietnam wanted to present itself as a tough communist state. These days, although it’s still communist, the government is keen to present a more friendly face and is doing its best to attract tourists. The island has long stretches of palm-fringed golden sandy beaches, untouched jungle and abundant marine life around the tiny islands off the coast.
New hotels are going up all over the place and the area has high hopes of becoming the Vietnamese equivalent of Phuket.
I start my Vietnam trip in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s still known to the locals; Vietnam Airlines flies direct from London. At the moment you don’t even need a visa and I sail through immigration into the early morning traffic. Most people don’t own cars, but the streets are clogged with thousands of scooters, some containing entire families.
At first sight the legendary charm of Saigon seems to have been replaced by a bustling modern city, dogged by construction work and new high rises.
However, as I settle in and explore on foot, I begin to get a sense of its colonial past. The Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene set The Quiet American still exists, although the few forlorn tables on the terrace are a sad reminder of what it used to be.
Other locations from the novel have been demolished but still going strong is the rooftop bar at the Majestic Hotel with its stunning night views over the city. Buildings from the French period include the central Post Office, with its counters now dominated by a painting of Ho Chi Minh, and the large Notre Dame cathedral, built out of red brick.
Of course they don’t want you to forget the Vietnam War and there’s plenty to see. The former Presidential Palace has been left as it was when the Vietcong tanks smashed through the gates and those same tanks still stand guard.
What they call the War Remnants museum also has a clutter of military hardware in its grounds and its three floors tell the grim story of the years of conflict. There’s a market where they sell military memorabilia including discarded Zippo lighters and dog tags.
A trip out of town will take you to the Cu Chi underground tunnels where Viet Cong soldiers hid before launching their final offensive on the city.
After two days, I set out into the Mekong delta, past miles and miles of green paddy fields. This is really the rice bowl of Vietnam with as many as three harvests a year. After three hours, I arrive in Can Tho, on the southern banks of the Hau River. The town has none of the high rises of Saigon, although it’s the provincial capital, and the busy waterfront is home to floating restaurants and bars.
Mercifully in Vietnam, they haven’t yet learnt the art of hassling tourists, and I’m free to wander around at dusk without being hectored to buy anything.
Next day, at dawn, I take a boat along the busy Ninh Kieu waterway to Cai Rang Floating Market where the bartering is already in full swing. People live on the water here and the houseboats are piled high with whatever they have to exchange. I see a canoe piled with pineapples pulling up to one full of watermelons and watch as they complete their swap.
Ironically the tourist boats seem to outnumber the local craft and it seems that this is a way of life that’s slowly disappearing in the new Vietnam.
In the afternoon I take a 50-minute flight south to Pho Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand, closer to Cambodia than Vietnam. As we fly low over the island, it’s apparent that most of it is still verdant jungle, protected by its National Park status. Apparently there are plans to develop it into an eco-resort by 2020 but, at the moment, most people come here for the soft sandy beaches and the warm sea.
That’s my reason too and my hotel is right on the aptly named five mile Long Beach. It faces west so you’re guaranteed decent sunsets every night and the swimming is excellent.
The capital, Duong Dong is a sleepy little fishing town by day, but there’s a vibrant night market, really just a street of stalls displaying whatever they’ve caught that day. You choose your fish and they cook it for you with rice or noodles, whilst you sip a cold beer. In other parts of the island, fish is laid out to dry in the sun and then fermented in barrels to make pungent fish sauce, renowned throughout Vietnam.
Peppercorns, first green then black when dried, are another quality product and pepper groves line the side of the roads where stalls allow you to taste and buy.
Jungle visits are tricky, as access is limited to dirt roads, but there are plans to build a path to the 603 metre Mount Chua, Pho Quoc’s highest peak.
Instead I take a trip to the waterfalls at Suoi Tranh, about five miles south east of Duong Dong. They’re inside a strangely themed government park with life-sized concrete elephants and other African animals lining the path. Thankfully they get scarcer as you climb through the forest past to the base of the waterfall.
It’s obviously a popular place for locals to picnic and there’s a large pool where you can swim, to the sounds of raucous Vietnamese pop music.
At the moment part of Pho Quoc’s attraction is that it’s on the cusp of becoming something else. Luxury boutique hotels line the beaches, side by side with ramshackle huts offering barbecued fish and cold beer. The main tourist attraction is the gruesome prison camp, a direct connection with the past.
On the horizon are direct flights from Europe and those all-inclusive resorts which are ubiquitous throughout the tropics. If you want to experience the real Pho Quoc, I’d get there sooner rather than later.