Phu Quoc for the Weekend
This would be my third attempt to go to an island called Phu Quoc located southwest of Ho Chi Minh City between Vietnam and Cambodia. Its mystery and the challenge of getting there had kept me at bay for three years. On my first try, the flight was canceled due to weather conditions. My second attempt to get there was by boat from Rach Gia, however this voyage was also canceled due to bad weather.
Finally, on my third approach, the weather was perfect. The plane left on time and after 50 minutes, I was surprised to see a relatively small, but modern airport with one runway. Entering the terminal, I looked through the glass windows into the local crowd waiting outside for new arrivals. It seemed that everyone who owned a motorbike had come to meet the plane and hoped to be chosen as a taxi driver to ferry the visitors to their island destination. Luckily, I saw a man holding a sign with my name on it! I did not have to go through the selection or negotiating process. With my duffel bag balanced on the front of the motorbike and me on the back, we were off to my pre-booked hotel. Our trip took about fifteen minutes and the cost of the ride was 20,000 dong (US$2) (twice the normal price as it had been reserved). The convenience was well worth the additional price.
The Kim Linh Hotel had both old and new sections and was located on a nice clean quiet beach. I checked into my room in the old section and stood looking at the view from my window; a bay surrounded by mountains, a white sand beach and crystal blue water. The coastline was dotted with both the traditional fishing boats and the round basket boats unique to Vietnam.
When I arrive at a new place, my routine is always the same--to check in and get a good overview of the area. My goal for the balance of that day was to make an orientation tour of the entire island by motorbike. I had not had anything to eat so I decided to stop for lunch before I set out exploring.
Walking down the hill from my hotel room, I came to a fork in the path that directed me from the hotel to the beach. There were two thatched roof bungalows in front of me--one to the right, one to the left. For some reason, I decided to turn left--a decision I would be happy about for the rest of my trip. The one I chose turned out to be the older of the two restaurants and was without electricity. I found out later that the other bungalow had a noisy generator that was used for television and lights. The noise created by the generator, as well as the television, were just what I wanted to escape. In my favor, the TV was quite a treat for the locals and many of the motorbike drivers mingled at that restaurant.
That first afternoon, I never ventured beyond the hammock strung between two palm trees under the thatched roof of the bungalow. I ordered a Tiger beer and fresh shrimp for lunch and before I knew it, I had spent the entire afternoon in my newly found 'home away from home' talking to the children, reading my book, playing with the local dogs, swimming and moving from one hammock to another as the sun moved in the sky. After being in Saigon, this was paradise!
Not only did I eat lunch on the beach that afternoon, but I also watched the stars come out and enjoyed dinner by the light of the evening sky and the kerosene lantern wondering where the day had gone. Oh well, I would do the orientation tomorrow.
As I fell asleep that night, I couldn't help thinking about the truth in the statement that the more difficult a place is to get to, the more magical it is likely to be. It was certainly becoming true about Phu Quoc.
During my stay, I became a fixture at my new 'home'--Bungalow #1. The restaurant was not associated with the hotel. It had no electricity, was quiet, comfortable and family-run. The owner and his wife had three children. The two daughters, 15 and 17, both spoke some English. The mother ran the restaurant and the father and son were fishermen who left every day between 4:00 and 6:00 pm to spend the night in their traditional boat hoping for a bountiful catch.
I awoke at sunrise the next morning. As I ate breakfast, I realized that a pair of fellow visitors was leaving. I decided that even though the view from my window was exquisite, I wanted to try one of the newer rooms located directly on the beach. I asked the management if I could change and moments later, my duffel was being transferred to my new room. I was delighted--the bathroom was new and the price was the same ($16/night). With that accomplished, I was ready for my day of exploration. I hired a motorbike and the same driver from the day before. Fortunately I had asked my bungalow host family what I should expect to pay him for the day. Their answer was between 80,000-100,000 dong. My driver's first asking price was 150,000 and my first counter was 80,000. We finally agreed to 100,000, jumped on the bike and off we went down the bumpy red dirt 'road'. I was to learn the hard way throughout the day that there was no pavement in Phu Quoc! Initially we went toward town to visit the other two hotels on the island. The Sea Fragrant Hotel is in the process of building a new annex which should open soon. Although located in Duong Dong town, the beach in front of the hotel was not nearly as clean as the one in front of mine. The second (Hotel Van Nguyen) I visited was the one in which I was originally supposed to stay but couldn't because it was sold out. It was a family-run mini-hotel (seven rooms) located on a waterway but had no beach. I had ended up at the best possible place.
Traveling north, we reached a point on the island where we could go no further. This is because a dispute remains between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians as to who owns the island. The jungle had become increasingly dense, the smells of the flora sweeter and the sound of the birds clearer. The ride was beautiful and the area truly seemed untouched by mankind. We stopped and started to walk into the jungle. It was quickly apparent that if one were to proceed too far, there might be some difficulty in finding a way out. There were no paths--so we got back on our bike and headed toward the center of the island. As tired as I was, I wanted to continue the trip to the southern part of the island. I knew that if I stopped for lunch (at "my bungalow"), it was not likely that I would get back on the bike to go south.
Reaching the center of the island, we continued our journey south toward Kem Beach, located in the same area as "Coconut Jail" that was built in the French Colonial era and was famous as a prisoner of war camp. Both were on my list of things to see on Phu Quoc. We finally arrived at the old jail. It was hard to visualize what it must have looked like. Nothing remains of the prison except for some remnants of the original concrete foundations. New construction has taken place near the former prison location and appears to be occupied by the Phu Quoc Navy.
As we veered onto an even smaller bumpier road, I noticed a sign in English that said "No Trespassing". Hung, my driver, who was unable to read English, just ignored it and kept going. I realized that if I had rented a motorbike on my own, I would have been stopped by the sign and would have missed the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in Vietnam. What I grasped at that point was that the signs apply only to those who can read them (i.e. foreigners). Fortunately we kept going and soon in front of me was the beach named Kem ('ice cream'). The bay had a white powder sand beach and crystal clear water with waves that lazily rolled onto the shore. I closed my eyes and listened to the melodically quiet sounds of the waves and the birds. I don't know how long I just stood there in thought--it seemed just seconds--yet when I refocused I sensed that Hung was irritated with me. The heat of the day was intense; the only thing lacking in this beautiful spot was shade. Yes, it was time to return to the hotel and my hammock under the thatched roof where I could contemplate life in the shade. I can only hope to return to Kem Beach again before it is discovered and/or developed by the outside world. So once again, off we went on our motorbike to navigate the potholes back to the hotel.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the hammock discussing what life in America was like with my hosts' two daughters. Later, I watched their father and brother ready the boat for their nightly fishing trip. I wondered what their life was like. Each day they left in the late afternoon in their traditional boat, sailing for two or more hours into the open waters. They fish until dawn, returning home with their catch in time to make the early morning market for sale. I asked if either of the girls had ever gone with them and was told that having a woman in a boat was bad luck, so, no, they had never gone with them.
That night, having a greater appreciation for the "catch of the day", I ate fresh fish and watched the stars appear. Looking up and trying to remember the names of at least some of the stars, I was delighted to recognize Hale-Bopp. I will never forget Hale-Bopp nor where I was when I spotted it that night. I tried futilely to explain the concept of a comet to my adopted family. By the time I left for the night, I had convinced myself that I had done a halfway decent job in the definition--or at least pointed it out so that maybe the next night they could spot it themselves and tell any story they wanted to as to what it was! It sure would be fun to know what was said.
As 9:00 pm arrived, I couldn't keep my eyes open and headed back to my room. During the night, I was awakened by the sounds of a thunderstorm. I wondered about the man and his son out in the open water and hoped they were okay. The next thought was about my scheduled fishing trip for the next day--would this mean it was canceled? What was it that the fishermen said? Was rain a good omen or a bad one? I fell back into a sound sleep and awoke refreshed and ready for my next day's adventure.
When I opened my door I wasn't sure if I had dreamt about the rain or if it had happened. As I walked out into the morning light, my driver was waiting for me. I realized that it had rained but it must not be a bad omen because my driver was ready to go. Arriving at the docks an hour later, Hung began to negotiate for a boat while I drank Vietnamese coffee at a local stand.
Finally, Hung proudly announced that the cost would be 200,000 dong for the day. He pointed to two Japanese men and said that I would be sharing the boat with them. We were an odd group--two Japanese men and their Vietnamese guide, our Vietnamese captain and crew of two, myself and my guide. No one spoke a common language--this could be interesting! We sailed into the open seas for the next couple of hours and after reaching a protected area, we slowed down. The Japanese gentlemen were getting their gear ready and I began to wonder (looking around and not seeing any fishing poles) just what I was to use. Soon enough, a plastic spool wound with fishing line was handed to me. I was shown how to use my finger as the tension lever and with the help of the captain, I was soon all set up and waiting for a bite. About half an hour passed by when suddenly one of my fishing partners landed our first catch--a seven kilo barracuda. Now I was determined not to be outdone. The same gentleman caught his second one before I finally felt a bite and pulled in a six kilo barracuda. I was so proud! So this is why fishermen get so excited--the wait--the bite--the catch--the struggle and finally the fish hitting the deck of the boat. What a thrill! Soon three more fish were caught before we paused for lunch. One of the barracudas was cut up and cooked and another fish was cut up and marinated in lime to be eaten raw.
Arriving back at the docks, I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen to our catch. Hung began bagging our fish--I got the impression that for whatever reason, he was the big winner of the day's catch. We said goodbye to the captain and his crew with our fish bagged and propped on the front of the motorbike. Back at the hotel, Hung was taking great pride in showing off "his" catch. Eventually, the fish ended up on the local catch of the day dinner menu with the proceeds being split between the restaurant and the driver.
I was content to go back to my hammock for the balance of the afternoon. That night the stars were brighter than the previous evenings. I began to think about my return to Saigon the next day and a real sadness came over me. Over the past five years, I have traveled all through this country watching it transform from a place when Saigon and Hanoi could be called quaint to the present day overpopulated, over-motorized, noisy metropolises. The feelings I had during my visit to this little island of Phu Quoc reminded me of the ones I had had five years earlier when I had fallen in love with the peacefulness of the country, the friendliness of its people and their eagerness to learn about the outside world. Smiling faces, no beggars, reasonable prices, basic but clean accommodations. Simplicity and innocence. I began to wonder, thinking of Saigon, and hope this place will last. I reminded myself of how lucky I had been to have witnessed the changes in Vietnam and how once again I had discovered another part of the country that was like a flower ready to bloom. Most people never get to see one flower blossom--I have been able to witness a first, and I'm convinced, a second one in Phu Quoc.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of motorbikes and discovered that I was not the only one leaving that day. Enjoying my fresh morning coffee, I wondered where the time had gone. Beach vacations are not my first choice for a holiday, however I loved my weekend at Phu Quoc. I had come mainly to broaden my knowledge of tourism in Vietnam and went away having had one of the best weekends ever.
All too soon, I knew it was time to go, so I paid my final bill at the restaurant and then at the hotel. Hung had been waiting since early morning for the opportunity to take me back to the airport. Off we drove on the red dirt road to the airport where I bid him farewell. As I waited inside the terminal, I looked outside to see the cycle begin again. Hung was outside in the middle of the crowd (this time with no name sign) trying to convince the new arrivals to choose him as their driver.
During my return flight to Saigon, I realized that I wanted a subtler transition back into modern times. I decided to spend one night at the Omni Saigon where I could ease myself back into the daily pace of the city. I checked in and enjoyed a massage and a swim in its beautiful rooftop pool--yes, this, too, is Vietnam--this is the country after the influences of the western world. I couldn't help wondering where else I had traveled that allowed me to experience so much diversity in such a small area. As many changes as I have witnessed here over these past years, one thing has stayed constant no matter where I traveled--be it the cities, the highlands or even the tiny island of Phu Quoc--it's the warmth and hospitality of all Vietnamese peoples.
That night as I lay in my queen-sized bed with fresh linens and no mosquito net, I realized just how wonderfully complex this country was and how much it has to offer the traveler. Fishing, scuba diving, golf, hiking, luxury resorts and yes, even beach vacations that rival Bali, are all here. Falling asleep in my luxurious accommodations, I began to dream about my beach bungalow, boat basket and barracuda, already missing them but loving the comfort of my room. The next morning I woke well-rested and ready to face the sounds, sights, smells and challenges of Saigon.
Travel Tips: Round-trip flight from HCMC to Phu Quoc: 140,000 dong. Flight time in each direction: 50 minutes. Best time to go: November through May, and best of all is December, January, February. Worst time to go: June through August because of the rains. Hotel accommodations: Kim Linh Hotel, Hotel Van Nguyen, Sea Fragrant Hotel: all under $20/night. Cost of a local guide and motorbike for the day: 80,000-150,000 dong.
Things to do: Jungle to the north. Coconut Jail. Sau and Kem Beach. Da Ngon and Da Ban Streams. Gia Long Emperors Well. An Thoi Fishing port to the south. Nuoc mam (fish sauce) factory. Pepper farm. Squid fishing by basket boat. Deep Sea Fishing by boat from An Thoi.
Published on 10/1/97