A short plane ride from Ho Chi Minh, Phu Quoc island is on the cusp of development investment, but for the present, retains its authenticity as one of Vietnam’s traditional fishing locations. Baffling road works around the airport show the amount of investment that is slowly starting to create the infrastructure for the development of tourism.
In years to come it will be a jewel in the Gulf of Thailand , but for now it’s a sleepy island, abject poverty in some areas and incredibly beautiful in others.
Hiring a motor-bike seemed the way to explore and when presented with motorbike helmets in camouflage design and a wry grin on the face of the renter , the feeling of being a Great White Westerner was compounded. Seriously though, the Vietnamese people are tiny in stature and size, and even more so away from Ho Chi Minh city and fast food outlets , the islanders are fit, lithe and the obesity of our western world seems positively self indulgent.
Duong Dong is the main town on Phu Quoc and hotels lie between the airport and town as the road hits the coast. As yet, the star ratio may not be equivalent to other countries, but being welcomed with hot towels, lemongrass drinks and lovely smiling faces puts inadequacies to rest.
Off to the night market, my first experience of the famous Asian markets which seem to be a whole different set of social and daily necessities rolled into one.Phu Quoc’s night market is mainly restaurant-oriented with stalls and tables presenting the most amazing displays of fish wares to be cooked in the local style.
Famous for its fish sauce (so pungent that airlines ban it, in case the bottles should break …and yes I did get caught on departure and asked to hand over the one I had purchased ) the only way to eat is local style. The cooking is superb, order scallops and not 3 or 4 are presented as in the West, but a whole heaped bowl of scallops tossed in greens and spiced only the way Vietnamese know how. Utterly delicious and the lobster splurge “lets go for it” feast was to die for.
Over the week travel around the whole island was accomplished, bumping down dusty unpaved roads and finding beaches, white sand and azure water with no-one in sight .Small villages and family homesteads, just shacks on legs with rattan sides which were homes to families, a line run along the outside replacing wardrobes, hung with the family clothes, the ubiquitous hammocks strung across the free space, no electricity, no water … another world ..But, one thing that struck me was that there was no emotion towards our presence, neither excitement or aggression, it was as if we didn’t exist. We were just passing through their lives, but in other Asian countries I have never experienced such indifference to our presence. As yet the opportunities that tourism present don’t exist for these remoter settlements, their lives are based on fishing and provision . No child or person came begging or asking …
Fishing is the main staple of the economy on Phu Quoc, every village has its own boats, and the main fleet are based in Duong Dong… feeding the local market with fresh produce from the Gulf of Thailand.
Drying fish for food and fish sauce is part of daily life and all around the island wooden trays were laid out to dry, with pungent fish drying in the sun. You knew you were heading towards one of these areas from quite a way away.
Memories of Phu Quoc are arriving in a small fishing port on the landward side, finding an incredibly long pier built right out into the sea as the lagoon was so shallow, the boats couldn’t dock, walking out along the endless pier, being “friended” by some visiting mainland Vietnamese and somehow being centre-stage in their holiday snap shots without uttering a word, but lots of smiles. I was their new western friend for a shutter moment, seeing nets in the back of boats which were threaded with huge Volute shells to hold the net down in the water.
Further up the dirt track which rings the island and the route to the main port on the landward side, stopping at a small sign offering coffee and being shown to a bench looking out over a turquoise sea framed by coconut palms, watching the fishermen in their small rattan huts perched on stilts above the sea. One of the best locations ever for coffee!
Coming across an alligator farm and shop on the side of the road, going to look, the owner was too indifferent to our presence in the heat of the day to exit his hammock and try to make a sale, We left empty-handed as the languor was catching, it was too hot to buy.
Flowers on the roadside, Orchids hanging in gardens, spectacular colours…
Meeting fellow travellers on a remote beach,the only Europeans we had seen and having an intense conversation about Asia and travels with complete strangers, knee deep in water,arranging to meet our new best friends for dinner in the night market – would we , wouldn’t we, a chance meeting and a loose arrangement ..normal amongst travellers in different lands.
Eating on the beach, not so many beachside eateries to come across, luckily finding one and ordering tamarind prawns, Vietnamese style, I can still recall the taste to this day, superb cooking which in my world would be the subject of a TV show. Prawns,scallops, fish all on offer, freshly cooked and utterly delicious.
Watching girls grind chilli for local island paste, being offered a huge Helmet shell for sale …carrying my $10 huge shell on the back of the bike, bumping along 30 km of forest track, there was a long cause for regret at my instant purchase.
Dropping into a road-side bar/restaurant, finding in situ the very British owner, with his local wife and 2 children scratching a living before tourism hits, meeting an expat Australian over a whisky or two and leaving with an invitation to visit the pearl fishery he was managing.Visiting and learning some new facts about how the whole industry starts in these farms, fascinating manipulation of the natural ecological cycle of the oyster, I still have the beautiful shell he gave me.
Passing through a village where the track was churned into knee-deep mud after a recent momentary downpour, fisherfolk selling wares in the mud, shacks so basic and tumbledown that it was a shock to realise these were home. Filth everywhere and plastic waste, the scourge of under-developed worlds, scattered as far as you could see. Feeling over-privileged and vulnerable, the bike was moved up a gear or two to power us out of that place . It was an uncomfortable feeling, the only time on the island that the poverty was over-whelming and unwelcoming.
The sunsets were my first experience of the South east Asian sunset, intense pink hues flooding the horizon as the setting sun moved west. Phu Quoc was a remarkable place to visit,though I suspect that I won’t return, there is too much more of Asia to see and do and in a few years it will be a very different place.