Island Paradise Revisited: Phu Quoc
Almost immediately after returning from Phu Quoc, we were planning our return. We arrived back in Vung Tau on December 22 and so it seemed meaningful, in some way, that our arrival back to Phu Quoc landed on the 23rd of January.
I had hoped that we would explore a little more of the island. We did this with minimal effort by staying at a resort a little further away from the center of town.
Just outside of the La Casa Resorts is the fork that lead to two different beaches. The path to the left took 10 minutes. The one to the right took around 30 minutes. We ventured in that direction a total of one time. Too much effort.
North from the main town, the beach was less cluttered with beach chairs and without umbrellas. Xenia's sarong would serve as a beach blanket. The branch of a tree, as a beach umbrella, would suffice.
Visiting an island, the mind takes a while to adjust. The weather changes like a child's mood. The pulses and powers of the wind, the exposure to salty air, do their spell on a mainlander's mind like mine. I felt myself falling under the island's spell.
I much prefer a rustic bungalow. I want to hear the frogs and crickets at night. I want to be far enough away from the ravers and club area so that I might actually be able to see the stars overhead.
Our resort was far enough from the main road so that the traffic was undetectable. The beach was a 10 minute walk. The cemented road was lined with small restaurants and resorts. One, under construction, was designed like the white plaster buildings in Santorini, Greece. Xenia took a photo and sent to her mother. They had a good laugh.
We enjoyed Ong Lang beach. Tourists came by boat in the afternoon. They came for a brief swim and snorkel. Then they would leave. Sometimes I wouldn't notice when they left.
I was interested in doing a little sightseeing. But exploring, touring, sightseeing, and finding the best parts of the island was not on Xenia's agenda. I swam and snorkeled as she read and napped on the beach. She would dip in the water only to cool off and play with me. Of course, I took the opportunity to scare her by telling her that I had spotted a jellyfish behind her. She got angry. I apologized. We played some more. Our energies at Ong Lang beach were best spent feeling the sand beneath our feet and avoiding too much sun at once.
With 8 days on the island, we felt that we could pace ourselves.
By the fourth day, I convinced Xenia to take a day tour. Our resort booked it for us. The day trip cost $15 per person. We left at 8 AM to start a 9 AM tour at which time they brought us to the Pearl Center in case we wanted to buy pearl jewelry. As tiresome as tours are, I was willing to take a chance. I was in high spirits. We might have gotten lucky. The group might have been fun. It is very possible that we would vibe with another couple and wind up meeting up later for drinks. That didn't happen. What we did learn along the way to the coast in the northern part of the island has been sold to a waterslide and casino resort. It is not completed yet but once it is, Phu Quoc will be stripped of its charm. Rows of identical condominiums have already been built and create an unsettling dystopian foreground. A sprawling theme park resort looks like family friendly amusement parks anywhere else in the world. The casino will bring seedy nightlife. Sadly, the charm of local island culture and virgin nature doesn't maximize the taking for developers and so the fishing communities and the forests will have to make way for this monstrosity. There will be lots of jobs created and money made hand over fist.
I'm glad to have seen it. It confirmed my worst suspicions. All island paradises have a darker side. Developers cannot leave well-enough alone.
It would be three hours before we actually arrived to the first site that we actually wanted to see. A $12 premium would have paid for a private car. At this point, I wish that we had opted for that. We could have saved a lot of time. We finally got to visit the organic vegetable and fruit farm that was planted to support bees for the farm's small organic honey production. I first learned about the Phu Quoc Bee Farm on TripAdvisor. On that travelers' site, it was advertised as a great place for photographers. Like most vegetable and fruit gardens, it is somewhat messy. The farmers let the stocks and leaves find their own way and freely reach the sunlight in any direction they can. The garden didn't seem like a great place to photograph. The flowers made for nice snap shots and I am always curious to see how tropical fruits grow. But that was about it.
The best part of the farm was the small shop where they sold small jars of honey. Some batches were infused with cinnamon, turmeric, or garlic. The farmers gave educational talks about the importance of bees and spoke out against the popular practice in Vietnam of hunting wild honey. They described the practice as destroying the forest hives, killing the pupaa which are a culinary delicacy.
They had a cocktail menu with cleverly named drinks all made with honey. For example, the "worker bee," was gin and lime juice sweetened with raw honey. All of the drinks were served with bamboo straws. In an effort to cut down on plastic pollution, they hand make straws from bamboo. They sold them for a dollar a piece
Xenia was most looking forward to the national park. And the forest was a real treat. Few other places can do what a forest is capable of. Unfortunately, the tour only scheduled 20 minutes there. Here again, we could have benefitted from taking a private car.
I could spend a whole afternoon looking at spiderwebs strung like Christmas tinsel, poisonous mushrooms growing on decomposing logs, and watching how the daylight dances between the leaves and branches like nature's own disco ball.
I could have spent hours walking through the forest. I'm someone who doesn't care to take a 20 kilometer hike and exhaust myself. I am not looking for a Rocky Mountain high. I'd much rather explore the little things and be so quiet so that a butterfly would hardly pay much mind to me. I want to take the time that it takes to get my camera focus right, as the light hits a spiderweb. And then I want to shoot it. I want to notice all of the things that you only notice once you spend enough time looking at things. There is a lot to miss in a forest if you do not adjust yourself.
We were brought to a seaside restaurant for lunch and were given an hour to eat. The other tour members sat with whomever the came. I noticed others ordering simple dishes like fried rice. The restaurant was really busy and so the others probably thought there was no time to order nicer dishes. Xenia and I live by the axiom that life is just the things you have to do between eating delicious food. We weren't going to eat a spartan meal while on holiday. It did take a while for our food to arrive. Rather than being stressed out about that, we just used the time to talk, drink beer, and take in the view. Many boats bobbed in the water, anchored in the shallow sea, just offshore. With no resorts on the beach and few tourists, the water was pristine. I was able to take many nice photos. In the end, we did not hold up the tour. The food was incredible.
After lunch, we visited a temple and a pepper farm. Neither place was very exciting but, again, I did take some nice photos. Not that she brought up this issue on this day trip, but, time and again, Xenia has made me question whether or not it is worth going to boring places just to get "great" photos. After all, the day we went touring was also a perfect day for laying at the beach and getting a perfect tan. Is the day trip worth sacrificing a beach day?
For all the years that my camera has served as a companion, I would have said yes. It is worth it. Long car rides were places where I could seek out nice photographs. I had made a game out of looking for something interesting. Traveling alone was manageable. My camera also made underwhelming activities go from unbearable to (at times) extraordinary. My free time became a hobby. And upon returned from my trips, I could remember what I have done and where I had been.
Before coming to Vietnam, I had only heard of Phu Quoc Island as a location tag on Instagram posts. Phu Quoc is a popular photo shoot location for bikini models. For about an hour and a half, starting at 5 PM, the golden light hits the beach and provides the perfect studio set up.
I had to coax my model from her chair. She was more interested in her book than modeling for me. When I put down the DSLR to take some Live photos with the iPhone, she took a greater interest. She started taking photos of me. From then, I took a few test shots and showed them to her. She was happy with them and so it was easier to play around with poses.
Long Beach is much more developed. As this meant that we had more restaurants to choose from and could enjoy a beachfront resort, the water quality suffered. The snorkeling gear, that I had worn in Ong Lang, now revealed the source of a distinct but deniable odor we noticed while sitting at a beach bar. The water was full of particulate matter (read: the water was full of shit).
Any ocean lover can deal with the realities of ocean life. Let's face it. Fish pee in that water. This did not stop me from going in the water but I went into the water much less. I was sure to shampoo my hair when I came back to the resort for the evening.
One day we had lunch at a favorite restaurant that we had discovered on our December trip. We ran into the elderly French woman who we met on the day tour. We learned that she lives her life island hopping around the world. She calls an island, off of the west African coast, her home. I couldn't catch the name through her thick French accent. She was currently wrapping up her Phu Quoc trip before heading to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. She had also gone into the water at Long Beach. She showed me her ankle where a scab was healing over a cut that had gotten infected from swimming in that fecal-laced water.
Although not as bad as Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, Phu Quoc also has not figured out how to deal with its waste without sacrificing water quality. On the surface, the island seems great but diving enthusiast will be the first ones who can really tell you how clean the island is.
As an expat traveler, I never visit a place thinking that I have to pack in as much experience all at once. I've learned to pace myself. If I really love a place, I will return before too long. I want to adjust slowly. I want to frequent the mom and pop restaurants. I want to feel that I am getting to know a place. Inevitably I will discover the less appeal sides of paradise. I am not one of those people who would consider having visited ever country in the world an accomplishment. To really travel, you have to explore the cracks in a place. Get to know it. In that respect, there is no possible way that you can visit everywhere in two lifetimes.
Xenia and I may return to Phu Quoc but I will convince her to seek out a rustic side of the island where the impact on the land and water is much less than what we experienced on this recent trip.