Phu Qouc is an interesting place. The Cambodians say it belongs to them, while Vietnam is not budging on its ownership. There is a large military presence on the island to keep the Cambodians back. During the French time a large prison was built on the island. The prison was used for all kinds of things, most of them not very nice. Farming was never good on the island, with the soil not being ideal for much of anything, so with the military and lack of farming, fishing was the main business here. It’s the biggest island in Vietnam, and is still heavily forested. A large part of it is a national park, albeit not one that has the amenities you would expect from a national park; like camping, hiking trails, and visitor’s centers. Little of that actually exists, but it’s still nice to drive through. It was only recently that tourism started taking hold of the island. I figure in ten years it’s going to be a totally different place, more like Thailand’s overpopulated beaches. But for now in Vietnam it’s a great place to escape.
Escape was exactly what we were doing. We had done it, going over land from the bottom of Vietnam all the way to Hanoi, and we were exhausted. We felt we truly needed a break, and with the coming of the Têt New Year, where the whole country shuts down, we wanted that break to be some place nice. Yvonne says a beach is what she wants, so a beach is what she gets. So we flew to Phu Qouc Island, all the way at the bottom of Vietnam. Perfect! From the plane’s window I saw gloriously blue water.
The airport is brand new there, really modern. We got a bus and went on the hunt for a place to stay. We had no accommodation set up, but figured that we would be staying two weeks in one place that we could get the price down. We checked a few places out, but people were not giving a bit. Our driver was a little pushy for his places, and in the end we found a really clean place a five-minute walk from the beach. In my head I wanted a bungalow on the beach, where I could sit in my hammock and stare at the water. So I was still unsettled.
We spent a few days there, but I really wanted to be on the beach. So I rented a scooter for the two weeks and went hunting for my dream bungalow. Most things were booked up, but eventually I found one in the place I wanted to go originally but the cab driver would not take us there. It was a little more, but we were right off the beach. I loved it, finally I was home. To get to our bungalow you walk through a beautiful garden with bungalows branching off to the right and left. The path ultimately ends at the beach with a nice little bar and café.
Now that we had a place to call home, I could get to the business at hand. Even on the road I had art jobs to do, so I set up a nice little studio in our bungalow. I got a desk, extra chairs, and art supplies to work on Yvonne’s sisters invitation. Its a great honor to work on some ones wedding invitation, even from afar. It also allowed me to realize that I did not need to be in Philly to work, that I could do it from the road, from anywhere really as long as they have a good network connection. This is a great feeling of freedom. Congratulations Fiona and Shane on your nuptials.
We arrived right before Têt, so the island was in full preparation for the festivities. Yellow and orange flowers were popping up everywhere we went; in front of each hotel were flower displays for the new beginning.
The main town on the island is not the most exciting place. On the outskirts there is a strip of classier hotels, bars, and restaurants, slowly going into town, which ends in a huge night market that caters mainly to tourists. We hit this the first night on a wander, and really were not all that impressed with the quality of food there, nor the restaurants. I love night markets, but due to tourism, they had so many sad, unhappy looking fish in tanks, that really were stressed beyond words. The fish in ice were not any better. Than they had tanks of live snakes, bashing their heads against the walls, it was just truly sad. For ten bucks they will chop the head off the snake so a tourist can drink the blood, and then fry the meat. No thanks. I am all about local cuisine, but this is really for shock value, not a local specialty. One night there was all we needed. There were a lot of nice restaurants on the beach to go to instead.
Beyond the night market was the real part of town, not made for tourists. You get to see the beautiful fleet of fishing boats, all brightly painted in primary colors, all docked in the river. The boats are all tied together, pretty much blocking the entire river. There is a bridge over the river and you get to the real market, which has everything you could ever want, and some things you definitely don’t want. But this is the real deal. You will have cages of overflowing with chickens, ducks tied up underneath them, millions of fish, small, big, you name it. They also had piles of clams, muscles, shellfish, sea horses, and octopuses. It’s a one-way street packed to the gills, yet some how I ended up on my scooter there twice. Walking it through, because you could not go anywhere. After that the town is maze of twisty alleys, 3 to 4 story buildings, dirt roads, and motorcycle shops. All in all, it’s a pretty big place.
The water out here was a perfect temperature, with smooth silky surface, sandy bottoms, and lovely beaches. The sand was white and soft, thick enough to make a nice cushion, but not so fine that it blew in your eyes. They beaches were not huge, but they went around the entire island, so you could find lovely little secret spots to put your towel down and enjoy the sun with no one in the world to see. Just don’t forget your sunscreen, because it was quite painful to sit for few days after.
We rode out to the other end of the island, and it was really lovely, with secluded beaches and hidden coves. After snorkeling a bit we stopped by the National Park. A troop of monkeys passed us on the road, and we walked a mile down a trail that dead ends. There is really very little wild life to see, but it’s still a lovely walk and worth checking out if you have spare time.
Phu Quoc is one of the few places in Vietnam that is good for scuba diving. I went with Rainbow Divers, a very professional well-run dive group. I went out five times, two to the south and three to the north. The diving is not the greatest I have seen. The visibility was not super clear, and they said for this area that was excellent visibility. So I would hate to see it when it’s bad. There are only small things to look at, but we did see pipefish, scorpion fish, and plenty of Nudibranches.
The snorkeling was not considered great because there was sand, not coral on the bottom, and it was quite shallow for a good distance out. But I still took my mask out everyday, looking for any thing I could see. There were white fish that blended in perfectly to the ground, and occasionally some other fish that would dart away. But the one thing I saw consistently we’re baby octopuses. Now for me when I see an octopus diving, it’s a successful dive. The first dip in the water I saw one. I found an old brick, hollow inside, so I lifted it up, and there were a pair of huge eyes staring at me. Creepy how intelligent they seemed. I pulled the brick out of the water to show Yvonne, and the little guy slowly pulled him self out of the brick, took a look around at us, than launched into the ocean, squirting ink as he went. It was like a little rocket. After that, I began searching every piece of junk, from beer bottle to an old boot, and they all had octopuses in them. I stopped telling other people about it, and just had my secret moment with them. I know that everything gets eaten here, so I did not want these little guys to become dinner because I was bragging about seeing them.
One of the depressing things about being on the island was how over fished it was. One day we sat on the beach and watched two guys about thirty feet apart working two giant cranks. They were handmade out of wood, with two ropes disappearing into the surf. For hours they just kept cranking in this massive net. I actually snorkeled out along the edge of the net, helping a few fish escape, but it was pointless. No helping them. For another hour they cranked it in, till they were to the end of the net. They had five guys help them as they pulled the net out, and it was filled with thousands of little fish. The sound of them all flapping together was like a loud buzzing, as they all tried to get out. They took the entire contents of the net and dumped it into two laundry baskets. None of the fish were big, not even more then five inches. A few small stingrays were separated out and some squids, but everything else went into the basket. Not one thing was tossed back. If these are all the young fish, then how are there ever going to reach breeding age, and that’s the problem. Fish are getting smaller and smaller, and people are eating even them. Soon there will be none left. All these fish were destined for the hot pot.
Environmentally, this is a sad place. Six months before we got there, a Sea Cow or Manatee was caught by fishermen and sold at market. The law protects them in Vietnam as Endangered Species, but it was sold openly at the market. Everyone knows it’s illegal to hunt them, but no one cares. 500 lbs of monkey meat was confiscated coming into the island for Têt feast, even though its illegal. It was a miracle that we saw monkeys when we were in the National Park, because they are hunted out too. One last note on this, as we were at the docks to leave, I saw hundred of sea horses for sale. These little guys supposedly help make some one keep it up, so they are being hunted to extinction. Use Viagra!
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed staying on Phu Qouc, and would come back, it just gets to be a little depressing sometimes. On to a more cheery topic, the Têt Lunar New Year has arrived. During Têt everyone goes home to family, and the whole country shuts down. Têt is when everyone must clear their spiritual calendar, if you have debts they should be paid. Everyone spends a lot of time cleaning their houses, and they decorate them with yellow flowers. It’s a beautiful time to be in the country, just make sure you are not planning on going anywhere. It is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. So don’t expect restaurants to be open, shops, bars, nothing. The only places open were ran by expats.
There are parades everywhere, with dancing dragons, monkeys, and old men. They are followed by a troop of drummers banging away on the traditional drum. The dances are very elaborate, with two man teams working the dragon/Lion called the Mua Lan, or Lion Dancing. They do acrobatic moves including flipping over each others backs, standing on each others shoulders, and crawling on the ground in unison. All the while you have a monkey and an old man fighting the dragon. But remember, here, the dragon is the good guy, and the monkey and old man are the evil spirits. Your house is blessed if the dragon chases them out of your house. That means your house is free of bad spirits. It’s taboo to sweep once Têt starts too, because you might be sweeping the spirits out of the house, and you don’t want that. They say only the rich can afford the dance, but from what I saw, they stopped at every business and house dancing, going door to door. Sometimes it was quick, but often it was very elaborate. From what I could see, the blessings went on for at least two to three days after the Têt New Year. I could not resist watching every show they were so good.
After Têt the island got packed with Vietnamese tourists, who clearly went to the beach after spending time with their families. It was a nice change from having just westerners around. The Vietnamese are more conservative then us, so they often would swim dressed in shirts and pants. But boy would they drink. They would have a fifth down on the beach with them, and start early in the morning till late at night. Occasionally we would be asked to join in a few drinks, and who were we to say no. It was after all, happy hour somewhere in the world.