Getting lost in paradise


It’s hard to believe, but we have now been on Phu Quoc for 7 days. We have twice extended our stay on the island, finding the idea of leaving too much to bear. However, all good things indeed have to come to an end and tomorrow we fly to Saigon for a couple of days before heading home to dreary, cold and miserable Canberra to resume our lives and get back to reality.

Getting to Phu Quoc from Cambodia was quite an adventure, we had 3 choices, either we could:

1. fly from Phnom Penh to Phu Quoc via Saigon (expensive, but could be done in a day);

2. head overland from Phnom Penh to Ha Tien on the Vietnamese coast and take a ferry, which is particularly unreliable and may or may not be running on any given day depending on weather and passenger numbers (a 2 to 20 day trip depending on transport connections); or

3. Take a boat down the Mekong to the Vietnamese border, stay the night at Chau Doc and take a bus that was rumored to run the next day to Rach Gai where we could catch a reliable ferry to Phu Quoc that left at 1:00pm.

We chose option 3, the boat to Chau Doc was fairly uneventful, but it was interesting to watch all the fishermen on the river and our arms quickly got tired from waving to all the kids swimming on the banks. I was also coming down with some sort of tropical fever that Gaynor had contract in Phnom Penh, and so was feeling quite horrible, I have no idea what it was but consisted of splitting headaches, fevers, sore eyes and a rash that spread over my whole body. By the time we arrived in Chau Doc all I wanted to do was find somewhere to crawl into and die, however, we had to try and organise our transport for the next day, this quickly proved to be a problem as the rumored bus to Rach Gai didn’t appear to exist and so after much debate we eventually hired a car and driver to take us to Rach Gai in time for the ferry the next day Sunset on our beach.

I was still not feeling great the next morning, but was somewhat better then Gaynor who had managed to get a Migraine during the night and was somewhat worse for wear. The 3 hour drive to Rach Gai was alright, but by the time we arrived at Rach Gai the sky was getting a bit ominous and I was having flash backs to our ferry to Ischia 2 years ago where Gaynor almost lost her lunch on multiple occasions. It turns out I wasn’t far off, by the time we got on the ferry it had started raining and the 2 hour ferry trip became extremely bumpy; kids began screaming and people started throwing up all around us. Gaynor went her particular shade of grey, but thanks to neither of us having eaten anything substantial for the best part of 36 hours due to feeling sick as dogs we were both spared from the worst.

We arrived on Phu Quoc in the middle of the biggest storm of the wet season so far and it lasted all day. We checked into Cassia Cottage, our resort and despite all assurances that the rain was very unusual and that we should only expect rain at night and early mornings, we were beginning to think that our week of sun and relaxation was going to be a complete washout. But true to form the next day dawn bright and sunny and it hasn’t changed since.

Enabling us to enjoy the beach, pool, go snorkeling and go exploring the island by motorbike.

The first couple of days were spent relaxing and getting over our terrible lurgy. By the third day we were both feeling much better and so we hired a motorbike and spent the day exploring the south of the island. We went to the oldest pearl farm on the island run by a Kiwi/Australian who had a pet monkey that Gaynor feel in love with and conveniently forgot all warnings about rabies and monkeys . We then went to the bottom tip of the island passing some spectacularly beautiful beaches and scenery on the way to a small fishing village, where we watched the fisherman unload their catches and the markets spring to life. After the fishing village we went to what is reputed to be the islands most beautiful beach called Bai Sao. The beach was as quintessentially tropical as they come, brilliant white sand, low hanging palm trees, turquoise water and coral reefs just offshore. Feeling in need of a swim we wandered up to the top corner of the beach, unfortunately we also wandered into a sea of garbage, which somewhat spoilt the illusion of paradise. However, we found a clean section of beach and went for a swim and chilled out for a while in the shade. Unfortunately Gaynor started coming down with another migraine while we were at the beach so that was it for the day, we rushed back to our resort and got Gaynor some Codeine and a bed to sleep it off.

Feeling somewhat better the next day we hired the bike again and went to explore the north of the island.  The north appeared far less populated and developed then the south (not that the south is by any means ‘developed’). We hugged the coastline on the way north, passing yet more beautiful and totally secluded beaches and occasional tiny villages until we reached the North west tip of the island from where you can see the Cambodian mainland only a couple of km’s in the distance. We travelled back down through the middle of the island, which is thick unspoilt jungle (Phu Quoc only had 5000 people on it as late as 1980 and thus much of the jungle has been left untouched, 70% of the island is now national parks), however, Phu Quoc appears to be in the middle of major road improvement works (there are currently only 2 paved roads on the island 1 from the main port to the main town and 1 from the southern tip to the main town) and it became very hairy riding through deep mud and trying to pass huge lorries, graders and steamrollers on tiny one lane dirk tracks. We eventually stopped at a road side stall to get a drink and catch my breath, only to be descended on by a dozen soldiers (there is a major military base in the north of the island mainly due to the proximity of Cambodia and Cambodia’s recent territorial claims to the island) they seemed friendly enough, but I’ve heard enough stories about the soldiers in this part of the world to breathe a sigh of relief once we managed to extricate ourselves.

After another relax day we booked a private snorkeling and fishing tour to go and explore the coral reefs surrounding the island. We had been unhappy with the tours offered through our resort so found our own and I’m very glad we did. Our tour guide was extremely interesting, he had grown up on a pepper plantation on the island as the son of an ex pilot for the Southern Vietnamese Airforce during the war who had escaped to Phu Quoc after 1975 to escape persecution by the new regime. He was then sent by his parents when he was 11 by boat to a Malaysian refugee camp only to arrive a month after they had closed the camp. After spending 5 years in Malaysia he was repatriated to Phu Quoc, which was just receiving its first international tourists and being one of the few people on the island who spoke English, due to his father, he was quickly employed in a variety of hotels that were just opening up. He has recently split off on his own; setting up his own tour company called Phu Quoc Explorer and was a very enjoyable host, full of stories and jokes.  We had a fantastic time, neither of us had seen coral in person so can’t compare it with other coral reefs, but we were both very impressed and blown away by the size, colors and shapes of the coral and the fish. Our guide explained to us that recently they had been having problems with poaches stealing the coral to sell, but that the tour companies and authorities had cracked down hard on offenders.

Phu Quoc itself has been wonderful, it really appears to be on the verge of being truely discovered and overrun by tourists. It is also far more famous at present for its pepper, fish sauce and vanilla, then as a tourist destination, but that is all in the process of changing. The above mentioned road improvements are in full swing, an international airport is under construction and will open in 2012, it has been voted the number 1 destination for 2010 on trip advisor and big hotel chains are starting to buy up large tracts of land for new resorts. Right now though it is very sleepy, relaxed island that seems to attract a lot of domestic tourists from Saigon but very few westerners (at this time of year anyway). There are a number of resorts in and around Duong Dong (main town) and a few scattered around the island, but certainly not many and we were actually surprised by the lack of options when looking for places to stay. There are 2-3 really expensive resorts and quite a number of cheap backpacker style bungalows, but very few in the price range we were looking at. All in all it really feels like we are very lucky to be here right now and it really feels like this place will be simply another ko Samui, Phuket, Bali within the next 5 years. Even our tour guide from the snorkelling expressed his concern for the future, for although it will be good for business he said to us that if we were to come back in 5 years we would not recognise it, and I don’t disagree with him.

Although for a place that has grown in population from 5000 to 90,000 in the space of 30 years, the same could be said about the past as well I am sure.

The food has also been out of this world, we have gorged ourselves silly on the freshest seafood imaginable. Almost everything is still alive when you choose it, including the squid, and it is then 9 times out of 10 simply grilled or steamed and served with either a fish sauce or pepper and lime dipping sauce. It is all without doubt some of the tastiest seafood I have ever eaten, and of course soooo cheap. A large crab is about $2.50, grilled fish about $3.00 and scallops $7 a kilo cooked  and served to you.

Speaking of which it is getting towards dinner time once again, so I’ll leave you there for I must go eat my own weight in seafood once more.