Phu Quoc Island: PADI certified Open Water Diver


Brad, Esther and I hopped the SuperDong (I kid you not) hydrofoil out to Phu Quoc Island, the morning of Nov 24.  In trying to take a photo of us in front of the SuperDong insignia on the boat, Brad dropped his wallet in the water only to have one of the Vietnamese dudes immediately jump in and rescue it in front of a quickly amassed crowd.  Part of Kill Bill Volume 1 and all of Volume 2 later, we were on the island.  Phu Quoc Island sits a mere 4km away from Sihanoukville in Cambodia, was the site of many South Vietnamese/US prisons during the war and is now a huge Vietnamese military presence due to a territorial dispute with their Cambodian neighbors. It maintains a tremendously beach and village island atmosphere and is home to some of the best reefs Viet Nam has to offer.  Brad and I, thankfully because Nha Trang was rained out, selected this destination as the location of our PADI Open Water Diver certification course.

Arriving in the rain that we had lived with for the past week, we grabbed a quick meal in Duong Dong (the main town), rented some motorbikes (our steeds for the five days here) and rode down the dirt roads to find our new home at the Thousand Stars Resort, where there is a sign that proclaims: “Paradise for the Achiever”.  Prior to finding this place, we had stopped at another place where I left my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia (the proverbial yellow bible) on the table (and wouldn’t realize until five days later) and where I met a British Foreign Service attache named Matthew.  Immediately after dropping our bags in the rooms, the three of us were in the 30 degree Celsius water, enjoying the warmer temperature in the water than out.  Viewing the rain droplets from underwater and the mist across the water was a surreal experience.  I was reminded of when Vidya and I were catamaraning out in the waters of Hayman Island in the Great Barrier Reef in 1999 (when her nickname V was created!).  Our hotel was literally on the sand and no more than 10ft from the water.

Brad and I headed back into town to sort out our PADI course while Esther received the first of many massages right on the beach from the sweet ladies that owned that piece of turf.  We selected Searama as they are a reputable dive company with instructors from Rainbow Diving (THE dive company in Viet Nam) and the cheapest price for our course.  We opted for the Open Water Diver course, allowing us to dive up to 18m anywhere in the world through a PADI-certified dive shop, and sorted out all of the details with our instructor, a Frenchman named Alex.  Pushing to do the course in three days (normally takes four or longer), our plan called for a day of classroom theory and poolwork and then two days of dives in the open water (if we were good) and a final exam.  Brad and I, both fiends for riding, took a quick ride out through Duong Dong to explore, got poured on like mad, and settled in at the painfully slow internet cafe Buddy’s.  I met this Portuguese couple there, the girl provided me with some good advice on Brasil (she is a flight attendant for a Portuguese airline that frequently goes to Brasil) and was wearing a rather nice see-through t-shirt 🙂 We capped off the night at Eden’s Bar – a fantastic and stylish joint a short stroll down from our hotel on the beach – where we sat a few feet from the water’s edge enjoying happy hour Eden Sunrises and talking intensely on life, ambitions, philosophy on dealing with the BS, family, dating, etc.  Upon returning to our hotel, the water was far too inviting, so we indulged in some night swimming (and skinny dipping for me).  From underwater, we could see the phosphorescent glow of all of the creatures at night in the water.  What a liberating a perfect way to end our first day in wonderful Phu Quoc Island.

The next morning on Nov 25, I woke up real early to find beautiful sunshine greeting me (it would stay until the day we left) and grabbed an early morning swim in the ocean before Brad and I were off on our bikes to the classroom for the beginning of our PADI training.  Painfully terrible videos with horrendous comic relief, there was still a lot of really good and important information revealed.  While all of the material is in the Dive Manual, it is certainly easier to digest while eating Oreos and watching a DVD.  The first couple of sessions provided a ton of information on all of the physics and chemistry behind our bodies and diving bringing back memories of the Ideal Gas Law in AP Chemistry.  I can proudly say I received a 29/30 on the quiz.

During our lunch break, we roared back to the hotel to pick up Esther and go for a ride since we had a couple of hours break.  We headed north for Cui Can beach, not realizing the roads were incredibly bumpy, dusty and rough.  We passed through villages, lush vegitation, kids everywhere and many muddy red dirt patches and potholes on the way out.  We added a few installments to the “Brad Does Doughnuts in SE Asia” series and grabbed a delectable sandwich from a lady running a roadside stand.  Phu Quoc Island provided a view into the island humanity – everyone waving and saying hi and just being friendly without expecting monetary compensation in return.  Taking an hour to get where we were, we realized we had 15 minutes to get back and begin our afternoon session in the pool.  We tore it up driving the crazy roads in 20 minutes at 60-80kph, which is unheard of for these roads and on semi-automatic 125cc bikes with small tires.  We passed by some kids who were doubling on a bike and started to race with us, but we were focused on safely navigating the road in quick fashion.  Alas, we safely made it back.

We got to the pool of a really posh hotel and amongst sunbathing vacationers and couples being romantic by a pool, we learned how to and then loaded up with all of our gear – checking the tank, loading the regulator and testing all of the valves/SPG/regulators and strapping on the BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) – and jumped into the pool.  I was reminded of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.  While only in a swimming pool that wasn’t very deep at all and, because of the chlorine, could not sustain any aquatic life, the first time you breath underwater is an unreal and memorable experience.  Adding to the unnatural feeling, you cannot ever hold your breath underwater at any reasonable depth and while breathing compressed air.  If you do, upon ascent, you risk overexpansion of your lungs as the air inside of you adjusts to the pressure change.  Thus, when your reg is out of your mouth or anything, you constantly have to be exhaling slowly and always breath deep and slow breaths when your reg is in.  Additionally as cool as breathing underwater, is using your BCD, weight belt and the air in your lungs to control your buoyancy.  I knew at that moment that I would love diving for the rest of my life.  Brad and I successfully passed the Confined Water Dive requirements for the first couple of sessions.

We rendez-voused with Esther (who was already PADI certified, so had a couple of days to herself) at Eden Bar for some happy hour cocktails and beloved Chai Gao Chay (what they call spring rolls in the south) as the sun went down.  Brad and I jammed over to the classroom to complete the painful theory and were armed with all of the classroom knowledge we’d need to be an Open Water Diver (I aced this quiz) including the most important part of Session 5: SCUBA diving allows you to Go Places, Do Things and Meet People.  A comedic tale, one of the junior Dive Instructors is an Italian named Mario.  The newbie to the team, he is tasked with the least fun activities, such as keeping watch over guys watching DVD training.  Brad had to run to the bathroom and stumbled over a chair.  Hearing this, Mario, a lanky and rail thin individual, comes racing through the room past me and out of my sight I hear the same horrific sound of a body falling over a chair.  He comes running back into the room where I am and in the thickest Italian accent possible says: “Your friend, he fall.  I come to try and help him and I fall over the same chair”.  A few minutes later, the phone rang and Mario said “I don’t know what to do?”.  There would be many more Mario quotes over the next couple of days.

After classroom training, we met Esther and went for a beachside stroll under the stars to a restaurant in the sand called the Lighthouse.  While laying in the sand after a long day, my camera which had been through a lot and traveled quite extensively over the last two years (Amir dropped it in the Andes, it had lost its ability to pre-focus before taking a snap somewhere in India) finally reached the point of no use as there was a micro-crack in the LCD screen.  Alas, we would discover that the camera does have use as a road cam while on dirt bikes in Cambodia, but that’s for another entry.  Full to the brim with a delicious seafood meal, we went for a leisurely stroll back home under the stars and along the water’s edge.  Another wonderful day in paradise for the achiever.

Nov 26 is a day Brad and I will never forget – our first Open Water Dives!  Our boat mates (after all, diving allows you to Meet People) were a British couple John and Rona and two German doctors Anne and Justus.  John is a development recruiter for consultancies that are focused on local governments in hostile areas.  He mostly focuses on bringing in foreign experts and then on transition to local individuals.  We spoke at length about my pursuits, development in general, the frustrations/challenges of bringing systemic change to a place versus one-off helping families, and crooked and unqualified rebel local governments that are often the last man standing in a hostile area.  He is highly supportive of the Peace Corps mission and its qualified and motivated volunteers.  Who knows, opportunity may cause our paths to cross again.  The conversations amongst the whole boat included John leading a discussion on how overfishing on the island is killing the sustainable living of the island, which is largely based on tourism, and we also discussed urban migration in most developing countries and the model example of sustainable urban living that is offered in Cuba.

Our first two dives were off the northwest coast of Phu Quoc Island and we were treated to tons of coral reef and colorful (but not large) fish.  The first descent was such a rush.  At one point on the dive, we lost our instructor Alex, but successfully navigated back up at the surface.  We were really treated to a rarity as we saw three cuttlefish (look like colorful and menacing octopus) in close range.  What Alex was signing to us in the water (in diving, there is a large vocabulary of sign language that is invaluable, including certain impromptu signs about animal behavior) was that the largest male was trying to be with his mate, while the smaller male was trying to get in on the action.  The larger male did not want to share his bounty one bit, so we saw the full display of color and largeness and a fight ensue between the two fish.  Awesome.  In another installment of Mario-isms, as soon as he jumped in the water to escort some of our other boatmates, at the top of his lungs he yelled: “I lost my snorkel!”.  Upon hearing this, Alex said: “I do not know whether to laugh or to cry”.  Our day on the boat culminated with a good lunch and some requisite diving from the roof of the boat.

Brad and I treated ourselves to some sunset massages on the beach with Esther and after an evening swim and getting cleaned up, we made our way to the night market in Duong Dong.  It was a lively carnival atmosphere, with kids rides everywhere, tons of restaurants, street food (good ole meat on a stick – reminding me of Nav and my pursuit of souvlaki back in Astoria).  We enjoyed one of the cheapest and finest meals had in all of Viet Nam.  After a few meat on a sticks while checking out the market, we gorged ourselves with clams with peanuts, BBQ buffalo, hot pot.  Mmm, mmm, good.  While eating, we heard these kids playing a game that sounded like: “1, 2, 3, SPRING ROLL!”.  Pretty much the theme of this entry is every day in Phu Quoc is a great day in paradise for the achiever.

Nov 27 was Thanksgiving for me on Phu Quoc Island.  I had already prepped Esther and Brad that they would be my family and we have to eat and drink like pigs.  It was also the third and final day (if we passed the test) of our PADI course.  Given the events of the last year and my current zest and direction in life, I had a lot to be thankful for.  Esther joined us on the boat for our 3rd and 4th Open Water dives.  The third dive took us to “Reef City”.  Our deepest, at 10m depth and 10m of visibility, there were towering 8m high hard reefs that we swam through and looking up you would see schools of fish at intersections.  We saw many soft reefs and anemones with clown fish in them.  We saw tons of amazing blue glowing tipped anemone with a neon blue eye in the middle.  There was also a really large guy just kind of surveying the scene in the Reef City who I dubbed the Mayor.  There was so much color and life in such a seemingly small place compared with the vastness of the ocean.  We were constantly reminded of Finding Nemo on this day.  We had to fight a pretty strong current to get to the dive spot from the boat (you always swim against the current first to make it easier on the way back) and we felt like Superman or the turtles on the EAC in Nemo on the way back.  The fourth dive provided the same gorgeous reef cities and Brad was lucky enough to have a pilot fish wandering all over him as we swam along (these are the fish that live a symbiotic relationship with sharks and whales and such).  Mario, who guided us on the third one with Alex, proclaimed it was his best, then his top 3, then his top 5 amongst 50+ dives. I said all four of our dives were easily in my top 5.

We both passed our final exams (after Brad became an expert on reading the RDP from my crash course the night before) as I proudly scored 49/50 and we were officially PADI Certified Open Water Divers.  Let the underwater world party begin!

While Thanksgiving for me in Phu Quoc, Nov 27 was a much more somber day in a part of the world that is very near and dear to me.  At the internet cafe, after not checking for a few days, I received mails from Bip and Amir to Shashank regarding Mumbai.  Having no clue what happened, “I read the news today oh boy”.  I was in shock.  I had just been in the Victoria Terminus, Gateway to India (next to Taj hotel) and Marine Drive exactly a month earlier.  Never go to places I have just been.  I immediately fired off emails to Shash, my cousin and friends in Bombay.  Reading about the multi-day carnage over the next few days was eerily similar to 9/11, when I became a US citizen.  Eerily similar not only in terms of the tragic loss of civilian life, but also because just as the citizens of the US acted irrationally and demanded retribution, I was afraid of the same outcome in India.  Thankfully, no one I know was affected directly, but after the six months of violence India has seen, it’s not far-fetched to see a serious escalation between two nuclear neighbors.  May all Mumbaikers stay safe and may cooler heads prevail in South Asia.  Please.

We returned to Eden for my Thanks giving dinner as I was fiending some pizza.  Heavy discussions ensued on the current events in India and Thailand.  The intense conversation shifted to radical Gandhian-style education reform both in and out of the classroom, in both rich and poor countries, and in both rural and urban settings.  This led to the inevitable having purpose in life and what you do conversation as Esther is at a major crossroads in her life.  Having myself gone through all of this and, for now, found some peace, I had a lot of perspectives to share with her.  We had a somber walk back along the beach, taking a break at some hammocks, to home in the night – everyone with a lot on their mind.

Having completed our PADI training, the three of us finally all had a free day together in Phu Quoc on Nov 28.  Brad and I completed the paperwork, received our temp diving cards and said by to our instructor friends Alex, Nico and Mario.  Esther, Brad and I then hopped on our steeds and rode down the nice PAVED road south on the island.  We took a ton of video and doughnuts footage, Brad saw some Monkey Magic statues that took him back to childhood, and we saw brilliant and lush palm/coconut trees, flowers, bushes and hills, albeit riding on easy asphalt that permitted us to really enjoy the surroundings without looking out for a deadly pothole.  We reached Sao Beach, with a long and pristine white sand bar that allowed the waves to gently and calmly roll in, and enjoyed lunch on the beach with some delightful puppies (I think every mother on Phu Quoc Island just had a litter).   Our last night together (Brad and Esther were bound for Thailand the next day) was capped off with happy hour at Eden and another visit to our beloved night market for a feast.  That night, I jammed out on Brad’s guitar while we consolidated pictures and he put together the footage into a nice movie on Adobe and then I finished the thrilling page turner (that reads like a movie script and is enthralling like 24 while also lacking the real writing skills like 24) Ice Station to end our experience in paradise for the achiever.

The following morning on Nov 29, I would find my Lonely Planet still sitting on the same table I left it at five days earlier!  The three of us would fly into Sai Gon and Brad and Esther were supposed to be bound for Bangkok (the PAD protestors would have something to say about that) on a connecting flight while I was to meet Mary and Sarah in Sai Gon before floating through the Me Kong Delta on our way to Cambodia.  Sometimes, things don’t work out as planned…