04 May 2006

Phu Quoc

A four day weekend and where does one go? To the beach, of course! And not just any old beach, but to the island of Phu Quoc, a short, fifty-minute plane flight from HCMC.

The island has yet to be trashed by tourism, so maintains a rustic feel. A large part of it is national forest, and another part an army base. The major industry is fishing, but you can see that in the future tourism will probably take over, even though the government says it wants to keep it as an eco-tourism haven.

My flight left Saturday morning at eight. I was lucky to even get a seat as it was a holiday weekend and the four, daily flights on a small, seventy-odd seater, had been sold out. I found a local travel agent who swore she could get me on a plane, and she delivered.

I had booked a bungalow at the Bo Resort, which had been highly recommended by a colleague. I was to be met at the airport by someone from the “Resort”. I do want to clarify the term resort does not have the same meaning in Vietnam as it does in other parts of the world. I would never go to a real resort. It simply means that it is accommodation on the beach with a restaurant.

As I walked off the plane and into the small airport in Phu Quoc, I looked around for a sign with my name, but saw nothing. Soon a man approached and asked if I was Kate, going to the Bo resort. Odd, I thought, but he spoke no English other than that I couldn’t ask how he knew. I had noticed a women holding up a sign with some other peoples names and ‘Bo Resort’, but assumed it was probably a group with no room for an extra passenger.

My driver grabbed my bag and we headed outside. As we walked, I noticed he was going away from the few cars and towards the motorbikes. When he told me to wait while he got the bike, I made it very clear that I needed a taxi. So he put down my bag and went in search of one. It was obvious that everyone knew each other as he asked one person, who called out to another, and so on until I remembered the woman with the sign who was now loading bags into her car.

Bo resort? I called out. Then I noticed that she was loading the luggage of the family of five that had been on the plane with me. There was no way I would fit in. But she grabbed my bag and said to come along. I tried to find the family to ask if this was all right, but they were headed off to a row of motorbikes, leaving the taxi driver to deliver their bags. I didn’t see them until much later, so I guess they went on an island bike tour.

Once on the way, I was really glad that taxis were an option in Phu Quoc. All the roads we went on were bumpity, red dirt. Not my idea of what a fun bike ride would be. As we drove I looked out onto lush, greenery, interspersed with occasional small buildings or houses, and cows in the road. I also thought that having a women taxi driver must be a true rarity on the island. I have only seen a few of them in HCMC. She did quite well maneuvering around livestock and motorbikes, up and over potholes, and through places where even the word ‘road’ was questionable.

Thirty minuets later, I was dropped at a gate. A woman came over and welcomed me to the Bo resort, while a staff member took my bag. She told me to follow him. We walked along a narrow path through beautifully landscaped flowering trees and plants, passing a few bungalows that stood well apart from each other.
I was taken to bungalow number 2.

And what a bungalow it was. Perched on a hill overlooking that beautiful garden, and on down to the beach and the sea. A lovely porch with two lounging beach chairs served as the entrance. Inside was a large room with wooden floors and two beds. The roof of the building was made of palm leaves, separated from the top of the walls. The bathroom at the back was simple and clean and made of tile. Shutter windows opened out to the garden on the side and front walls.
The bungalows were spaced so that you felt total privacy.

After I had dumped my bags, I waited for someone to come and tell me about check-in procedures. No one arrived. Then I thought about getting something to eat, but had no idea where the restaurant was. I looked out at the winding paths and decided to head down the short hill to the beach where I assumed it would be.

The restaurant was a raised terracotta platform with a thatched roof, looking onto the beach and the beautiful coastline. This also served as the ‘check-in’ desk, tour booking desk, and anything else you might need. Like that shelf of books actually packed with items I would read. I got something to eat, grabbed a book, and went back to my bungalow to get into beach gear.

About to unlock my door, I heard a meow. I called out, got a response, but no kitty showed up. We talked back and forth until I entered my bungalow and looked up to see a young cat walking across the rafters. She finally did come down, and hung out with me for the entire stay. She was a beautiful, young cat, very intent on talking and being held, but I couldn’t get a picture of her. You try to get that sort of cat to pose.

That first day I thought about going down to work on my tan, or take a walk, but just couldn’t get it together. I kept thinking I had to do something until I realized that no, I didn’t. I was on vacation. I did go back down to the restaurant where I met Marie and Regis, the owners.

She is Vietnamese/French, and he is French. They met in California, and opened the Bo about three years ago. Again, as in Cambodia, these people are what made my stay so special. You immediately feel part of the family. They sit and have a meal with you, arrange sightseeing trips, talk to you about anything. There business is doing quite well, and it is all by word of mouth.
By the time I was ready to retire, it was dark. Walking back to my bungalow was a bit of a challenge. Motion sensor path lights came on as I went up the main walk, but then I couldn’t see the small trail that went to my place. I found one bungalow, but realized in time that it wasn’t mine. For a minute there, I was sure I was going to get lost. But I found it, and from then on when I went down in the late afternoon I left the porch light on.

Although the Bo has electricity, it has no TV, A/C, or business center, but it does have a fan. However, once the skeeter net was down, I couldn’t feel the fan, so rolled it back up. I never did get one bite the whole time I was there.
I fell asleep and slept better than ever.

I awoke in the morning to find that my kitty was waiting for me. Such a nice amenity at no additional cost. I could already see that a storm was rolling in. I made sure I got down the hill before it broke. Having coffee as the storm raged through, I talked with several other guests. One guy had been there for a few months on a break from making a documentary film in Cambodia. Others were from various countries, or working in Vietnam. All of us seemed to share the same desire for the serenity and low-tech life that the Bo offered. The rain eventually stopped, and it was perfectly good tanning weather, or trip weather, but I still had no desire to do anything other than veg-out and read.

The next day I got up and went for an early morning walk along the beach. Four kilometers with not a soul in sight, although there was enough trash on the beach that you had to be very aware that you didn’t step on glass. I think the trash may have been from all the fishing boats that comb the seas. At night you can see them, way out in the water, seemingly all in a row. They are hunting for calamari, going out in the evening and staying all night. And the oddest sight on the shore was all the lost flip-flops, but never a pair. I kept thinking I should take a bag and collect them all. But I only ended up collecting shells, and I got some beauties.

When I got back, I saw that they were making great progress on the addition to the dining area. Basically, there was one man doing most of the work. I watched as he built the entire frame with only a tape measure, small ruler, and string for measurements. He had started the day before I got there and it was almost finished when I left. Once the frame was up, with the help of three other men, I watched as they did acrobatics to attach roof beans and other things. To get up, they would shimmy up the round corner posts, just like you see when people climb coconut trees. Then they would walk around and use toes and feet and both hands seemingly at the same time. The most remarkable part was when the attached the palm leaf roof.

I had always wondered how this was done. The dried palm leaves are cut down the center leaving two pieces with leaves on just on side. They are then laid on top of bamboo poles that have been hammered into the roof beams. Each palm branch is then tied down using other plant vines. The whole thing is rain resistant.

Although the weather was quite warm, it was no where as hot as HCMC, and there was always that lovely breeze off the water. The clouds came and went and it was only really bright and sunny for an hour here and there. The first two nights the high cloud cover prevented star gazing. But on my last night, the stars came out. I lay on a bench by the waters edge, gazing up at the heavens, trying to memorize the sight. How I wish one could see stars in the city. Perhaps if that were true you would get complacent about the wonderment of it all and no longer feel the power of the universe, the way I do on star-filled nights.

My last day was spent getting a few more shells and rocks, walking on the beach, and reading. I was glad that I had gotten the 4pm flight, giving me the best part of the day to enjoy it all. I reluctantly left, but know I will be back in the not too distant future.

Wishing on a star.

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