Phu Quoc: “It’s Wonderbar!”

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phu quoc

Once in Vietnam, I met Kevin in Saigon (a.k.a Ho Chi Minh City). For 36 hours, we stayed in Saigon, eating, drinking, walking, visiting the War Remnants Museum, and enjoying the pre-Tet sights, but our destination was Phu Quoc Island, south of Cambodia and claimed by both Cambodia and Vietnam yet government control didn’t seem to matter too much on this laid-back island.

Soon we began three and one half days of relaxation at the Beach Club, the southernmost resort on Long Beach. It was a small place with a handful of bungaloes and a few rooms with a restaurant and bar in the middle, all overlooking the beach, where four palm-leaf parasols each shaded two lounge chairs.

Our days usually consisted of lounging under the parasols then walking twenty feet to the restaurant for one of our five meals a day then swimming in the warm Gulf of Thailand waters

The food at the Beach Club was excellent, with seafood fried with lemongrass and chili with rice being a favorite and a cold mixed fruit shake on the side; they had all the types of beer–Saigon, Tiger, 333–and the beach was right there with the lounge chairs: we had no pressing need to go anywhere.

Still, we mustered some energy to walk the beach and go on a motorbike around the island.

The island was still relatively undeveloped, with only 60,000 fishermen, farmers, and other locals fitting into its 593 square kilometers. Some fishermen reeled in their seine nets along the beach, catching small fish for the fish sauce industry; other fishermen patrolled the waters with their light blue boats, osprey overhead; still others fished at night for squid on the large boats encircling the horizon with their squid-attracting halogen lights. Most of the fishermen worked mornings, returned for a siesta, then worked some more once the mid-day sun had weakened.

Other locals worked for the tourist industry, which, like my previous small island home six miles south of Cape Cod, provided many jobs. At some of the more upscale resorts this meant working to keep your uncle from fishing in the resort waters: you needed to keep the unsightly locals from disturbing the guests, even though you, yourself were a local

This also meant erecting barbed wire along the beaches. The separation of sunbathing tourists and the locals creates a wonderful antiseptic experience for those who travelled thousands of miles to visit a place that could be Anywhere Beach.

Luckily, more locals than tourists enjoyed the beaches further south on Long Beach.

The on-going construction of large deluxe resorts with gated facilities, however, seems likely to overwhelm Long Beach and the small Beach Club.

Still, we visited several small fishing towns where we were greeted by dozens of children and adults alike, friendly smiles all around. They were almost too friendly as they shut down our mopeds, encircled us, and beckoned us to stay–hmmm tempting, but we had only a few hours of daylight left.

Back on the beach, which squeaked underfoot, we stooped over the myriad shells, crabs, sea stars, and other marine critters. Ghost crabs dug their burrows, keeping their swizzle-stick eyes warily looking our way.

At night, phosphorescent dinoflagellates ignited under our steps through the calm waves as we walked to various bars, played pool, and reminesced about old trips we’d taken together.

Our first large-scale journey was a five-week road trip across country through 22 states back in 1993: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, then back to Delaware

For the entire trip, we spent about $10 on accomodations, staying with friends and relatives, in the mountains, in national parks and BLM lands, in interstate rest areas, basically wherever we could find.

At the end of 800+ hours straight together, sleeping in a small Clip Flashlight tent, we were completely tired of one another and didn’t speak for the rest of the summer. After a while, however, we were speaking again and eager for new trips, remembering the journey fondly: watching the stars from Double Arch in Utah, hiking the Hoh River trail in the Olympic rainforest, abortively climbing Mt. St. Helens in a blizzard followed by an epic sledding down the mountain, climbing the Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, and more.

So here we were, once again, on another trip together, yet this time our most relaxed–usually we’re out doing something. Doing next to nothing, however, seemed to fit and listening to the geckos call and making the sand squeak under our feet as we walked between bars and beers was “wonderbar,” as the waiter at the Tropicana, used to greeting the throngs of German tourists, told us every time we uttered a phrase:

“I’d like the vegetables and rice, please.”

“Wonderbar!”

But then again, I probably sound just as silly saying the three words I know in Vietnamese.

If that makes the locals laugh, then great, I’ll keep trying.

And if people ask me how I liked Phu Quoc, I’ll tell them: “It was Wonderbar!”