Phu Quoc Island: Off the Beaten Path

What can I say about this trip? Firstly, I planned next to nothing. I booked a 45-minute plane ticket from Ho Chi Minh City for $75 and made a free reservation at a hostel in the center of the island next to Ong Lang beach. After waking up at 4am to catch my 7am flight there from my home in Ho Chi Minh City I ordered a motorbike taxi to the airport and we shared a laugh as we narrowly avoided the corrupt police looking for a bribe on the way. After going to the wrong domestic terminal to check-in I finally made it to my gate with plenty of time to spare. Within an hour my plane touched down and the first thing I did was rent a motorbike. It was more expensive renting from the airport, 200.000 (around $10) a day in comparison to the regular 150.000 (around $7) and the motorbike had over 600,000 kilometers in it but I knew I could manage and it was only a few dollars more despite the bike being under expectations such as needing the brakes tightened and a serious oil change.

I drove in a straight line for the longest of time, stopped at a gas station, and then found a type of restaurant block but because it was 8am in the morning nearly every place was closed. I browsed around and found a coffee shop and did my best to order passion fruit juice in Vietnamese but instead got the most disgusted, annoyed, and confused facial expression. I also managed to drop my passport when I pulled my cellphone of my pocket as I passed by two fellow tourists but one of them stopped me and handed my passport back to me, I told her she indefinitely had good karma heading her way now.

My first good stop was by chance as I found Dinh Cau which is essentially a temple, a lighthouse, a pier, and a set of small cliffs perfect for some easy bouldering.

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Dinh Cau

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After leaving I decided to find dirt roads. Why? Because for me these are the beaten paths that most people tend to avoid out of simple fear and comfort. The roads were full of potholes and the lanes were tight even for a motorbike but then I saw a wooden sign that read “Tommy’s Beach Bar 200km” out of the blue. I thought for a moment, grinned, and followed the sign. I mistakenly took a left turn too soon and stumbled upon Bai Dan beach. Gorgeous white sand, clear, blue ocean, and dozens of fishing boats anchored several yards out. There was not a soul on the beach – the kind of paradise everyone imagines finding away from the crowds and noise, all I could hear was the ocean waves breaking against the sand. So I got out and walked, not in a rush or having a goal, I simply strolled. Not too long after I ran into three young Vietnamese boys who were building a circular boat to paddle out to the fishing boats. We unsuccessfully tried to have a Vienglish conversation but failed as we couldn’t get past basic questions and answers. I also ran into several other younger kids who looked at me in confusion and maybe a little intimidation but after giving them a simple wave and smile and they laughed and giggled with glee as they waved back to me.

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After some time I returned to my bike and drove, that’s when I stumbled upon another sign that read “Tommy’s Beach Bar <-” and I didn’t hesitate to follow. When I walked up to the beach bar it was nearly empty, only three people were sitting in plastic chairs next to a short speed bar surrounded by tree stumps turned bar stools. I asked the group if they were open and if I could have a beer, one of them who was I believe either Dutch simply replied, “yeah, you can grab one from the fridge behind the bar.” A little surprised, I simply said thanks and grabbed my go-to Tiger beer in a can. I sat on the beach deck for some time just watching the ocean before the craziness started.

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Bai Dai Beach

Maybe ten more people showed up who were staying at Tommy’s Hostel which was the combination of all the small surrounding houses and dorms. I figured what the hell and started making conversation with guests and met a Belgian guy and the Dutch manager. Within a few minutes the manager made the executive decision that we should start drinking a combination of rum, cola, and Thai red bull. The best and worse idea. As this went on an older but very small Vietnamese lady who was something like the assistant manager arrived.

I heard the manager and assistant manager having a soft argument that turned into a big scene. The manager suddenly quit on the spot and decided to pack his things but stay at the bar drinking and telling everybody who would hear how the Vietnamese do not understand the concept of hospitality. He complained they were preparing meals behind the bar and putting their dishware on the floor, blocking the path of bartenders and putting a terrible impression on new guests. A young girl and old women were the only staff visible. I couldn’t believe my eyes but soon learned the bar had not even been open two weeks and that the Dutch manager was so frustrated by the language barrier and blatant errors in hospitality that he simple said fuck it, I’m done. The assistant manager seemed like a very nice lady and could speak a reasonable amount of English, she even offered the guests free drinks if they helped out some of the construction workers on the beach building houses which several of us happily obliged.

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Being me, that’s when I decided to hop behind the bar and started making drinks and taking food orders. I could speak just enough Vietnamese to communicate with the staff and was adequate enough to make drinks despite glaring problems like no ice, no check system, and a lack of back-stock to refill menu items like the beers in the fridge. I leveled with customers, making jokes that I was a customer who decided to help out and that we were newly opened. Most people will level with you, especially if you can tell them a good story they can look past a lot of shortcomings of an establishment. In essence, if you can make them feel like they are at home, they will stay and be happy. So, for the next eight hours I literally divided my time between drinking rum-coke-Thai Red Bulls, swimming in the ocean, being a stand-in bartender/translator, and playing with Tommy, the owner’s grandson, who was running around naked for the entire duration to everyone’s amusement. The manager and assistant manager constantly bickered back and forth at each other, I felt for both of them because I understood the frustration they were enduring from each other but thought the solutions were so simple and obvious that the conflict was stemming mainly from ego and stubbornness.

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Eventually, I decided that I didn’t want to spend my whole trip in just one spot and said a quick goodbye before I made my way to Island Life Hostel, walking distance from Bai Ong Lang Beach, where I had made a reservation. Upon arriving I was a little concerned. The hostel was relatively small, having only two showers and toilets for over a dozen beds and the lobby was simply a bar with a table and several chairs. This turned out to be an amazing experience as the hostel staff were all friendly and personable as well as most of my roommates who were from all over the globe such as Russia and UK. They were easygoing people like myself who shared the same goals as mine, eat seafood, drink beer, and enjoy nature. In other words the, “don’t worry, be happy,” mindset. When they asked me to join them for a group dinner nearby I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation.
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Bai Ong Lang Beach during sunset

After eating we decided to stuff ourselves into a taxi, with me luckily getting the passenger’s seat, to head to a popular beach bar in the city center which ended up being a somewhat bad idea as it got to the point where the driver had to pull over and stop for a minute to clearly understand the GPS and the directions I was giving him. Everyone began shouting at him because the meter was moving so slightly but they misread it reading 1.500.000 dong (over $60 and counting) when it was actually 150.000 dong (a little over $6). The taxi driver got upset and started telling them to shut up but his English was so bad it sounded like he was saying “sit up”. Once, I corrected everyone on the price and directions they felt a little guilty but weren’t apologetic. The taxi driver began talking poorly about them in Vietnamese, essentially calling them stupid tourists which in this case he was in the right as he didn’t do anything wrong.

Rory’s Beach Bar: This bar was a letdown to me. The music was dry and unoriginal house music, the beer was triple the price of other local bars, and nobody was dancing but just sitting and drinking. This and the combination that I had woken up at 3am that morning to fly in, I was simply turning into a tired grouch and opted to take a taxi home after an hour.

Something that I had never seen before was herds of cattle passing through the open roads with motorbikes and cars. Initially I thought it was a rare occurrence but in fact it was just a normal, everyday thing in Phu Quoc.

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Rock Bar: Rock bar was this relatively small but quaint bar that I visited twice during my stay. The first was with five of my hostel mates and we kept the bar open until nearly 3 in the morning dancing, drinking, and just having a good time. The second time I went with just my Welsh hostel mate and we simply conversed and made friends with fellow patrons. The memory that sticks out in my mind is seeing an emaciated dog walking in and out of the bar. No one claimed ownership but one patron was trying to feed her some meat and another said it was a stray who had babies recently and would only eat meat. Without a second thought I strolled to a nearby barbecue and bought three chicken wings. I explained in Vietnamese that it was for my dog who I loved and that we were at the bar a few feet away. The cook and his son smiled and met me fifteen minutes later at the bar and gave me the chicken in a Styrofoam box. I opened it and placed it in front of the dog who began eating after a few seconds of hesitation. The other bar patrons began applauding and as much as it made me feel good for doing good I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that I couldn’t do more to help this dog.

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Local Phu Quoc bia at Rock Bar

Typhoon: A typhoon was set to hit Phu Quoc and was supposed to be so bad that people near the Mekong Delta were being evacuated, ferries were being canceled, and last-minute flights were being booked to get off the island and away from the storm. About half of our hostel dorm-mates flew out within hours while I sat back, laughed, and while drinking a beer exclaimed I am from Florida where hurricane season is a regular yearly thing. It simply didn’t phase me and I spent the day at the beach. Some people will call this ignorance but when you’ve endured dozens of hurricanes and tornadoes in your lifetime you understand more than people who only know what they’ve read in a textbook or on the internet. In the end, the storm never hit and all we received was a day long drizzle and cold weather and cruising around dirt roads looking for adventure.

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A random bamboo forest near the resorts

Phu Quoc Airport: My flight was set to depart at 2:30pm on Wednesday, so I left my hostel at twelve and arrived at the airport with two hours to return my rented motorbike, check-in, go through security and passport control, and find my gate. Unfortunately, upon arrival I learned my flight had been delayed by ninety minutes, then another thirty minutes after that, and another thirty minutes after that. So I spent nearly five hours at the airport latching onto the free WiFi and drinking Vietnamese iced coffee as well as had to call out of my afternoon class in Ho Chi Minh City. Not the best ending to my holiday but I loved my trip, would highly recommend it, and would return in a heartbeat.

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