Thursday, August 23, 2012

One Week in Phú Quốc

Vietnam was everything I thought Asia would be.  It was an incredible adventure experiencing the people, food, and customs.  We were able to relax, reflect, and rejuvenate after five months of heavy workloads.

We stayed on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc at a place called Cassia Cottage, which consisted of about 20 or so cottages right on the beach.  Everything converged at a stone path, which led to the Gulf of Thailand.

When we first arrived, we checked in and were given a tour of the grounds.  There were two infinity pools, gorgeous landscaping, hammocks and beach chairs dispersed everywhere, and a short strip of beach with strong tides and winds.  We visited during wet season, so our side of the gulf was in constant high tide, leaving the beach much shorter than during dry season.  On the other hand, the water on the east side of the island was as smooth as glass, and the air was completely still.

We arrived in the evening, so we decided to try the hotel's restaurant for dinner.  We ordered freshly squeezed mango juice, handmade spring rolls, and grilled tofu with veggies.

If you remember the pictures from my school lunches, I hope you realize that this food was an incredible relief from kimchi and rice!  Everything was fresh and made on site.  The fresh mint in the spring rolls coaxed me into drinking a few mojitos.  The rolls were so good that I ate them three more times that week!
We walked on the beach for a while, then settled into our room for the night.  I was so excited to taste the complimentary breakfast that I woke up around 7 AM the next morning.  It more than lived-up to my expectations.  Every day there were freshly squeezed juices and blended smoothies.  A cook stood by taking orders for eggs, omelets, french toast, pancakes, and bacon.  Each morning I would first load up a plate with freshly cut fruit, like mangoes, papayas, watermelon, pineapple, starfruit, and kiwi.  There was freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee and an assortment of fresh tea leaves.  One table held mini baguettes, fresh cheeses, homemade yogurt, and about a dozen tropical jams.  Finally, there was a stand with four or five hot dishes.  Sometimes there was curry, spaghetti, Vietnamese pho, stir fry, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes with cheese, or fried rice.  The hotel grounds contain gardens for growing vanilla, peppercorns, and cinnamon, all of which are used in their cooking.  When you have all that to look forward to, it's not hard to wake up early!
Most days we lounged by the pool, but a few were spent exploring the island.  The first night we walked about a mile down the beach, then about another mile into town for the Night Market.  All along the strip, local vendors set up carts and tables displaying their goods.  There were lots of nick-knacks, souvenirs, and street food.  There were also many restaurants with workers calling out to you, shoving menus in your face, and trying to get your business.  Huge tanks held fresh fish waiting to be cooked.  Some restaurants had charcoal grills set up right next to the tank.  You could smell the meat cooking and hear the juices sizzling.  We chose the most crowded restaurant and settled into our plastic lawn chairs while drinking a round of Tigers, the local beer.  We all enjoyed some delicious plates of fried noodles with crab, stir fried rice and vegetables, and grilled eggplant.  After four plates and eight beers, the bill totaled $25.
 One day we made a trip to the local outdoor market to see how the locals shop.  A cab drove us as far as it could, then we had to get out and cross a treacherous bridge to make it the rest of the way.  The planks of wood making up the bridge were split, half-rotting, and barely connected.
Motorbikes sped across the bumpy trail without fear.  We waited for a break in the stream of bikes, then made our way across.  Brightly colored fishing boats lined the river, some bringing in the day's catch, others holding exhausted fisherman.

Throughout the walk down the market street, we barely said a word.  We were amazed and overwhelmed at the seemingly organized chaos.  Motorbikes and bicycles swerved around the foot traffic, which the pedestrians tried to dodge the enormous mud puddles. 

There were vendors everywhere you looked selling fresh fruits, vegetables, live chickens and ducks, eggs, and clothing.  Like at Bupyeong Market in Korea, women were pounding flanks of beef and taking cleavers to whole chickens.  We were the gaping, tourist snapping pictures left and right, but these people were just going about their typical routines.

In the middle of every night, I would wake up to intense winds, rain, lighting, and thunder.  During monsoon season, it rains almost every day.  Usually a few more showers would pour down through the morning and through lunch, but come afternoon, the skies would clear for a few hours.  There were tons of tropical trees and plants around the grounds, which made for cozy days reading on the porch.

One day we took an excursion to the other side of the island, and made a few pit stops along the way.  On the way to the beach, we stopped at the Coconut Tree Prison.  The prison was built during the Indochina War, when the French occupied Vietnam.  It was used for holding and torturing prisoners.  When the Americans got involved in Vietnam, they reconstructed the prison and instructed the Vietnamese to use it for torturing Vietcong prisoners.  The prison is now a historical museum that honors those killed in the wars and displays the methods of torture.  There are several stations with mannequins demonstrating the various means.  Outside, there are layers and layers of barbed wire along with even more torture devices.  It was pretty disturbing, but interesting nonetheless.  It was strange to see a depiction of the Vietnam War by Vietnamese people rather than Americans.  The information was very explicit about the American influence, especially stating that all the torturing methods were developed by Americans.

After the depressing museum, we visited Sao Beach, or Long Beach, the most popular and beautiful beach on the island.  There we laid in the sun, waded in the calm waters, watched the wild dogs run, ate tropical fruit, and walked through the pristine white sand.

The next stop of the day was into the central part of the island where we hiked a mile or so up to a waterfall.  We spent twenty minutes getting up the courage to brave the unknown terrain and swim in the waterfall.  We crossed slippery rocks and kept our eyes peeled for snakes.  The water was incredibly refreshing compared to the stifling humidity of the wet season's air.  It was wonderful to escape completely into nature where we could only hear the water crashing down and birds chirping, rather than buses whooshing by and heavy construction machinery. 

Our final adventure was to a pearl farm.  Phú Quốc is known for its peppercorns, fish sauce, and pearls.  There are several farms on the island that cultivate pearls, but we visited the one with the best reputation owned by a foul-mouthed Aussie named Mick.  After watching a woman pluck a filthy looking clam out of a tank then pry it open, she pulled out a disgusting looking blob of slime and muck.  She dug her knife around in the goop until finally she flicked out a shiny white pearl. 

During the rest of the trip I had my first full-body massage (only $20!) and cucumber facial ($15!).  I ate the hotel restaurant's homemade ice cream (remember the vanilla and cinnamon gardens) every night.  We read books, played chess in the gardens, walked on the beach, ate the most amazing food I've ever tasted, and never missed happy hour.  It was the perfect getaway, and the perfect opportunity to plan for the next six months.


Monday, August 6, 2012

The road to Phú Quốc

The past month has been full of typical teacher responsibilities: report cards, grading essays, creating lesson plans, practicing for the song concert, preparing for yet another open house, and field trips.  After five months of teaching full time, I was more than ready for a week of vacation.

Two other foreigners planned to visit Vietnam back in April.  After balancing our budgets and doing some online research, Vietnam seemed like the best option for Kyle and me, as well.  The four of us settled on an island just off the western coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand called Phú Quốc.  It is rated as having the best and cleanest beaches in Vietnam and top-rated food.  It's also the only place in Vietnam that doesn't require obtaining a travel visa prior to entering.

Or so we thought.

During the two months between booking the flight and hotel and actually leaving, we went back and forth, deciding whether or not to go ahead and get the travel visa, anyway.  Maybe we'd take the ferry to the mainland one day to visit the historic sites of Ho Chi Minh city?  When it came down to it, we were just too lazy to figure out the confusing visa process, so we decided against it.

Which was the wrong decision.

The two other teachers had flights out of Seoul on Friday night, but with Kyle being an afternoon teacher, we couldn't depart until Saturday morning.  After an insanely stressful week (another story for another day...), I got right to cleaning the apartment and packing that Friday night.  A few hours later I checked Facebook and saw a message from Caitlin.  I opened my inbox to find nothing but, "call me now." Oh no, I ran to my phone to call her as quickly as possible, but I could hardly get passed the 15 missed calls I had from her.  Of course, she didn't answer, so I started pacing around the apartment.  A few seconds later the phone rang, and Caitlin asked, "Are you sitting down?"
Well, now I am.  She then informed me that we do in fact need a visa to get into Phú Quốc.  Because of the horrendous English spoken by the ICN airport employees, she was still trying to sift through all the details. 

Let me take a moment to introduce you to one of Caitlin's tattoos: Ganesh, one of the Hindu gods attributed to dealing with obstacles.  According to Hindu belief, Ganesh is responsible for removing obstacles, but at times, Ganesh will also place obstacles as he sees fit.  Thanks for that, Ganesh.

A few more calls were exchanged, and after an hour or so, Caitlin was finally able to fill me in.  The girls' first flight was through Jeju Air, who informed the girls they needed a visa even just to board the flight, let alone land in Vietnam.  The helpful Jeju Air associates also said their counters would be closing in five minutes, so good luck!  The girls went to the office of their second flight (Vietnam Air) only to find those people closing down, as well. 

Enter Mr. Choi.  A kind Korean (not sure if I'll use those two words together ever again.  I kid, I kid!) employee of Vietnam Air just on his way out escorted them into his office.  He offered them coffee and began explaining the error.  Apparently, Phú Quốc doesn't require visas, but the only way to get to the island directly is by cruise ship.  We all had connecting flights in Ho Chi Minh city.  Basically, at Ho Chi Minh airport you can't get to your connecting flight without going through immigration, thus the need for a travel visa.  To top it all off nicely, even express visas take one business day to process, and here we were sorting this out on a Friday night.  Rebecca was about to have Mr. Choi start the refund process, but Caitlin instead said jokingly, "Well, is there anything we can do? We do have cash..."  Suddenly, Mr. Choi remembered what a workaholic his boss in Ho Chi Minh is.  He rang him up and in a matter of minutes had travel visas for the four of us in the works.  For a price of course.  The girls missed their flights and had to wait for Saturday to reschedule them.  As if Mr. Choi hadn't helped enough, he offered to drive the girls home, for free.  This left Kyle and me to face the sketchy visa plan first.

We met Mr. Choi at the airport the next morning.  He recognized us straight away and checked us in.  With a reluctant face, he told us our flight was overbooked.  Of course it is.  He continued, would we mind moving to business class? One of the seats doesn't recline all the way, but the food is great! Would we mind? Rock, scissor, paper for the seat that doesn't recline!  He told us to move quickly to security, as we shouldn't be allowed to board the plane without visas, but his employees were waiting to let us pass.  One of the employees pulled back the barrier, checked our tickets and passports, then let us through.  We got to the terminal with no trouble at all.  We then boarded our first flight in business class.

It was all a bit ridiculous, but I'm certainly not going to complain! As soon as we sat down, flight attendants swarmed us, offering newspapers, fresh juice, and champagne.  We were given complimentary toiletry sets, slippers, blankets, pillows, damp washcloths to freshen up, TVs with an extensive collection of movies, a seat that reclined all the way into a bed (well mine did anyway), and unlimited alcohol.  Our flight travelled during lunch time, but we were still provided with a four-course meal.  It concluded with an elaborate tray of various cheeses, fruit, chocolate, and ice cream.  The whole ordeal took about two hours; then we watched a movie.  After that, it was already time to descend.  Time for the moment of truth.

We were instructed to seek out Ms. Ha, some employee who knew our situation.  As we walked off the ramp, we saw instead a short Vietnamese man holding a sign for Ms. Shelly Ann and Mr. Kyle David.  We followed him to a lone bench, and he asked us a few details about our trip.  He walked back and forth between our bench and the immigration window several times, but after about twenty minutes, he returned with our newly stamped passports.  We paid him, US dollars only please, then headed for the final step.  The immigration officer looked at my passport for what felt like 10 minutes, then gruffly handed it back and called the next person.  Kyle passed through in seconds, and we headed out into the stiff, choking Vietnamese air. 

The flight to Phú Quốc passed with no trouble, aside from the fact that the plane was so small we had to take a bus out to it.  There was no boarding ramp, only a set of stairs straight up the side of the plane.  The wheels were held in place by a set of cement blocks not unlike the ones my dad uses for his trailers.  Oh, and it also had propellers.

Luckily, the flight only lasted an hour. We arrived at an airport that consisted of two levels, each with one large room. It was the size of a small warehouse. And I thought Akron-Canton airport was small. We found yet another sign with our names and climbed into a taxi.  Thankfully, Ganesh eased up on us for the rest of the trip.