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.


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