Phu Quoc: In the shadow of the dragon
Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, 100 kilometers off the southwest coast and administratively part of Kien Giang Province. In fact, Phu Quoc is nearer to Cambodia, which is just 15 kilometers away. Philip and I took a short flight from busy Ho Chi Minh City to this tropical getaway which has become increasingly popular among the Vietnamese as well as foreign visitors looking for a place to relax. We were there at the invitation of a potential client who is hoping to build a resort that will be genuinely environmentally sensitive and sustainable.
The site that we were looking at was best seen from the water and our stepping-off point was from this village. When we asked our host the name of this place he replied, simply, ‘Fishing’. Perhaps he’d misheard our question. What’s this fishing village’s name? “Like I said – ‘Fishing’.”
Many of the homes in this village were built on pilings on the beach, allowing easy and rapid access to the small fishing boats which made up the community’s fleet.
As I looked back at our embarkation point, I could see that we had been in a very traditional style of structure. It was almost totally thatched while most of the surrounding homes in the village depended on tin roofs and sides for protection. Big thatched awnings protected the west-facing home from the afternoon sun. It was also nice to see the shade offered by the carefully maintained palm tree canopy along the water’s edge.
As we left ‘Fishing’ village, the coast became wilder and less populated. The land rose quickly behind the beach and its forest. It was this small range of mountains that would form the backdrop of our ‘run’ along the coast to our destination at the mouth of a small river.
As we entered the river estuary, we came across another fishing village. Just as well; it transpired that our boat’s engine was misfiring and needed some running repairs. Fortunately, a relative of our skipper lived in this village and would have the necessary tools at his house.
I managed to take a few pictures of the ‘business end’ of this waterside home, as our skipper and his brother-in-law fixed our boat. One of the passengers availed himself of the inviting hammock and nodded off within seconds. Meanwhile, Philip bombarded our host and potential client with questions.
Our craft was tiny compared to this more typical fishing boat, though what it lacked in size it made up for in tidiness and seaworthiness. It was just a little lacking in the mechanical department but we were soon on our way again, heading up-river.
The village soon petered out and the river banks were untouched apart from one or two isolated homesteads complete with fishing boat. This scene reminded me of northwest Florida’s the Intracoastal Waterway, which had numerous ‘hurricane holes’ for fishermen to take shelter as the storm approached.
We had the river to ourselves and as it narrowed it changed in character as mangroves became more prevalent. We were now in a part of Vietnam’s pristine National Forest which the government is keen to preserve as well as invite visitors to interpret and enjoy. We felt completely alone and at ease in the beautiful surroundings.
But we weren’t alone. Utterly relaxed, as if out for a quiet Sunday paddle round the lake, this lone rower was also on his way up the fast-narrowing river. Where was he going? Why was he using his feet to get there? Here was an expert whose means of silent transport shamed our party, as we discussed the pristine ecology of the forest while puttering through it in a smoky diesel-driven boat.
It was only as we turned round and headed back down stream that we realized the true majesty of the mountain range that formed the heart of this section of the National Forest. The river had a special beauty but it was the mountain that was really awe-inspiring. It’s profile was magnificent and rose spectacularly from the flat, river delta. But it was the untouched stands of trees that made the biggest impression on me, living as I do in British Columbia one of the world’s largest sources of lumber. Where I live, mountains don’t look like this because almost all of them have been logged, in many cases several times over the last 150 years.
The return trip along the river was truly memorable, with the mountain looming in front of the boat one moment and then lining one bank as we exited a bend. We were immersed in nature, privileged to have been given permission to sail in restricted waters. We were inspired by our surroundings and the opportunity to create a center for the interpretation of this National Forest.
Philip and I were very lucky to have experienced Phu Quoc from a point of view to which very few of its visitors ever have access. From the fishing villages, their unique buildings, across a beautiful secluded bay along a pristine river edged by mangroves to a mountain of stunning proportions; what a way to remember this island! As we boarded our flight to Ho Chi Minh City we vowed to return to this lovely place, hopefully to help it retain its places of peace and beauty.