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.

A Village called 'Fishing'

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’.”

The house in 'Fishing' where our boat ride would begin.

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.

We embarked on our trip from this traditionally built home.

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.

Mountain, forest, beach - a perfect combination overlooking the Gulf of Thailand

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.

Larger boats shelter in the estuary.

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.

Taking a break for running repairs.

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.

A weathered wheelhouse

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.

On the river's edge.

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.

At the bend in the river

 

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.

Why use your arms to row when your feet will do?

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.

The end of the trail for us. Time to turn round.

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.

In my face; this is the dragon.

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.

Heading for Home

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.

Contemplating Phu Quoc

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The Red Road to Gia Nghia

It was an early start by any standards. So early, I can recall the time exactly; 4:20am.  Ho Chi Minh City was damp and very dark. But we had to be in Gia Nghia by 9:30am. Nevertheless, five hours to drive 245 kilometers seemed extraordinarily conservative, given that the entire journey would be along the four-lane Route 14.  Within an hour, I knew why the day had started in the middle of the night. It seemed as though the entire route was under construction; a muddy ribbon of red dirt, full of axle-breaking potholes, slow-moving trucks and buses. Sometimes the traffic thinned out enough to get a true sense of how road construction in Vietnam works…Lesson One: Don’t bother with detours, traffic cones or warning signs, just get on with it!

Gia Nghia is the capital of Dak Nong, a relatively new Province in the Central Highlands. The almost imperceptible climb from Ho Chi Minh City is marked by a welcome drop in temperature and humidity as well as a distinct change in the local architecture.

Wood construction replaces brick and stucco and roofs typically include deep overhangs of overlapping galvanized ‘sheds’. And that’s what they do; shed water quickly and away from the main structure of the house.

Sometimes, longer lasting tiled roofs are preferred by those who can afford them.  The mill work on doors and windows is also a distinctive regional feature and quite different from what we were used to seeing in Ho Chi Min City.

The red clay and rusting roofs are everywhere and leave a lasting impression when framed by the lush green backdrop of rubber trees and cashew nut plantations.

Hard against the highway, a daily market adds to the congestion but also provides a welcome respite from the discomfort of the trip. Unfortunately our schedule dictated that most of my photos had to be taken from a moving car. Sitting in the heart of my blurred image of busy shoppers is a stall-holder and her baskets of fruit. If only we could have stopped!

Highway 14 is an important national route through the Central Highlands, hugging the Cambodian border in places and eventually leaving the mountains and reaching the coast near Hue and Da Nang. Buses, therefore, are commonplace and mostly this size, carrying passengers efficiently (if not a little uncomfortably) between the main cities that punctuate the route.

But the cities on Highway 14 are quite a distance apart, so it would seem that there’s plenty of room for local enterprise – even if that means having to accept that your neighbors might not apply the same standards of window dressing as you!

And some places just seem to be waiting for the new road construction to be completed before carrying out their own face-lifts. We were getting used to seeing the incredible amount of road-side commerce that seems to characterize all of Vietnam’s main highways. Our partner, Phong’s Magical Mystery Tours were, I’m sure, deliberately designed to show us parts of the country most visitors never see. I think the Beatles would have approved…

A Drive in the Country

The term ‘countryside’ conjures a variety of images.  The perfect English village; neat and tidy with its well-kept green, duck pond, ancient church and a pub or two. The French version; narrow streets, quiet to the point of being deserted, especially after sunset. In America, the ‘countryside’ can mean a combination of agri-businesses run by global companies and, much like Britain, weekend cottages for the wealthy urban elite. New ruralism, indeed!

 

A Champa tower near Quy Nhon: Guarding the surrounding countryside

 

While I imagined rural life in Viet Nam would differ considerably from these ‘western’ versions, I was surprised by what I found, as a group of us spent a day traveling through the countryside.

At first, everything seemed as one would expect.  Small, intensely cultivated fields, created beautiful vistas that faded into the verdant backdrop of gently sloping hills and mountains. Centuries-old Champa towers and Buddhist temples were eye-catching landmarks. The boundaries of the low-lying farms were defined by irrigation ditches, trees and hedges.  Homes were often several hundred meters from the road and utterly connected to their farmed land.  People were tending the fields and, yes, water buffalo pulled carts and ploughs and other machinery.

Then we entered our first of many villages that day.  The houses here opened directly onto the road or were protected from the traffic by a small front garden or yard.  Often the yard had an important commercial purpose, as storage for manufactured items or as an area to conduct business.  One of my abiding memories was the creative use of the edges of the warming concrete road surface; our vehicle had to slow frequently to avoid the rice drying in the midday sun.

 

A typical farmhouse, viewed from the main road.

 

The boundary between home and business became blurred. Western planners and urban designers like to talk about ‘mixed-use zoning’, creating descriptive terms like ‘live-work’ or borrowing foreign expressions like ‘atelier’ to broaden their vocabulary. In Viet Nam, the immediate impression was of an organized chaos of potentially conflicting activities, compounded by the sheer number of people that we passed along the road. Crowded homes doubled as stores or workshops and, with children, came creches while the oldest members of the household seemed to work as hard as the younger generations around them.

 

Protection from the hazards of the daily ride to work...

 

Every village we passed through had its share of micro-businesses (as we over-analytic Westerners would say). Potters, weavers, metal workers and mechanics occupied small  workshops along the narrow main streets. Meanwhile, produce of all sorts was farmed in the surrounding fields, although rice seemed to be the predominant crop. Finally, there were the schools and, in some larger villages, local government offices that provided vital employment possibilities and essential services in this communal society.  Manufacturing, agriculture and services coexisted and, crucially, generated a level of energy and activity that I had never seen before in a rural setting.

 

In the front yard of a village potter

 

As usual, young people were predominant, cycling and riding motos from school to home and, probably back again as we approached the lunch hour.  The road seemed impossibly narrow and certainly not sufficient for the drying crops, heavily laden pedestrians, kids on bikes, youths on motos, the occasional truck and our obligatory SUV (with six adult passengers, I’m pleased to report).  Amazingly and despite experiencing similar road conditions in every village we passed through, we avoided mishap.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see so much activity in the Vietnamese countryside. Agriculture, though declining in relative economic importance, still occupies 60% of the nation’s employed labor force.  Most tellingly, although 50% of Vietnam’s land mass is considered to support agriculture and forestry, only 9% has the alluvial soil essential for truly productive farming, a fact born out by our drive through the intensely cultivated fields with their backdrop of silent wooded hillsides.

 

The lunch time rush!

 

We returned to Quy Nhon during rush hour, having spent the day enjoying our ‘not-so-quiet drive in the country’.  What we had seen in the space of a few hours was a society that appears to be striking a balance between its urban and rural economies. While the cities in Vietnam are magnets attracting increasing numbers of people from the countryside, to Western eyes there appears a vibrant, viable rural economy that, in terms of its energy, is uplifting and culturally fascinating – and a lot more compelling than the European or North American versions.

 

One of the many stores along our route.

 

Crossing the Street.

Ask a visitor to Viet Nam to list their first impressions and I will guarantee that ‘the motorcycles’ will be among their top five. The importance of the ‘moto’  to urban or rural living in Viet Nam is unarguable.

Journalist Patti McCracken sums it up perfectly;

‘To the Vietnamese, a motorbike is not just a vehicle, but a bionic limb. A magic carpet. A personal jet pack, able to propel them from their living rooms (where many park their bikes) to any doorstep. Legs and feet are backup forms of transport, used only as a last resort.’

A typical Hanoi street scene.

Motos permeate Vietnamese society. It’s estimated that there are over 20 million, or one for every four Vietnamese.  Virtually all motos are small-engined, lightweight runabouts that can be easily maneuvered, parked and, most importantly, mended when something breaks.   They provide Viet Nam’s disproportionately young population with incredible mobility that helps drive its growing economy and vibrant society.

Mums and Dads wait for school to get out.

From the windows of our taxi, I thought the motos seemed to personify the chaos and noise of the big city, as they buzzed round us on Hanoi’s busy roads.  But when we took to the streets on foot, I realized that motos were the stitching that helped keep the urban fabric together. Parked safely on every sidewalk, motos become impromptu recliners for their owners, especially at the key intersections where folk love to gather. Food is cooked and eaten on the sidewalk throughout the day, often in front of repair shops and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ moto parking garages.  When school’s out, small children don their helmets and leap on their parents’ machine, often squeezing between a younger sibling and several bags of groceries.  And who needs a taxi after a pleasant night out when a willing relative  with a moto is able to respond to your phone call and collect you from outside the restaurant?

In the country, the patterns are a little different but just as compelling to observe.  I was amazed by the endless stream of motos, coming and going, as our car travelled the 30 or so kilometers along the narrow rural road that linked a string of tiny villages.  This was not the sleepy country life I was so used to in Europe or America, but a bustling self-contained economy where motos were used for carrying people and every kind of product and produce imaginable from hamlet to hamlet.

Ho Chi Minh looks on as his 'children' head home at rush hour

It is inevitable that safety is an issue when considering the motorcycle as a form of transport.  Traffic accident statistics tell us that Southeast Asia is one of the more dangerous places in the world to  ride a motorcycle.  Traveling along Viet Nam’s Route 1A, where speeding trucks and buses share the road with motos and bicycles, it is surprising that there aren’t more accidents. In the cities, though, I felt relatively safe once I understood the traffic flow and the avoidance procedures every moto rider must adopt if he or she is to get anywhere in town.

No-one will stop for you as you cross the road but they will avoid you with the minimum of fuss and a good deal of skill. It takes courage to launch oneself off the sidewalk into four lanes of oncoming motos. The technique is to walk calmly and steadily across the road, only stopping in an absolute emergency.  The riders flow around you magically, using their horns as a kind of sonar, so that, by the time you’ve reached the other side, you want to turn round and cross again, the nervous observer now transformed into wholehearted participant.

It's Friday afternoon so even the sidewalks belong to the 'motos'