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

Quy Nhon’s Promenade

A British vacation in the auto-free days of the 1950s was a simple affair.  A journey by train to a seaside town, accommodation at a simple ‘bed-and-breakfast’, long days on the beach (whatever the weather) and bracing walks along the promenade.

Skegness: the typical British seaside, complete with a Victorian pier in the background.

The promenade. A wide waterfront side-walk, raised above the beach, sometimes by only a few feet. A brisk walk along the ‘prom’ was healthy, invigorating, or, more casually, a social event and a refreshing departure from the drab routine of post-war Britain.

Brighton's impressive 'lower' promenade. The 'upper' prom is in the left of this picture, next to a busy road.

Quy Nhon has a beautiful promenade.  It extends the length of the crescent-shaped beach and fulfills all the essential requirements of an outstanding ‘prom’; wide sidewalks; lots of seating facing seaward; the minimum of visual obstruction, allowing the rest of the city to connect with the water and; excellent pedestrian access along and onto the beach.  I experienced Quy Nhon’s promenade from my hotel balcony at sunrise and late at night, walking its length and enjoying it as a social gathering place.

The jet lag woke me at 5:00 am. It was still dark and the bay was dotted with the lights of fishing boats bringing home their catch.  I noticed a lone walker moving with purpose along the promenade below my balcony. Then a couple, talking animatedly, stepped onto the beach. In minutes, there were people coming from all directions, across the well-kept lawns that edged the promenade and out of the nearby hotels. In the growing dawn light, I could see parties of swimmers enjoying the surf while above them, on the promenade, individuals were completing calisthenic exercises.  It seemed that Quy Nhon, in a very few moments, was coming to life in a burst of energy, led by its vacationers.

Dawn breaks on Quy Nhon beach and its superb promenade.

There was a different kind of energy later that evening. The promenade became an informal, convivial gathering place.  The walk back to the hotel, after a simple seafood dinner, was pleasant and relaxed.  A low wall separated the beach from the ‘prom’, providing convenient seating.  But, if that wasn’t enough, there was an endless supply of white plastic garden chairs for the many extended families intent to enjoy the warm evening and the compelling sport of people-watching. I don’t recall any commercialization of the promenade, though there may have been the odd food or soft drink vendor parked along the mile stretch that my friends and I walked.

Enjoying the surf: Quy Nhon 6:00am.

In fact, the lack of shops or restaurants immediately adjacent to the main stretch of promenade added greatly to its charm and simplicity. Across the the road from the beach was a reasonably wide landscaped strip comprising mature trees and grass beyond which one could spy a pleasing mix of unimposing single family homes and corner shops served by their own frontage road.  While the architecture was clearly Vietnamese, Quy Nhon’s promenade and its tree-lined waterfront boulevard were a legacy of the French colonial period.

The colonial legacy: Quy Nhon's promenade is on the extreme right in this interesting transect of the boulevard.

It may not be too fanciful to make the connection between modern Quy Nhon and the 19th century seaside of blustery, cool Northeastern Europe, when a visit to Brighton, England or Deauville, France was described at the time as restorative, recuperative or simply ‘bracing’.  I have no doubt that European families from that era would recognize and appreciate Quy Nhon’s attractive promenade, its pleasant, simple beach and the sense of wellness both physical and social that pervades it at the beginning and end of each day.