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

Advertisements

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…

Across the Delta

It was still dark when we left Ho Chi Minh City, heading Southwest to Can Tho and the heart of the Mekong Delta. We were entering a region a little smaller in area than Switzerland, with a population a little larger than Chile’s. The Mekong river system – the world’s 12th longest – rises high in the Himalayas, travels 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) through six countries and drains 307,000 square miles of land. The Mekong Delta is one of Southeast Asia’s great food baskets, producing considerable quantities of fish, shrimp and more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

Once out of the city, the land pattern of the delta began to emerge.  Our route to Can Tho was punctuated by one bridge crossing after another as the road carved its perpendicular course across the myriad waterways that comprise the Mekong river system. At each major crossing, a bustling town would cling not only to either side of the road but also along each riverbank, accentuating a crossroad of land and water.

Crossing a typical bridge.

Our first stop was for breakfast. I had experienced many a dreary halt at highway rest-stops in North America or ‘motorway service stations’ in Europe. So imagine my surprise to encounter the Vietnamese equivalent and find it so utterly superior to its ‘Western’ counterparts that it did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A series of large thatched, open-sided pavilions sat away from the road among lush landscaping, carefully designed to reflect the natural vegetation of the region.  Breakfast was Bun Bo Hue, a traditional light but flavorful broth of beef and pork with rice vermacelli and the fragrant leaves of numerous local herbs and water plants.  Coffee was dark, strong and iced  and served by the glass. Not a Starbucks in sight, I’m pleased to add.

The nicest rest-stop I've ever visited!

Driving in Vietnam is tough, even for the Vietnamese. We were lucky enough to be passengers able to take in and discuss the sights of the Mekong Delta as our driver negotiated buses, trucks, motos, bicycles and numerous road works along a four-lane undivided highway that allowed an average speed of no more than 45 miles per hour. The highway was closely lined with home-businesses, mostly aimed squarely at the many thousands of travelers who filled the endless fleet of small buses.

A brick-kiln deep in the Delta

Eventually, we arrived in Can Tho where we were scheduled to attend an important day-long conference on investment in the Mekong Delta.  While the conference was interesting enough, it was the side meetings with provincial leaders that provided the real purpose for the long drive. It also gave us an excuse to take a quick look at the Victoria Hotel, next door to the conference venue.  One of a French-owned group of six hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Victoria in Can Tho exuded simple charm and laid back elegance. Each hotel includes some interesting form of transport that allows its guests to better experience the place in which they find themselves. At the Victoria in Can Tho, a remodeled rice barge called The Lady Hau cruises the river at breakfast and sunset for the benefit of the hotel’s guests.

The Victoria Hotel, Can Tho. Quiet, understated elegance.

Unfortunately for us, we had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City that evening, ‘racing’ back across the Mekong Delta in order to make a detour to Ben Tre before sunset.  Ben Tre is one of the thirteen provinces that comprise the Mekong Delta and is famous for its coconut plantations and rice paddies. Fifty-one years ago, it was the site of the first large-scale military action of the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong forces led by Nguyen Thi Dinh engaged the 23rd Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Today, the city of Ben Tre (from which the province takes its name) is a proud and bustling riverside community with tree-lined roads, carefully-laid sidewalks and several pleasing parks. Most roads lead to the waterfront where, during the day, a floating market gathers and in the warm evenings families stroll.  Sunset on the Mekong Delta was the perfect way to end an exhausting day full of impressions and moments that will live with us for ever. As we left Ben Tre and headed north towards Ho Chi Minh City, Philip and I knew that one day we would return to this region of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Sunset on the Mekong, across the river from Ben Tre

Gone Fishing

Relief! We made it aboard!

One of my abiding memories of my time in Florida was watching the fishing boats come and go across St Joseph’s Bay.  It was quite a novelty.  The Raffields and the Woods (related, of course) had for generations operated their fleets from Port St. Joe, surviving the regulations that had chased most other commercial fishermen out of the industry.  The boats were a colorful, intermittent reminder of Port St. Joe’s past and were easily  outnumbered by the numerous sport fishermen in their fiberglass tubs.

Quy Nhon's boats

So what a joy it was to look out across Quy Nhon’s bay on my first night there and suddenly realize that all those lights were not towns further along the coast or busy islands a short distance across the water but hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats, setting their nets to catch the turning tide. There was no doubt that I was in a city where fishing was very much part of the present and, indeed, the future.

Comings and goings in Quy Nhon's harbour.

Early next morning a group of us headed to the harbor to meet a boat that would take us to Hai Giang, one of the bay’s nicest coves and best accessed by water.  The moored fishing boats were almost identical to the ones that Eugene Raffield and Bill Wood operated except in Quy Nhon harbor everything was multiplied tenfold or more. There were more boats, more people, more activity. Motorbikes, laden down with baskets of fish, were everywhere and the dockside was slippery with the remains of the previous night’s catch. Our little boat, looking alarmingly overwhelmed by the rest of the fleet, was moored by its prow,  perpendicular to the quayside.  The slippery steps, rocking boat and oily water looked to me like recipe for disaster but we all managed to make it aboard, much to the disappointment of the watching dock workers and fishermen.

Proudly flying the flag.

We pushed off and headed noisily into the marine equivalent of a six-lane highway, our clattering diesel engine emitting an impressive plume of black, greasy smoke.

There were boats everywhere but within a few minutes of leaving the bustling quayside we had joined an informal flotilla, motoring purposefully for the harbor’s exit and along the edge of a sparsely inhabited coastline.

The trawlers headed out to the open sea while the smaller boats, often consisting of no more than a rudimentary cabin set in the stern of a small leaky hull, were heading home to the shelter of the numerous sandy coves that punctuated the coastline. We eventually spotted our destination, a larger bay with a beautiful beach, wooded hills and an impressive array of boats swinging on their moorings. In minutes, our skipper had dropped anchor in about five feet of water, but still several meters off the shore.  All along the beach lay what I thought were upturned fish baskets drying in the sun. Into the water went our skipper.  He waded ashore, grabbed one of the baskets and hauled it back to the boat by its short hawser. It was, in fact, a coracle – or, at least, the Vietnamese version, thúng chai.  This circular waterproof lightweight basket is made of palm leaves and bamboo, can be maneuvered with one oar in a sculling motion and will tip you out in a second, unless you know what you’re doing.

Philip, our Skipper and the 'coracle'.

Our party managed to reach dry land without mishap, towed ashore by our skipper, one of us at a time, in the thúng chai.  We could see small houses dotted among the trees that fringed the beach. This was the fishing village, the inhabitants of which used the boats that were moored in the bay.  Judging by their modest homes, these fishing families led a hard and precarious life, far removed from the relative affluence of Port St Joe and its tidy, efficient fishing fleet.  But in Florida commercial fishing seems little more than a remnant of the past while Vietnam ranks fifth in the world as an exporter of fish products, with ambitions to progress further and build a sustainable industry.

By the time we returned to Quy Nhon’s harbor, its fish market was closing, boats were being sluiced down and it felt like the end of a long day, even though it was barely 10 o’ clock in the morning. Our next stop would be further up the coast, having transferred to our rented SUV for the drive north. The coastal road gave us a new view of the ocean and access to new beaches.  But one thing remained the same; the omnipresent fishing fleet, moored in the most sheltered part of each cove, the boats deserted if only for a few hours before their myriad lanterns would once again illuminate the night’s activity of one of Vietnam’s busiest and most important industries.

Not quite as seaworthy as it once was

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.