Vietnam, Part 3: Phu Quoc
After the hustle bustle of Ho Chi Minh and the cognitive dissonance of the Cu Chi tunnels, HCB and I shifted gears, boarding a plane to Phu Quoc, a tropical island off the southernmost coast of Vietnam know for its relaxed atmosphere and fine vintages of fish sauce. The island is just a series of white-sand beaches, bathwater-warm oceans, lush forests, and froufrou fruit drinks with silly umbrellas. For me, the island lacked the epic vistas that have drawn me to eco-tourism in the past, so in some ways, Phu Quoc with its human-sized natural attractions fell the tiniest bit short of my wildest dreams. HCB, on the other hand, was in paradise. Just seeing the joy on his face as he bobbed in the waves… it could break a guy’s heart, it was so sweet. He’s usually consumed by a long list of worries, but when he’s out there with his fish, he’s just about as contented as I ever see him. Seriously, you guys, if his university offered underwater classes, I think he’d hold office hours all day long.
Our accommodations were fun but, by design, a bit rustic. The top rated hotel on Trip Advisor is a place called Freedomland. At $35 a night, it’s a total steal, but you have to be prepared to make certain sacrifices if you’re going to stay there. The facilities themselves are quite nice: newly constructed dark wood bungalows; plentiful hammocks overlooking the verdant garden; AMAZING gourmet food (good lord, the pancakes, the PANCAKES); sweet and accommodating staff; AND NEWBORN PUPPIES. However, for all that to be both financially viable and affordably priced, certain amenities were intentionally cut.
First, the location was not ideal. It was only a 15-minute walk from the beach, but for someone like HCB, actually staying on the waterfront brings with it such delight that for future trips we’ll be prioritizing the location a little more. If the nearest beach were remarkably beautiful, we’d probably have made do, but unfortunately, it had trash problems. Not to be all princessy or anything, but it kind of bummed us out to see so much crap on the beach and in the water. PROTIP: if you’re going to Southeast Asia, don’t spring for the most remote place you can find. Hotels pay to have the beaches cleaned, so if you go too far off the beaten path, there’ll be Styrofoam and plastic bags swimming alongside you rather than fish.
Second, there was no air-conditioning. When I booked the hotel, I figured that during the day we’d be swimming or sunbathing and that at night we’d just sleep under a sheet. No big deal, right? You guys, I wasn’t counting on the humidity. It was DEADLY. Just walking around, it was fine but, at night when the rain started, the humidity positively skyrocketed. Both HCB and I soaked the sheets. You know how sometimes people say, “Oh my god! I totally soaked the sheets! I was so hot last night!” but what they really mean is that they were a little clammy? That’s not what I’m doing right now. There were HCB/DME shaped puddles in the bed, like chalk outlines at a murder scene. The first night, HCB had a dream that it was raining inside the hotel room and then the next night I had the EXACT same dream. The amount of sweat that we were producing was so impossible that both of our unconscious minds had to fold an explanation into our dreams just to make sense of what was happening. It’s my own fault for scheduling this trip for the end of the rainy season. I bet at other times of year, when it isn’t raining so much, the humidity is much less oppressive.
The other problem with the layout of our lodgings was that without air conditioning you can’t hermetically seal a bedroom because without a little cross-breeze you’ll end up asphyxiating before midnight. However, riding on those sweet jungle breezes, which brought such relief from the heat and humidity, in flew mosquitoes. Swarms, gangs, squadrons of mosquitoes. Blessedly the room came with a mosquito bed net or I’d have woken up a swollen husk, but bed nets are no protection in the open air shower or walking to the on-premisis restaurant. Even after slathering myself in bug repellant, I was still a feast not worth missing for the little bastards. Seriously though, I was COVERED in bites. By the end of our time in Phu Quoc, I was actually a little scared to leave the safety of the mosquito net. This fear was especially acute because, while traveling in Costa Rica about seven years ago, I caught Dengue fever. For as supremely not fun as that experience was the first time, catching it a second time is even more of a bummer because you can actually die from a second infection. Basically, you start hemorrhaging from everything (eyes, gums, b-hole, etc.) so if you don’t get to a hospital, you can just bleed and bleed until you die. What I’m saying is that my issue with the mosquitoes wasn’t totally a matter of itchiness.
Other than that though, Freedomland was perfect. Especially if you’re on a budget and not concerned about Dengue, I’d highly recommend this hotel. And Phu Quoc itself was gorgeous. We went to a Buddhist temple with some awesomely ridiculous statues. We visited an open-air market. We snorkeled. We laid on the beach. We ate tons of amazing food (Freedomland is known for it’s food and with good reason. The guy who owns the hotel is an artisan). It was all really wonderful.
On our last day there, HCB and I went to Sao Beach, the southern tip of the island. There the white sand is extra white and the bathwater-warm ocean extra bathwatery. The sand shelf at Sao Beach extends out for about 100 meters, so you can just wade in and paddle around for hours. This was definitely the high point for HCB, but for me, the drive back to the hotel was where it was at. A tropical storm was bearing down on the island, but for some reason there was no storm surge. The water was mirror smooth and slate gray. It was gorgeous and it even had the slightest suggestion of the sublimity that I’d been missing from the trip so far.
If it were up to me, would I go back to Phu Quoc? With all the world and its many options open and waiting? No, I don’t think so. But if I could see HCB that contented again, I’d buy the tickets right now.