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Published: September 11th 2013
Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and a burgeoning center of tourism for the country. Lying in the Gulf of Thailand, it has a small population chiefly living in two towns: Duong Dong and An Thoi. Other than these two somnolent hubs, it is an island of thick forest and long beaches lined with tall coconut trees, the few roads occasionally lined with beach resorts, all of it providing a tranquil emptiness that was a whimsical reprieve from the Vietnamese mainland’s busyness. The peacefulness, however, is planned to end soon as the Vietnamese government is committed to turning Phu Quoc into the next Phuket, especially evidenced by some of the construction occurring. Happily, for the time-being, the island is still an escape. And it would have provided the perfect haven from our nearly-ending trip had it not been for the weather: it rained, and rained, and rained our first few days there.
We spent the first few rainy days riding our motorbike along roads undergoing massive construction: at times we drove along wide asphalt roads, only to find ourselves on sand, dirt, pebbles and potholes that made driving extremely difficult. And we were doing this in the rain, with
the main mission being the search for pearls, production of which the island is famous. The pearl shops are more like farms where the pearls are harvested, and a couple of them double as pearl museums where the clam’s life and its ability to create pearls are discussed. We learned later, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, that the pearls are harvested by a single company and sold to the different shops, including the street stands. The difference is only in the quality, but we weren’t sufficiently expert to see a true difference.
We also visited the Phu Quoc prison. It was built by the French in the ‘40s, then used by the Southern Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. Until the end of the war, the prison was backed by the United States and was as a place of torture for 40,000 prisoners. It is most infamous for its tiger cages, wherein prisoners, stripped to their underpants, were locked in small barbed wire cages out in the blazing sun; any movement at all within the cage would mean deep scratches upon which severe infections would develop. Guards walked around dousing the wounds with salt
water during a routine called “refreshing the tiger”. The American government, of course, denied the existence of these torture mechanisms during the war, one politician even going so far as to call the prison a “resort” – makes one wonder what occurs in Guantanamo, but I don’t think it’s too difficult to ascertain. The tiger cages were just the beginning of the torture: prisoners were routinely burned, boiled, hung, and stabbed. Statues depicting these horrific methods of torture were placed in various former barracks. The prison is a poignant dichotomy to the surrounding island beauty.
There is always a delicate balance when visiting places like Phu Quoc Prison: it is a saddening reminder of the abominable acts of which human beings are capable; yet, part of our visit to the island in the first place was to live and have fun. The weather finally turned mid-way through our stay; we spent our time wandering the beaches, swimming the pleasantly calm waters, and eating hot pots and fresh fish. We also made time for some diving, which unfortunately was less than stellar.
We did two dives off the coast of the island at
Seahorse Bay and Coconut Island. Our dive master was the owner of our dive company, leading to many jokes from the other dive masters about the old man’s state of health and how this was his first time in the water since the stone age. Joking aside, our dive master was obviously professional and serious, but the visibility, which we were warned about, was barely three meters. We hardly saw a thing and at one point lost our dive master; however, I wasn’t too concerned because I’d secretly been wanting to go through the process of finding a lost buddy. Unfortunately for me, he managed to locate us and we continued on our dive. In general, from what I gather, Phu Quoc Island is not known for the best diving, but with no visibility it was far from it. Still being new to diving, we turned it into an opportunity to work on our breathing and buoyancy.
We’d seen it all over, but finally decided to try the fruit durian. I cannot say that we liked it: it possesses a very strange consistency, an initially sweet taste that quickly succumbs to a bizarre aftertaste, and a
pungent smell. Being a large fruit, we didn’t finish it in one sitting (plus, we were unsure if we liked it) and placed in the fridge – our hotel room stunk for two days after we’d finally given the fruit away to some Vietnamese kids who were overzealously grateful to us. They certainly love the stuff in Vietnam.
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