Fresh Air has become an illusive figure in my life. I never used to notice it. Air was air. But now everything I write has this recurring theme. Fresh air. I crave it.
And so in another quest to escape the polluted cauldron of Ho Chi Minh City, we packed our bags and headed to the beautiful Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc.
Swooping low over the ocean we floated over dainty coves of sand hugged gently by lapping waves. Lonely palms arched purposefully over the sand, leaning towards the ocean like thirsty giraffes at the watering hole. The serenity drew us in and the freedom to explore was as welcome as that first gulp of fresh ocean air.
We’d been told that motorbikes were the only way to really explore the island. So on arrival at our guesthouse we promptly asked the manager if he could find us three. Luckily the bikes were easy to come by. He nodded assertively before engaging in a number of brief and I’m assuming to the point phone conversations. Within minutes three bikes had arrived, two ageing Honda Waves and an Automatic scooter. Their owners, ageing like the bikes, handed over the keys with a wrinkled smile. We paid them 100,000 VND ($5) for the day, signed some forms and that was that.
After a quick glance at a map of the island it was decided to skirt the coast heading North in the hope that the roads might lead us to some hidden patches of paradise.
From our guesthouse we rode cautiously along a wide road towards the island’s main town of Duong Dong. We took this time to test out the bikes, weaving through traffic and easing on the brakes. They worked as well as one could expect for $5, although my fuel gauge was a liar and my brakes were a little vague.
Our first challenge was to navigate the small fishing town of Duong Dong. A lot of its roads were under construction and so they differed greatly from the map. We circled around for a while, effortlessly confusing the locals who must have thought they were suffering a chronic case of Deja Vu. Eventually a beautiful bridge lead us to an old part of town where coulourful window shutters dangled from ornate buildings. Beautiful fishing vessels sat idle along a river bank and before we knew it the distractions of our surroundings had lead us on to an open highway out of town.
Now we let the bikes loose. The roads were wide and quiet with only the occasional pot hole or truck to contend with. It was a world away from the chaos of the city and probably the first time I’d ever gone above 40kph on a motorbike. For an hour we rode parallel to the ocean, its calm blue water shrouded by a think line of trees. The landscape around us was endlessly green and stretched off into the hills beyond.
Eventually a narrow lane appeared within the tree line and as we slowed a mirage of brilliant blue escaped from the distance. Turning off the highway we joined a rusty red dirt track which threw up thick dust in our wake. The end was blocked by thick fallen trees but beyond them lay a secluded stretch of sand and a gloriously blue ocean. We abandoned the bikes and walked towards the sand though a smattering of woodland.
We had it all to ourselves, this nameless stretch of sand. Secluded enough to make us feel like Robinson Crusoe, marooned on our own patch of earth. Wading into the water was a liberating feeling as we washed away dirt and dust from the ride. The water was perfection; a soothing chill refreshed every inch of our bodies.
We spent the early part of the afternoon exploring this small stretch of rugged coastline. From our spot against the wall we were able to walk along the shore to a rough rocky outcrop. Scrambling to the top we winced as the razor sharp coral poked violently into the souls of our feet. Ahead, the coast stretched off into the distance revealing miniature patches of sand separated by dark rocks and fallen trees.
Nestled neatly into the landscape were a couple of wooden beach huts which seemed to be expanding into a small resort. They blended comfortably into the ruggedness of the landscape but we wondered how long it would take for the developers to overrun this natural paradise.
Back on the highway we stopped for a break at a small roadside hut. It had enticing smells drifting from its solitary grill and so we inquired about some food. The poor owner was rushed off her feet, having probably never catered for six people all at once. But she did not disappoint, serving up delicious Com Tam (BBQ Pork and Rice) with strong Cafe Da (Vietnamese Ice Coffee) to keep us going.
After gathering our thoughts we surged on up the coast with the aim of finding a secluded spot to watch the sun set. Our old bikes soldiered on, thriving on the smooth surfaced highway roads.
From here the highway headed north on an inland route. To recapture our view of the coast we followed a more scenic road off the highway. This time the road passed through a small village beaming with life. We crawled through the village to soak in the scene around us. A frightfully old lady angrily shooed away rebellious cattle who were nibbling intently at her fruit stall. Further on, a young man chipped away masterfully at a hefty log from which he was carving an ornate tiger sculpture. We passed a quiet school which radiated colour and joy. Children, three to a bike, cycled through the village grinning cheekily at the six lost souls who had ended up in this most beautiful of places.
Not paying much attention to where we were going we soon found ourselves at the far end of the village where the road hugged an estuary. The houses here were built for the fishing trade, many of them standing on stilts above the murky water. A dangerously old bridge stopped us in our tracks. We hopped of the bikes and explored on foot. The bridge was arched ever so slightly, built entirely from wooden planks which were poorly pieced together. I tip-toed across, more thankful with each wobbly step that I’d left the bike on solid ground.
Turning back, we instead followed a dirt road which the locals had pointed out. It wound slowly through a quaint part of the village before again providing us with another wooden bridge to cross. This one looked slightly more stable, but presented us with a considerable drop on each side. A local, who had parked his chair in prime position, gave us a toothless grin and a confident thumbs up. Ignoring the fact that he had front row seats to this impending disaster, we gunned our bikes across the bridge and found it to be safe-ish after all!
Now the roads became fairly difficult. We followed a rocky dirt road which led us down steep, uneven hills and back up the other side. The road stuck closely to the coast although the thick, overhanging trees concealed our view. Our bikes trudged on, revving furiously in low gears to tackle the steep inclines. When the road flattened out at a low point on the coast, we pulled over for a rest. We deviated through a narrow gap in the bushes and emerged onto a rocky outcrop on the ocean. It was a beautiful place to stop especially as the sun was now starting to set. It was nice to be away from the constant razz of the bikes. We caught a breath of ocean air and planned our next move around the coast.
Looking onward we decided that we would have to stop at the next opportunity in order to catch the sunset. We wanted desperately to find another patch of sand to enjoy the moment.
It wasn’t long until we found one. We again hauled the screaming bikes over another steep incline and coasted down the other side. Here the thick trees disappeared and were replaced by tall grass which swayed calmly in the evening breeze. Beyond the grass was a desolate stretch of sand, unscathed and idyllic. The beach was surrounded by high, green cliffs which formed the winding coastline. The sand was soft and warm from the days heat and all around was quiet. We sat comfortably on wooden chairs sunk partially into the sand and watched as the sunset filled the sky with enticing shades of red and purple. I couldn’t resist taking a sunset dip under the colourful sky. With no one around this peaceful expanse of ocean was mine and it’s those moments that make long and difficult journeys worth the effort.
Before the sunset had completely stolen all the light from the sky, we jumped back on the bikes hoping to navigate the difficult section of road whilst we could still see it. Unlike our casual ride this morning we were now forced to push ourselves and our bikes. The light faded fast and we knew we would have to reach the main road before dark or face a real struggle. Quickly the darkness swallowed us up. We strained our eyes searching desperately for the daunting bridge we’d crossed on the way. Our bikes wobbled violently as we hit every hidden rock on the uneven terrain. Too much time passed. We came to the assumption that we’d taken a wrong turn and were forced to turn around and hope that we could find the error of our ways. By the time we did find the bridge again it was a mere shadow looming ominously over black water, illuminated brilliantly by the moon.
From the bridge we cruised calmly through the village, knowing now that the road home was near. The village itself still buzzed with life. Groups of men sat socially on their doorsteps and the small roadside stalls illuminated the road ahead.
The highway home was thankfully uneventful. Arriving back at our home stay we were dirty, dusty and exhausted but an overriding feeling of hunger quashed any desire to sleep. We quickly changed and headed back towards Duong Dong and the highly rated night market. Phu Quoc is famous for its fresh seafood and we’d heard this market was the best place to try it.
Lights from the endless line of stalls made the market unmissable. The initial section of souvenir and craft stores were a mere blip on the radar compared to the much more atmospheric seafood stalls. We walked slowly through the crowded market, craning our necks to get a look at the fresh fish on offer. We were soon enticed into a lively stall by a young and charismatic salesman. Before we knew it he had us sat at plastic tables with a beer in hand and a feast on the way. Not really knowing what we’d ordered a few of us crowded round the smoldering grill to watch the thrilling kitchen in action.
Tanks brimming with an impressive selection of the days freshest seafood stood proudly next to the grill. Under the spotlights huge meaty fish, shrimp and crabs waited patiently for selection. The smell was incredible, delicious aromas of grilling fish, spices and garlic enchanted the nostrils. We became engulfed in the smoky flavour of our dishes and watched in fascination as our food was killed and cooked. It sounds almost savage but such is the way of eating in Vietnam. It’s a rare treat to be able to participate in such a raw experience. No fancy kitchen and no hygiene regulations just cooking in its purest form, over fire and dancing with flavour.
When the feast arrived we were not disappointed. Our two fish were masterfully charred and dripping in their own marinade. The meaty tuna was cooked to perfection, boasting a salty skin and spicy coating; its flavoursome kick jived on our tongues. Our more delicate Snapper Fish was cooked in a lemon and garlic dressing, the meat melted in our mouths and was a light relief from the Explosion of Tuna. To finish we devoured a huge pile of beautifully BBQ’d king prawns which by the time we’d finished were merely cracked shell and tail.
We agreed that food had never tasted so fresh. Our hands were sticky, we stank of smoky embers and our faces were covered in sauce. It was the perfect end to our first day on Phu Quoc and fueled us for the adventures yet to come….
Photo Credits to,
Liska Schramm, Marissa Moro and Ellie Fabbri