Having 14 flights in 19 days sounds pretty crazy for a holiday in Southeast Asia. Trust me when I say that it was. I felt like a majority of my time was spent getting to the airport, waiting at the airport, more waiting at the airport, and sitting on planes.
So when I received an email from Jet Star Pacific Airlines while sitting in my Saigon hotel room stating that my flight to Phu Quoc Island was changed from 11:45 am to 9:00 am, I was more than thrilled.
My friend Jordan and I had booked a trip to Phu Quoc for one night to get out of the congested city for a little R&R on an island that Google images had convinced us was the most stunning oasis of an island out there. We eagerly arrived at the airport in Saigon around 8:00 am and were met with a long line at the check in counter. While waiting in line, I received a second email from Jet Star Pacific Airlines. Our flight had now been changed to 12:45. Distraught that our island time was slowly dwindling, we tried to look at the bright side: it was only an hour after our original departure time. After deciding that taking an hour taxi ride back into the city of Saigon to pass the time was probably not plausible, we knew that we were just going to have to wait it out.
We finally checked in, got our boarding pass, made it through the cursory security process, and arrived at our terminal (the only terminal in the airport). Knowing we were going to be there for the next three and a half hours, we sat at a restaurant and ordered a flagrant morning beer.
An hour into the waiting process, an announcement was made stating that our flight had now been moved to 2:45. At this point, we considered sacking the trip off entirely, as we would have less than 24 hours on the island. However, we decided to still go for it because, boy, those pictures we found on Google images were enticing. A couple Saigon lagers and a free phở later (compliments of the airline), we were on our way to Phu Quoc Island.
It took about an hour to de-board the plane, find a taxi and arrive at our hostel, which got us to the beach with a tropical, fruity drink in hand just before sunset. The beach was the complete opposite of what Google showed us; dirty, unimpressive, and dissatisfying. Maybe that’s a harsh way to describe it, but it certainly did not live up to our expectations and after everything we had gone through to get there, we were pretty cast down. Where were the white sand beaches with hammocks hanging from palm trees surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters?
After sunset, we sluggishly made our way back to the hostel and went into town for dinner. We returned to our hostel pretty late and were sitting at the bar having a drink. There were a group of locals sitting there too and we began chatting with them, which was pretty unusual because we had yet to meet a Vietnamese person with communicable English. We told them about how our island experience had turned a bit sour and asked for their advice on what to do with ourselves the next day before our 6:00 pm flight. We showed them the Google images as well, asking how to find these beaches and if we could make it there and back before our flight. It turned out that one of the people we were talking to was the owner of the hostel and he knew some people. He put a call into one of his friends, spoke for about 2 minutes and hung up. He told us that he could set up a private tour for the day that would take us to our Google image paradise, include lunch, and then have us dropped off at the airport for our flight. This would cost us $150 total. Even though it was a bit out of our budget, we needed to find redemption for our Phu Quoc getaway, so we agreed and made plans to meet our tour guide in the lobby at 7:00 am.
A young looking girl walked into the lobby just after 7:30 and introduced herself as Chimory, our tour guide for the day. She took us to a van, piled our backpacks in, and then introduced us to her friend Dot, a man who was probably about 40 years old, and our driver (unfortunately didn’t get his name) who looked to be about 18. We drove away from the hostel wondering what the day had in store and where exactly they were taking us.
Our first stop was off of a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We got out and were instructed to wait at a table that was full of oysters. An Aussie man approached us and started giving us a lesson on oysters and the pearls that they produce. He talked to us for about five minutes straight, and in my head, I was wondering why on earth we were there and who this man was. It turned out he was the island expert on pearls, which Phu Quoc is famous for. Chimory asked if we wished to buy any pearls to which we said no, and we were back in the car on our way to the next stop.
We drove for a while and ended up at this little village near the boat harbor. The streets were packed with people, motorbikes, food carts, and stray dogs- in true Vietnamese style. The driver stopped the car in the middle of the street and Chimory explained that we were going to pick up lunch for the boat ride (she also told us to bring our cameras). She led us into a food market to buy fresh fish for our lunch. This market was absolutely unreal; there was every type of seafood you could imagine, from live sharks to octopus, to giant squid. The vendors were mostly women who sat at their booth with bare feet resting on their product. The floors were wet with who knows what sort of liquids and the place was packed with locals. The smell was nauseating. After Chimory collected an assortment of seafood, we made our way through the harbor to our private fishing boat.
Our captain, who had four teeth and spoke not a word of English, helped us onto his boat. Dot told us that we would be sailing out to some remote islands south of Phu Quoc and away from the touristy beaches that most people usually visit. We spent an hour sitting on the top deck of the boat in comfortable sunbathing chairs with a cold beer and impeccable views of the islands. Finally, things started looking up.
The captain anchored the boat off the shore of a completely uninhabited island with water so clear that, from the top deck of the boat, you could see the colorful fish swimming around the reef below. Chimory handed us snorkels and fins and then told us to be back on the boat in a half an hour for lunch.
We jumped in the water and snorkeled while the locals prepared a traditional Vietnamese lunch (more like feast) on board. We saw the most colorful fish we’d ever seen. We saw reef sharks, starfish, and even a deadly lionfish. After about thirty minutes we swam back and could already smell our lunch as we climbed up the ladder onto the boat. The meal wasn’t quite ready, so they gave us some fishing line and reels with bait on the end and we fished while we waited. I caught three fish, which later would be served as part of our lunch.
They cooked all the seafood on a small charcoal grill and served it with noodles, rice, and tons of different sauces and spices. We had fully intact snapper and giant squid, calamari, and the unknown type of reef fish that I had caught earlier, as our main course. We all had a Saigon lager as well, which the captain insisted on a massive group cheers every time anyone took a sip. I can usually eat a good amount of food but this was on a different level. It was a full feast laid before us on this table on the boat anchored in the turquoise waters surrounding the island. At this point, I knew that we had redeemed our bad luck from the beginning of the trip and there was still more to come!
We politely pushed our plates away indicating that we were done eating but the captain would continue to pile noodles and various types of fish on our plate. Not knowing the cultural traditions among food in Vietnam, I assumed that it would probably be best to continue eating everything they gave me, although I was a bit apprehensive to eat the heads of the fish and the squid. Dot turned to me and asked why I wasn’t eating the head and I explained that I didn’t usually eat that part of the fish. He then said, “In your country I know that eating the head is not customary, but in my country it is one of the most special parts of the meal”, and with that, he popped the head of the squid into his mouth. For dessert, we all enjoyed some fresh, cold watermelon.
We began sailing back towards Phu Quoc after lunch. I offered to help with cleaning up all the food but they insisted that we go up onto the deck and relax for the next hour or two while we sailed back. It was a very relaxing boat ride back to the main island but ended badly later that night when we were both sizzled to a crisp.
The next stop we made was to the Coconut Tree Prison, built by the French colonists back in 1949. The prison, which is now more of a museum, didn’t fail to portray the brutal truth behind the treatment of Vietnamese war prisoners during that time. There were life-size replicas of all of the torture methods used at the prison by the U.S.-led southern Vietnamese puppet regime. As Dot led us through the prison in near silence, I couldn’t help but feel shades of guilt, reading about what the American-led soldiers did to the prisoners during the war. I pulled Dot aside at the end of the tour and told him that what we were seeing was very emotional for me and that I wished our history was different. With an infectious smile smeared across his face, he told me that he appreciated it, yet not to worry, as he still loved the American people.
Before leaving the museum, we were approached by two Vietnamese men who spoke no English but asked Dot if Jordan and I would take a photo with them. Later I asked Dot why they wanted that and he explained that they had never seen “westerners” before and wanted to document their experience. It was quite a bizarre scenario.
After visiting the prison Chimory told us that we had about two hours to relax on the beach. We drove a half an hour to Sao beach and low and behold, the idyllic beach from Google images that persuaded us to visit the island in the first place. Despite the aggravating amount of tourists, we had finally found our bliss, our Shangri-La. We ordered piña colada’s and basked in the summery Vietnamese sun.
Unfortunately, our spontaneous adventure of a day was winding down at this point. Our driver, Chimory, and Dot dropped us off at the Phu Quoc airport. A sobering mood hung over us as we all realized that we would probably never see each other again. These three people were some of the most benevolent, genuine people I had the privilege of meeting during my travels. We all embraced at the curbside drop off as the sun was setting behind us and Jordan and I thanked them from the bottom of our hearts. We departed Phu Quoc headed for Saigon once more, but not before a cheeky burger king to balance out the excessive amounts of seafood we consumed that day.