I am what is known as a late adopter. (Fine. It’s not strictly one of the technology cycles but much preferable to being called a “laggard“.)
I didn’t climb aboard the iPhone bandwagon as much as I was chloroformed-into-a-moving-van onto it by a friend who had an after-contract 3GS ripe for the taking. By the time it got to me, no one was even selling cases for that model anymore. (The upside was I finally found one in a dusty discount bin somewhere for 99 cents. Score!) I’ve upgraded once in the past three years, again, thanks to being a sad, sad technology-have-not charity case. I don’t mind that I’m perpetually two generations behind everyone else or that local Vietnamese are more than happy to part with a month’s salary to obtain the latest offering, casting pitying glances at my iPhone4, the kind usually reserved for homeless people, an uncomfortable mix of pursed lips, sad eyes and a subtle, slow shake of the head.
My utter innovation adoption failure extends to other things, though, not just technology. I saw the Chatroulette version of Wrecking Ball before I had actually heard the song. (And I may or may not have had to Google what Chatroulette was…)
Recently, I pretended to laugh along when a lawyer colleague made a joke with the punchline, “Better call Saul!”. Alas, television’s highest rated show of all time had already aired five seasons’ worth of episodes and finally ended, me blissfully unaware. (Although this oversight was rectified with some serious binge-watching, so if you were one of the people who tried to contact me unsuccessfully in mid-April, my apologies.)
So when my blogging nemeses, the awesome Steph and Tony of 20 Years Hence, suggested that I join Instagram, I balked. “It’ll be fun,” they said. “You’ll like it more than any other form of social media,” they said. “All you have to do is press “like” on the pretty pictures,” they said. This coming from bloggers equally disdainful of social media as I was. I’m already on Facebook. I barely understand Twitter. I have this blog. Do I really need another avenue to express myself?
Cue chloroform and moving van with blacked out windows.
So, armed with my new Instagram account, I promptly took a trip to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, posting photos willy nilly. Just miles off of Cambodia’s coast, most of Phu Quoc’s (pronounced: Foo Kwok) hotels are centered around the town of Duong Dong, towards the middle of the 31 x 16 mile island. Everywhere else is pretty much undeveloped, with the pearl farms and fish sauce factories to the south, and the national forest and sleepy fishing villages to the north.
After visiting gorgeous Bai Sao (Star Beach) and doing a tour around the island’s south side, I headed up to the north shore for a few days, intrigued by a boutique hotel that promised seclusion – deserted beaches, more hammocks than people, miles away from the trappings of civilization. Open less than a year, Peppercorn Beach Resort had already shot up to #2 on TripAdvisor for Phu Quoc hotels and I was determined to find out what the fuss was all about.
There are three roads to get to Ganh Dau, the northwesternmost point of the island where Peppercorn is located, and also point closest to the Cambodian mainland just 8 miles away. One dirt road hugs the coast, just meters from the beach. A two-lane cement road paralleling the coastline was finished just months ago, cutting the travel time practically in half, to about 30 minutes. Very strangely, it’s not well marked as you make the turnoff from town and bizarrely starts with a runway from Phu Quoc’s old airport. Cue Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone”.
Alas, bad directions from the receptionist at the resort (last resort?) where my friends were staying led me to take the road that cuts up the middle of the island, through Phu Quoc’s national forest. Dusty but scenic, with no road signs to speak of, I’m glad I got a chance to see the island’s interior, but thankful that it was during daylight hours as pot holes and sand traps needed dodging.
About 400 meters up the road, there’s a sad Vietnamese-run place called Gio Bien. I checked out the bungalows and while they weren’t terrible, they weren’t particularly inviting. Both places are popular as lunch spots for Vietnamese who want to visit the north coast without committing to staying so far away from the action.
Along the walk over, there are a few ramshackle homes housing fishermen and their families.
Looking out over the water, past the netted enclosures where locals raise sea mollusks, you can see the nearby Cambodian islands, but really, the reason to come all the way out to this part of the island is to get away from it all.
Vietnamese-Australian Linh and her Australian husband Robert actually built a vacation home here in 2006, over time buying up the surrounding plots. Now based in Singapore, the couple have turned over day-to-day management of the new resort to family members, but have set everything up to Western standards. Linh happened to be there during my stay and she shared her philosophy of operating the resort while preserving the beauty of land and people that brought them here in the first place. The resort is eco-friendly, utilizing rainwater collection, solar panels and energy efficient appliances. Linh’s family is also involved in the community. While I was there, one of the bungalows was provided to an British man rent-free while he was setting up an English education project for local youths.
We also talked about the sticker shock of the room rates (USD 100-160, depending on the season), for rooms which are cheery and clean, but not ostentatious, a big leap in price from comparable accommodations on the mainland.
For instance, there’s no swimming pool or spa. But when you throw open the French doors in the morning, walk down two steps and already feel sand through your toes, those things fade into insignificance.
I tore myself away from the beach one morning to take a drive through the sleepy fishing village of Ganh Dau, where an ominous-looking waterspout was the most excitement the town had seen in a while.
Every now and then, some small cuttlefish are found amongst the fish, which the owner steamed up and offered me to snack on while I was exploring his little home factory. His daughter seemed to like them, too.
Further down the road, I came across a dried shrimp factory where shrimp are boiled with a bit of salt and coloring, then laid out to dry. Afterwards, they go through a drying machine.
I took a quick tour (entrance: USD 2) around one of the family-run places that breed and train these friendly, teachable dogs. When I asked the locals about these places, they all gushed about how the dogs can climb fences “like people”. Seeing it in person, I couldn’t decide whether it was fascinating or terrifying. I played out a scene in my mind where I was being chased by vicious dogs, managed to haul my hefty, nonathletic body over a fence and collapse in a heap of sweaty relief, only to watch in horror as they started scaling said fence Commando-style. Yes, my mind is a very dark place. Fun. But dark.
Visitors will notice road construction everywhere, both to the island’s south and north coasts. A recent tourism initiative allows visitors to fly directly to Phu Quoc without a Vietnamese visa for 30 days, an effort to bring the world to this quiet paradise.
Just south of Ganh Dau, there’s a long stretch of undeveloped beach called Bai Dai (Long Beach). I remember going there in 2008, when there were no restaurants, no canteens, no nothing. Just a wild, deserted place to throw down your towel in the sand and go for a swim.
This trip, though, I drove past the future site of a massive 500-room resort, already under construction by the Vinpearl Group (who also developed the amusement park / resort of Vinpearl Island off Nha Trang’s coast). Families have been bought out, trees cleared, materials brought in. The heavy footfalls of “progress” are inevitable.
So, if you’re fortunate enough to be in this part of the world, make time for Phu Quoc. Make time for its quiet, sandy beaches.
Make time for its glorious sunrises and sunsets.
Make time while there’s still time.