(No.6, Vol.2, June 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
This is the second and final part of
John Russack’s day on Phu Quoc.
The first part is in the May edition.
Within a kilometre of the market, the landscape changed most abruptly from bustling town to largely deserted beaches along a narrow, red-dirt road. Near Cửa Cạn Beach, the road curved out of a forest into the beach where suddenly a most suspect odour pervaded the thick air. I stopped to inspect long strips of black cloth stretched along the road half in the dusty roadway and half in the grass. What seemed like thousands of tiny grey fish atop this plastic net soaked in the sun’s rays to transform their bodies into edible yet fragrant cá kho, or dried fish. Only an hour prior had women selling this pungent treat in the market crossed my path, and here I had unexpectedly rolled up on the source.
The sound of ocean waves swept in to fill the void left behind as I killed the motorbike’s rough engine. Two conical-hat-wearing women glanced curiously over at me, and I felt almost like a voyeur peering through a window into a forbidden world. For the first time that morning I truly felt like a foreigner so out of place amongst the local people. I smiled and called out ‘xin chào’, which was met much to my surprise with their own Xin chàos and friendly hand-waves.
I took their kind gestures as an invitation to more closely examine their work, and before I knew it was crouched down next to them on a large plastic sheet. They held up fish for me to inspect and engaged me in a conversation I could not follow by words but could understand in spirit. For about five minutes I worked alongside them much to their delight. This truly is backbreaking work, and these women toil tirelessly under that relentless sun while shrouded in heat-soaked clothes. They may never realize it but they gave me new respect for the field labourers who feed this nation.
As I walked back to the road a silver motorbike flew by in a cloud of kicked up dust and a Western couple veered recklessly into the grass to alight at the nearby beach. In their haste to find sun and sand, they had missed an experience with these women so unlike anything found in our Western worlds. I realize we all have different agendas on Phu Quoc, but the local people have such interesting stories to tell. Even if their words seem wholly indecipherable to my English-hearing ears, their message somehow is still fully understood.
The young couple now taking a dip in the blue waters is a prime example of how holidaymakers descend upon Phu Quoc to harvest the sun’s power in an effort to knock away the wintertime blues. Just steps away locals such as the fish women use the very same sun as fuel for their labours. These two worlds seemingly collide within steps of each other with neither world paying much attention to the other.
Newly energised to seek even more Phu Quoc off the beaten path, I set out on roads going from rough to worse. In this area north of Cửa Cạn my motorbike met its match on one particularly rocky stretch of red dirt. As destiny would have it, my tire blow out happened right in front of a woman and her elderly mother who appeared to be the only civilization as far as I could see. They rushed up to me and excitedly pointed to their home about 100 metres distant. What are the chances of breaking down right in front of a tire shop in the remotest of remote areas?
If a flat tire is the cost of admission to an experience I will never forget, I hope flattened rubber once again graces a future journey. For such a traditional island, I must admit my surprise that a woman had a background in mechanics and the Midas touch to bring my motorbike back to life. This just goes to show we cannot be so quick to stereotype since reality so many times will turn our assumptions upside down.
As this young woman’s grease-stained hands healed my battered motorbike, her mother motioned me into one of two dusty green hammocks hanging in the open-air room. She took her place next to me and we lazily rocked back and forth in the languid afternoon heat exchanging pleasantries. She spoke to me in Vietnamese and I in English yet somehow we had a mutually intelligible conversation complete with laughter. Perhaps we both used our imaginations to fill in the blanks and build up a story in our minds. Her repeated offers of iced coffee and beer showed genuine hospitality from the heart and that this pit stop lasted only 30 minutes was my only disappointment.
I had heard the horror stories of travellers before me who had spent upwards of VND300,000 for tire-repair, and I will admit to fully expecting a similar rip-off. Much to my surprise and delight my bill came to a more reasonable VND90,000 price tag and I almost felt guilty paying so little for a service that in the West would empty our wallets so much more. I felt more guilty for assuming the worst though, and this brief stop taught me so much about how we must check our preconceived notions and keep an open mind.
Whiling away the time in a hammock is one of those experiences a guidebook could never list. I realised that having a flat tire turned out to be some of the best luck I could have as I had collected the perfect addition to my growing list of quintessential Phu Quoc experiences. I think this is the first time a flat tire has become one of the highlights of a journey, and this woman and her mother epitomise the good that we forget abounds in our world. We exchanged goodbyes and away I went to explore deeper into Phu Quoc’s interior near Gành Dầu.
After completing a large sunburned loop around the northern half of the island, the narrow roads eventually deposit the dusty and wary on the main ‘highway’ sucking all wheeled conveyances right back into centrally located Dương Đông town. With lunchtime fast approaching and hoping to avoid the tourist friendly lunch spots over at nearby Long Beach, I drove around for twenty minutes on the hunt for a suitable lunch spot to refuel before trekking onward to points south. My criteria were simple: a tolerable level of authenticity, largely identifiable meats in the serving trays and a decent crowd in this sweltering heat-bath of a town no one could ever accuse of being the least bit Western.
Tucked away near the airport at 59 Hung Vuong Street is an open-air concrete-block structure housing the Tuyen Duy restaurant miraculously matching my peculiar list of standards. It’s funny how I am becoming a street-food snob. If a business I regularly frequent tastes good enough, all sorts of violations to my western sensibilities will not bother me in the least. If I do not know the place, as was the case this day, the exact same surroundings scare me into ten minutes of worrying whether I should dive in or not.
Just pausing out on the sidewalk a few minutes to mentally weigh the pros and cons of eating here caused quite the commotion inside, and three family members rushed out to persuade me I had indeed struck gold with their food. One young girl kept shouting, ‘pig, pig, pig, pig’ over and over again while pointing at me. I chuckled to myself that perhaps I was the subject of her shouts rather than a pork product on offer in the silver serving pans.
She yelled ‘pig, pig, pig’ some more while tugging on my sleeve and her sister excitedly ladled stir-fried pork and shrimp on to a generous mountain of steamed rice. My mere presence was enough to start the ball rolling on a lunch order I had not yet even verbally placed. Evidently Westerners are not part of the normal lunch repertoire, and everyone seemed genuinely excited to have me dine in their midst. Calls of ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Where you go?’ filled the stagnant humid air as people tested their English skills on me.
And yes, I was excited, too about the flavour of my VND20,000 meal. If only I knew enough Vietnamese to inquire into the recipe, as the marinade was a perfect combination of sweet sugar and salty fish sauce along with hints of ginger and pepper. Contrary to many tough meats on the mainland, this ‘pig, pig, pig’ was tender and paired perfectly with pink shrimp so soft inside their crunchy, paper-thin shells.
The jar of fish sauce on the table inspired my next stop on this tour of Phu Quoc off the beaten path. As I drove back through the outskirts of town looking for an exit to points south, the smell of aged fish suddenly permeated the humidity. The malodorous air grew stronger and stronger as I approached what appeared to be a factory producing this liquid so integral to the Vietnamese kitchen. One whiff of this brown water is enough to strike fear in to all but the most intrepid palates. What is it about fish sauce that scares us so badly? Is it the odour or just simply the name? I know we Westerners are not so keen on strong smells or anything fermented in giant barrels as our tastes seem to run a bit more on the subtle side.
Rows of large wooden vats at Thinh Phat brand’s facility impart a vapour trail that must be experienced first hand to be believed. A ladder against one of these fragrant reservoirs beckons the curious upward and this short trip is not for the faint of heart. Thousands of litres of fermenting fish water stewing in the languid air caused me to momentarily rethink my love for this liquid gold. Ten minutes of this self-guided tour poking around the various stages of production about tapped out my stamina against the noxious surroundings.
I will admit once upon a time the very thought of fish sauce had left me a skeptic, but now, much to my delight, this staple of Vietnamese cuisine has opened my eyes to food experiences well beyond my formerly sheltered tastes. This ‘nước mắm’ is a metaphor for Vietnam. Just as with the factory, first impressions can overwhelm the newly initiated and cause us to recoil in fear. Getting to know this brashness eventually tames its overwhelming powers, and we can dig under the surface to see it for what it is . . bold, brash, and full of flavour. Giving something new a chance can prove a sensory-packed addition to our lives much like this journey into Phu Quoc barely six hours old at this point.
Just down the road from Thinh Phat is another component to Vietnamese cooking on the opposite end of the taste spectrum from fish sauce. Rows of pepper trees line small farms, and if we are lucky we may even spy a wizened woman sorting out the berries to dry. As with the fish earlier in the morning, curiosity got the better of me at one such plantation. A conical hat lifted to reveal a warm smile and the elderly woman held out a bushel for me to inspect. She had me repeat ‘tiêu’ over and over again until I could pronounce this word for pepper like a local pro.
Once I graduated from this language lesson to her satisfaction, my reward was a sample of her labours. She motioned for me to eat a green berry the size of a pea, and its acrid bite washed over my tongue. Perhaps we can look at her offering as an olive branch between tourist and local. I may not be able to walk a mile in her shoes nor can she probably even begin to comprehend my world, but for a few fleeting seconds we looked into each other’s eyes and gained an acceptance of each other.
Eventually even the road less travelled emerges from the shrouds of dust and uncertainty to merge with the world more known to us. Earlier I had met a German couple interested in sampling island delights of a seafood kind, and we had formalised plans for dinner. Just as the last reddish hues of the sunset disappeared into the darkening horizon, we aimed our motorbikes towards the Night Market in Dương Đông on the quest to sample Phu Quoc’s ocean bounty.
This strip of very basic restaurants comes to life after dark along a jam-packed pedestrian zone dedicated to the tourist trade. Imagine tarp-covered open-air food stands with display tables of every seafood these waters could ever think about producing. My new friends and I randomly chose a crowded shop called ‘Sand Food’, and the English-speaking owner, Mr Quyen, guided us through his freshest of fresh selections. I swear he could make a seafood-lover out of anyone with his unabashed enthusiasm for ocean treats.
Within minutes our mountain of seafood sizzled atop a smoking charcoal grill, and sent our hunger pains into high gear. Tuna kebabs with pineapple, carrots, eggplant and a sweet marinade; sea urchin with peanuts and seasoned oil; spicy grilled tuna fillets; plain calamari. That was my smorgasbord. The sea urchin proved one of the more unusual choices of the evening, and the thin black layer of meat smacking of the ocean inside the spiny shell took me on a taste journey I had never before experienced. I liked the urchin well enough to order two more and proved that even here in a largely tourist market a taste off the beaten path can be had. All this gut-stuffing goodness plus a 333 brand beer cost less than $10 per person.
Yes, Phu Quoc’s Night Market is firmly planted on the tourist trail. It’s overrun by the sunburned masses. It’s really not a ‘local’ experience at all, with its English menus and sanitised surroundings. My friends and I waxed enthusiastically about this place and dinner proved an amazing end to a colourful day. I would travel back to Phu Quoc just to sample the far-from-run-of-the-mill Night Market again. It’s really that good, inexpensive and fresh.
With over 175 kilometres logged on mostly back roads, three delicious meals and a souvenir sunburn to boot, I can now proclaim Phu Quoc is more than just a destination to me. I now see Vietnam in a different light and am forever changed. The most random of strangers touched my life in so many different ways they cannot even imagine, and I wonder if perhaps I did the same for them. The American poet and author Maya Angelou once observed, ‘Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.’ I wholeheartedly agree now after sharing a day with everyday people and in the process becoming friends with Phu Quoc. Rather than a photo album of guidebook-sanctioned places so many visitors before me have seen as well, I come away with a reinvigorated soul filled anew with colourful memories unique only to me and the people with whom I crossed paths.