The astronomer of Star Beach

In the late afternoon a man with a red face and red, collared tee-shirt over broad shoulders came up Bai Sao (Star Beach) and asked whether there was a place he could socialize, a bar or some such, on the island. He was well-mannered, with a working-class English accent. The need for a pub could not have been put better, or seemed more reasonable. We asked him some questions. He had arrived on a boat from Cambodia at An Thoi, the second town, only a few hours earlier, but determined already, having visited the main town, Duong Dong, twenty-something kilometres north-east from Bai Sao, that, ‘This is a very quiet island.’ The island was Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s future playground of the rich, apparently, off the southern, west-facing part of the country’s mainland and part of Kien Giang Province.
The Englishman, whose possibly Cambodian woman companion stood a little to the side and behind, also wanted to know if there was a place to sleep. We could only suggest he ask about further; we had booked a place for the following night and suggested he try there, a few hundred metres away, near the southern end of the beach, at the Ai Si Hotel, which, though we did not know it at the time, would become the centre of our Phu Quoc adventure. The day after our return to the mainland, I read in the Viet Nam News that ‘More than 70 guitars belonging to the legendary British music icon Eric Clapton’ were being sold in aid of his drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Antigua. The Ai Si Hotel could well become both legendary and iconic, in its very particular way, to our band of three holidaymakers, and others, no doubt. On Phu Quoc, as elsewhere, these days, there are those who want things to become legendary and iconic before they go through the stage of realness. We had been there at the time of realness of the Ai Si.

I had had an inkling things would go well at Bai Sao while we were still at the Mango Bay Resort, north along the opposite, western, coast of the island, beyond Duong Dong. To say that Mango Bay Resort was more up-market is true but ridiculous, so much are the two places worlds apart. MBR is a must to record, however. It is, and has been for a long while, perhaps the place in Vietnam holidaymaking best at showing that many guests will pay more for having fewer of the banal, knee-jerk facilities like telephone (none in the room, at MBR), fridge (none in the room, just a wooden ice chest) or air-con (there is plenty, but it is not electric and its breeze is powered by the alternation of day and night that draws air on and off the island). In the MBR dining pavilion the waiters wear jeans, not pomp, and the focus is on the food, which is of the kind the Admirable Crighton, if you remember the film, or even the play, might have served to Robinson Crusoe, such as fish barbecued in banana leaf. We stayed in a ‘Plantation Bungalow’, which sums up the spaciousness of MBR’s seaside domain, which is cropped by cows wearing almost tinkling wooden bells. While the sound of the bells as the herd did its round near your Max Havelaar-style bungalow, if you remember the book and film, was the sonic motif of MBR, the gobble of turkeys was the motif of the Ai Si.
The car south was intercepted by another, because it had taken some wrong baggage, and when we rang ahead to ask Ai Si (a name that at first flush could be taken to refer to the temperature of their beer) to take special care to wash the mosquito nets our room had been given over to another or others, possibly the Englishman and companion. This was the holiday’s what-the-hell moment and we were really living, going to stay at Bai Sao anyway. The salt-of-the-earth Phu Quoc people really live, and it seems that in reality you can move in when you arrive and move out when you leave, if a room exists, and not worry about such surrealisms as bookings or saying you are extending your stay. We were about to enter the high period of what our own guest, the third in our party, who came to be called ‘the Astronomer Royal’, would call, in the middle of the night, ‘the holiday from hell’. I was later willing to bet he was on his back in his cosy hotel in Pham Ngu Lao Street, Saigon, saying to himself, ‘I am not going to forget what they [his friends and hosts or companions] did to me on Phu Quoc.’ He muttered on the way to the Phu Quoc airport, ‘How could you write this in a magazine? It would take a 400-page book.’

Perhaps one is biased towards one’s own experience in the description of a holiday and it is salutary to look at it vicariously, through the eyes of a scientist such as the Astronomer Royal of Star Beach. Either because we had been forced to bed so early, around 7 p.m., or because we had been forced awake by one or more of the strangenesses or amazements of the Ai Si, we got to talking about the stars, which he had last seen 30 years before, or so he said, so paradoxically. Then we lit on something in the sky that he reckoned was a nebula or a cluster of three things and which we eventually worked out was the morning star, or the planet Venus, straight out over the sea. I tried to take some pictures of it, but could not hold the camera still enough to get anything much less jagged and irregular than the tiled staircases we had mastered in getting up to the first floor and our room and the patio that faced over the sea. The Astronomer Royal had the idea of reassembling one of the three disintegrated, slatted banana chairs to use as a rest for my camera, as it seemed to have the right angle for the morning star. This did not work, but by this time we had worked out that Bai (Beach) Sao (Star) was probably named after the very star we were aiming at.
Although the hotel was not particularly old it was by far the most atmospheric place on the beach. When the elder master of the Ai Si lit incense each night on the prayer table at the front of the patio, we realized we were standing at the very locus of the Bai Sao genius, and perhaps the Phu Quoc one, a genius worth contemplating. If you get taken in by a Phu Quoc family (in the nicest way) you are truly in and no one would think of doing you ill. It made me recall a trip to a town called Tennant Creek, in Central Australia, where people when they went out not only did not lock their front doors but left them chocked open. If you can tell a person by the canine friends he keeps, it is predictable that the Phu Quoc humans are good-natured and well mannered. The dogs, by the way, are not just the Phu Quoc breed; Phu Quoc is a canine Camelot. The Phu Quocan humans are generous and open. When the ‘international airport’, the site for which a taxi-driver pointed out, arrives, and if it employs the local people, guests will be able to pack with vastly more confidence. The Astronomer Royal suddenly discovered he had two keys to our room, and further, that these keys fitted any other room in the place that he tried, and the key that fitted our room best was one that he thought supposedly belonged to another room. The windows could not be locked at all. On the other hand, I did hear that a door to the house, downstairs, was locked at night. This phenomenon of the transferability of keys the Astronomer Royal likened to that, observable at the Ai Si and common with all the old, yellow sockets in Vietnam, in which the electrical thing your are plugging in fits so easily that it has no purchase on the current inside and, for example, recharging a phone or batteries only works if you practise abnormal perseverance.
The general decrepitation that had occurred in not many years was what was most impressive and memorable (once we had survived, no gainsaying) – and was, as I will venture, the most significant sign to the future of Phu Quoc – and the particulars were less so, though some of them are worth reciting. Again I will use the Astronomer Royal as yardstick, starting with the very sticks, cut from the forest, from which in our rooms of the first night mosquito nets were suspended like white and pink fish on rods and lines. He considered these bucolic, at best. He was shocked by the noise when the staff started the diesel engine that generated the electricity, though he got used to it and came to appreciate it when (a) he could he get his phone or recharger into potentially live contact and (b) the 120 volts of potential was realized because the engine was running and or the hotel’s batteries were being applied to his needs. The water, which was from a well and reeked in a common Vietnamese well way, would flow more often than not, and when it did we filled a bucket for when it didn’t. The basins did not have outlet pipes, though they had plugs, which, when pulled, dropped the water on top of the lidded garbage bins. One of them also came out bringing with it the rim of the plughole.
The shade in the bathroom of our eventual, three-night bedroom had obviously at some time been brightened with a window cut with a circular saw in the single-brick, cement-faced wall. As I would come to realize, the hotel would need to last only as long as what I will call Phu Quoc’s rustic era did. When a downpour thumped the tin roof and rainwater built up in a fold of blue plastic liner in a roof where day guests had arrived for lunch, I watched the elder master stand on a chair and stab the bulge with a carving knife and spume the water into a bucket. The salt air had, over the eight years of Ai Si, gently entered and exploded the cement balusters of the French-style staircases and patio, and some of the shards lay where they had fallen, like skittles. The word from many mouths on the island was that every present manmade thing on many of the prettiest parts of the coast was on the way out, to make way for five- and seven-star hotels and at least one casino. One of the authorities on this was Ai Si’s elder master, who referred to the rating stars, and one the master (with his wife) of the esteemed Bo Resort, near MBR, at Ong Lang, who referred to a casino.

So, my thesis is that the star of Bai Sao, probably the most beautiful spot on Phu Quoc and symbolic of the island, the star in the sky, is to be outshone, according to very different astronomers’ charts, by the stars in brass beside the doors of hotels and that the island is now in a period of mystery and suspense peopled by such as the hopeful but perhaps early – it was around the beginning of March, 2011 –  Englishman from Cambodia. Who knows? Would he be the sort of person to be attracted to the prevailing, particularly at Mui Ne (in southern Central Vietnam), view of developed beach holidaymaking, in which the sea tends – fact of life – to be used more or less for sewage-disposal and is replaced, for those who want to swim, with a chlorinated infinity pool? As I waited to pick up our suitcase at Ton Son Nhat, I photographed an advertisement for a Mui Ne resort with Reckitt’s-blue pool water appearing to lap as high as the equally blue sea beyond. Would the groundling astronomers take over Bai Sao, and Ong Lang, and other natural environments of Phu Quoc? Could this be compensated for by the provision of such things as brown-bread salad sandwiches with Dalat lettuce and tomato, butter from New Zealand, cheese from Bega, New South Wales, and ham from Parma, served with a small dish of first-cold-pressed olive oil?
We were supplied at the Ai Si with a battery-powered (or did it have a monster glow worm in it?) lamp that was too bright to look at but which threw very little light on anything around it. During our last night I got up saying to myself ‘Point Percy at the porcelain.’ Odd, I thought, but in I went to the bathroom, by the slight glow from the lamp on the table in the bedroom. I fired determinedly at the gloom of the bowl, but kept getting ricocheted in the shins. Of course, the Astronomer Royal had been before me, and put the lid down, and I had pointed at the plastic. And some time before that I must have heard him in my sleep go to the bathroom and I must have tried as if in a dream to warn myself with the alliterative line. The astronomer had revealed, as the morning light surrounded the star, that he thought of adventure not in such things as plastic versus porcelain but rather as something like what he had once encountered in Indonesia, something I dare say more legendary and iconic, where he been able to speak the language, and had been last-minute, impromptu guest of honour at a village headman’s wife’s funeral, where he had been handed the lion’s share of a liver, raw. A few days after our return to the mainland, the Astronomer Royal told me he had bought a bottle of gin and systematically called up and deleted the worst memories of the adventure from his nervous system. And yet he also averred he would never want to stay in a seven- or even five-star hotel or resort. He was betwixt and between, like most of the foreigners we saw at Bai Sao – rather, if one were to guess, like the Englishman off the boat from Cambodia.