The lure of the wild tô lớn

(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The black and white pages of my guidebook just did not seem to capture the magical combination of blue water and rolling green hills visible from my window seat as the airplane lowered its flight path across Phu Quoc’s wave-splashed coastline. Thousands of words offer their helpful insight as to the best pizza, the largest Western-style sandwich, and bars with the most fellow travellers. Is this really, though, the Vietnam we dream of from afar?
We humans seem to be largely creatures of habit, even while travelling. We journey to the ends of the earth only to carve out a tiny corner of home. I do understand this desire to seek familiarity when all around us seems so chaotic and unknown. The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson even observed, ‘There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.’ Though his words originated in a century long past, their message remains as timely as ever. Air travel and the Internet continue to shrink the globe and in the process create more ‘foreigners’ among us seeking this guidebook-approved safety in numbers.
A banking left turn to join the final approach course into the beachfront airport caught a picture-perfect view of tiny fishing boats dozens in number, and this snapshot of the real Phu Quoc inspired me to unearth a side of the island beyond any guidebook pages. My challenge simply became one perfect day under the sun journeying deep into the more local side of this green, mountainous paradise with no agenda, no preplanned route, and no carefully organised list of must-see stops. I shoved my book deep into my backpack where I vowed it would remain secreted for the remainder of this trip.
As my taxi carried me from the airport terminal into directly adjacent Dương Đông town, the hustle and bustle of this gritty, true-life Vietnamese locale immediately captured my imagination. My excitement proved short-lived, though, as English-language signs suddenly sprouting along the four-lane road announced our entry into the safe confines of a tourist area whose amenities ameliorate any sense we indeed are foreign. The majority of the island’s growing tourist trade centres around this highway in Long Beach, just south of Dương Đông. A visitor could easily occupy a week safely sequestered from the ‘real’ Phu Quoc in this strip of Western-oriented hotels, bars and restaurants.

This is part of the author’s day to remember on the island of Phu Quoc in southwestern Vietnam. Part 2 will complete the adventure in the June edition

Travelling is such a personal experience, sending us down our individual paths, yet guidebooks and tourist maps virtually ensure our journeys shall cross with those of our fellow travellers all on these same preordained routes. For some, such a cookie-cutter itinerary is a fine choice, yet I yearn for a Vietnam not so readily accessible to the average tourist. My philosophy for travel is simple. I wish to collect once-in-a-lifetime experiences rather than working my way down a list of the well known monuments. Surely this version of Phu Quoc off the beaten path must lurk within easy reach if only we open our eyes and minds.
 

This and the following market pictures were taken in Dương Đông, the main town on Phu Quoc

Securing a motorbike for the day was my first matter of business at the front desk of Cội Nguồn Hotel, where VND150,000 rented 24 hours of two-wheeled freedom to hit the hidden byways crisscrossing Phu Quoc. Leaving the familiarity and safety of Long Beach behind to forge my own course without a roadmap seemed at first quite unnerving, and I constantly reminded myself this was an island, so how lost could one possible become? A quick stop at the gas station to top off the empty tank for the adventure ahead left me realising my stomach was running on empty as well. I carefully manoeuvered through Dương Đông’s patchwork of streets scouting out a restaurant not too much a shock to my Western sensibilities yet at the same time far removed from any typical Western experience.
My aimless wanderings up and down the sleepy streets already baking under the early-morning sun finally paid off with a restaurant well off the guidebook circuit. All roads in Dương Đông seemingly lead to one single food I had read fuels the nation, phở. Of course, steaming broth laden with silky rice noodles and meat are not uniquely Phu Quoc, yet I felt a bowl of research was in order to sample how other regions of Vietnam prepared this quintessential dish. Sampling this most Vietnamese of soups seemed proper inspiration as well for a day of uncovering the most local of experiences.
Phở Sài Gòn at 31 Duong 34/4 charmed me with its very basic curb appeal and complete lack of fellow Westerners. A bubbling cauldron of red liquid by the entrance swept a fragrant beef aroma across the sidewalk and beckoned me inward. Patrons hunched over their meals at the metal tables packing the interior of this fan-cooled shop threw curious glances at my passage down the narrow aisle. Within seconds their loud slurps and the clink of spoons on porcelain resumed, to fill the stuffy air, and my presence caused nary a stare.
I never could have predicted a simple bowl of soup found anywhere in Vietnam would commence a chain of events nourishing not only my appetite but my soul as well. A basic menu of three items matched actual names and prices to the various scents and cauldrons all around, and the hungry could exchange VND35,000 for a bowl of ‘phở tô lớn’. The menu’s English translation indicated I had ordered a large soup yet lacked any indication from which animal ‘tô lớn’ derived.
As I pondered what sort of taste sensation breakfast held in store, the middle-aged woman who had just seconds before shouted my order to a hidden kitchen area suddenly lit several incense sticks while crouching before an altar. The pungent odour instantly enveloping my table transported me to another world if only for a few fleeting moments. She sent prayers heavenward with several head-bobs seemingly of interest to my curiosity only. As quickly as this impromptu ritual had begun, the object of my stares jumped right back into her work without missing a beat. I continued staring at this mesmerizing shrine adorned with blinking red lights and surrounded by dragon fruit, cigarettes and bottled water, offerings to people long passed.
 


I had not even noticed the phở now steaming in front of me until an elderly gentleman laid his wrinkled hand on my shoulder. He startled me back to reality while mumbling and pointing to the herb basket resting next to my soup. Within a few seconds several more people had crowded around my table to school me in the intricacies of proper herbal soup-enhancement. With my white porcelain bowl now seasoned to their satisfaction with cumin-like, rice-paddy herb, lemony coriander, basil, tongue-searing chillies and sour lime, they nodded with encouragement as my spoon lifted the flavour-packed liquid to my mouth. A young woman asked repeatedly, ‘Good? Good? Good?’ The words ‘tasty’ and ‘delicious’ are indeed clichés but what two other words could one possibly use to describe the intoxicating flavours steeping in that bowl?
Along with random and surprising glimpses into Vietnamese culture and hospitality, this open-front concrete shop house serves a praiseworthy phở full of deep beef flavour. The collection of bones infusing their richness into the opaque broth reminds us there is something to be said for time-honoured traditions in cooking rather than the easy-way-out shortcuts so prevalent in the West. As I tucked into the well done strips of tough meat, my imagination continued running wild with visions of this elusive tô lớn animal running wild around Phu Quoc.
Somehow I convinced myself the soup contained goat or perhaps an animal even more forbidden to Western tastes. An entire week would pass before a Vietnamese friend finally revealed the true identity of my tô lớn breakfast offerings. These two monosyllabic words are simply synonymous with the English ‘large’. Yes, large. Not goat. Not water buffalo. Nothing even remotely exotic or strange. I simply had consumed a ‘large’ bowl of rather pedestrian cow beef soup. I will admit to a feeling of defeat upon discovering tô lớn is hardly worthy of any culinary bragging rights.
Just near Phở Sài Gòn and its tô lớn-sized tastes, a rickety, narrow bridge over the fetid channel separating Dương Đông’s two halves carries motorbikes and pedestrians into streets a world removed from our everyday lives. A bustling market absolutely packed with vendors and shoppers alike captures the imaginations of any foreigner who dares enter this display of authenticity and grit. The boundary between store and sidewalk is a nebulous blur as piles of anything and everything needed to sustain an island overflow aplenty.
A large collection of live chickens drew me in and a green weighing scale partially hidden behind the table gave all the clues needed as to these birds’ eventual fate. The proprietor deftly manoeuvered a string around one bird’s feet and tossed the clucking mass unceremoniously into the weighing tray. Within minutes cash exchanged hands and this once catatonic bird exhibited some new-found distress with wildly flapping wings as it was carted away upside down by a woman driving a battered Honda Dream motorbike.
I realized then and there I had been transported into a surreal world never to be duplicated in the more sterile and predictable West, so I parked my bike to wander in a bit deeper on foot. Aside from a few adventurous tourists, I was the only Western interloper mixing with throngs of locals shopping for traditional medicines, sea urchins, live ducks and more. This feast for the eyes could easily shock the uninitiated into submission, but is this really such a bad thing when we travel? Some of the scenes such as ducks heading to the dinner table can disturb many of us with only a Western perspective, but we just need to remind ourselves to look at the surrounding maelstrom through a different prism and open mind.
I will admit though some scenes cause me to just take pause and gawk like the tourist I try so hard not to be. Just steps away from the chicken stand, a cart with animal cuts hanging on hooks and lying in piles caused my head to turn twice. I can’t help but wonder how safe meat is after incubating in 33 degree Celsius heat, but this turned out to be the least of my musings. At the time I still did not know the true meaning of tô lớn, so I just jumped right in by asking the proprietress which was ‘thịt tô lớn’, as I knew thịt meant ‘meat’. She just laughed and pointed to several meat slabs while waving me off. Obviously my banal inquisitions not only were holding up the line but had brought me no closer to an answer.
After sending a customer off with a tô lớn-size bag of tripe, my butcher friend climbed up on to her cart and plopped down amongst the meat. That someone would actually perch barefoot amid raw, bloody animal parts sure did test my Western sensibilities, but, judging by the steady stream of nonchalant customers, this seems to be a standard market mode. I would later spy two other women resting inside their carts as well, and I considered myself lucky that Phu Quoc delivered such a sensory overload so previously unimaginable to me.
As fascinating as the street market was, an entire island awaited, so I manoeuvered my bike through the crowds in a bid to find any road leading northward. Alas, my journey came to another abrupt, unplanned stop as a green-grey minivan caught my eye. I hit the brakes and circled back around to verify I had indeed seen correctly. Sticks of incense tucked behind the front licence plate sent skyward faint wisps of smoke while the vehicle’s hazard lights flashed in yellow unison next to white headlights shining bright.
The English-speaking driver sensed my curiosity and explained, ‘Vietnamese people see the car as a person.’ He motioned to the front of the van with its headlight eyes, bumper mouth and grill nose, and, due to this human appearance, twice a month he appeased the gods with this morning ritual. A table piled high with water, chocolate cookies and cigarettes seemed similar enough to the altar offerings at Phở Sài Gòn, and the straws placed inside the opened water bottles seemed such a thoughtful touch for the dear spirits. I had always wondered why vehicle bumpers around Vietnam took along incense for a ride, and finally, in Phu Quoc, the road less travelled yielded an answer.
As I chatted with the driver, a group of Western tourists scurried on by this curious conduit between car and heavens without even noticing this scene so different from our lives back home. A simple glance to the right would have bought a souvenir memory so different from anything they possibly could have imagined prior to arriving on the island. As I motored my way out of Dương Đông, I could not help but wonder if my bike had been properly blessed for the journey ahead, and I hoped a day of safe travels would deliver me back to Long Beach before sundown in one piece.
The second and final part of John Russack’s day on Phu Quoc is to appear in June.