Not many of the travelers I meet make it to Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. When I tell people I went, they give me a look of disappointment and ask… “was it good?” hoping I’ll say it was crappy so they feel better about skipping it. My response is always the same “Sooooooo good! You should definitely go if you have the time!” Then I watch as their look of disappointment turns to longing envy.
The reality is, I don’t actually know how good Phu Quoc is. Sure, it has pretty beaches, one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed in, and there aren’t many tourists (that won’t be the case for long, several massive hotels were under construction while I was there, including a JW Marriot and a Sheraton), but those aren’t the things I’m thinking about when I say it was sooooo good, it’s the people I met.
The First English Guy
I was alone, in the 12 person dorm, rummaging through my bag on the floor next to my bed, when a new arrival walked in. His brown work boots were covered in dirt and his shorts and long sleeve shirt hung limp on his body, as if he’d been wearing them for days. He had a red backpack hanging off his right shoulder and a ring in his left eyebrow. Both the hair on his head and face were overgrown- in a disheveled, traveler kind of way.
Walking past me without a word, he set his bag down on the ground next to his bed with a sigh. “Been traveling long?” I asked, assuming he had been based on his appearance.
“Depends who you ask,” he mumbled with an English accent, a smirk and just enough sarcasm to intrigue me. Before I could come up with a witty comeback, he continued, “I’ve been traveling for about 6 weeks, and have 2 weeks left… so if that’s long to you, then yeah, I’ve been traveling for a bit.” The smirk remained.
“That’s a decent amount of time,” I said, having been traveling for about the same amount of time at that point, “For an American, traveling for more than a few weeks is very uncommon, so yeah, I’d say you’ve been traveling for a while.”
We chatted as he settled in. I learned that during the past six weeks he’d traveled from the most northern tip of Vietnam, all the way to the southern island by motorcycle! Considering riding passenger for less than a mile still gave me white knuckles, I was impressed.
He was dirty, hungry and tired and I had dinner plans with the group of girls I’d spent the day with at Sao Beach, so we ended the conversation with a “I’m sure I’ll see ya around,” and went our separate ways.
Let’s Make a Deal
Later that night I bumped into him at the hostel bar. He was drinking a beer and messing around with the secondhand phone he’d just purchased (his had toppled out of the phone holder on his bike earlier that day. Whoops.) I joined him.
Between beers and my back to back losses at the pool table, it came up that I was a hairstylist… and that I was traveling with clippers. Apparently, his long-haired traveler look was not intentional. He’d been wanting a haircut for weeks… By the end of the night we worked out a deal- I would cut his hair in exchange for a bike ride out to Starfish Beach!
Starfish Beach was what had brought me to Phu Quoc in the first place! (Remember I’d heard the guys in my dorm room in Ho Chi Minh talking about it.) Even though I’d already been on the island for a few days, I hadn’t been to Starfish Beach yet. Cabs were pretty expensive if only one person was footing the bill and every group I’d met had already been there. Tours were even more expensive and they made several stops in an attempt to extract money out of tourists with pearl jewelry and other souvenirs- yuck. I’d met a few people who’d rented motorcycles and rode out there themselves, but I knew there was no way I was ready to do that- even before they told me how bad the roads were.
The next morning, after eating breakfast, we found a poor excuse of a helmet for me and hit the road. I was so nervous! I didn’t know him that well- what if he didn’t take my fear of motorcycles seriously and drove like a dick? What if he was simply a terrible driver?
I let the fact that he’d made it through the whole of Vietnam on a motorcycle, and didn’t have a scratch on him, comfort me.
Within minutes I could tell he was a sensible driver, thank God, but I still clung on for dear life. Even on that tiny island, Vietnamese traffic is insane! Getting near a truck, or when the paved road suddenly turned into what looked like an under-construction BMX track, scared me the most. Later, he joked that he could always tell when I spotted a truck (even one way off in the distance) because I would clench up and grip on to him with my whole body.
There were only a few people at the beach and very little commercialization, which was a stark contrast to the overpopulated Sao Beach. The only people I noticed were a Russian family swimming in the distance and a Chinese couple doing a photo shoot on the pier. And by photo shoot, I mean the girl was having her boyfriend take an ungodly number of photos of her, from every possible angle, and with every single facial expression imaginable. It was comical to watch.
If you’ve been wondering, yes, it is called Starfish Beach because there are starfish there! However, they are not neatly arranged on the shore with a beautiful half naked woman laying among them like the advertisements would have you believe- but they are there!
We swam out a couple hundred feet from shore where we could still touch and see the bottom of the sea. Five feet in every direction were red, star shaped fish covered in black spikes. Each one was about the width of a large human hand and a couple of inches thick. The two of us swam around the starfish, inspecting them, discussing their appearance and contemplating their anatomy. We laughed and swapped stories about our travels, home countries and lives back home. Turns out he was English but lived in New Zealand. I was condemned for having never seen Lord of the Rings (I promised I would before I go to New Zealand… and I will). We paid no attention to the fast approaching gray clouds in the distance.
Nice and pruney we got out of the water and grabbed a coffee at the humble bungalow restaurant at the end of the pier- where the ridiculous photo shoot had previously taken place. As we finished our last sips of coffee and paid, it started pouring rain. It was instantaneous and torrential, as if a cue for a film production- they just finished their coffees, cue heavy rains. The mountain backdrop that had been supporting the scene all morning, became invisible through the fog and rain. With no chance of getting out of there on a motorcycle, we opted to order lunch and wait it out. Within an hour the sun was shining bright and the mountains were back in sight so we took off.
Back at the hostel we grabbed a beer and went for a swim. (Yes, the hostel had a pool and it was a nice one! I’m telling you, this place was rad!) It was at the pool that afternoon that we met the second English guy. He was sitting on a sun chair by himself, reading a book, when somehow we all started chatting.
This guy was from London. He was on holiday for a month- between office jobs that require “smart” attire (later I found out this means “business” attire). He spoke with a “posh” accent. I am still not entirely sure what that means but I do know that his accent was distinctly different from the first English guy, who was from Northern England. The Londoner and I bonded over our love of old school hip-hop (which made the made the first English guy cringe- he was a hardcore heavy metal fan), and his love of getting haircuts. He insisted he was also due for haircut even though his hair was really short already. He said that back home he gets a haircut every other week!
Despite the guys’ different tastes in music, careers and personal style, they bonded over their common motherland. I missed about half of their ceaseless banter due to my lack of English context, their accents, word choices or my misinterpretation of British humor, but their wit was undeniable and their laughter was contagious.
I spent the next few days exploring Phu Quoc Island with the English guys. The Londoner rented his own bike while I continued to ride passenger with the first English guy. Thanks to his impeccable driving, I was growing more confident on a motorcycle with each adventure.
I ended up cutting both boys’ hair, poolside, one morning. The first was of course in exchange for the motorcycle trip- which by that point had turned into many many motorcycle trips. The second guy paid me in beer and snacks from the mini mart. Win-win.
We added other people to our little group from time to time. There was the Russian English teacher who lived in Beijing. She was in Phu Quoc on a “visa run” (a visa run is when someone who wants to live in a country longer than their visa permits, leaves the country briefly in order to obtain a new visa upon re-entry), the Australian guy who joined us for a few meals and a sunset but was adamantly against riding a motorcycle, and the Austrian couple who made the rough ride out to the fancy, albeit desolate, beach resort, where we all got stung by some kind of bug or fish in the water!
The three of us, and our numerous additional friends, basked in the glory of several beach sunsets, attempted to watch a sunset that got swallowed up in a rain storm, got lost when Google suggested a road that wasn’t built yet, drank beer, drank coconut water, drank smoothies, drank rice wine, and drank Vietnamese coffee, ate lunch from street side stalls in small towns where no one spoke English, ate dinner at a fancy Indian restaurant (multiple times), used hand gestures and our very basic Vietnamese to communicate with locals, and explored beaches on every corner of the island!
One of my favorite beach explorations ended with a ride home in the dark during a lightning storm. There was no rain, just the loud rumbles of thunder accompanied by huge lightning strikes that would instantly illuminate the night sky in an orange glow- as if we were witnessing split-second sunsets over and over again. Between lightning strikes, the headlights shone dimly on the five feet of road ahead of us, outside of that the world was blanketed in darkness. It was an eerily wonderful ride.
Our last night on the island was a late one… It started at twilight with a picnic of Indian take-out and Saigon beers on an empty stretch of beach near our hostel. We thought the night would be cut short when we saw a security guard approaching. Nope. He was coming to join us with a plastic bottle of homemade rice wine and a wine glass we used as a shot glass. This is where I first learned how to say cheers in Vietnamese “1,2,3 Cheers!” “Mot, Ha, Bai, Yoo!”
Back to Ho Chi Minh City?
Since both boys were on a shorter trip than I, they eventually had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City. I contemplated staying on the island a few more days, but I knew the island wouldn’t be the same without them. With no set plans and 2 1/2 months left on my 3 month Vietnam Visa, I decided to go back to Ho Chi Minh City with them! …