Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Little Horse on a Big Island

Written from Duong Dong (pronounced YOU-ung Dong, the soft southern "D" in YOU), Phu Quoc Island,  27 November, 2013.
After three years of saying I hoped to get to Phu Quoc, at 0820 yesterday morning we were on the ferry headed that way, the Horse down on deck with  twenty five other bikes, a few SUV's, one limousine and a bunch of trucks (exactly as many as could be fitted on board to be precise).  I started upstairs and was floored.  There is seating for at least 400 people in the passenger lounge.  Three monster Video screens, a pair of monster speakers (yikes) and windows for about 40 of the 400. . .give or take a bit.  It was to be a nearly 3 hour voyage by the time we loaded and unloaded (bikes come and go first. . .trucks. . .unstack very carefully).  It didn't take long for the Vietnamese comedy talk show to get me to go stand and keep company with the trucks.  There was exactly one spot to lean on the rail and watch the sea go by.  Nobody fought me for it and I almost enjoyed the drip from the cabin air conditioner.  H'mm.  The sea was marvelous.  I've only a little experience of tropical seas, and have loved them.  This started out a little brown colored from all the flooding rivers, but soon turned clear emerald green (not the insane blue of open ocean).  Flying fish are magic, and they really do fly.  I knew that from my trips in Mexico, but it was wonderful to see them again.  And there were "needle fish" (no, i'm sure that's not the right name, but it fits).  They don't actually fly, they run across the top of the water on their tails and jump from wave top to wave top.  They must be two feet long, much bigger than the flyers, and very skinny and sharp nosed.  They flash silver as they run.  There were fishing boats of course all along the trip, and their buoys, and occasional seabirds and one sea eagle (a very different  bird from the black, long tailed sea eagles of the far north of Viet Nam.  I've seen several of them since, big birds of course, short tails, brown wings, golden under sides and white head and neck.  Striking and pretty, with wings very much like an osprey's.  Might they be close relations?  Dunno.

Then we arrived.  Welcome to Phu Quoc, the mud is red.  Oh goodness.  The concrete wharf was the end of the pavement.  The ferry and its terminals are all brand new I think, so I wasn't too alarmed that they hadn't had time to pave the terminal itself, but this is an island highway and i expected it to be at least sort of paved. . .narrow maybe, broken up maybe. . .but not primordial mud.  And clay.  Red.  You may know how i feel about falling down in wet muddy red clay.  I was not immediately thrilled.  That was the good part, the terminal at least had thrown down some more recent dryer material on top of the slimy road bed.  The road outside the terminal. . .not that you could see.  Still, it was ride-able and we tagged on behind four local folks making good time down the sort-of-dry road, shifting back and forth from side to side to follow the dryer, smoother ribbon as it wove in and out.  There was no opposing traffic.  Worrisome.  And the road got progressively worse, until I felt it was time to say goodbye to my mirrors. . .they always break when I dump the bike, so I said goodbye and we kept going.  The penultimate challenge came when my four leaders pulled off onto somebody's front porch and doubled back around behind the house. . .I hesitated at the top of the road bed (dismayed by the steep mud slope, not to mention the narrow porch and the very very narrow path alongside it).  The gentleman of the house flagged me vigorously down off the road and gestured toward that narrow path.  We were like the pig in the parable. . .committed. . .so we went.  Somebody had just bushwhacked a trail through the jungle roughly parallel to the road, minor stumps still sticking up, machete chopped, and the ribbon of trail wound among them through the high brush.  It was definitely brush-busting riding and bouncy, but the footing was good.  Then we came back to the road.  The road bed was at least three, maybe four feet above the jungle floor, and all of it was red clay.  The first three of my leaders slipped and slid but scooted right up.  The young woman ahead of me with the huge baskets on the back of her bike took it easier and bogged down.  Spinning her wheel she slid sideways.  The whole works looked bad, so I put down the kickstand and started to go to the rescue, but she gave it full throttle, slewed around and went, slinging red mud everywhere.  whew.  She also pretty well wiped out the little ledge of a clay-mud trail the other two had used. I backed the little horse up a step or two, picked out a slightly different angle of cllimb and we went.  The horse just walked up that slope like she knew what she was doing.  Lovely.  The rest was a little tough, maybe 100 meters of deeply rutted clay with some water in the ruts. . .we didn't so much choose one to run in as settled for the one we ended up in.  I "paddled" with my feet, left and right, and the horse kept herself upright.  And then we came to the four lane freeway.  Only in Viet Nam I think.  There were probably 50 total vehicles on that boat, and maybe five bikes and a SUV coming out from town, but we had four full lanes with a 40' wide median to run on.  Gracious.  It was a fine morning, moving on toward lunchtime, white cumulus clouds around, looking a little black ahead.  It was 29 km on into town, and the cloudburst didn't start until the 16 km marker.  So we arrived in town, spattered with red clay, fenders dripping like blood, and soaking wet.  We've done that before.

The rest of the day was great.  Liked the first hotel we looked in (though it is $15/night, which is a lot for me to pay), the rain quit, sky turned blue with puffy clouds, sun was hot, street steamed, I left the horse to stew in the sun and went walking, found lunch, stumbled into a black professor from South Africa who was walking through the market with a bemused look on his face.  He was in town to give a presentation at a conference. . .using computer modeling and mobile apps to predict drought conditions.  I kid you not.  He was great fun to talk to and walk with, only 4 days from Johannesburg, never even imagined a Vietnamese market, couldn't believe ice and condensed milk in coffee, thought everything was fabulous. . .a fine companion.  We walked and talked the whole afternoon away.  I spotted a Cao Dai temple, always a fascinating thing, and always friendly toward visitors.. . .we went in and were given the grand tour, including being shepherded into one of the two steeples and turned loose to twist our way up the ladder stairs to the top, way above the town.  Magic, even without the religion.  Cao Dai is a Vietnamese-only thing I believe, sort of a cross between Roman Catholicism, Buddhism and I know not what else.  Their saints include Victor Hugo (?) and their basic tenets are "Humanity and God, Love and Justice. During the war they tried to stay neutral between the Communists and the Americans. . .had their own army based in Tay Ninh province. . .and didn't fare too well after the war.  Now. . .doing better.  It was a wonderful visit, ended with ice water and warm tea (which went onto the left over ice).  Duong Dong is split by the Duong Dong River, which was crossed by a low bridge in times past.  That's gone now, there's a horrible construction site and detour where it was. . .and a small barge with hand rails is doing duty as the Duong Dong River Floating Draw Bridge.  The whole danged bridge goes away and lies against the bank for a while and the boats rush through both directions.  Great photo ops!  Anyway, we said good byein late afternoon and he'll be on an early morning flight headed home.  Jet lag and  Culture Shock!!

So even with the red mud, it was a fine day.  Today was certainly no worse, though maybe not so exciting.  I actually hired a motorbike taxi guide for four hours and got a quick intro to back roads and beaches of Phu Quoc.  Now I understand why so many people want to come here on vacation.  Truly gorgeous beaches, lined with small guesthouses and seafood restaurants, lounge chairs and kayaks waiting above the tide line, crystal clear water and white sand (what happened to the red??)  But I didn't come to read a book under a palm tree in a lounge chair. . .so I drove him hard until he came up with three boat yards.  That may be the total for the island. . .no. . .I'll bet there are others.  Two of these were pretty good, with beautiful new construction going on.  My gosh the planking they're using. . .2.5 inches thick and lengths over 65 feet, two feet wide and wider. . .basically free of knots.  Wonderful planking and timbers lying in stacks around the yards.  Lots of interesting details to write up, check in a week or so and we'll try to get a good report up for you.

What else? A Nuoc Mam factory, what an aroma (and fabulous taste. . .Phu Quoc nuoc mam is considered the best in the world, at least on Phu Quoc. . .) A monkey at a pearl farm. Pretty double ended beach boats, a Buddhist temple getting a new ornate entry gate, with young men doing amazing things with cement. . .sculpture and art. . .with amazing precision.  Beautiful work.  I pestered them several times during the day.  A fourteen year old in the nearby coffeeshop (bussing tables for her mom and dad) who would not give up on my Vietnamese.  She'd ask a question six ways until she finally got a useful answer from me.  All the while four young men in flat athletic shoes were playing the game of kick the plasticky clicking birdie (with the white feathers) back and forth. . .but doing it behind their backs.  It doesn't photograph well and is unbelievable while you're watching it.  One fellow would make a hoop out of his arms and let the birdie fly through the hoop. . .and return  it with a kick behind his back AND IT WOULD GO THROUGH HIS ARMS AGAIN OUTBOUND.  Some people are pretty darned athletic! An absolutely fabulous rice dinner stand on the sidewalk a kilometer from the hotel. . .charcoaled chicken leg on a bed of rice with all sorts of garnishes and veggies and a bottomless jug of flowery iced tea. . .for $1.35.

But the roads are so bad I don't want to risk the horse on them beyond the pavement or at least the well graded gravel and we've managed to get to everywhere I'm willing to take her. . .so we're moving on.  There's a lot to do and see between here and Hanoi and just four weeks left to do it in.  So tomorrow after lunch we'll get on the other boat, a high speed hydrofoil called the Superdong II (it's pretty impressive, looks a bit like a 747 without wings. . .).  It does the trip in half the time for twice the money, you have to sit inside and. . .it leaves from a paved road end.  Yes.  Chicken.  I just don't want to arrive back at the mainland, coated in red mud with a burned leg, a busted off mirror and a bent foot peg (at best).  So we'll drive in fine fashion on pavement and they'll figure out how to get her on board. . .747's don't have ramps for cars.  But they say they can take her.

Still Water in the River.  Sometimes my reality gets a little rippled. . .
The sanctuary, Cao Dai Temple, Duong Dong

From the "steeple" of the Cao Dai Temple

A rather better than average dragon. . .the head of a hearse!!

Cao Dai Temple from across the street. . .a little ornate, but nice!

An artist of a plasterer. . .really lovely work, way up in the air

A Khmer style boat rigged to push a net ahead, which I thought was a northern technique.  H'mm.

More Nuoc Mam than we could use in, er, 200 years?  300??

Really, way up in the air!

Pretty little double ended beach boats, sorting net

Gorgeous timber just lying around in stacks, really nice workmanship.

Uh, yes, Just what do you suppose you're doing? How about the clutch?  Are you sure you've thought this all the way through?  I might better move the bike.


  1. Welcome to Phu Quoc, my friend.
    The roads, new ferry terminals, and yes the new International Airport, all courtisy of the wealthy in Hanoi, the same who are slowly turning the island into a (western) style tourist resort, Vietnamese style. Them who have compulsary purchase 400 metre of beach all the way down Long Beach, the fishing villagers having to move inland, or elseware.
    I've been going there 9 years now, every couple of years we make the trip.
    Dispite all that, its still my favourite place