Saturday, August 24, 2013
Photo Exhibition: Phu Quoc, Island of Magical Wonders
d trip to Phú Quốc Island to join a friend that was spending a week there relaxing before she made her move out of Vietnam. I hadn't expected much of Phú Quốc, reputed among friends and locals as a popular island getaway not too far from the city, loved for its long stretches of beach and pearl factories. So I quickly ran a search of things that we could do in Phu Quoc, and packed my bags, and after a 40 minute flight to the island's newly renovated airport, I met my friend on her rented motorbike outside at the parking lot not knowing what was in store for us as she drove us through the fresh ocean air towards town.
Phú Quốc Island is the largest island in Vietnam, and it has a reputation of containing some of the best beaches in the country. Situated in the Gulf of Thailand, it is roughly 45 km west from Ha Tien at the southernmost tip of Vietnam, and 15 km south of the coast of Cambodia. The 574 km² island predates the times of French missionary work in Vietnam, and has housed Emperor Gia Long in hiding, the Chinese colonial army during the time of Mao Zedong's revolution, as well as Viet Cong prisoners captured by the South Vietnamese Republic during the war. Inhabited by a local population of roughly 80,000, the island is known for its production of fish sauce, one of the best in Vietnam, as well as black pepper, one of the best in the world. The island is also known for its unique breed of dogs, the Phú Quốc dogs, characterized by a ridge down their backs and ferocious hunters by nature, but domesticated by the locals through the centuries, resulting in tame, sweet dogs that literally abound the whole island. Phú Quốc has long been the center of contentious territorial claim disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam, and although today the dispute is not officially settled, the island can only be reached from Vietnam.
With our guesthouse stationed in Dương Đông, the island's main town in the middle of the west coast, my friend and I decided to do a road-trip on our bike, up the breadth of the island to our destination of choice, Gành Dầu, a small beach town at the northwest tip of the island, where we would be able to see the Cambodian coast across the ocean. It turned out that the search for this destination would characterize our whole weekend trip, as we found ourselves swallowed in by the island's beguiling virgin forest (established as a national park) which took us on a captivating adventure swirling around never-ending red dirt paths to different tucked local secrets. After several hours of getting lost in the beautiful dense untouched forest the first day, it took us a second attempt the next day to finally get to our destination of choice. On the second attempt, we had initially missed a street and gone on to the northeast corner of the island to a town called
Bãi Thơm, where we would experience the most magical moment of our trip. We drove down a small path through the woods towards the coast, where we found ourselves on the property of a humble charming wooden hut house. As we started taking pictures of the coast scenery, some colorful creatures started popping out of the previously lifeless-seeming house, curious at us. Shy at first, this cute family of children soon warmed up to us, amused by our foreign-ness, and soon our encounter culminated in a heartwarmingly enjoyable game where the children copied all of my moves as well as sound effects. When it was time to leave, the kids cheerfully said goodbye to us then filed up the path to the street like mini-adults setting off to do some work! All alone! The mother was inside the house and kept yelling at the kids to keep manners in front of the visitors, and shyfully refused our offer to send her the wonderful photos of her children which we showed to the whole family gazing on excitedly. When we were back on the road, my friend and I were just completely stupefied at the incredible moment we had just had, feeling like it was all just a dream as we resumed our road-trip to the north.
The trip was one of my most memorable because we happened upon so many hidden local gems and experienced such beautiful and authentic human moments. I got to know Phú Quốc as a dazzling island blending astonishing natural wonders with beautiful, humble and happy inhabitants propped up all throughout. When we rode back from the north towards town down the west coast of the island, we saw some of the most beautiful, wild and fresh beaches I have ever seen. In fact, I have just found out during the research for this post that that very beach I speak of, Bai Dai Beach, had been ranked by CNN to be in the top 100 best beaches in the world (#93); in 2008, ABC News had also voted Phú Quốc's beaches to be "The Most Cleanest and Beautiful Beach in the World" (according to some sources online which I couldn't verify). In any case, Phú Quốc island will always linger in my memories as that special place where such beautiful wild nature was interwoven with the romantic narrative of the local inhabitants.
I leave you with a selection of photos from the trip, which I chose on the basis of photography as well as the moments that captured me. All photos were taken by me, except obviously for the ones where I appeared in, which was taken by my friend, or the ones where we both appeared in, which was self-timed and positioned for automatic shots.