Our third morning in Phu Quoc greeted us with a cloudless sky. The morning heat is mild, but it reminds me of when the ominous music begins to play during a scary movie…you know that the killer is going to sneak up on you sometime soon, yet you are still somehow caught off guard when it pops out with a wicked smile. After a quick breakfast we pop next door to rent a scooter (I’m sorry, a motorbike), accompanied by our friend Daniel. I can’t help but tease Lanza a little bit and call him Mr. Bighead as he tries on nearly every helmet in the place as he struggles to find one that fits. After a stern warning to not go too fast from an adorable young boy with fairly impressive English, we are off to a local park that promises a cool and refreshing waterfall. I clutch the phone my father has lent me for the trip, knowing that if I let it fall onto the road I will be next. I shout directions in kilometers and only flinch at the honking of truck horns a couple dozen times before we reach our destination.
At first glance the park is pretty, but distinctly lacking in water. The dry season has only just begun, but the streams that flow through during wet season are already bone dry. Statues of deer and other creatures bend down to sip at air and although I know their faux tongues are not really parched, I can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. Whoever designed this park was a genius; there are so many photo opportunities that it is almost difficult to pick which statues to pose with, which rocks to perch on around the small lake. We follow the paths along a small creek that appears, a meager current indicated by the long delicate blades of grass beneath the surface all bending in a uniform direction. Slowly but surely the creek widens, and the flow of water becomes more and more impressive until it is babbling at full volume. Along the way we also encounter the most unusual and spectacular sets of tables and chairs beneath the shade of gazebos and fanciful statues of mushrooms. Yet they are nothing compared to the carvings protecting a small square selling soda and water – snarling lions and tigers that seem to both draw you in and warn you away.
At this point the heat has popped up in full serial killer mode, and when a calf-deep clearing in the shade becomes available in the stream, I jump at the opportunity to peel off my socks and shoes and wade into the inviting waters without bothering to roll up the legs of my pants. The cool fabric clings to my skin and I am impossible to coax out of the water. Daniel and Lanza soon join me, and I spend several minutes posing like a ham for photos that I envision as a profile picture on my social media accounts…I am a sucker for a nature shot, and feel completely in my element here. I lost track of how many times I informed Daniel that if I lived on the island, I would certainly spend all of my free time here. He smiled politely and assured me that he believed me. As spectacular as the scenery already was – dense jungle forest hovering over our little patch of rocks and this lazy current – better sights were promised further up the hill. Daniel and I opted to climb rocks upstream, like aquatic billy goats, while Lanza chose to follow the more traditional visitors up a small dirt path to a waterfall. Along the way we encountered several families, three generations of a surname on their way to have a picnic on the large patches of dry rock in the middle of the stream. They seemed to bring their entire kitchens with them, from full cases of Tiger beer to small cook stoves and bags overflowing with seafood and vegetables. I briefly thought about plopping myself down amongst them and seeing if I could join the party, but decided against it.
Even with the aid of a walking stick that I found along the tree line, we eventually came to a point where climbing the rocks would no longer have been adventurous, but simply foolish. The rocks here were steep and covered in a slimy green lichen. We backtracked and joined Lanza on the rustic path upwards. My pants were soaked up to my thigh at this point and I had drenched my headband in the creek before hopping off the rocks, yet it was mere minutes before the heat sapped the refreshing chill from these items and I felt sweat begin to trickle down my back once again. Thankfully, it was not much further of a climb to the modest waterfall. Naked children and young couples in their swimsuits splashed around in the water, and while I did not exactly jump in with abandon, I did feel the need to climb down the precarious slope to wade thigh-deep once again. Have I mentioned how brutal the heat is here? Because it is.
We admired the view and snapped some photos, then decided that it was time to hop back on the motorbikes, if only to create a breeze to cool off in. In the course of his research, Lanza had discovered a small fishing village on the east side of the island. After a quick 15 kilometer cruise in the wrong direction, we looped around and pulled into the village, which I must confess looked pretty much exactly the same as the more touristy part of the island our hostel is on. We found a place to park our scooters and then set out in search of some cheap and delicious and unbelievably fresh seafood. Unfortunately, we were rather disappointed. Prices were high, which is a common theme across the entire island, and vendors often jack up prices even further when they notice our pale skin and blue eyes. Yet none had been so outlandish as the woman at a fancy restaurant along the water, who had the nerve to ask 1,000,000 dong for a kilo of shrimp. Prices can be confusing in the large denominations of the Vietnamese currency, and I have yet to master the conversion of kilos to pounds, but my father choked back a laugh of disbelief and we quickly left. Turns out they were asking nearly $20.50 for a pound of shrimp. Even in the states, that would be a ludicrous price.
We walked the streets a little while longer, but came to the conclusion that for some reason the low prices and high quality advertised on travel blogs was not going to come to fruition. We all agreed that lunch at the fantastic little restaurant in which we had all split a hotpot for dinner the night before would be perfect, and we rode back in the direction of the hostel. As we pulled up to the restaurant, we cursed our luck yet again…they seemed to be open only for dinner! At this point we were all feeling the rumble in our stomachs, so we decided that we would just use our tried and true method of “look for somewhere with lots of locals” and ordered bun bo hue (beef noodle soup) from a small shop on the way to a local pepper farm we intended to visit. The soup was delicious, and served with a refreshing yet nearly flavorless iced tea.
I was feeling exhausted from the heat and the hiking, so I convinced Lanza to drop me back off at the hostel while he and Daniel toured the pepper farm. We had passed several small farms during our cruise around the island – rows upon rows of towering green cones with tiny little peppers dangling from their branches. I myself am not a fan of anything that even resembles the heat of a pepper, but Lanza is quite enthusiastic and he picked up his first souvenir of the trip, a small jar of pepper corns.
My stomach had begun to ache while they were on their agricultural adventure, and the lovely women of the Canary Hostel offered to make me ginger tea. While I would have been more than happy with a ginger flavored teabag, they went above and beyond, peeling large chunks of fresh ginger root directly into a cup of boiling water. Much stronger than any ginger flavored drink or cookie I have experienced before, but it certainly did the trick to ease my stomach pain.
For dinner that evening, a large group of us who were all calling the Canary Hostel home for at least a short while ventured out for some dinner. Our tried and true method of finding a place full of locals failed us for the first time. Two nights previous, we had briefly stopped for shelter from a rainstorm beneath the awning of a large restaurant with an open seating plan, crammed with tourists and locals alike. This evening, it was the same. Figuring any place with such a reliable crowd must be good, we all piled inside to grab a table. Prices were high once again, but we had come to expect this from the island. At least the food would be good, right? Wrong. Not a single one of us was happy with our bland and unimaginative food. We didn’t even attempt to eat the spring rolls, which smelled more like summer rolls at that point…not quite spoiled, but not fresh enough to risk a bite. At first, we were confused as to how somewhere with such high prices and such low quality could possibly fill the house every night. A side by side comparison of the menus, one in English and one in Vietnamese, quickly answered this question for us. The pictures of food offered did not line up, nor did the prices. We had fallen into a tourist trap of sorts, the old bait and switch. While I was invited to peruse the night market with our friends from the hostel, I politely declined…I was in no mood to haggle, nor to pay the “tourist tax” again. Instead I opted for a nice boring night of reading and relaxing, since eleven hours of travel by several forms of transportation was on the schedule for the next day. Oh how I regret ever uttering the phrase “I enjoy the actual travel aspect of traveling” before this trip!