The most comfortable way to travel between Cambodia’s Sihanoukville and the Vietnamese border at Ha Tien is with your eyes closed.
After a few hours of jostling and bouncing our way through Kampot and Kep, we were in the borderlands, an odd frontier between lines in the sand, where gambling may or may not be legal, and the weathered ghost of the Ha Tien Vegas Casino looms drearily over this strange territory.
The minivan was ushered to the curb (or what passed for a curb here). The driver collected all his passengers’ passports and disappeared with them — a stressful moment, the first part of the process, checking out of Cambodia. A moment later he was back at the minivan, without our passports. He leaned in through a side window. “Excuse me everyone, they are requesting one dollar one passport.”
“Tell them no,” was the firm but polite reply from our friend Louise, who thankfully had done her homework on border scams at land crossings and knew the ‘fee’ could not legally be acquired. “Tell him to shove it up his bollocks,” was the nonsensical but unwaveringly resolute cry of the Irish kid in the back seat, who had done no homework whatsoever but chimed in nonetheless.
We all looked at each other. Would a combined eight dollars from our vehicle have bought us safe passage through this unearthly no-man’s-land? What happens now? Fortunately, it didn’t matter. Our passports were returned to us, and it was on to step two — walking through a government building spanning the road. In this building, an entry stamp and a health check at the Vietnamese entry point.
Meg and I looked at each other. Not twenty-four hours earlier, she had been unceremoniously doubled over in the grip of terrible food poisoning, temperature raging, quivering — in no uncertain terms, as sick as a pike. She told a slew of lies on the health status form, but now came the actual check. Would the man behind the surgical mask be able to detect on his strange little infra-red palm-reading machine that Meg was sick? As luck would have it, no. The machine beeped once, and with that her physical wellbeing was adjudged to be satisfactory for entry into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. “One dollar!” barked the man in the mask, resetting his gadget. “No,” was our firm but polite reply, a-la Louise.
We were ushered through a metal detector and then out of the arched building. We were on Vietnamese soil, but there was one final hurdle — having our passports stamped for entry at a small roadside kiosk. “One dollar,” said the man holding his stamp aloft, as if that’s how much it would cost us to get his hand to thump down onto our passports. “Really?” was the look we gave him, head cocked to the side, eyes rolling upward. The game was up. He knew it. He stamped our passports, we climbed back into the minivan, and were dropped off at the ferry terminal down the road.
Aboard the ferry, a laughably violent martial arts movie helped to pass the time before we landed at Phu Quoc island, a much-lauded beach destination off the south coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand. We had come from Koh Rong, Cambodia’s best-kept secret in the Gulf of Thailand, so our standards for island beach getaways were exceedingly high. It was going to be very, very hard to top Koh Rong. Down a muddy side road, and through the white walls stood our hotel. We walked through the lobby and onto the golden sands that lay before it, and there we discovered… the kind of beach that makes you really appreciate swimming pools.
Although west-facing Phu Quoc’s Long Beach does live up to its name, making long beach walks at sunset quietly enjoyable, it seems to be the hapless victim of a most disagreeable tide. At daybreak hotels do what they can (in front of their own properties and no further) to sweep up the mess deposited on the shoreline by wave after trash-bearing wave, but it’s of little use. In clusters and heaps the garbage rolls in — plastics and metals, rubber, miscellaneous materials, jellyfish remains, rotting wood, and an inordinate quantity of shoes (on a single walk one evening I counted thirty — thirty! — stray shoes before I gave up counting and paid attention to the sunset instead).
As it turned out it was, rather selfishly, good timing for us to descend on such a place, a place where we didn’t feel as if we were missing a whole lot by staying indoors or at the pool much of the time. Meg was still recovering, and now, here in Phu Quoc, it was my turn to get sick, so I spent the first day and a half unable to eat, unable to move, shivering under the covers in thirty-degree heat.
Illness and initial disappointments aside, we happened to be on a stretch of beach that was emphatically and magically weird, much to my delight. When finally we were both well enough to be taking long(ish) walks along the beach, we would encounter such wonders as an all-but-abandoned-looking hotel with the creepiest dried out swimming pool-turned-playground I’ve ever seen. It was completely empty except for the man in overalls slowly, eerily, cleaning a part of it. A haunting collection of not-to-scale buildings (Petronas Towers, Sydney Opera House, some kind of Cinderella’s Castle) abutted a dry concrete seabed of giant swans and other odd animals and figures from Wonderland. On the beach in front of the scary hotel, in the shallow wash, stood a majestic statue of a mermaid; next to her, a pod of dolphins leapt from their eroding concrete pedestal.
How I loved these hideous statues.
Farther up the beach, sleepy Duong Dong town seemed to be saturated with empty roadside food stalls and restaurants. Closer to our hotel, a makeshift bar was set up every evening and then taken down a few hours later — aside from the three or four hours spanning sunset there was no evidence at all of the bar’s existence. The brainchild of an enterprising young chap, who for some reason never took off his motorcycle helmet, this bar sold all manner of liquors and cocktails chilled by handfuls of the same ice cubes that covered beer cans in a cooler. The bar even played music, mostly 80s pop, via a stereo system hooked up to a car battery. To the left and right of the bar, odd European couples, wearing entirely too little bikini coverage to mask protuberances of their bits and pieces, would pose again and again on the rocks, as if the subjects of modeling shoots.
This place, in other words, was simply glorious — but for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless it was exactly what we needed when we needed it, and with an unrequested, unexpected upgrade to an ocean-view room with a balcony thrown in midway through our stay, we could barely come away with anything unpleasant to say about Phu Quoc, its food, or all the delightful people we met who call the island their home. Just don’t go there for the beaches.