Escape from shutter island, Phu Quoc

Oh man this is going to be traumatic for me reliving this chapter of our travels. With any luck it’s going to be one of those experiences that makes a great story. Here we go. So we left Saigon on a tiny propeller plane to the paradise island of Phu Quoc (pronounced ‘foo gwok’ and not ‘poo cock’ as we originally thought), still a Vietnamese territory by the way. We flew over the Mekong delta, the place where that huge river we’d travelled down in Laos finally met the Gulf of Thailand. A short hop off the mainland and we were landing on a very green looking island. Sure enough it was pissing it down with rain, it was wet season after all but from our experience elsewhere that tends to mean an hour or so of rain a day. Oh well. We hailed a cab from the tiny airport and headed to our hotel/hostel, to be honest hostels don’t really exist in Vietnam, they just have really cheap hotels. We were met on arrival by a large Vietnamese guy who seemed to speak with an American accent, let’s just call him V. V checked us in, showed us to our room and brought us some lunch, he was employed by the hotel as a translator to act between the English speaking tourists and Vietnamese staff. All seemed to be going well despite the weather. The hotel was a huge place and empty except for one other couple who we saw, they flew past on the motorbike they’d rented. Mr V told us that the best way to see the island was by motorbike, like the couple we’d just seen, as taxis were too expensive and buses didn’t really exist. I was itching for my turn to ride a scooter and so was keen to do this. We spent an hour or so chilling out in our room waiting for the rain to stop until Mr V knocked on our door and asked if we’d like to join some Korean tourists on a tour of the island the next day, it would cost $20 USD each though. He would be guiding the tour and it would be very safe, it’s too dangerous to rent a motorbike on the island apparently. Hang about, you told us an hour ago it was the best way to see the place?! It was way too much money for us so we politely declined, I could sense his annoyance at that. To change the subject I asked about his accent as he sounded Hawaiian or Mexican, he told me he was Californian though from Vietnamese descent. Cool. We left it at that and after hiding in our room a bit longer we decided it was about time to see Phu Quoc’s Long Beach.

At the beach we stopped off in a nice bar called Amigo’s and got chatting with one of the owners, Yung. She’d just taken over the place with her husband and was using low season to do a full refit. We had a nice chat and eventually got on to the subject of where we were staying. Sure enough they’d stayed at the same place when they were scouting out a bar to take over. She asked us what we thought of the translator and we said how he seemed nice but maybe a little clingy. She then went on to say how he’d told them some strange stuff about his past during their stay. At this point I became a little dubious as the story was too odd, he’d been deported from America back to Vietnam because he’d shot a guy in the leg. The guy he’d shot had been trying to extort money from his business. Stories like that don’t exist in the real world so I didn’t really give it much thought. We looked out to sea and saw huge murky waves pounding the shore, not the tranquil flat clear blue water we were expecting.

We headed back and got ready to go out for dinner. On leaving the hotel we had to walk past Mr V’s desk, right next to the main entrance and he was always sat there. He asked where we were going so we explained over the road for dinner, he pretty much told us to sit down and went on to say that as I’d expressed interest in his accent he would tell me his story. For the next hour we heard what had happened to him which was exactly as Yung had told us. He’d shot the guy with the guy’s own gun in self defence apparently. He’d been charged with manslaughter, jailed for 7 years and then held in detention for a further 2 whilst authorities decided what to do with him. The decision was made despite protests from his family who all live in America and he was sent to Vietnam. He thought the intention of the Americans was that he would die in a Vietnamese jail after doing hard labour. His family bailed him out and he made his way to the island where he was forced to live the rest of his days. Obviously it was one side of the story but you had to agree he’d had a tough time. He was now seriously bitter with America. We were a little shocked that someone would tell paying guests this story that we hadn’t really asked to hear and left for dinner feeling pretty miserable. We were wondering how we could escape back to Saigon to escape this wet miserable place, yet we’d paid up front for flights and accommodation and so would have to sit it out for another 5 days. We popped back into Amigo’s and told Yung and everyone else at the bar much to their amusement that we’d just heard the same story. We joked that he might try to kill us in our sleep, secretly suspecting that he actually might!

We walked across the road into the gates of our hotel. Two ridgeback dogs came pounding towards us snarling and barking away at us. We genuinely thought they were going to attack us. Ridgeback dogs live all over the island, some owned and some stray. They are hunting dogs surviving here from the colonial era and named so because of the pronounced ridge of hair running down their backs. These were owned by the hotel and V had assured us in the day, when they were friendly and placid, that they only bark at you if you’re a burglar. These wanted us dead. We ran to the hotel foyer pleased to be away from them.

The next morning at breakfast we had to order everything through our bitter friend (the Vietnamese staff would have understood our order perfectly well) who insisted on sitting with us and telling us what he’d been watching on YouTube the previous night. “You know what crazy shit they’re doing in America now? The police are raping and killing black people, I’ve seen it man. If you’re not American they’ll kill your ass.” Great, we’ll be thinking about that all day now! This continued for another day until he started preaching about the bible to us, at that point we made it clear to him that he shouldn’t talk to tourists about any of this sort of stuff. People come here on holiday and it’s inappropriate.

In the meantime we hired a scooter intending to get away from the hotel, V kindly reminded us how dangerous the place was and how locals will actually try to finish you off if they accidentally knock you off your bike. Apparently it’s cheaper for them to pay a one off bill for your funeral rather than a lifetime of your healthcare for an injury! What a load of bollocks! He said he’d seen a guy reverse over a western woman’s head he’d bumped into, spilling her brains over the road. We scooted off pleased to get away from the man. I finally got to ride the scooter thanks to the largely quiet roads. The only problem was the condition of the roads, they were fine by our hotel, but any further away and they became thick mud. Scary when you think there’s an international airport being built, how they’re going to deal with all of the extra tourists I have no idea.

The rain was trying to stop us from doing anything, we couldn’t leave without walking past V and his latest story about some immigrant girl who’s been raped in America and if we did go out, the dogs would try to kill us when we returned.

Things improved when our good friend Ron showed up on the island to our surprise. We were pretty low and appreciated his company. We scooted further afield with him over tiny bamboo bridges and narrow markets and found a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere called Sakura. We’d driven down a boggy path to get there and somehow managed to stay on our bikes, our shoes were caked in mud. Ron’s scooter helpfully died halfway along the road and so he had to push his bike the final 100 metres to the hotel. We sat and ate one of the best meals of our trip so far, prawns in a delicate coconut milk curry sauce, a grilled fish crusted in chilli and lemongrass and some tasty morning glory (a spinach like leaf and not an inappropriate early morning erection). Whilst we sat eating we read about the lovely owner’s story. Kiem had married an American soldier during the Vietnam war and they’d had a child, the child died and her husband left her and went back to America. Now in her mid to late sixties I’d guess, she remarried a Vietnamese artist and the pair of them run this beautiful little place together. Kiem’s sister cleaned our shoes of the thick clay without us knowing and her husband phoned around his friends finding a solution to the problem with Ron’s bike. What an awesome experience and what lovely people!

The next day we woke to torrential rain. It must have started in the very early hours of the morning and was continuing until lunch. When I say rain I mean the sort that could drown you when you’re stood up. The whole island was flooded. Rain was washing down from the hills and everything else from up there, including the rubbish, was washing down with it. The locals see the rain as a great opportunity to get rid of any old shit, drop it in the stream and it becomes someone else’s problem down the hill. Once the stream reaches the beach it washes the sand away and leaves all the rubbish in its place, nice. Once the rain had stopped the rivers rushing all over the road continued for hours. We walked into town stepping over dead rats and the odd needle laying in the road. We wondered where Ron was as we hadn’t heard from him, turned out he was stuck in his room. He had a river of water and rubbish flowing past his front door and couldn’t even leave his room! The same thing happened the next day, Phu Quoc didn’t want us to have any fun.

Another day we biked to a waterfall in the centre of the island, the roads were now nothing less than treacherous but we had to explore. Emma spotted a little green snake next to the path as we walked. The little fella turned out to be a poisonous viper we later found out. The place was also crawling with strange land crabs and huge spiders were living in holes at the base of the trees. Quite a jungle experience! We carried on to the other side of the island and made it to a beautiful beach. The sea was calm and crystal clear as we were now on the sheltered side of the island. Unfortunately it had taken us so long to get there that we had to leave after thirty minutes if we were to make it back before dark! Doh!

After 6 days in the place we were keen to leave, we certainly did have fun but felt like we were trapped in the hotel from the shinning or stuck on shutter island. On the morning of checking out V was hunting for tips. He kept telling us stories of how much other tourists loved him and what tips he’d been left. He said how he hated the Russians who never tipped him. He pressed us to leave a great review for him on the website we’d booked through, no chance. We were really pissed off with him by now and he was getting nothing from us. To our surprise the hotel owner appeared as we handed back our keys, a young Vietnamese guy who handed Emma a gift of a pair of pearl earrings (no not a necklace, that’s my job ;)). We were blown away and as we walked out we couldn’t help but think how much better the place would have been without V. Reams of tourists had left shining reviews of the place praising V, that was half the reason we had decided to stay there. They must have been emotionally blackmailed into doing so. We’d have enjoyed our stay if he weren’t there. Oh well, as walked away we were beaming, we’d escaped! The rain was doing its best to stop us, the airport had been closed the day before. We headed to the airport not even caring if our flight was cancelled. If it was, then at least we could find somewhere else to stay. Luckily for us it wasn’t cancelled. We sat on that plane buzzing with excitement at the thought of heading back to Saigon. Warm weather, the kind Mr Anh and his wife at the guesthouse we’d be returning to and the crazy energy of that city.



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