The wharf was at the bottom of a red-dirt road. I walked down the road past pepper trees and ramshackle huts, past grazing lowing cows and past a collection of road-side shops all selling the same thing: chewing gum, biscuits and warm drinks. I followed the pot-holed and corrugated red-dirt road all the way to the wharf. A rusted sign rested against the first pier: “Squid Fishing Night Tours.” After that there was just the wobbly-looking jetty and the Gulf of Thailand.
A small wooden shelter stood precariously at the end of the wharf and I walked out and sat down on a bench beneath its peeling tin roof. The air was heavy and thick with humidity. Sunset was happening somewhere behind the storm clouds. A faint drone of distant motor bikes was all that could be heard, as if unseen insects were buzzing nearby. A few hundred metres offshore an anchovy boat silently dipped and scooped its mandible-like nets into the slate-grey sea.
A teenager, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, but could have been in his early twenties, appeared from the red-dirt road. He was barefoot and wore a baseball cap, cargo shorts with no buttons on any pockets, a dirtied tee-shirt and walked along the wharf towards me. His shirt read: Squid Fishing Night Tours. I was relieved. We nodded in greeting. Silence ensued.
Then: “What your name? Where you from?” he inquired.
“Grant is my name and I’m from Australia.”
“Oh,” he replied but with little comprehension.
“Where you from?” I countered.
“Phu Quoc,” he said smiling, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and that I should have known this because here we were on this quaint tropical island – the largest in Vietnam – seemingly forgotten by time and just a stone’s throw from the Cambodian coast. An island famous the world over as the source of the country’s best fish sauce; an island renowned for its exquisite cultured pearls; a sleepy, untouched wilderness that harks back to a more innocent era, when travel was not packaged but rather, pursued. Don’t let this dissuade you, these days, with the Vietnam visa on arrival program it is easier than ever to get to one of these paradise islands.
“And your name is?” I asked. This confused him, so I offered: “What your name?” This didn’t.
“That’s not a very Vietnamese name,” I said.
“David Beckham,” he added. “Boat soon,” he concluded.
Sitting cross legged on the bench I could see his scuffed and bruised knees. Slightly intrigued, I pointed to the discolouration and asked: “How did that happen?”
“Boat soon.” Again silence ensued.
A collection of shanty-like buildings made from iron sheets and blue tarpaulins stood, at least for now, just across the inlet from the wharf in a small clearing. Tall coconut palms held lines of drying clothes. A small girl in a white dress appeared in the doorway of one hut and ran towards the shore calling to someone unseen. An older woman appeared out of the foliage carrying a large dish of what looked like wet laundry.
The wind began to pick up. It was closely followed by steady tropical rain and regular bouts of thunder. The woman with the dish took the little girl in the white dress by the hand and rushed indoors grabbing the drying clothes on the way. The rain fell harder smacking into the tin roof of our shelter. Soon, ‘David Beckham’ and I were getting wet. He didn’t seem to mind as much as I did. Then another boy, more formally dressed in thongs, long pants and a polo shirt and carrying a pile of what looked like brochures over his head, all protected by a plastic poncho, ran from the red-dirt road along the wharf and joined us. His shirt too read: ‘Squid Fishing Night Tours’. We nodded in greeting.
Just as suddenly as it began, the rain seemed to stop. I couldn’t see drops making dents on the water but looking back along the wharf towards the darkened shore I saw the rain was still falling in a mist so fine that the droplets were barely visible.
Then the clouds retreated inland. The daily climate pattern repeats. The last vestiges of sky appeared and stillness returned. The woman and little girl came out of the house and the woman went back to her laundry. The little girl stared at us across the inlet as we three waited to go squid fishing that night.
Visit Phu Quoc photo gallery (opens a Picasa slideshow).