A Pack Raft, Jungle Hammock and Pair of Fake Chinese Tevas: Kayaking Around Phu Quoc, Vietnam
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God” -The Second Book of Bokonon
With a week off of work, I began thinking of where to book a ticket. One day, an advertisement for a resort in Phu Quoc appeared in my Gmail window. For many years I had taken in the beautiful view of Phu Quoc island from the shores of nearby Kep, Cambodia. I had always wanted to visit that vast, mountainous island that is, at points, just four kilometers away from Cambodia. It is so close – Steve and I nearly paddled to it in 2011 – but requires an expensive visa and a night in Ha Tien. However, with my visa already in hand and a quick flight from Hanoi available thanks to Air Mekong, I booked my ticket.
Does Fun Fit in a Dry Bag?
My goal is to carry as little as possible so as to allow myself the greatest amount of freedom. My pack raft, a Sea Eagle FastTrack 385, rolls up into a 20kg backpack, and I am able to fit my other belongings (a cooking pot, Hennessy Hammock, steel hobo cup, change of clothing, some Joma granola bars and Starbucks Via, and a few books) into two dry bags. I surmise that I’ll be able to buy food, underwear (if absolutely required) and anything else I fancy on the island. Thanks to the stellar free PDF map from Visit Phu Quoc, I decide to leave my GPS at home and focus on the scenery instead of my trip computer. With everything I need on my back for a week of adventuring, I set off to Phu Quoc.
Day 1-2: Forgotten Lessons from Robinson Crusoe
I touch down at 11:30AM, check into a crummy hostel and I am paddling along (the aptly named) Long Beach by 12:15.
As the sun begins to set, I paddle ashore near the lighthouse in Duong Dong Town and pack up my kayak. With an hour or so to kill until the night market is in full swing, I wander around the lighthouse and sit down at a cafe for some pomelo juice.
Soaked in sea water and carrying a small boat, I probably appear foul to even the most accommodating tourists. However, the touts at the night market seafood stands instinctively know they have a potential cash cow – kayaking burns a whole lot of calories. After making a few passes, I settle on a nice man who entices me with the smell of his grilled baguette with garlic butter. A few BBQ’ed fishes and grilled potatoes later and I am waddling slowly down the road back to my hostel.
My plan is to spend one more night in the main town, Duong Dong, before heading to the more sparsely inhabited northern part of the island. I rent a motorcycle driver and headed to Sao Beach, often highlighted one of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam. It absolutely lives up to its name – certainly the best beach I’ve visited in the country. I am not able to take many photos, though, as my attempt to kayak in the bay ends with me nearing sinking. In retrospect, I remember reading long ago in Robinson Crusoe that paddling past the wall of breaking waves just off the coast of an island is pretty darn hard and fraught with misfortune.
Overconfident, I tell a few inquiring Vietnamese tourists that the waves present no problem at all, and I set out. Three big waves at the wrong angle and approximately four minutes later, I have abandoned ship and I am desperately swimming with my sinking kayak back to the beach. Thankfully the current has taken me a half- kilometer south, so I can half-convincingly pretend that my intention was merely to paddle to a quieter area of the beach. That is, until a sunburnt Russian man in a speedo runs down the beach with my paddle, which I had discarded in my frantic effort to save the kayak.
Thankfully, an afternoon beer and grilled shrimp with fresh peppercorn sauce soothes a bruised ego. After lunch, I pack up my boat and return to the other (much calmer) side of the island to watch the squid fishing boats head out to sea and paddle around until sunset.
Day 3-6: I Get the News I Need from the Weather Report
Early the next morning I catch a taxi to Vung Bao Beach. After drinking a fresh glass of pomelo juice from a small restaurant on the beach, I inflate my kayak and paddle out into the bay. I have no destination or itinerary the next few days – I just want to enjoy my movement in the water, see what I can see and spend a whole lot of time in solitude.
I paddle along a long, empty beach and decide to pull into shore near a willow tree for a bit of respite from the lovely sun (something you might see in Hanoi a few weeks a year). I hop out of my kayak into the clear, warm water and pull my kayak onto the beach. The willow tree embraces me as I roll out my favorite kroma and lay down.
I wake up around 2:30PM and wander up the beach a bit to check out what appears to be tidal river on my map (though I couldn’t spot it when I was out in the bay). To my delight, the map is correct and there is a beautiful river behind a small dune. I run back to my kayak, paddle up to the dune and portage the kayak across the five or so meters of sand that separate the river and sea during low tide.
The river on the other side is calm, and my kayak glides along silently. Winding around a small mountain, I let the river guide me deeper into Phu Quoc National Park. Birds sing a welcome tune to me, while in the distance monkeys hoot to each other and toss themselves from treetop to treetop. At times, the river flows through mangroves and splits into various directions. I am fully aware this is the only time I’ll be here; that this paddle upriver and calm tropical day is a gift. I can either fear what the forest conceals and where the streams wander. or I can seek to understand them more deeply by paddling upriver.
With the sun beginning its descent, I reluctantly head back to the bay and search for a spot of sand to rest for the night .
I paddle along the beach and spot a small group of trees that will serve as my temporary home. Setting up camp is one of my favorite activities. It’s funny how I daydream and plan trips that get me away from my normal routine, and only serve to thrust me into a new, arguably more menial, one: unpack kayak, deflate/roll-up kayak, clear campsite, check for fire ants on trees (a critical step), string up hammock, scavenge lots of driftwood, pull out necessities, hang extra bags, bathe.
I do all of these tasks in deep, peaceful awareness – a prayer with all of my body participating. This late afternoon is a gift; from who or what is another question entirely. I’ve pushed aside philosophy and theology on this trip, for I want to experience my connection to the world. I am thank everything around me for this gift: the tree for providing shelter, the sun for its gentle warmth, the water for cleaning my body, and the tiny crabs for the companionship and endless entertainment on this lonely beach.
As the sun melts over the trees in the distance, I build a small fire to keep me company.
In the darkness the crashing waves keep startling me. I do not feel endangered, but I do not know what occupies the forest around me. For this reason, I feel even more connected to my fire. I keep it healthy and it returns the favor with light and heat (most notably in the form of my pot of steaming noodles).
It’s only seven-thirty, so I lay down on my scarf, watch the stars and let my fire slowly consume itself. Gazing at stars, I recall my boyhood ambitions to be an astronaut and set foot on Mars. Now, I’ve come to realize, there’s plenty to explore on the surface of our lovely, albeit fragile, planet.
I also consider the fact that I don’t know a thing about kayaks or kayaking. I only learned how to swim properly two years ago, and I bought my pack raft on a whim after hearing a friend talk about how much he loved his. Along with my bicycle, I suppose, it’s my vehicle to experience the world. I don’t paddle or cycle for fitness (though being fit helps make journeys more enjoyable). My kayak, then, is quite literally my raft to the other shore, as one extraordinary individual put it before. I promise to keep this in mind tomorrow on my long journey to the northernmost point of Phu Quoc.
I awake before dawn and coax my fire back to life. I have a couple of hours before it is light enough to set out, so I boil a few fresh, speckled eggs and meditate next to the water. At one point, I sense something in the tree behind me. I turn around slowly and much to my pleasure, a hornbill has settled down on a low-hanging branch. I’ve never seen a colorful tropical bird in the wild before – quite a special treat on a cold, breezy morning. At that moment, I am in awe of nature’s chaotic beauty. We share a glance at each other and then it flies away.
I make a spot of delicious coffee in my tin cup and munch on some nuts and a granola bar. I usually make a big hearty breakfast of oatmeal and bananas on camping trips, but this time I opt for more of a Japanese-style breakfast with small portions of various healthy goodies. I don’t get bored with any one treat, as I tend to when I am piling in a pot of dense oatmeal. Though I am well aware of the different courses, for whatever strange reason, eating in this way solicits a satisfying circle of anticipation, savoring and resolution.
Pleasantly full and excited for another day of wandering, I pack all of my belongings and push my kayak into the calm morning water. As I paddle out into the bay, I feel a bit sad to leave this space. Though I was there for only a short time, I was familiar with it and made it into a comfortable place. Or perhaps I am being too human-centric: it was already a comfortable, beautiful space and I happened to bring a fire/shelter to it for my personal benefit. I did so without leaving any permanent sign that I was ever there. And, because of this, I feel proud but also a bit sad. For some strange reason, I feel compelled to leave some sort of mark to say “I was here” or “I plan on coming back” or “I exist” or “Thank you.” But I am a simply a humble visitor and the trees and beach will just go about their changes as they have for millions of years – high tide, low tide, sunrise, sunset. My only semi-permanent mark will be sharing this story.
I paddle across the bay and drop a few items I no longer need to carry at a guesthouse. I book a room for two nights, since the cost is reasonable and I’d like a backup plan in the event the northern coast is too rocky for camping.
I paddle my kayak between a tiny islet and the rocky tip of the bay. As I round the corner, a new stretch of beach slowly appears. I have no destination or schedule; just a desire to see what is around the next bend. Free from any established path, I can experience this beauty however I choose: I can view the whole area from afar, drop my rock-rope anchor and go snorkeling, paddle in closer to see the details of the fishing boats and beach, or land my kayak and wander around on foot. My kayak moves fast enough to stave off boredom, but slow enough to allow me to soak in every detail. It is a lovely way to take in new sights.
The day grows hotter and I use my kayak bag to block the sun. My fake Ray Bans aren’t faring too well with the sun’s reflection off of the water. The trip isn’t challenging physically; it’s mostly just a mental battle with the sun.
I stop at a beach for a quick snack and water break. I take a look at my map and guess that it’s only five more kilometers to the northwest tip of Phu Quoc. I am eager to get there – I’ve stared at the north of Phu Quoc from various parts of Cambodia (only 4-5 kilometers away) for years. There’s a small port town where I figure I can get a meal and take in a the marvelous views of Kompong Som and Bokor Mountain.
I paddle around one last outcropping of rock and come across a military bunker.
And, just a few strokes later, Cambodia comes into view.
It’s like seeing an old friend. I lived for four years in Cambodia and did a lot of growing up there. I appreciate the people and context that graciously gave me the place to do that, and I can only hope I was able to somehow reciprocate during my time there.
I paddle onward, fried fish w/pepper sauce on my mind.
A bit further along another familiar sight: Bokor Mountain and Kampot. I’d love to paddle the eight or so kilometers into Kampot town for some ribs at Rusty Keyhole and a riverside room at Ganesha Eco Resort, but that will have to wait a few more days.
I finally arrive at a beautiful seaside restaurant late in the afternoon. After talking with the owner and considering my dehydrated state, I decide to catch a moto back to where I started. Besides feeling drawn to that beach, I don’t wish to press my luck finding a suitable campsite this late in the day with limited energy reserves. I arrive back just before sunset and settle in for the night.
I wake up late the next morning. I’ve seen all I need to see and just wish to savor my last full day on Phu Quoc. I take my time packing up and sip my coffee lazily while I finish The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, one of my favorite books. I wonder how many of us working in development or “social” business are like the Whiskey Priest?
I spend the day taking a closer look at many of the beaches I passed on my way to the far north of Phu Quoc. Along the way, I encounter free-divers that collect urchins and what seems to be seaweed. It looks like a tough life, but they are kind and wave with a big smile as I pass. Around noon, I abandon my kayak and sleep under a big weeping willow (or something quite like one).
As the sun begins to set, I paddle back to the guesthouse where I left some of my belongings. I am planning to take the early morning ferry to Ha Tien and make my way over to Kampot, so I decide a good night’s sleep in a bed is in order.
This was a trip of gratitude. A trip I needed to confirm that, indeed, I am a small part of this world but at the same time connected to it, in debt to it and in awe of it. I don’t find it important (at this juncture) as to whom or what I should direct my gratitude. What matters is that gratitude has been cultivated and experienced, and I can draw upon it like a well. So, I give my thanks to all that was around me on this trip: the hornbill, the mangroves, the tin cup of hot coffee, the kind woman selling chicken eggs on the road, campfires, my kayak, the flying fish, and many more. It is not often that one has the opportunity to sit and get to know you for a few quiet days.
As I paddle past the islet, I drop my makeshift anchor and lay down in my kayak to watch the sunset one last time on Phu Quoc.