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Phu Quoc, pepper farms, and dry falls

February 3, 2011

Let me preface this by saying – I have been trying to post this for three days. Technology and I are evidently on a break.

Thanks to Air Mekong’s direct, forty-minute flight, and knowing we can nearly always get a cheap bungalow at the Moon Resort, Phu Quoc Island has become the place for a relaxing and inexpensive break. It’s an island where life slows down. The weather, so far, has been gorgeous – far from the smog of Saigon. We can watch our seafood dinner come in on brightly painted boats. The sound of waves (and cheesy music if our bungalow is too near the bar) lulls us to sleep every night.

Everyone thinks this is a great place to learn to drive a motorbike because it is so quiet. When paved, the roads are wide and empty, but most are dusty red clay that somehow hangs around in our ears for days. In spite of the quiet roads, most of us novice drivers (and some experienced ones) end up crashing anyway. We all agree, though, that it’s better to wipe out on a dirt road than in the middle of Saigon traffic.

I have to be honest – I didn’t even wipe out on a dirt road. I drove, from a parked, full stop, straight down an alley into a wall. You can laugh, because I laugh at myself now too. The first time we were here, we ambitiously rented bikes for each person and set off to explore the island. After easily driving for ten minutes through town, we stopped in a little parking lot to check our maps.

While Jonathan and Israel assessed our location, I tried to turn my bike around so I would be facing the road. I wasn’t used to the weight of the bike, and I had to give it more gas than I expected before it would even move. Once it started moving, it really moved. And I panicked. Then, I’m driving. Fast. Thankfully, I see an alley. I’ll go that way. Just point the bike in the right direction. OR, drive straight into the wall. That’ll do.

Next thing I know, I am surrounded by Vietnamese waiters from the nearby restaurant. Someone is pulling the bike off of me. My shoulder hurts. My head is fine. Jonathan makes me move my arm. It moves. Nothing is broken, but it really hurts. My arm and leg are scraped. Israel, true to our genes, got a post-wreck photo. The waiters take me to a chair where they very kindly wipe the dirt and blood off my arms and legs. Someone rubs strange oil on my wounds. I’m too shaken to ask.

This is my first time driving. I don’t feel too bad for wrecking. I wore shoes and a helmet. None of my wounds are permanent. Jonathan said he watched in slow motion as raced toward the wall – gunning the gas with one hand and squeezing the brake with the other. Israel encouraged me to get back in the saddle, but my shoulder is too sore. I spend the rest of the day where I feel safe and happy – riding behind Jonathan.

Back to the island…

Besides expat motorbike crashes, beautiful beaches, and clear water, the island is famous for its fish sauce and black pepper. The peppercorns (which are green before being dried) grow in clumps and on vines similar to grapes, but are trained to climb tall trees and poles.

 

 

Last time I was here I had a fish clay pot and was surprised to find a whole bunch of green peppercorns baked in with it. When I crunched into it, though, the flavor was fresh and delicious. I think I had a pepper epiphany. Maybe it was because I had only ever had the dull, ground pepper that has been sitting on a grocery store shelf and then a pantry shelf for ages and whose only significant feature is making me sneeze.

On our last visit I bought some of the black pepper, but didn’t get a chance to visit one of the farms, so off we went yesterday. As with many of the attractions here, we drove in the gate and wondered if we were really supposed to be there. There weren’t signs for a tour. There was just an old man behind a counter under an open hut. He offered us a piece of star fruit dipped in ground garlic and pepper. We asked if we could look around, and he waved us in the direction of the plants.

It wasn’t a huge plot, no more than sixty or seventy feet square, but every few feet there was a pole about ten feet high, covered with climbing vines. These vines, in turn, were covered with tiny little peppercorns. We suspected they were all harvested by hand, and the presence of a ladder near the back of the grove/farm confirmed this.

 

 

The night before, we bought some kind of local drink named Rượu Sim. It’s sold in what probably used to be an Aquafina water bottle with a paper label on it. It smelled like rice wine, but was dark red and smelled sweeter. The lady said it was made from sim fruit – something none of us had ever heard of. When we saw the drink again at this man’s farm, we pressed him for more information.

He led us to a tree and plucked off several little fruits or berries. They are oval, about the size of a small olive, slightly fuzzy on the outside, and dark red on the inside with tiny seeds. Evidently they only grow on Phu Quoc and their wine is quite popular. Along with another of our friends, we made it through two-thirds of the bottle, but probably won’t be trying to import it any time soon. We did, however, purchase some sauce that I can’t describe any more than to say it has pepper in it and will probably taste wonderful as a marinade. More on that later.

Our next objective for the morning was to go to a waterfall that we had missed on our last visit. My brother, Israel, had gone, and we had seen the videos of him swimming in deep clear pools. After driving around in the heat, this sounded wonderful.

As with the pepper farm, we drove into the main entrance and wondered if we were supposed to be there. The only people we saw were sleeping in hammocks under the trees. We figured we would drive our bikes as far as we could until someone stopped us. We finally arrived at another dilapidated, open shed with an old man, and asked about the waterfalls. His response was “no water.” Hmm… there was so much only two months ago. Maybe he doesn’t understand us.

So we pay fifty-five cents for two motorbikes and three people, and begin hiking. He wasn’t lying. For most of our trek, we left the trail and, jumping from rock to rock, went directly up the riverbed. Based on the size of the boulders and debris high up in the trees, we could imagine the strength this stream must sometimes possess.

 

 

My lovely husband kept discussing every possible evil that could befall us – some real (snakes, landmines, spiders) and some imagined (tigers.) I don’t know whether there have ever actually been any landmines in this area, but I’ve read too many books now not to consider the option. Halfway up the creek, we heard, what sounded like a muffled, barking dog, and were confused when the sound came from the center of the creek. This led to speculations of barking frogs and spiders. We suggested searching for it until Jonathan reminded us of the fierce, throat biting rabbits that attacked people searching for the holy grail. Since we didn’t have a holy hand grenade available, we figured we’d let barking frogs/spiders lie.

After such an adventurous morning, we spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between the beach and the water. The bartender would only let us order our beers in Vietnamese since he knew we are trying to learn. A local lady came by selling mangoes for fifty cents and pineapples for a dollar. We watched as she quickly peeled the pineapple, cutting the spirals in it that remove the base of the spines without losing all the flesh. She carries the fruit in baskets suspended from the ends of a pole that she carries over her shoulder. It is a necessary reminder of how easy our lives are.

 

 

Now, there is more island to see, more seafood to be eaten, and a fishing and squid fishing expedition to be enjoyed.

Where is your favorite getaway – island or not?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 10:48

    1.Congratulations on joining our long and illustrious family heritage of wrecking motorbikes! I require no bike to wreck myself, so I consider myself an honorary member.
    2.I want to go to the pepper farm!
    3. As someone who has faced death in the jaws of a kitty cat, I think you should take every peril that J suggests seriously.

  2. Charity permalink
    February 6, 2011 14:31

    Why don’t we get to see the post-accident pic Israel took?? 😀
    Are you trying to rub it in that I’ve never been somewhere as exotic as you? Anyways, my great-grandmother’s place on Smith Lake, AL… That was my paradise.

  3. February 10, 2011 13:34

    island – yes! bermuda has been – and probably always will be – my favorite tropical escape.

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