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Phu Quoc Island – one dirt road at a time

February 24, 2011

Motorbikes have been a large part of my life lately. I shouldn’t be surprised. I live in Vietnam after all. On Sunday, I passed my driving test with flying colors. Okay, maybe they were wobbly, nervously shaking colors, but I still passed. I was definitely not the worst driver there either.

On Monday, we headed back to Phu Quoc Island with Jonathan’s brother and his wife. We decided against renting four bikes because, while I may be a better driver than I was last time I was down there, the roads are still mostly dirt and gravel, full of potholes, and daunting for a newbie like me.

After two trips to the island, we have explored most of the southern half. The only part remaining was the northeast coast with its road “for experienced drivers only” and the northwest coast, known for its diving. We didn’t know how seriously to take the road warning. Since our expectations are rarely anything close to reality, we have stopped expecting. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Thankfully, part of preparing for the worst was returning the bike one guy tried to lend us whose hand brake didn’t work. After he discovered we weren’t going to pay 50% higher than usual rental fee or bring our day rental back 7 hours later, he tried to bring us another crappy bike instead of the original nicer one.

Finally, fully equipped with front and back brakes, we set off into the unknown. For the first ten kilometers it seemed like any other road. The area was much more rural than what we had seen previously, but the road was still about a car and a half wide and fairly smooth dirt. To get to each house, there was some sort of “bridge” built over the roadside ditch – usually consisting of two branches with short branches nailed railroad track style, but much closer together, across them.

Eventually the road began to narrow. Some places had the same railroad track type “bridges,” but they were attached to the ground. I’m assuming this is to provide traction in the rainy season.  Houses became much more scarce and for a long time all we saw were trails leading off into the bush. The mountains rise up on our left, and we can usually see the water to the right.

We are well into the dry season, and the dust is thick. Our legs start to look like we used bad, orange self-tanner. Typically Jonathan and I lead, which makes me feel bad since Jason and Gina are literally eating our dust. The road climbs closer to the mountains and becomes less of a road and more of a trail. It’s very hilly and the sticks attached to the ground become the only thing between us and a guaranteed wipe-out.

The islanders don’t believe in knobby tires, and the ground is nothing but dry earth and sand. It’s a little frightening to see the narrow erosion gullies close on either side of our stick paths, and we were thankful for the brakes. We cross empty rivers on rickety little bridges, trying to go slow enough to remain in control but fast enough to make it over the bumps and haul both of us back up the other side.




While we’re riding, I have to focus my mouth. I clench my jaw because I’m nervous and afraid of wrecking. But, every time we hit a bump and my jaw is clenched I feel like my teeth are going to crack against each other. So, I open my mouth to force myself to relax and immediately begin gagging on all the dirt in the air.  Open, close. Clench, relax. It’s also too hot to comfortably hang onto Jonathan, but sometimes I’m afraid I’ll be knocked off the back if I don’t. And, I’ve come to realize that no amount of fat on one’s butt is going to keep a ride like this from becoming incredibly painful.

Eventually it flattens out and we drive through tall grass on tracks so narrow one bike had to stop to let another pass. I can’t help but think, “when a body meets a body coming through the rye.”

An hour later, we stop at the first place that looks like it might have cold drinks. We order beers and walk into the water to cool our feet. There are several children climbing in trees watching us. As the water gets deeper, I pull my dress up so only my bathing suit underneath gets wet. All I could hear was shrieking laughter, and I could imagine them saying in Vietnamese “I saw London, I saw France… “One of the girls waded out to a stick in the water and returned with a net full of crabs. I follow her into the kitchen and watch as they became someone’s lunch.

After resting our butts and legs, we head west. It takes us another hour to make it to the other coast. We pass pepper farms that dwarf the first one I saw, and homes with peppercorns scattered on the porches and yards, drying black in the sun. Our shadows stretch longer on the road. Eventually we were driving through forests that cool us down, and our shadows are overtaken by those of the trees. It was an interesting mixture of hardwoods and tropical trees. Some of them were so tall, I wondered if they had been there forever.

Eventually the road becomes a divided highway under construction. We had to cross back and forth because they couldn’t seem to decide which side of the road they were going to pave. The dorms where the workers live are tin boxes on stilts. At least they had a volleyball net outside.

Along the west coast we stopped at another beachside restaurant. Jason broke one of their hammocks with his massive gringo body, and we went swimming. The water seems to be clearest on the northern beaches and the temperature is just right.



On the way home, we crossed a bridge that is simply slabs of steel laid on the frame of the bridge. The edges are uneven, and there are huge gaps in between each piece. A girl was stopped on one side letting everyone go past. We stopped next to her and she said she was too afraid to drive across. She was afraid she would fall off into the river. So my kind husband drove her bike across while she gingerly followed.

I don’t blame her at all, and I’m glad we came along to help. I feel like half the island’s roads and bridges should be classified “for experts only.” But, as painful, and sometimes terrifying, as it was, we had a really good time. I love seeing the island from the same level as the people who live there. I also love having an expert driver to chauffeur me around.

Have you ever read a warning – “Experts only” “Not for the faint hearted”  – only to try the product or experience and be disappointed that it really wasn’t anything special? The chicken wings shouldn’t have required a waiver. The puzzle wasn’t any more challenging than the rest. Would you rather be warned and find it less than promised, or not be warned and find it overwhelming?

PS. I almost made it through another trip without damaging myself, but, sometime during the day, I got off the motorbike on the wrong side, barely touched my leg against the exhaust pipe, and in my freaking-out-cause-I’m-burning-my-leg attempt to get away from it managed to sprain my knee. Is this old age or general clumsiness?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 11:48

    The lined-up tree trunk roads look like “corduroy” roads I remember reading about in early America.
    I had a similarly painful experience riding the back of a snowmobile once. One can only land hard on one’s bum so many times before there are consequences. I could barely walk for days.

    • February 25, 2011 23:32

      That is a perfect description – little strips of corduroy covering sandy hills.

      I don’t understand what the point is in having a fat butt if even that won’t protect you from the pain. I don’t see how the girls here survive.

  2. karen permalink
    February 24, 2011 13:20

    Your word pictures are priceless!!
    I am reading a novel right now about a couple’s life during the Vietnam war…He the Marine warrier and she the wife at home!!What an emotional, heart-wrenching reading it has been for me! Vietnam must be an incredible place for our soldiers to have given so much in those years of the war! Our Veterans have my profound gratitude….
    I love seeing the pictures of the land there and the people and especially reading of all your awesome experiences!!
    Keep it coming, Grace!!
    ps. Sorry about the injury!

    • February 26, 2011 00:28

      What is the name of this book? I’d love to read it. The people and the land seem to be my favorite thing here. I wish I could put pictures of all the cute children and everyone who smiles and waves at us as we pass through their villages. One of the awesome things about living here is seeing their kind attitude toward all the people they have had wars with through the years. Thanks for reminding me what a privilege it is to experience this place.

      • karen permalink
        February 26, 2011 07:04

        The title of the book is “Lizzie’s War” by Tim Farrington. It has been an amazing read for me! Coupled with what you have been writing, it has really kept me interested in Vietnam.

  3. karen permalink
    February 24, 2011 13:29

    Soon as I posted previous msg…I see I spelled warrior wrong!! No way to correct that….sorry. Spelling used to be my strongpoint…grammar another thing!
    Wish Mr. Holby had been my teacher!

  4. Candice A permalink
    February 24, 2011 15:08

    I believe we had a similar bridge experience at the very bridge you write about! It’s not so bad as a passenger especially if you close your eyes!

    • February 26, 2011 02:17

      I was tempted to walk across but there was so much traffic I figured, knowing my luck, someone would run into me and knock me off 😛 I can’t imagine having to drive across it by myself on my first driving expedition!

  5. Tanya permalink
    February 24, 2011 19:40

    You are so much braver than I. When we got to those bridges it was after we wrecked, so I dismounted and Joe tackled them alone while I walked. Good job!

  6. Jonathan permalink
    February 28, 2011 06:34

    Awesome! You make me smile so much. Keep up the excellent writing and someday I’ll have these bound for the kids;)

  7. Charity permalink
    March 7, 2011 09:05

    So adventurous! Sorry about your leg. I hope I get to experience your island. 🙂


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