It’s 5 in the morning and where else can you go for breakfast? The dawn is breaking and it’s time to head for something to eat, but that means heading past a small factory that will make sure that every last bit of sleep is burned from your eyes while your nostrils flare in revolt. It’s not chemicals that are waking you up, it’s fish sauce.
Phu Quoc is a small island in southern Vietnam, and for all intents and purposes there is nothing there. That’s why we love it.
To say it’s a small island is the truth, but actually it has an airport. It’s just a very small airport. Booking a flight can be difficult during a busy season. I headed there for Christmas and no flights were available so the only other option is a 6 to 8 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh to a small coastal town and a 2 to 3 hour boat ride to the island. If flights are available, take them. I’m as intrepid as the next guy, but bus is a word that has to be qualified. This is more like being crammed in a minivan. Again, this can come along with travel so no complaints to be made by any means. Be warned though, it is hot, the roads are dirt, and every Vietnamese person in the minivan will eat a lot of pho very quickly for lunch.
So what’s the problem with that? I like pho, you like pho, no harm right. No harm unless hot minivans and bumpy dirt roads make the guys, and I do mean plural, next to you reappear all that liquid from lunch in a plastic bag. Mmmmm, yummy. That being said, the difficulty of getting there can make your gratitude for arriving all the more bountiful and beauty all the more welcomed.
Phu Quoc is just that, beautiful. There isn’t much tourism, currently Vietnam owns the island but history mandates that more than a few have fought over it. For whatever reason, they weren’t fighting over the monetary aspect of the island. In fact the only things to do there are sitting by the beach and eating. There’s some diving, but no speedboats, no parasailing, and no nightclubs. They do have motorbikes though.
The exports from this tiny island are mainly fish sauce and pearls. And passing by the small factory, there is no doubt that fish sauce is exactly what they make. None of this is to knock it, fish sauce is a fantastic herald in the world of condiments. I, like many others, am an avid fan and no self-respecting Southeast Asian cuisine can be mastered without it. It must hold near the top as one of the most flavorful sauces in a bottle in the world. It makes ketchup look like a bland swill of gelatinous sugar. But in quantities like these, the stench is unreal.
The reason became obvious when I decided on a tour of the factory. There are primarily two ingredients, fish and salt. While fish can be quite pungent, salt can’t be said to smell like anything. But putting the two together will give you fermentation. Even fermenting beer can have a beastly tang on the nose, but fermenting fish, that’s a whole different game.
The fish is packed in salt in row after row of gigantic burnt orange barrels. Slowly, through different stages of fermentation, the sauce is filtered and placed in different rows of gigantic burnt orange barrels. Once the fermentation starts, there really isn’t a whole lot to do, this is evidenced during my impromptu tour of the factory by the proliferation of hammocks slung between the large barrels. We all love a good days work.
The hammock. The ultimate symbol of island life, in a way that you can say to yourself, “Fuck it. I ain’t doin’ nothing today.” You don’t have to be so colorful with the way you say it, but you get my drift. And here we come to the inevitable problem with such a beautiful island. Everyone wants to go.
Slowly, resorts are piling up and people are heading there more and more. But much like the way that fish sauce is made, the island has a mesmerizing rhythm. It will be a few years before that rhythm changes to annoying trance and fire twirling. Many long term travelers spend half a year on Phu Quoc and half in their home country. They spend much of that time on Phu Quoc telling you they don’t want to go back to their home country. They aren’t the only ones who don’t want to leave.
The expats living there seem to have settled with not going back to their home country. Unlike others in Asian countries, they aren’t out to make a fortune in factories with the great producer from the North. One bar owner had just opened his bar when I arrived and I ended up there at the end of most nights. Like most places that just open, business was slow. Then on the third or fourth night business picked up enough to barely call it busy. At one point in the evening the owner looked glum and heavy and I asked him what was wrong. He turned slowly and sighed, “I didn’t come here to work.” Again, we all love a good days work.
I didn’t want to go back either at the end of it all and I’m wary even of writing so appreciatively of the island. Perhaps you will go, and then I will go and there will be too many people on the island. If I was feeling particularly dishonest and in a mood to covet, I would have titled this article something like, “Phu Quoc Sucks and You Should Never Go There.” But that wouldn’t do. It’s worth seeing one of the last islands not filled with tourists in Southeast Asia.
By the way, the fish sauce is excellent there.
For more photos, click the gallery below.