Phu Quoc: How Old Are You?
Written by Korski June 1st, 2013 13 min read
My lovely little 60,000 dong a day home for a couple of days.
I’m now on the western side of Phu Quoc, off southern Cambodia on a fairly large island long claimed and controlled by Vietnam. From the moment one gets on the fast boat at Ha Tien, in Vietnam, along with scores of chattering Vietnamese and their whining children, and then even more so when hitting the landing dock after a boring and bumpy two-hour speedboat ride and walking a long 300 or 400 meters on a cement slab runway amid honking and aggressive motorbikes, you have no doubt that while the geography seems wrong—the island is much closer to Cambodia than Vietnam—you are very much in that country that gave America its first ever loss in a foreign war.
Nga, who is Michael’s wife, is forty-seven and does all the big work of daily running twenty-one charming little hideaways known as Phu Quoc Bungalows. Most of them are less than one hundred yards from a quiet beach and a pricey set of bungalows known as Arcadia, which are meant for one-time honeymooners and those with money—in the neighborhood of ninety dollars a night—an environment where someone like me can simply repair to at will and take one of the tables sitting on the beach or just above on a tiled platform and get lost in my thoughts with a bottle of Saigon beer and an appetizing plate of cheesy or spicy squid, and watch the sun begin to slide into the Gulf of Thailand.
Nga checks in new arrivals at the bungalows, and, like just about everywhere in Vietnam she takes their passports and sends them to the local police, so the guests’ names can be put in a register–nothing having to do with security or fears of foreigners who might want to overthrow the government, her husband and the owner of the bungalows along with his wife, and the money man behind the whole enterprise, tells me. It’s all just another one of those shitty little bureaucratic French traditions that won’t die, where like the British the French always thought they were doing something important simply by keeping busy generating paper. Colonialism, one discovers in traveling about, goes the way of just about all isms, but it invariably happens that clogged veins of introduced practices—colonial or otherwise, and no matter how seemingly foreign to a new and native order–prove to be immune to any kind of death.
For a night in one of the twenty-one bungalows I find myself in, I’m paying the astronomical sum of fifteen dollars, a price—let’s be honest–determined in part by the low season tourist traffic, a time when the rains begin to pour with real force, and for the simple fact that Vietnam, for a hundred reasons, is cheaper than other countries in Southeast Asia.
My little private space for sleeping and writing for a couple of days includes in-room Wi-Fi, and with the most reliable connection I’ve had in nearly nine weeks on the road in Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, and with the added and quite welcome bonus that every traveler covets, that of not having to f@#$ about for five or ten minutes with a name and a password that comes on a tiny piece of paper that I invariably lose, and for reasons that only errant Buddhist monks know don’t work half the time.
A view out my rosewood front door—a drowning rain.
Ah, what a lovely little guest house it is! A large room with a red tile floor and a refrigerator for the Saigon beer I can’t do without and a flat screen TV and a writing table and two double beds and well-fashioned full bed mosquito nets and an overhead fan and an air conditioner that Michael, the owner and building supervisor of all things big and small, had the very good sense to have placed near the ceiling and opposite the beds, unlike what one finds in so many hotels in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, when the unit is just to the right or left of the bed, which means that you spend half the night trying to hide from the cold air blowing in your face, or repeatedly turning it off and on.
In the morning at breakfast, not twenty-five yards from the bungalow I’m occupying, I meet a quiet couple from Switzerland lost in the smoke of their morning cigarettes, then have a long chat with a young Brit born in India and living southwest of London since he was five and seemingly without any of the traits I so detest in Indians; and then there is Michel, or Michael as he also calls himself—pick your choice, he says, who finds me. Or I find him, I’m not always sure when I get in high gear after rolling out of bed and right away began looking for conversation to open the day, half the time seemingly more important than a first cup of coffee and something to eat.
Hitting island land after the fast boat trip from Ha Tien, Vietnam.
I’d met Michel the day before, shortly after checking in and chatting briefly with his wife, Nga, and handing over my passport. Like a man broken somewhere between the waist and the knees, Michel came hobbling through some weeds and grass and chest-high palms, his shirt open, wearing tan shorts and looking pretty goddamn worn, someone I figured right away for another expat on the final short crawl to the Grim Reaper House. I greeted him, and before I said another four words, he said, You’re an American! Have to be! And I thought: he’s the first foreigner on this entire trip, and probably the last one too, to so quickly catch my accent and nail my native land. I shot back: You’re French (the French, when they speak, and it’s rarely much in English, have a very distinctive way of speaking). He came back with, Was French. That’s a f@#$ed country you don’t want to live in. I’m Australian and from Cairns.
Michael, at 82, alive like few 20 year-old students I have ever known.
He hardly skips a beat, and then says, I was Australian till I come here twelve years ago and bought some land. And land he bought, with title in his wife’s name (just like all these countries, Vietnam insistently forbids foreigners from owning land), and at prices that boggle the mind, such is the nature of speculation, street and five-star hotel bar talk about Phu Quoc becoming another Phuket, Thailand. But, surely, with nicer beaches and more of them, and none of the bargirl cunning slime—and maybe for this reason few of the real expat and down and dirty f@#$aholic slimeballs either.
A young backpacker couple enjoying the beach, and maybe one another.
Twelve years ago, Michael paid three dollars a square meter for the bungalow land, and in all bought some 8,000 square meters in the general vicinity of the beach. The following year, he claimed, the price jumped to fifteen dollars a square meter, and now it is selling—the property he owns–for three hundred dollars a square meter. People want to buy what he owns; he tells them he’s not selling, the market’s only going one way. And besides he’s got a Vietnamese wife who this morning told me she’s looking to add another five bungalows, what I take to be yet one more reminder on a long list I keep of what I’ve come to understand about Asia: most Asian men (notice I didn’t say all) are f@#$ing lazy drunks and philandering wife beaters, and it is the women who are the dedicated and fired up engines that make these countries as good as they are. Michael has a five-year visa, but every three months he has to cross into Cambodia, pay twenty-five dollars to the Cambodians for a ten-minute visit, and then on his quick-step return to Vietnam pay ten dollars, a required re-entry fee. If he’s late by as much as two or three days on his three-month visa, as he was a couple of years ago, the immigration people at the border will fine him fifty or sixty dollars and make a big fuss and detain him for five hours as if in a jail cell, and not even let him go to a restaurant a hundred yards away to stew and swear at the bastards for making so much ado about so little.
The young backpackers with whom I crossed the border into Vietnam at Ha Tien, waiting, as I was waiting, for the passports to be processed, a five-minute job that took an hour and a half, for reasons never explained.
He will soon find himself with another small surprise, or so it seems, he says, on hearing the small story I tell him about crossing the border yesterday. On the one page entry form to get into Vietnam, in addition to having a valid visa acquired before getting to the border, there’s a question about whether or not you are carrying a record of all your immunizations. For the first ten years that I’d come to this part of the world, and often to Vietnam, I’d never once had such a record in my possession. But this year, and only because I’d recently gotten some shots for tetanus and typhoid, I had one that was as about as complete as they come, and I had it buried somewhere in my backpack. So on the form, I checked that I had a piece of paper that I thought they would want to examine at the border, speculating that they were health conscious. (I do know that Vietnam has some nasty forms of TB, those that are multi-drug resistant—probably a death sentence if you catch this strain; and it may well have been in Vietnam the I got the TB that was subsequently diagnosed at home in the fall of 2008). On this particular border crossing, it so happened that I found myself among a group of nine young backpackers—from England, Australia, German, Canada, and even one young woman from Connecticut who was headed for medical school and wanted to be a surgeon. It caught my attention that a couple of the backpackers had checked the no box on the form asking about whether they had an immunization record with them. So it mattered if you had a record with you. It did, didn’t it?
A sign next to the door inside my room; note the two misspellings.
When we got to the only station where we had to be looked over in some way, shape, or form—they already had our passports, each of us in succession was told to open and show a palm. An official in front of us took a fat pencil like gizmo made of aluminum, touched—barely so—the center of our palms with it, and then pretended to read our temperature. Making me immediately think: An invention yet to be imagined, and even if it can take my temperature this fast it won’t matter if it registers 104 degrees. Of course, there was no attention at all paid to whether or not we had immunization records; everyone got the same three second test. And every “test” was following by the same demand: That will be one dollar.
The kinds of things you see in Vietnam—when walking slowly.
No receipt, no record kept by the official looking health and temperature taker who never bothered to look at the forms with the question of immunization records, and I’m quite certain it wouldn’t have mattered in the least if I’d given him a good TB cough in the face. But back to the bungalow, and Michael, who I would spend a lively afternoon drinking with and exchanging jokes and stories, and marveling at the vigor and energy of this eighty-two year old man. And then, reflexively, wondering as I wonder so often why so many people I know in their forties and fifties, and even younger, are, in all that I see and hear, all but dead.
At one point, I playfully asked Michael how old he was, and he said to me; Guess? The very same thing I say to people who ask my age. I looked at him, and the many liver spots that cover his arms and hands, and the sagging breasts, and the missing and yellowed teeth, and I said, Somewhere in your mid-seventies. He laughed. He guffawed. He scowled. He was making fun of me. I was obviously lost. He said, I was born in 1931 near Avignon. I am eighty-two. He laughed some more. The joke was on me. Then he told me an old man joke. A man says to another man, You are seventy-five and you have a thirty-one year-old wife. How did you possibly manage to get her? I told her I was ninety-five. Then it was Michael’s turn to ask me my age, and I said: Guess? I was sitting across from him, my appearance largely unchanged in the last year and more: my head shaved, sporting a trim beard, at the moment wearing glasses rather than a contact lens in my one good left eye, as I often do. He looked me over, and with great assurance, he said, No more than fifty-two. Maybe fifty. I smiled, and I said, Try again. He called his wife, Nga, to come to his side. By this time I had talked to her three or four times. She took another look at me and said, I think you’re fifty-one. You could even be forty-eight. I said nothing. I smiled. It was my turn. I took out the passport she had returned to men less than ten minutes earlier and opened it to my photo, that place where you find the person’s date of birth. I handed it to Michael. He looked at it, and he looked at me, and he said, This is not your passport! This cannot be. He showed it to his wife, and he shook his head, and he noted the date of my birth. He told her how old that makes me. She turned to me and said, Okay, maybe you fifty-five. No more. What could I say? I’ve not yet got tits that sag. I have all my teeth, and the teeth that people see are as white as the teeth of my twenty-two year old son. I did not say: Beware of appearances. We are all fooled by our eyes, our prejudices, our simple-minded expectations. Variation and difference are the very things that fascinates the f@#$ out of me, makes me travel as much as I do. I returned to my room to work on this essay, and I remembered that I had seen something on the wall beside the power plug and where I stuck the key to get the power in the room on. And I could not help but take a photo of the sign that read: ATTENTION. I saw nearly the same sign several years ago in northern Laos in a four dollar hotel, and when I saw it I laughed for the better part of an hour. I never thought I would ever see such a sign again. I was certain I would never see such a sign in a hotel or bungalow or boarding house run by someone as smart and together as Michael and his wife Nga.
Korski Phu Quoc, Vietnam (5/25/13)
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