The life and death of Phu Quoc Island

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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A gorgeous woman digging for a dinner of periwinkles on an otherwise touristy beach on Phu Quoc Island

Clouds swallowed the rice paddies outside Ho Chi Minh City minutes after takeoff; 45 minutes later, they parted over a scratch of red clay road and a verdant canopy - neither a sooty stand of street trees, nor a dusty rubber plantation, but a jungle so green it hurts the eyes.
Set just south of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc Island still vibrates with the croaks of tiny frogs at night. Strange beasts flee motorbike tires as they cut over soft sand back roads like a knife dragged over pound cake.
Despite an ever-increasing glut of hotels and tourists, the island's petite denizens still jerk into paralyzing giggles when presented with a foreigner who commands a handful of Vietnamese words.
I hate so much to be telling this all to you because the less you know about it, the better.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that Phu Quoc would best be left alone.
But Quyen, a pregnant pepper farmer standing in the middle of nowhere, told me otherwise.
As hired hands plucked yellow and red pods from atop square ladders, she explained how she'd managed to learn English and build up her farm by working for a few years in a tourist restaurant.
Tourism, she thought, was a good thing. But I wonder for how long that would last.
Given its history, it's amazing that the people of Phu Quoc permit anyone on the island at all.
The French used the place as a brutal prison for anti-colonialist agitators. The US-backed Southern regime kept it going as an over-crowded, poorly maintained hive of beatings and insurrection.
Their American advisors supposedly protested and then went water skiing in their off-time.
In 1968, the camp was shelled 37 times.

On May 1, 1975, a squadron of Khmer Rouge fighters blundered on to the island and used it as a waypoint to capture and murder 500 Vietnamese civilians living on an archipelago to the south.
Today, the pledge to seize Phu Quoc remains something like the promise of a chicken in every pot.
Members of Cambodia's coalition opposition have pledged to take back the islandlegally, this time - in the unlikely event that they win the general election in July.
Hun Sen responded to their pledge in a stormy five-hour address before the National Assembly in which he called his opponents "dogs." Hun Sen pledged to stick to the French line that gave the island to Vietnam in 1939, while offering to sue anyone who claimed he had done otherwise.
"Not a single drop of seawater has been lost to Vietnam," he thundered.
A Cambodian invasion seems about as likely a prospect as sustainable development, but the fight to let Phu Quoc be Phu Quoc extends to all fronts.
Australians, Germans and Swiss restaurateurs now ply their own mediocre cuisine astride the growing wall of resorts, guesthouses and hotels that hug the Jacuzzi-warm waters south of Duong Dong - Phu Quoc's biggest small town.
Even here, a kilo of grenade-sized neon orange mangoes sells for a dollar and the island remains flush with beaches marred only by the odd lean-to.
"There are more monkeys on the island than people," said Rory Miles - the Australian proprietor of the namesake Bar on the Beach, where I settled into a bungalow for US$35 a night.
Miles and his Korean-Australian wife relocated to Phu Quoc from Sydney a year ago and began building out a wooden deck and boat-shaped bar on the former site of a Mexican-themed hotel called Amigo's.
"Last week we had 40 people dancing in the rain," he said as he looked out to the empty beach, rubbing red tired eyes at ten in the morning.
When I asked which highway I should take to the southernmost town of An Thoi, Rory scoffed. The "road" remained a shambles of gravel, mud and passing busses and I'd be better served to head down an unmarked clay road that runs along the stunning western coastline.
The drive rivaled any I've ever taken and I suspect someone will see to that soon.
Few seem interested in selling Phu Quoc's virginity save the touts who supply jaded Saigon businessmen with naked "unpolluted" island girls who swim around their boats all day in exchange for jewelry.
While the $180 million International Airport has attracted no international flights, it has brought in a Burger King and a half-built highway.
Idle steamrollers seem to crowd the lanes between the treeless clay hills, visibly chomped on by triple- toothed backhoe bites.
The island's supposedly enchanted waterfall has been tapped dry by a cacophonous gas-powered pump and thoroughly littered with garbage.
Identical party boats serving mediocre lunches crowd the once-pristine archipelago in the south, depositing pasty snorkelers and the occasional bits of trash into increasingly murky waters.
Indeed, the only thing protecting Phu Quoc from itself appears to be a dysfunctional bureaucracy that seems to constantly trip over itself in its efforts to utterly rape the place.
Scores of investors have walked away from a multi-billion dollar casino complex scheme that was first unveiled in 2007.
The latest group of investors to pledge their billions to ruining the island stepped forward last November.
Environmental Energy Solutions Technology Inc. of the Philippines and its sad local partner have continued to push (like their dozen disappointed predecessors) for a provision that would allow every pepper farmer on the island onto the casino floor to gamble away his future.

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