By every measure, Phu Quoc, Vietnam should be paradise with its palm trees, warm turquoise ocean, and miles of deserted white sand beaches to call your own. But just outside of the picture-perfect frame, it’s hiding a very dirty secret.
OK, “hiding” seem inappropriately mysterious. It’s not hiding it at all. It’s piled up everywhere for everyone to see – trash. The island (and you) are swimming in it.
I booked a flight to Phu Quoc as part of my hasty retreat from the smog and sweat of Saigon, hoping for a better view of Vietnam. I got a motorbike taxi from the airport into town, passing through green, rugged hills and fields. The untouched scenery seemed worlds away from the well worn paths (they’re really practically paved with yellow lines at this point) of the Southeast Asia tourist.
I checked into my hotel and headed down to the beach to catch my first ocean sunset in Asia.
The sun was already low, and blues were effortlessly giving way to orange and pink hues. A group of Vietnemese men were spear-fishing on a cluster of rocks. I had stepped into a postcard.
My excitement withered. Piles and piles of trash collected on the sand. Between the rows of lobster-colored tourists and blue water lay an endless mosaic of rubbish.
Deflated, I returned to my hotel and asked which beach had the fewest number of people (and presumably less trash). She pointed me in the direction of Dai Beach, an hour north of the city on the west coast. Resolved not to give up on my paradise just yet, I decided to rent a scooter to see if conditions were at all improved elsewhere.
I set out early the next morning, map in hand, and tried to follow road signs toward the beach. But I guess that’s the key thing about deserted beaches – they’re not particularly easy to find. I went from paved road to dirt road to a road made of concrete slabs so uneven that driving down it without being flung off elicited applause from the locals.
I stopped to ask directions from a Vietnamese man. Our conversation went something like:
“Remember when you passed that road and you thought to yourself there is no way that could possibly be the road I’m supposed to turn on.”
“That’s the road you’re supposed to turn on.”
I backtracked and eventually found myself driving along on bumpy, red dirt parallel to a breathtaking coastline of deserted white beaches, speckled with small fishing villages and open-air restaurants.
No. Thought must be repressed. I have sun and sand. Surely I can make this work. I retreated to the hammocks. After a bit of twisting, turning, and wondering if laying in a hammock had always required so much core strength, I finally closed my eyes. There. Eyes closed. Everything is perfect.
At that moment the rope holding up the front of my hammock snapped. My head smacked the ground and my eyes popped open – directly next to a pile of washed up rubbish. The trash refused to be ignored.
I got back onto my scooter and headed further down the coast. Then I noticed something else. For every stretch of deserted, less-trash-y-than-in-town-beach, was a giant billboard illustrating a soon-to-be built resort. I lost count of the number of high-rises destined for the shore.