I did not even know about the existence of Phú Quốc Island before I visited the place.
Located in the Gulf of Thailand just 12 kilometers of the Cambodian coast, the island has been a bone of contention between the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments for some time. This I found quite surprising given that the island has only about 85,000 people and almost no economic activity other than fishing and a little tourism. The fishing is not that great either; I tried and caught only one very small fish during an entire day of relentless trying. As for the tourism element, the less said, the better. As a budding wildlife photographer I visited the prime forest area and left with little more than a few snapshots of a few translucent ants and a rather pale looking butterfly.
Over a cold beer later that evening I felt like calling the Cambodian government and telling them: “Don’t bother. Give up the fight. This place is not worth it.”
I never did warm to Phú Quốc.
Sure, the people were friendly by Vietnamese standards, and the beaches are quite idyllic. There were coconuts and fermenting fish sauce everywhere and the pace of life was just the way I like it. Slow. Very, very slow. But I was at an odd angle to it all.
In a rather stupendous effort to embed myself somewhat deeper into the soul of the island, I decided to rent a scooter and explore the nether regions where I figured I might find a little space where I’d fit.
The lady at the front desk of the hotel called for the delivery of a scooter whilst I stood around the garden waiting and trying to be positive.
I could tell from the look in scooter-man’s eyes that he was not prepared for the size of me. Yet, with an unconvincing swoop of the hand he presented me with what must be Vietnam’s most iconic artifacts: a 125cc Honda Cub Scooter straight from the 1970’s.
We had a problem. A six foot one, hundred-and-thirty kilogram problem, which he pretend did not exist.
Barely had I touched the handle of the bike when he started a slow retreat toward the exit. Clearly he had no desire whatsoever to witness what must have been the greatest mismatch in the history of this sorry, contested place.
I don’t think I have ever felt this lonely, ever. In that garden, that day, with what looked like a child’s toy at my side, I became a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. The public spectacle that was simply too painful to watch.
I felt like an elephant mounting a broomstick. The bike sagged beneath me, until it could go no further. It was as if there were no air in the tyres and no resistance in the shock absorbers at all. For all practical purposes I had crushed the seat onto the rear-wheel rim.
At the front end, matters looked no better. I could not fit my legs into the allocated space between the handlebars and the seat without pulling them all the way over my ample girth and up to my chest.
This felt like a sure way to self-inflict a deadly stroke or at least activate a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Thankfully, after a few attempts, it proved to be a biomechanical impossibility anyway.
Fuelled by intense desperation to get my feet off the ground, I draped my legs over the handlebars. Still no success – both feet remained firmly in touch with terra firma.
Just how do the Vietnamese fit an entire family of five onto one of these?
As I was about to prepare for one more desperate position – the rarely practiced headstand – the owner of the bike decided to intervene; to stop what he must have considered the senseless abuse of his most prized possession by an oversized and ridiculously clumsy foreign invader.
“You!” He thumped his finger against my chest. “Take taxi!”
And with those three words, he grabbed his bike and disappeared into the traffic without even saying goodbye.
And so I learned that some things just aren’t meant to be, irrespective of how much effort and energy we put into trying.
The trip by taxi was unspectacular (at least it had air-conditioning) but we did stop for lunch at some unassuming beach side restaurant where the owner served some of the most spectacular squid I ever tasted. Deep fried with only salt and pepper. Prepared right there next to me on the beach.
Even though I remain forever grateful for this one good memory of Phú Quốc Island, my fading memory prompts me to reinvent the recipe every time I make it. I use a mixture of cake flour and cornstarch for a crispy batter and I add Sichuan pepper for extra, lip-numbing goodness.
Chúc ngon miệng!