Words and Photographs by Loren Lazić
We're on our way to Starfish Beach; speeding along on a red and black moped, the rush of the wind bringing tears to my eyes. GPS mapping shows our blue dot pacing along a main road on Phú Quốc, a Vietnamese island nestled in the Gulf of Thailand, now marked as Vietnam’s next ‘luxury tourist destination’. Passing the half way marker, we slow to a halt outside a sign that reads 'Cà Phê'. A word we know well by now - iced coffee. No chairs, only hammocks swinging side to side, roughly woven with mismatched strips of material in (much to the delight of my Dublin-born boyfriend) the colours of the Irish flag. The airy space fills with the sound of short, staccato syllables of Vietnamese, passed back and forth as dogs playfully dart around the place. No doubt three generations live in this household, as is custom in most Vietnamese homes.
One woman sits on the floor, tearing banana leaves into smaller pieces and two more ladies, one heavily pregnant, sit beside her and help. I wonder if these will later be used to wrap sticky rice and bananas on hot smoky coals (Chuối Bọc Nếp Nướng), a delicious treat sold on street sides - but with the language barrier, I never find out. Something I learn that transcends any barrier is generosity. A coffee filled to the brim with crushed ice and sweetened with condensed milk is placed on the tiny table and we thank them with the little Vietnamese we've picked up - 'cảm ơn' (pronounced slowly, as if said too quickly, can otherwise mistakenly translate to 'shut up'). A lady swinging beside us in a pair of fantastically fake Chanel silk pyjamas opens a pack of sesame and peanut candy and hands us each a piece. Gesturing that we are free to take a nap, I assume this is a place workers and drivers stop off for a rest and refresh before a long journey ahead, perhaps to the mainland. Politely declining on a snooze, we bid our farewells and continue on the road with a 'toot toot' and a big smile.
Starfish Beach is at the end of a long dirt track, about as far north as you can travel on Phú Quốc, with Cambodia clearly visible across the sea. Between silky, shallow waters lie dozens of starfish on white sand, and with water so clear, snorkels aren’t necessary to see these spectacular coral creatures up close. Locals don’t recall hearing about the starfish until two years ago, which begs the question - were they naturally there? Either way, at low tide it sure is a magnificent sight to behold. But when I see a beautiful girl with long flowing hair repeatedly pick a starfish up while her boyfriend records, my heart breaks. A different family pulls several out of the water and arranges them on the shore, carelessly throwing them back in the ocean once they are happy with their snap. Later on, when I check the hashtag #phuquoc and #starfishbeach on Instagram, countless other photos pop up of the same scene I witnessed. Sadly for the sake of social media glory, it seems a starfish must suffer.
Another common problem on the island is rubbish, and the modern enemy that plagues our planet - P L A S T I C. I overhear english-speaking tourists complaining of the litter, but with a lack of amenities to cope with waste and not much education around it (most refuse, including plastics, is either burnt or sent to landfill) it is no surprise it is washed up along the palm-fringed coast. By the pier in Dương Đông town, where earlier in the day I see small kids playing with bobbing polystyrene, using them as floats, I see a young woman clearing the beach and I rush over to help. Only having just arrived on the island, she told me that she wanted to show a good image to the children, and low and behold, a young boy watching nearby joined in on our mission.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Small businesses that can afford to are making sustainable changes, such as using straws made out of biodegradable bamboo or sugarcane takeaway containers. Eating at Winston's Burgers & Beers, where plastic straws are completely banned, proves a more environmentally savvy choice. The owner Winston Wojda estimates that with this decision the restaurant could save up to 15,000 straws a year - a mammoth achievement when you think one plastic straw can last for 500 years. Made by Bamboo Step on home turf, straws can be purchased at the restaurant with a percentage donated to a local clean up group, Phu Quoc Sach va Xanh. It may seem like a small step and there is still a long way to go, but using less plastic from the start becomes the most obvious way to tackle the issue. Hurrah! And I haven't even got started on the food; succulent 100% Australian beef patties, stacked high with classic combinations of cheese, bacon and onions, lovingly drizzled with jazzy dressings of maple peanut butter sauce, bourbon mustard or homemade chilli. It is clear the place maintains a devout following as I overhear a tourist comment on the change of the menu design, something Winston does each year.
I soon learn these forward thinking business owners are banding together; Saigonese Eatery, who also use the same sugarcane containers and paper takeaway bags, want to restore Phú Quốc to the beautiful, untouched pearl it once was. With aims to one day open her own herb and vegetable garden onsite and bypassing the need for shipping or transportation, owner Thao Le gathers influences from travels around Asia and Australia, producing a unique menu that easily rivals trendy eateries in London, Berlin or Amsterdam. The local staff who come from all manners of background (cleaners, drivers etc) are personally trained by Thao to caramelise shrimps, pan-sear duck breast and soy-glaze beef tongue. Ingredients are local where possible; a green pomelo salad features water lily stem and edible bứa and nháy leaves - plus line-caught mackerel and giant trevally are from the wet market ten minutes away.
For something more traditional, HIEU Family Restaurant does the job, and well. As the debut restaurant on the island, opening 26 years ago when (gasp) there was only one hotel, the food is authentic, fresh and cheap. Fried red snapper is seasoned with lemongrass and chilli and sits perfectly with a mound of steamed rice and bok choy medley. Service can be slow when busy but as the owner totts up all orders by hand and two mains, two sides and two drinks come to under €10, it is quickly forgiven.
Residents and regular visitors wistfully recall a time when the island was just a handful of sleepy villages and lament on how much and how quickly it has changed. It's true; resorts and huge buffet halls are now opening at accelerating speed, detracting from the rural charm of the island. However, with this tourist economy boost comes more jobs and opportunities for the local people, and better amenities such as electricity and internet. Combine these new modern practicalities with celestial sunsets, hopping night markets, a national park and beautiful buddhist pagodas, you realise just how much Phú Quốc has to offer. As long as youngsters are educated in regards to conserving what is already there, and tourists work on minimising their environmental footprint, there is still very much hope for protecting and preserving this diamond in the rough.