Having been friends for a decade or more with Huynh Phuoc Hue, the owner of the Coi Nguon Museum on Phu Quoc Island, I’ve been down to visit him on occasion but this was the time he took me out on his boat to the An Thoi archipelago.
In the Gulf of Thailand, a group of 18 islets scattered in the sea form the archipelago. Only five are populated, whose residents are referring to Phu Quoc Island when they say ‘the mainland’.
From Phu Quoc’s An Thoi jetty we prepared to jump into a boat and head out to sea. The northerly winds were strong, whipping up waves that crashed over the jetty.
The further we went out into the open sea the more concerned I felt. Both very much land-lubbers, my friend and I were unfamiliar with the metre-high waves pummelling the boat. For Captain Hue and his crew, though, it was something to simply grin and bear. But a kilometre out the waves were something to behold, like sea monsters appearing from nowhere to attack the boat before returning to the murky depths. The boat, we learned, could handle Category 5 or 6 storms, and while we were nowhere near that it wasn’t at all pleasant. Everything on the boat was tied down except for us. The excitement we had felt on the jetty had well and truly ebbed away, replaced by a concern for our digital equipment. The cameras and video recorder could be drenched at anytime. Stuffing them into a backpack, we sought a safe, dry place for them in the rear cabin. But there was spray everywhere. My friend’s face was pale, and while I pretended to be calm there was more than one prayer said in the name of Buddha.
During this time of year the northerly winds seem to bring with them a winter chill. Not many boats venture offshore. The day before I had visited a family in a small fishing village on Phu Quoc Island. A woman gutting a fish told me her family had little to eat because her husband was unable to fish due to the strong winds. She had borrowed some money to buy the fish she was gutting. It reminded me of the harsh months between crops in the Red River Delta, when there is nothing in the fields for the farmers to harvest and at home their rice jars are nearly empty. Only by going out to sea in this weather could we truly understand the misery of fishermen, who are dependent on the sea for their living but are unable to go offshore.
After about two hours of rolling around on the sea our boat finally docked at Hon Thom (Thom Islet). The biggest islet in the An Thoi archipelago, it has the office of the Hon Thom Communal People’s Committee, a school, and a central market, which all serve the surrounding islets. While residents from other small islets nearby come here to pick up life’s essentials, people from Thom Islet go to Phu Quoc Island, which in turn gets things from what is actually ‘the mainland’. It can take a really long time for a can of beer or a shirt to reach these small islets.
Many small boats lay quietly on the shore, their owners standing around chatting idly, like xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers in the city. Boats are the most popular means of commuting throughout the archipelago, acting like water taxis. Rows of market stalls welcomed us with noisy music, selling banh my (bread with fillings), hu tieu (noodles), and groceries, and shops trading in fishing equipment. The market runs along both sides of the road that connects the two ends of the islet, known by local people as the ‘south shore’ and the ‘north shore’. People on the islet have created a unique way of living: they move to one end of the islet or the other to better withstand the prevailing winds.
Each family has two houses. When the wind blows from the south they move up north, and when the north wind arrives they head back down south. The winds really are so strong, bending coconut trees, battering the metal sheets used to protect walls, and swirling sand into every crevice.
We landed on the south shore, where life was busier than the north at this time of year. The further north we headed later the fewer people we saw. Houses and shops were closed, the market empty. When we walked to the breakwater just offshore we could see how strong the wind and the waves were. Roaring waves attacked it ferociously, spraying water into the air and creating a white curtain in front of our eyes. We couldn’t hear each other for the howling wind. After a while we decided to return to the more peaceful end of the islet, where the white sand shore and the crystal clear water made for beautiful scenery.
Leaving Hon Thom our boat took us to May Rut Ngoai Islet (Outer May Rut Islet) and other islets. The scenery was beautiful, comparable to Cebu islands in the Philippines, which is known as a tropical paradise. I’m sure even Thailand’s Phuket would struggle to compete in terms of beauty. A reef, just a metre underwater, with coral of diversified colours, could be seen clearly.
Our boat anchored in the middle of the sea, where we put our goggles on, attached our snorkels, and with cameras in hand, inside waterproof bags, jumped into the crystal clear water. The sea was so still; we could see fish swimming around the coral, weaving in and out.
Back on shore we found millions of shells of various shapes and colours, smoothed and polished by the waves for thousands of years. White tree trunks lay nearby, with salinity making them resemble animal bones from prehistoric times. There were no restaurants, shops tor hotels, only blue sky, white sand, and calm seas. Mother Nature presented her pristine beauty for us to admire.
We landed on another islet, where we met a family living in a green coconut garden. Their house was roofed with coconut leaves; most of their belongings of no value. The two kids played happily in the sand and were excited to see strangers. Without asking who we are, the father quickly climbed to the top of a coconut tree and cut down some of its fruit. The mother handed us glasses of sweet coconut juice. A thought suddenly came into my mind: sitting quietly on this small bamboo bed, in a yard, drinking coconut juice, was streets ahead of going to a party where the wine flowed. We soon learned that this family of four are the only residents on the islet. They looked happy about it too, and I pondered over whether the material world really is just a reflection of our vanity.
Bidding farewell to these ‘Robinson Crusoes’, we returned to our boat and continued on to other desolated and deserted islets, enjoying a wonderfully wild lunch on the boat, prepared by the crew, of nhum (sea urchin), freshly caught from the deep and soaked in lemon juice, bop fish soup, baked snapper, pork braised with shrimp, and rice. It was an unforgettable example of what the An Thoi archipelago has to offer.