Phú Quoc, Vietnam
When I am deciding whether to visit Phú Quoc, Vietnam’s largest island, I keep happening upon variations of the same photograph: a solitary young woman in a string bikini poses on a weather-beaten rope swing, gazing across empty white sands to an ocean not just blue but blues. Aquamarine and turquoise and azure out into deep cerulean, all shifting with the whims of tropical skies and Instagram filters.
The waters pictured are those of Bãi Sao, a large inlet on the south-eastern coast of the island, which guidebooks insist is among Phú Quoc’s most pristine. When I finally make the trek to this beach, I clock not one but several swings attached to coconut palms that stretch beyond the beachside restaurants and ubiquitous lounges lining the sand. Dutiful boyfriends strain for the perfect angle, kneeling low or using selfie sticks as go-go-gadget arms to snap their beloved at the perfect angle that crops out the hundreds of sunseekers enjoying the 27-degree warmth. Other couples mill awkwardly on the sidelines, surreptitiously waiting their turn to re-create the shot for themselves.
Back at the quieter hamlet Ong Lang, I wake early enough to catch hotel staff playing their part in the artful mirage. Each morning they sweep up the garbage that washes up from the country’s mainland and neighbouring countries in the Gulf of Thailand. Beyond the resorts’ perimeter the sand is still banded by rubbish impressive in its diversity. I spy a doll whose innards burst out of her back – her rusted eyes staining her face in a permanent Venetian mask – reclining on a rubber sole haloed with broken medicine bottles. Such still lifes can be found across Phú Quoc, which is struggling to maintain the mantle of “secret island paradise” amid unparalleled growth.
Nearly two decades ago, Phú Quoc hosted only 25,000 visitors a year, with an economy grounded in fishing and pepper farming. The most famous export is fish sauce, described by Viet Thanh Nguyen as the “grand cru” in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Sympathizer. Nowadays the yearly number of tourists is closer to 1.5 million. The Vietnamese government’s master plan is for the island to become a “top tier” tourist destination like Bali or Singapore by 2020, when they expect the number of visitors to reach three million. Everyone from would-be entrepreneurs to hospitality giants such as Marriott and Regent wants a piece.
The recent development Vinpearl Land is a hermetically sealed snow globe that could augur the island’s future. The luxury resort is so bland it could be anywhere in the world, boasting amusement and water parks, a safari and a golf course, with a casino and international hospital soon to open their doors. Once you enter the resort’s pearly gates, you can almost forget it abuts an ancient jungle.
Transforming Phú Quoc involves some creative sidestepping of communist tenets. The island has been designated a “special economic zone”, with its own laws, ensuring ideology doesn’t interfere with prosperity. Over cocktails on Christmas Eve, a young businessman whose parents met as postwar refugees in Germany and have recently returned home to Vietnam to retire, tells me how sweet life can be here “once you understand the way things work”. Investors and individuals alike are offered tax breaks. Tourists flying straight to the island can bypass visas, with the sparkling new international airport receiving direct flights from Russia, China and Britain; this year, Denmark and Germany will follow suit. Rumour has it the soon-to-be-opened cable car, which will join Phú Quoc to the An Thoi archipelago in the south, will later be extended to join casinos on either end of the island. Gambling is illegal in the rest of the country.
In spite of such radical change, there are still vestiges of Eden. On Phú Quoc I taste fresh squid so naturally sweet that it caramelises on the barbecue’s open flame, washed down with piquant young coconuts plucked from the trees above. I salute the sun on shaded shores with a lithe instructor named Lola whose abs are so defined she looks as if she’s had crabapples surgically inserted beneath her tanned skin. I watch schools of silver fish arcing across the shallows with synchronised swimmers’ precision, as the dipping sun sets the ocean ablaze.
But things are changing rapidly. A young Polish family I befriend has heard that the An Thoi islands are still untouched and invite me along on a tour. Father Marek shows me screenshots from Google Earth, where he’s zoomed into each bay to find sand unmarred by people like us. He plans the perfect itinerary, but when our oversized tourist bus arrives his face falls.
Driving between Phú Quoc’s main town Duong Ðông and An Thoi, vast swaths of the landscape look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland out of Mad Max. The current rate of development is rivalled only by its scale. Trucks carrying building materials constantly thunder across the island. Flat pack colonial-style hotels go up and start operating in the space of days, pure white and blinding in the sun. The plots for new housing developments can be found on every inland road, with cavities carved into the red cliffs or neon gates welcoming you into spookily empty roads.
Along the same highway is the endless razor wire bordering the Coconut Tree Prison, originally built by the French and repurposed during the Vietnam War (known here as the American War) to house up to 40,000 Viet Cong at its zenith. Now a tourist site, wooden sculptures re-create torture techniques once practised here, with prisoners being suspended over an open fire or having their teeth ripped out with sticks, their skeletal faces carved into eternal anguish.
When we arrive at the docks and realise our “private boat” is in fact a two-storey cruiser, an identical dozen of which are docked on the pier, I’m worried Marek might burst into tears. At each island he grows more despondent, his head-shaking growing more exaggerated and his apologies proliferating. On any beach, attempts to move away from the group mean trying to clear a spot amid the rubbish, in which his toddler Yagota (“Blueberry” in English) is desperate to poke around. “Terrible, terrible,” Marek says, sighing. “Surely it would only take a day or two to tidy all this up?”
Beyond Long Beach, a Gold Coast-style strip where high-rise resorts and beach bars line the crowded sands, tourists like Marek bemoan the loss of the real Phú Quoc. Yet the northern half of the island remains a national park, now a UNESCO-designated site, its protection beginning as a happy accident – the salty red earth isn’t really arable. Tourism may ironically be the island’s ecological saviour, with clean-up groups promoting environmental awareness to locals on the basis of tourists’ distaste for trash.
When you reach the national park, the temperature drops in the clean air. Cicadas form a wall of sound that builds into a siren, warning interlopers who transgress the jungle’s borders. Fears of any dangerous animals lurking within are abated when our guide Khai explains that much wildlife has been destroyed by the island’s feral hunting dogs, distinguished by the distinctive ridge along their backs. It’s only when we’re later safely inside the bus that Khai admits he turned us back early because a line of highly poisonous ants had marched across our path.
On the drive home, I catch sight of two women – hiding beneath conical hats to block out the beating sun – in the middle of the highway. They move slowly down the median strip with shears no bigger than household scissors, manicuring bushes sculpted into Grecian urns, tiered layer cakes and rustic anchors, sweeping up the detritus with palm-frond brooms as they go.
Taming the natural world is a Sisyphean task. By the time they reach Duong Ðông, it will be time to start over again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "The garbage of Eden". Subscribe here.