Finding community on Phú Quốc
Booking a flight to a tropical island comes with certain expectations: the hope of relaxation, images of sand between your toes, sunshine, proximity to the ocean, and heaps of beer. In essence, the purpose of this kind of trip is to get the heck away. It’s a simple ‘see you later’ to daily life; a deliberate absence from routine.
Last month, two friends and I booked a trip to Phú Quốc Island in search of, well, all of the above. Phú Quốc is a Vietnamese island located in the Gulf of Thailand, off the Cambodian coast. Framed by white sand beaches and teal water, it’s an ideal location for resorts. So ideal in fact, that it is currently amidst an enormous change. Casinos, trade centers, an amusement park, and a zoo are just a few items on the laundry list of developments. “Go now, before it changes,” we were warned by many Vietnamese. So we did.
After a lengthy day of busing and ferry riding, we pull up to Island Life Hostel around noon. It’s approximately 35 degrees, and we’ve all got some travel-induced dehydration. At first glance, the hostel looks modest. A small bar greets the hostel’s visitors at the road, and behind it there are a few wooden bungalows with straw roofs, and a concrete tin-roofed building.
We booked a shared 8-bed room inside one of the bungalows, which, once inside we realize lacks air conditioning. Immediately I’m doubting my stamina, fearful of my body’s ability to survive this heat sans AC. Luckily my friend Luke snaps us into shape, demanding we get some beer, reassuring us that sleeping with a fan will be fine. Thanks to his pep talk, it didn’t take long to drag our butts to the beach.
As promised, the hostel offered close proximity to a stunning and fairly private beach. Many of the touristy beaches on the island are a bit dirty and over-crowded, so we got lucky. We baked in the heat, drank coconuts and revelled in our lack of a schedule. I couldn’t help but feel smug remembering all of the November snow back home I was avoiding.
That evening, sluggish from the sunshine, we stumbled back to our bungalow. Unsure of our plans for the night, we're greeted by the sweet smile of one of the hostel owners: Sam. “Hey, so have you heard the plan for tonight? We’re all going to get dinner and then to the bar. You’re coming, right?” he asks with genuine concern. I was impressed – this was the first time I’d been to a hostel where the guests did something as an entire unit, (other than a pub-crawl that is). “Of course,” I answered, forgoing the plans I had with myself to nap.
About an hour later, a group of 20 rowdy travellers and 2 hostel staff are sitting on short plastic stools, hunched over plates of seafood. We didn’t order anything ourselves; Sam organized the night’s menu for us. I’m not even quite sure what we ate, mostly shellfish I think. I only know that a month later I’m still thinking about that incredible meal. After stuffing our faces, of course the next logical item on the itinerary was to drink cocktails. The bar, called BitterSweet, was bumping with R&B music when we arrived. Sam tells us that he also co-owns this bar and the hostel with his friend Duong. Impressed by his entrepreneurial spirit, I asked his age. “I’m 24,” he smiles at my astonishment. I couldn’t hide my awe! At just two years of age older than me, Sam owned a hostel and bar on a beautiful island. What a life.
As if the night so far had been a foreshadowing, the cocktails were INCREDIBLE — and I mean absolutely fantastic. With no help of a menu and only a brief sampling of your pallet ("Do you like sweet?," "What about citrus?"), this bar tender managed to whip up individual concoctions for each of us. Soon we’re all a few drinks deep and singing Taylor Swift. Oh yeah, and it’ll be my birthday at midnight. I tell Sam this, and he freaks out a bit. “WHAT? Okay so what are we doing tomorrow then?!?!” he exclaims. Minutes later, the entire hostel has made plans to make a barbecue on the beach for my birthday. I’m baffled by how this group of people already feels like a family.
Sam and I get to talking, and I ask him about his business relationship. He’s from Hanoi and Duong is from Saigon. Looking for a change from the city grind, the two met through Facebook. I ask if they always make elaborate group plans for their hostel guests. “Of course,” he answers. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we can show people a good time. So that's what we're trying to do.” I felt so… inspired. What a genuine answer.
The rest of the trip was truly incredible. On my birthday, a group of new pals and I rented motorbikes and rode around the island. That evening, we did indeed have a barbecue and went swimming with plankton (which, if you’ve never experienced, you definitely should). On the third day, the entire hostel rented boats and explored smaller islands off Phú Quốc. Unsurprisingly, the hostel owners set up the entire thing—all we had to do was cover our costs.
Although all of these activities were spectacular one their own, the real heartbeat of those few days was the temporary community we made. Like magic, a cluster of strangers became close comrades. And it got me thinking: I think we are our best selves when travelling. We're open. We let others in. We embrace new company, ways of thinking, and ways of doing. We share, we are curious, and we listen. Perhaps it's an element sussed out through our freedom; it could be that abandoning our routine, even if just for a little while, breaks us out from society's shell.. from the convention that tells us to avoid eye contact with strangers.
The next morning, I stuffed my clothes into my hiking pack preparing to leave the island. I had to teach the next day back in Saigon, otherwise I would have extended my stay because leaving was legitimately emotional. How could I say goodbye to this little community already? Sipping a coffee at the hostel bar, I found solace knowing that I'd have more experiences like this. I settled on the relief that travelling can sometimes mean finding a sense of belonging, but that the nature of travel is fleeting. I have so many more people to meet and stories to hear, and I hope that's something which always comforts me.