“I came here 35 years ago,” says the man, his face taut yet lined with the harshness of the elements. “It was just after the Liberation. There were no roads and we had to get here by boat from Long An. There were so many mosquitoes and we often got sick. Life was really difficult.”
His five-year-old granddaughter is staring at me, riveted by the whiteness of my skin. Receiving such attention is a rare occurrence in the Ho Chi Minh City of today. Despite geographically lying inside the confines of Vietnam’s largest metropolis, this is far from being in the city. Here we’re in the swamps, on islands in the swamps. This is Can Gio, the area southeast of Saigon known in the war as The Forest of Thieves.
We met Ba Tam at a village market between Halong City and Van Don Island. We’d stopped to buy a bushel of bananas and found her by the side of the road, finishing her morning shopping. When we offered her a ride, she immediately accepted. Still nimble at 80-something, she hopped into the backseat weighed down with plastic bags full of eggs and cabbage.
One of the pleasures of working for a magazine is a flexible definition of ‘holidays’. When my friend Selena proposed a quick weekend trip to Phu Quoc, my mental wheels started turning. Diligently, I asked the boss if “any resorts need checking out”. Nick, ever the quick thinker, told me there was, as well as a guesthouse on an untouristed island archipelago not far from my destination. And that, dear reader, is how one gets roped into 12 hours of boat travel in a four day span, surrounded by the crashing 10-foot waves that guard such treasures.
When Madonna sang La Isla Bonita — meaning ‘the beautiful island’ in Spanish — she sang of a place of her dreams, a place where she longed to be. San Pedro isn’t a real island, but it didn’t matter, the yearning was there.
The first time I met Luong Van Mao, we were outside his bar on Ta Hien. Until then, I’d believed that Mao’s Red Lounge was named after the historical figure. But this man in angular glasses and a beret, shaking my hand with a wide smile, had little in common with the other Mao.