My time on the island is limited and so far I have only seen dirty beach. But I am resolved to do better than that. So, I start frantic search online. It looks bad as reviews of supposedly pristine beaches contain dozens of negative comments on dirt, rubbish and murky waters. ‘Seems there won’t be any beach then,’ I tell myself disappointingly when Google suddenly shows me something that looks really fantastic – it’s called Bai Dai. It says it’s a public beach and it looks divine. I’m scrolling quickly to spot negative feedback but find none. By the same token, the photos in the reviews seem indeed genuine and make me want to run there by the speed of light.
Everybody rides a bicycle in Phu Quoc so I want too. I jump for joy and feel like I have hit the jackpot. There will be beaching after all! Knowing, however, it’s some 70 km away from Duong Dong, I understand I will have to take a taxi. I start looking up more information and by a complete coincidence, as it always happens, stumble across a blog post that raves about cycling in Phu Quoc. I drop the entire previous search and focus my mind on booking a bicycle for the next day. I am lucky as there is a rental shop not far away from the town and the owner responds immediately. I love that about Vietnamese, they are so industrious…
We get down to all the nitty gritty of the rental and I am glad the owner is flexible with some of my requests. My mood is definitely improving, as I see myself swimming in pristine waters, surrounded by white sand, a couple loungers and a restaurant in the background. The bicycle I am going to rent keeps me company leaned over a palm tree. Nice sea breeze is washing my face and next to me a coconut and a beer are laid. ‘It’s going to be epic,’ I imagine. Coupled with fond memories from my trip to Ngapali, Myanmar, which I explored on a bicycle too, my ideas of another similarly amazing, local experience know no bounds. I pack the beach essentials, my camera and can barely fall asleep from all the excitement.
The next day I spring up so energetically that if I could replicate that on all my workdays, I would definitely get the employee of the year award. I make a beeline to the shop right after a modest breakfast. The guy in the shop is very friendly and speaks good English so it’s all going well. We sign the contract, he explains everything and I pay him. Before setting off I just spread my map wide in the air before our eyes and ask him to confirm the direction towards Bai Dai pointing at the road behind us. “Yes, Bai Dai is this way,” he eagerly nods, happy about our deal. I thank him profusely and start pedalling like a devil towards the greatest day on the beach.
I observe the surroundings, though not particularly impressed, as I cycle towards my dream. I also toy with the idea of riding with my camera hung on the neck not to miss any of the amazing photography opportunities. But this seems to be too ambitious. With just a couple of hundreds of meters under my belt I sweat as if I have run a marathon.
To make things easier I set the location also on an offline Google map. However, my expectations of a pleasant ride start to quickly turn into a solid reality check. The road is not exactly flat as I had imagined. Actually, it’s rising for the most part and seems endless. I start deeply regretting renting the bicycle. All I can see before my eyes is a rising long road ahead amidst vast and not particularly picturesque fields. To make things worse, a few inept tourists on motorbikes cheer me “Come on” or “Go, go, go girl” as they pass by. That means that aside from physical exhaustion that starts slowly but surely creeping on me, I also have to deal with growing frustration and anger. So to make things more bearable I make random stops to take photos and some rest.
Some parts of the road are so unpleasant that my spirits begin to fail me. I ride past ugly, noisy and dusty construction sites. There are certainly no cycle lanes or anything of that sort and I ‘compete’ with fierce motorbikes, cars and even trucks for my slice of the road. I inhale a mix of humid air with exhaustion fumes. At some point I get to something I would metaphorically call muddy estuary. There is no tar anymore, just sludge from the night’s heavy rain and potholes. I am desperate. Some Vietnamese men riding past me are trying to make eye contact, smiling at me. I wish I could reciprocate but it’s hard. Every time I lose concentration, I run into a puddle of mud which spurts all over me, violently splashing my face. As if the fact that I am the only person on a bicycle around these parts wasn’t enough. If not smiles, I get stares of all kinds. Some probably wondering why someone, let alone a woman, would ride a bicycle here, some maybe checking me out and some wondering at my being totally covered in mud.
I feel like giving up but Google tells me that I am not far from my dream. It says that my beach is near a resort called Vinpearl. I collect my powers and ride with even a bigger force dreaming about a self-indulging dip in the sea. After some minutes I see a resort on my left. ‘Finally’ I exclaim loud in a sign of relief. It’s not the one I am looking for but the blue circle on the map indicates I must be literally a few minutes from it. The map says I should go left, but I can’t see any road turning. Just a hospital. Out of despair and curiosity, I ride inside, hoping I could find some information. A guard approaches me asking what I want. I know I am close so I show the map and say “Bai Dai, Bai Dai,” trying to model Vietnamese pronunciation. The guard responds “There,” pointing more towards the North.
I don’t feel like riding more but this sounds promising when suddenly I see something extraordinary on my left – a construction with unbelievably ugly structures, remotely reminding me of Disneyland. There is a narrow road attached to it so I move there. The road is empty and the map shows I have reached. I am utterly puzzled. There are guards all around so I move up north, as the other guard suggested. I am by myself on the road, except for a couple of hotel buggies passing by. Now it hits me. It must be the Vinpearl resort. I suddenly see a turn to left so I take it, thirsty for water and a swim. But two guards shout at me “Lady, lady, stop!” I want to ride and ignore them but my responsible me turns back.
I approach them and ask “Yes?”
“Where are you going madam?” one of them responds.
“To the beach,” I say calmly.
Of course they don’t allow me to enter but on my showing them the map and asking for Bai Dai they also point further toward the North.
“10 minute that way,” they advise in unison.
The road climbs more and more steeply and I am getting pissed off. According to the map, Bai Dai is here. After 5 minutes of riding I see another turn left. There is a guard but I don’t care anymore. I turn violently and pedal further. I reach a higher point from where I can see how huge the resort is. It spreads across 3 or 4 kilometres and it’s probably the largest and the ugliest resort I’ve seen so far. I manage to pull out my camera and take one shot when two other guards are quickly near me.
“No photo, madam,” they exclaim.
“Why?” I react because I am already tired of this show.
But I actually don’t want to hear it. It’s an ugly place. I am not going to swim here anyway, so with a resigned look I turn my bicycle and approach the guard I ignored previously. I know it’s a long shot but I boldly ask him “Is there ANY way I can get to Bai Dai please?”
“You go this way, madam,” he responds vigorously pointing to the North.
“10 minute,” he responds with a smile.
“I see,” I mutter and ride off wondering because it was 10 minutes already at the previous turn.
It’s beyond clear now that all these guards have been to the same training. I have to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be swimming. I am disappointed so I decide, despite the dramatic steep, to ride a bit further up north since the map shows another beach in the area.
I quickly realise though that I can’t ride anymore. My body refuses to do this and my will slowly abandons me too. I spot a tiny shop owned by a family. I stop for drinks. It feels good to be sitting down, catching breath. I stare at the road aimlessly and ponder. I don’t know what is worse. If the fact that my mission failed completely or that I have to ride the same ugly road back. I am about to cry. Not because I didn’t get to the beach but because I don’t seem to have powers to ride another 70 kilometres in this scorching heat.
But the worst is yet to come. It’s 12pm and the sun beats down on me like crazy and I run out of water. I’m starting feeling desperate. I lose the sense of place and have no idea anymore how many more kilometres I have to make.
I only know I have been pedalling on autopilot. I block all the outer world – cars, sun, noises, the road before me – and just pedal like a bull charging before a fight in the arena.
It seems to go on forever when suddenly I spot a rudimentary tea shop along the road. I speed up as if it was the finish line and stop at the shop abruptly.
I collapse into one of the tiny plastic chairs placed around a tiny plastic table so typical of Vietnam. There is urgency in my gaze. Coupled with heavy shortness of breath and dry mouth, I send a clear message to the woman in the shop. I gesture drinking, bending over in exhaustion. The woman, at first treating me as a regular customer, smiling at the opportunity of selling something, approaches her selection of fizzy drinks. I shake my head heavily as she points at a couple of bottles filled with bright-coloured liquids. “Water, water,” I repeat urgently. She looks at me more closely, makes a gentle nod as if saying ‘I understand’ and without any further delay lays a glass of Vietnamese tea on my table. I grab it violently and finish the glass in one gulp. The temperature and taste are perfect. I make a dog’s face and silently beg “More please,” stretching my hand with the empty glass toward her.
She comes back with a full jug of this amazing tea and I suddenly love this woman more than anything. She didn’t understand a word in English, but she knew what to do regardless. I feel as if she has just saved my life.
I sit for another 10 minutes collecting powers. When my feet start feeling numb, I know I have to get back in the saddle. I thank the woman profusely, hands folded in prayer, telling her she saved me. She doesn’t understand the words but she feels me. When I reach for money in my pocket, she shows the amount with her hands. Now I’m confused because she seems to be asking for a mere 5,000 Vietnamese dong (0,25$). I hesitantly hand the amount to her which has her smile and thank me. God bless this woman. God bless her so much. I feel so grateful that I almost want to kneel down and kiss her hands, as if she was some guru or something, but I am weak for such grand gestures. I know I wouldn’t get up. I bow deep to my knees instead in the prayer pose and repeat “Thank you” incessantly. I know my body is not willing to move anymore, but thinking of this amazing lifesaving tea encounter will have me going further. I must suppress physical pain and suffering into apathy.
Further down the road I try to negotiate with a couple taxi drivers I see parked along the street but it’s futile. It looks like they don’t want to transport a sweaty, covered-in-mud, about to collapse girl. Their refusal, knowing that whole businesses and families get transported on much tinier vehicles in Vietnam, makes me angry. I curse like a sailor and it is the anger that helps me propel my body towards the final destination.
When I reach the shop, the guy scans me from head to toe. He probably cannot understand. I sit inside the shop so that we finish all the formalities. I reasonably ask him to call me a taxi as I know I won’t be able to walk to the hotel. During the wait I can’t help but ask “Sorry, is Bai Dai a public beach?”
“Oh, no madam. Bai Dai is a private area now,” he politely answers with a playful smile.
I snort loudly and shake my head in disbelief.
‘What a mischief!’ I tell myself. I have just done 140 kilometres around the island only to find out that the only solid beach on the island can’t be accessed, while this guy in the shop is perfectly aware of that. Life is peculiar and it teaches us lessons constantly.