Fishing boats are a ubiquitous sight on the beaches of Phú Quốc. During the day, they're either anchored just off shore, or packed in the harbor. The rag-tag fleet of colorful, hand-built vessels take to the water almost every night. In the process, they fill the dark sea with bright beacons of light, clearly visible from the island.
One highly advertised activity here is an evening spent squid fishing. Having recently discovered we like squid, we've been eyeing the offers with interest for the past few days. It sounds like fun, but we know that advertised tourist activities often turn out to be let downs.
Last night, we decided to throw better judgement to the wind, lulled by the offer of a squid fishing excursion while enjoying our own beachside squid barbecue with refreshing glasses of wine. We bought a pair of tickets which included an on-board supper of grilled seafood, and couldn't wait to see the nets and fishermen up close!
Five o'clock arrives with a bang on our bungalow door; a woman is here to collect us half an hour before we were told to be ready. We are not even remotely prepared, so we ask her to come back in five minutes. She reluctantly agrees, but not before impatiently insisting that we pay for the excursion right then.
Once we've paid, she leaves, returning two minutes later, eager to herd us to the boat. We're hardly dressed, much less ready to go. We're a little irritated by the lady's attitude, and our frustration only increases when she takes us to the road instead of the beach. A minivan packed with people is waiting to pick us up.
We try to ask about the fishing boat that we were told would pick us up at the beach, but the woman doesn't understand us. Instead, she points at the squashed seats in the back of the van. With a sigh, we squeeze in for a ride to the harbor that would've made for a nice walk.
After we're dumped at the port, our interest in this excursion really begins to plummet. There are boats of all shapes and sizes preparing for their nightly work, but ours is a shiny new teal-and-white affair with bench seats and tables, clearly labeled "tourist boat".
"Where are the nets?", we ask someone hopefully. The captain responds by pointing to a big box on the floor, where we find these:
Whoops. We should have done a little research first.
We wait for over an hour as minivans trickle in, dropping people off to join us. We are sullen and moody, trying find the fun in this, trying not to be jaded travelers, and lamenting the fact that we could've just gone to the port and asked around for a real fisherman to take us out. He or she probably would've benefited much more from the money, too!
When the ship's engine finally comes to life, we sit grumpily as the boat chugs out of the harbor towards a tiny floating market. There, we snap out of our funk for a moment when we leave the boat in favor of a raft where buckets of spiny sea urchins are being sold.
The guy in charge sets one of the pokey, alien-like urchins in a girl's hand for a photograph and she is so grossed out that she jumps and drops the animal, breaking half of it's spines off! Poor dude!
Soon, our brief break is over and we're herded back aboard the boat. It's time to fish.
When we reach the open water, the colorful plastic rounds of fishing gear are passed around, but no hints, tips, or explanations of any kind are given. We don't learn anything about squid fishing, or how the industry is important to this island, or how people have been doing it for generations. We don't learn about fishing in general, and we feel foolish that we've just paid good money to do something we don't even enjoy.
For the next several hours, we all throw our jigs into the water and slowly haul in the line. Over, and over, and over again.
Nobody except the Vietnamese guys running the boat catch anything, and we hope that our promised seafood barbecue isn't reliant on the two tiny squid that they do manage to bring up from the depths. These little guys are chucked into a bucket with a couple inches of water that quickly turns black when the animals ink.
The highlight of our fishing trip is meeting this couple, Sonya and Brendan, fresh off the plane from Australia. They are sweet, smiley, and refreshingly happy about this evening's excursion. We don't want to let our sour moods squelch their enthusiasm, so we opt to shut up, ask questions, and listen.
As we chuck our rubber bait overboard, they cheerfully tell us how they arrived on the island this afternoon, just four hours prior, and how they are leaving first thing tomorrow morning. They are self-proclaimed newbie travelers, and when they find out that we've been on the road for two years, they ask us for pointers.
We want to tell them to pick one or two nice places between which to spend their two (or three?) week vacation, instead of trying to cram in all of Vietnam. We want to tell them to go slowly, but they've booked all of their hotels in advance, and they've already bought plane tickets with which to travel from one major city to the next.
With almost everything about their trip set in stone, we offer up the only fitting advice we can think of: rent bicycles or motorbikes and go for some short rides in the countryside. Talking with them is a joy that makes our night worthwhile, but their enthusiasm makes us feel like spoiled, jaded, traveling curmudgeons.
After fishing for an hour or two with no luck, we climb on to the upper deck, and sit in the chairs to admire the lights of shore shimmering on the water. Inspired by the golden beams bouncing and dancing on the water, I begin reciting a poem that pops in my head, Ogden Nash's Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. It's one of my favorites; my dad used to read it aloud to my brother and me when we were little.
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night Sailed off in a wooden shoe--- Sailed on a river of crystal light, Into a sea of dew. "Where are you going, and what do you wish?" The old moon asked the three. "We have come to fish for the herring fish That live in this beautiful sea; Nets of silver and gold have we!" Said Wynken, Blynken, And Nod. The old moon laughed and sang a song, As they rocked in the wooden shoe, And the wind that sped them all night long Ruffled the waves of dew. The little stars were the herring fish That lived in that beautiful sea--- "Now cast your nets wherever you wish--- Never afeard are we"; So cried the stars to the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod. All night long their nets they threw To the stars in the twinkling foam--- Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe, Bringing the fishermen home; 'T was all so pretty a sail it seemed As if it could not be, And some folks thought 't was a dream they 'd dreamed Of sailing that beautiful sea--- But I shall name you the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod. Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes, And Nod is a little head, And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies Is a wee one's trundle-bed. So shut your eyes while mother sings Of wonderful sights that be, And you shall see the beautiful things As you rock in the misty sea, Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.
We're calm by now, surrendered to the loss of time and money, trying to make the most of our evening at sea by enjoying the night air. If there is one thing that could really redeem the excursion, however, it's the seafood barbecue. Curious to see what's for dinner, I wander to the back of the boat, where I find a man cooking a single squid on a grill about six inches square. There is no kitchen on board, nor do I see any food anywhere. This does not bode well.
Eventually, we're called downstairs for dinner, and fourteen people crowd around the long table atop of which sits a huge pot of unappetizingly warm rice gruel. Two small plates of grilled squid are passed around, and that's that. It's not so bad, really, and there is plenty to eat as many people seem to have lost their appetites thanks to the boat rocking back and forth. The gruel tastes better than it looks, with a kick of ginger, and the squid is pretty good too.
When at last we return to shore, we hop of the boat, happy and relieved that our excursion is over. We're shepherded over to the minivan for transportation to our bungalow, but we just smile and say no thank you, opting instead to walk back under our own steam.
We bid Brendon and Sonya farewell with the best of luck, and walk hand in hand through the port where fishing boats are returning for the night, then through the bustling night market. After slurping up smoothies and watching chefs prepare giant crabs, fruit sellers slicing up the strangest of fruits, and many a local drinking beer at roadside restaurants, we make our way slowly home.