Calamari? More like cala-SORRY!
In this post, I will explain to you how two of my favorite things about Phu Quoc Island, when combined, became the Worst Idea Ever.
For Jonathan and me, eating is one of the greatest joys of traveling. It’s one of our greatest joys period, but the new flavors and styles are half the excitement of visiting a new place. In Phu Quoc, most of the restaurants are open to the street and have a table out front covered with a huge variety of seafood – fish, squid, shellfish, snails, crabs, and shrimp. Next to the table there is a grill. It’s easy. You pick your dinner from what you see, they grill it, and you enjoy it.
On our first trip to Phu Quoc, Jonathan fell in love with their squid. According to him, it’s the best he has ever had. I like the flavor, but don’t enjoy the texture enough to eat a whole plate of it. I’m sure this makes him happy since it means more for him.
While he was busy falling for the squid, I was falling for the boats. As with their houses, they love to paint their boats in shades of blues and greens. Everywhere you look is a postcard-perfect picture. The boats are not only beautiful aesthetically, but they also represent the lifestyle and people of the island. The rivers are lined with boats, and if you wait long enough you’ll see an entire family joining together to shove their boat off and head for the sea. This attracts me even more, and makes me wonder what their lives are like. What is it like to live on a boat? How many fish do they catch every day? Do the kids go to school? Are they happy? I could watch them for hours.
Some of the boats have tall poles with light bulbs on them. Connect this with the cities that seem to appear on the sea when the sun goes down and you have squid fishing. We have seen this in both Vietnam and Thailand, and in spite of our best efforts, haven’t been able to learn much about it. Why all the lights? Do they need the lights to see the squid? If so, why not just fish during the day? Or, are squid the moths of the sea? The aquatic deer in headlights?
One night at dinner we met a Vietnamese man who worked at the restaurant at night and, during the day, arranges boat tours – snorkeling, diving, fishing, and yes, squid fishing. What a perfect way to have all our questions answered!
So, the next day we signed up for the fishing and squid fishing tour. (It was $13 just for squid fishing and $17 for both.) I could hardly wait to see how the locals catch fish and squid! We loaded up the boat around 4pm and headed out of the harbor. First, we stopped at a floating house surrounded by a grid of poles – each a holding pen for some type of sea creature. I could see a hammock inside the tin house. There was a pile of black, spiny sea urchins that kept trying to crawl/roll themselves back into the water. A young boy was busy chopping their spines off, and our guides bought a basket of them. I was hoping to see them catching something, but we kept on going.
It was a very windy day. The salty breeze was cool and refreshing. It was also causing a lot of waves, but I wasn’t worried about seasickness. It, along with carsickness, airsickness, merry-go-round sickness, and anything-that-moves sickness, has plagued me all my life, but I haven’t had trouble in a while.
We arrived at a spot that seemed agreeable to our guides and dropped anchor.
“This is a bit strange,” I thought. “Nary a net, fishing pole, or fisherman in sight. And what are these strange plastic spools with – Wait… Why are they handing me fishing line and a baited hook? Do they expect US to do the fishing?”
There are about fifteen guests on the boat. Nine of them are an Asian, though not Vietnamese, family – probably three generations. The rest of us are couples from different places. We haven’t received any instructions, and everyone looks confused.
But, I’ve fished before. It’s not what I expected, but no big deal. We take our places around the edge of the boat, and I watch as the old man in the family expertly throws his hook out, the weight of the sinker making it quickly unwind from the spool as it goes. I, more clumsily, unwind a length of line into the water and wait. Occasionally I twitch the line – hoping to make my bait-covered hook look more enticing than everyone else’s.
I watch my line as it floats with the current and keep waiting. The place where the line meets the water rises and falls with the waves.
Rises and falls.
Rises and falls.
Rises and falls.
I’m getting nauseated just writing about it.
People all around me, including Jonathan, start catching fish. Some are only a few inches long, but the guides still throw them into a bucket. The family is definitely in the lead. One of the ladies catches a fish that is actually worth keeping.
My line is still rising and falling. I wind it in and throw it back out. “Don’t look at your hands. Don’t look at the spool. Focus on something far away, Grace. That usually works.” I start to think this plan looked better on paper. I check my watch. FOUR hours left?? I turn in my spool, go to the prow of the boat where Jonathan is fishing, put my face into the wind, focus on the shore, and start to feel a little better.
As it gets dark, we smell food cooking, and the crew announces it is dinnertime. Everyone gathers around the long table. They bring out fish that looks like the mackerel I had the night before. Mmm… Then huge plates of shrimp, more fish, sea urchin for $1 each (not mmm…,) Vietnamese soup, and rice. It all smells good, and I know I need to eat something, but all I can think about it is what each item will feel like coming back up. So I eat a lot of rice.
I feel a little better still, and wish we would start squid fishing. After all, that’s why WE are there. That’s all I really care about. And, the sooner we fish, the sooner I get off the boat.
Then, again, the spools came out. This time they have a different hook (one with multiple hooks) on them and no bait. As before, no one instructs us. We all look at each other questioningly, and drop the hooks in the water. The boat is still rocking up and down and this time no one is catching anything. I ask the main guide, who speaks decent English, what we are supposed to do. He says to drop the hook until it hits the bottom, the repeatedly yank the line. It seems we are trying to snag the squid with our hooks. This is definitely not the squid fishing of my imagination where the squid swarm around us, eagerly looking at the lights as we scoop them up in massive quantities, and race back to shore to grill them. I’m wondering how squid isn’t $100/kg. This is impossible!
In the darkness, there is no shoreline to focus on. The wind is picking up even more, and I lose all hope of staving off the nausea. My mouth starts sweating. Once again, I turn in my spool and head for the lowest, most central point in the boat. This is, conveniently, next to two men who are smoking. At this point, I admit to Jonathan that it is official:
This is The. Worst. Idea. Ever.
I cover my nose with some fabric to block the smoke, turn sideways on the bench so I can lean against the wall, and close my eyes. It is the only way to keep my rice down. I am mentally willing the other lady who has been huddling miserably for hours not to puke, because I know I will succumb to peer puke pressure.
By now, almost the entire family is huddling inside with room where they steer the boat and wearing life jackets for warmth. The guide asks me if I’m alright and says there is a small boat coming that will take me back to shore if I want. But, when it arrives the whole family scrambles for it along with the other couple with the sick lady. After a lot of discussion, realizing more people want to go than stay, everyone heads back to shore.
I realize I can’t get off the boat without learning anything about squid fishing, so Jonathan asks the guide some questions. Evidently, our boat is only a tour boat. The lights are not bright enough. The locals use nets. They have electronics that tell them where the squid are. And sometimes, based on the wind, the water temperature, the season, they still don’t catch anything either. I am satisfied. Jonathan and I agree that even with our flippy-floppies and nautical-themed pashmina afghans, we aren’t a boating couple – which makes me love him even more.
Thankfully, curiosity didn’t kill this cat, but it didn’t help her catch any squid either.
When has your curiosity gotten the better (or worse) of you?