Hon Gam Ghi is an island south of Phu Quoc, surrounded by coral and majestic rock formations. It was bought by the owners of La Veranda resort years ago, and is inhabited by one Vietnamese family that has lived there for generations. The father took a wife from another island, and they now have two sons, who help them preside over the land and act as security for the resort’s special private tours.
And these tours are extra special. “Exclusive” is probably a better word. The resort charters one large fishing boat for a couple or a family, and ferries them about a 45-minute ride south of Phu Quoc to Gam Ghi. On this trip, our photographer Trung and I were accompanied by Annia, who works in guest relations (and gets to take epic private island trips as part of her day job). The three of us sat on the top deck of a boat that could have easily fit 50 people, taking in the serene blue waters around us, making small talk about what colour we would paint a boat if we had our own.
On the way out of the port, the captain pulled up to a large floating raft and bought a bucket of live sea urchins for us, their pointy spikes wiggling slowly like something from another planet. Twenty minutes later we were scooping their salty insides out on the boat deck — my first taste of the ‘sea porcupine’, as Trung called it.
When we pulled up to the island, my sole thought was snorkeling. The water is so clear that you can see straight to the bottom, and large dark masses dot the sand all around. I knew there were whole ecosystems down there, and I needed to discover them. So I put on my goggles and what I thought was enough sunscreen and splashed into the water.
Unfortunately, all the corals close to the shore are bleaching, whether it be from the abnormally warm waters of El Nino, or the hands and feet of local fisherman who were stepping all over them in search of shellfish. There wasn’t as much trash as I’d expected, thankfully, but I did find a backpack in the sand that had been reclaimed by algae and resourceful fish, and a few beer cans.
Annia tells me that much of the trash comes from strong tides in the Gulf of Thailand. For some reason, she says, hundreds of flip-flops tend to wash up from nearby Cambodia. To counteract this, La Veranda, along with many other local businesses, are now actively taking part in the ‘Keep Phu Quoc Green and Clean’ programme, supporting community initiatives to clean up their beaches and natural landscapes.
Under the Sea
“The good stuff is out there,” Annia told me, motioning far out past the rocks. So I swam until the brown reef turned colourful, and the formations got massive.
I felt like a mermaid, just barely skimming over the top of the tallest masses, then diving into canyons between huge yellow, purple and blue corals on either side. Crabs scattered under rocks at the sight of my shadow and bright parrotfish stared up at me curiously. I knew my pale skin was burning in the sun but the water was so cool and the sights were so interesting that I didn’t care.
Finally I reached open blue water and reluctantly decided to turn back. The current was strong out there, and I had to bust out all the tricks I learnt on my childhood swim team to fight it, like swimming parallel to shore across the current, instead of against it. It took twice as long to swim back in as it had to swim out, and I’d been in the water so long that the day had begun to wind down.
After a beer, we packed up and trekked through the woods to another beach, where the coral was less thick and the boat could pick us up. The lone house on Gam Ghi was there on the sand, and its family sat around with tea, watching the sun sink.
A beautiful old woman sat in shallow water with her fishing traps, flashing the brightest smile at me as I boarded the boat. I wondered what it would be like to live their simple, secluded life, waking up everyday on their own private island.
We waved goodbye, and the boat lulled me to sleep. When I woke up in the port, I’d missed the sunset. But it’s okay, because Gam Ghi’s underwater magic was worth all my energy.