Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The beach hotel


Here's the routine: up at dawn, watch the sunrise off the balcony. Walk down to the restaurant, have a coffee, have another coffee. Walk along the beach or until you pass 100,000 lost flip-flops, whichever comes first. Walk back. Have lunch. Start a new book on the Kindle. Feed the tan. Swim in the crashing surf. Have a beer. Have dinner. Finish the new book on the Kindle.

Watch the evening thunderstorm march across the water on legs of lightning. When the rain hits, head for the suite for the night. Go to sleep to thunder. Dream of war.

Rinse. Repeat.

We're on Bai Sou, a secluded southern beach of Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island. We're staying at a small boutique hotel, in one of its two teak-and-marble and beveled-glass suites. It would be luxurious except that there's no electricity after 10 p.m. No television anytime. No hot water, even though our bathroom has a Jacuzzi tub inset into its marble surfaces. Not much water pressure, either. It would take all day to fill the tub. But the shower dribbles enough cool water to wash off the salt after a day at the beach.

Julie and I don't normally stay at boutique hotels, but our hotel wasn't planned to be boutique. It was supposed to be much larger, with a dozen or so bungalows built out behind the hotel, away from the beach. Our suite, I've decided, is the owner's intended residence.

The common areas—the kitchen, the restaurant and gift shop—are all built to accommodate the crowds that will come with Phase II.

Phase II may not get here. Work has yet to start on the bungalows or on a good water system or on power lines that will run 20 air-conditioned units. Meanwhile, Phase I deteriorates, despite a small army of landscapers, beach attendants, waitresses and bartenders. From the balcony, I can see peeling paint and the balding thatch of aging beach umbrellas. The hotel's two jet skis sit rusting and unused in a litter-filled storage bay across an artisan-crafted rock wall from the restaurant.


I've realized I could have been here 40 years ago, when Phu Quoc was host to a different kind of tourist. But I was part of the rich-kids-go-to-college, poor-kids-go-to-war generation, and while having a family that expected me to go to college didn't feel like wealth at the time, it was. That, and a cousin already over here who was telling me to stay the hell away if I could.

I stayed in college long enough for it to take, something that wouldn't have happened without the draft. I guess I could be counted among the winners of the Vietnam War.

Certainly there are no winners among the American 60-somethings I've seen in Saigon bars, still bleeding after all these years. There are not many among the Vietnamese either, who are still struggling to reconcile an older generation that sacrificed their lives for socialism and independence with a younger generation interested only in money, motorcycles, video-games and jobs with multi-national corporations.

"We don't care about what our governments did," the young people say to us. Then they try to sell us something.

Vietnam's capitalist phase doesn't look as if it will end any better than its experiment with socialism. There are lots of poor old people here, lots of unemployed young ones, lots of people selling lottery tickets, lots of new plastic crap in the markets on its way to becoming the old plastic crap that lines the tide lines of the beaches. Our guidebook warns us to leave the country if anything goes seriously wrong with our health.

It's hard not to think that we broke this country and now we've bought it at discount.

But all economics is local, isn't it? For the moment, the crippled luxury of our hotel suits both our sensibilities and our budget. The food is beyond good, and you can get an expert massage on the beach for $3. Long walks along the coastline cost little, and reveal more beaches and more shoals of plastic, and now and then a single standing wall of a collapsed house, a remnant of the time before the war.

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