I came to Vietnam looking for the heart of darkness and somehow I found the light. After 3 days going down the Mekong like Martin Sheen and finishing my nights with Chanh Muoi (amazing pickled limes with soda) I was blown away by the kindness of the people and the remarkable distance a few US$ could carry me.
I will discuss the ins and outs of that part of my journey in another entry; however, I want to speak first and foremost of my discovery of the truly (and no bullshit here) unspoiled Phu Quoc Island and the understated brilliance of FREEDOMLAND home stay resort. F.L. is basically a collection of huts laid out in the jungle in no discernible pattern and built from only local materials like coconut wood, leaves, island brick, and humble human hands. The huts provide basic shelter, shade, and in most cases a semi-outdoor attached bathroom. The dining areas are adjacent to a lovely kitchen, deck, and small office that makes up the nerve center of the community and the place where happiness and especially tranquility are easy to find. F.L. is the brainchild of world travelers Peter and Rita. Peter is a Saigon native who left to see the planet at 16 and Rita is a Portuguese citizen who met Peter in Portugal in 1998. Peter and Rita have been together ever since and they are both phenomenally kind people with a passion for hospitality, great food, philosophy, and wanderlust. Peter stands around 5'5" is slight of build and his nimbleness easily disguises his 46 years. Rita is shorter in stature and immediately beautiful with her soft eyes and gentle voice both informative and nurturing. Peter is gregarious without any hint of arrogance and his clear intentions evident from the first 5 minutes meeting him are his desires to please, elucidate, and welcome his guests.
As soon as my wife pointed to the rows of flip-flops lined up on the steps of the deck I knew I was in for a great 5 day barefoot experience as no shoes are allowed in the community areas. At the same time, I had no idea the kind of elegance and class that could be associated with such casual beginnings. I was pleasantly surprised in the first 5 minutes of FREEDOMLAND and remained taken with each new discovery for the next 5 days. Arriving by taxi at the gate of F.L. after a 2 hour hydrofoil ride on the "SUPERDONG FERRY" (I am not kidding) I was comforted to see that the place was truly in the middle of the jungle and at the end of a rug board dirt road that reminded me very much of my father's home road in Texas, not so many years ago. As advertised, we were effectively in the weeds bordered by a black pepper farm and local homes. I was quickly taken by the unmistakable odor of cow manure and while the aroma validated my geography I did indeed hope the dinner table was up wind of the bovines (thankfully yes as I never smelled them inside the gate). Upon entering our Bungalow (#8 or the Blue Bungalow) I was impressed at the spaciousness and thrilled to see a very nice oscillating fan attached to the wall. We had a mosquito net over the bed, some very low mood lighting, and a very large bathroom that served as open-air shower complete with coconut shell shower head. I must admit that the absence of hot water and the open room for the shower made for fun and games much like running through the sprinkler as a kid. I loved the fact that I could stand under the not-so-cold as I had imagined shower, and see the whole of the space and the rain dance reflecting playfully in the large mirrors.
I came to F.L.on a hunch that this place and this island were outside the realm of the usual island resort. My wife and I had recently been in the Caribbean and had a blast, but we were looking for a connection to the planet, community, and a chance to take a more active role in our Asian immersion. Phu Quoc and Freedomland did not disappoint. The nightly dinners were the perfect ending to adventurous or lazy days. Peter clearly stated that it is his goal to serve the best food on the island and he does it in a sublimely unpretentious manner while somehow managing to keep his Vietnamese speaking staff on top of every detail without a smidgen of smugness. In 5 nights at F.L. we ate like kings, solved most of the world's problems, and discovered a paradisaical solitary beach all while gathering 1.5 kilos of some of the world's best black pepper, and bargaining for a string of local pearls that are the closest thing we could bring home to match the natural beauty of this stunning island resting in the sea of Thailand only 25k from Cambodia and under the sovereign flag of Vietnam. I even had the chance (honor really) to offer our fellow guests, hosts, and their amazing kitchen staff a lesson in Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Now I know you may be asking "why the hell did you cook that in Vietnam?" Well, Peter calls upon all of his experiences from France, Argentina, Portugal, the USA, and of course Vietnam for his nightly repast, and he relishes the chance to have a guest cook in the kitchen to show him another possible regional dish to add to the repertoire. Besides, how could I resist the opportunity to make one of my all time faves with the stunning Phu Quoc pepper and outstanding local bacon (man this country kicks ass with pig). There were 5 French guests on this night who one by one came to me and complimented the pasta and I must admit I felt flattered. Granted this was not the same as a Roman nonna loving my carbonara, but I will take it. OK, I promised a review of Freedomland to Peter and Rita and so here goes:
I have been in food, wine, and travel for the past 15 years and FREEDOMLAND has dialed into an ethos that I believe represents a new paradigm in immersion travel. In essence what Freedomland does not provide is absolutely what makes the experience; dare I say, "magical." The fact that there is no A/C and no hot water suggests a primitive experience and therefore the near oxymoron that is the nightly dinner and the impeccable but unobtrusive service make for a wonderful, albeit surprising give and take. Mark my words, this kind of eco-adventure living with fine food, organic service, and unspoiled environs will be the next wave. Peter and Rita will get an offer in 2-3 years from 4 Seasons, or W Hotels with $$$ on the brain and in desperate need to know the FREEDOMLAND secret. I am confident it will fall on deaf wallets as this kind of thing cannot be replicated without a disparaging absence of soul. Pet Cemetery anyone?
If you are interested in Phu Quoc island, it is likely that you are seeking an experience that for all intents and purposes is beyond what a western tour operator considers authentic. You are likely looking to get out of your comfort zone and test yourself, and see where you stand in the coming globalization of earth. If you want to come and love F.L. then I hope you are ready to be changed and for your soul to bitch slap your brain, shutting it off so it may simply be. This is the kind of place Taleb could wander and find his next Black Swan. Yes, the island is developing; and resorts and infrastructure are on the rise. Yet, as it stands now and will stand for the next 18-24 months (before the international airport opens), this island and FREEDOMLAND represent a segment of nature and humanity where real synergy exists. In essence, a stay at this "Home" is every bit Vietnam and every bit the international journey of Freedomland's magnanimous owners, Peter and Rita. The sum of these parts is sublime and fantastically unexpected.
Peter and Rita had been traveling the globe seeking a place to alight for 13 years and just 2 seasons ago settled on Phu Quoc and built FREEDOMLAND. This dream to build a home that can be shared by adventurous spirits and self-aware persons from around the world has come to a daily auspicious meeting along the great community dinner table where the world is on stage each night in a pseudo-utopian version of the United Nations. At dinner over course after course of locally sourced fish, fruits, meats, lots of beers, and incredible levels of service, people gather from Poland, Brazil, France, Vietnam, USA, UK, Czech Republic, Germany, Canada, and the outer reaches of earth to engage in the kind of community that shamans, priests, and even a Japanese Christian pastor could only describe in dreams and ideals. At F.L. this nightly dance (including all the nations listed above just in our 5 days there) is such an integral and joyous component of the overall experience that I never witnessed a single traveler choose any other (outside) option for dinner. I am want to believe that the experience of meals at F.L. must closely resemble the great symposium of the Greeks. In essence, I was left with a wow and sadness that each night had to come to an end.
Now, F.L. is surely not for everyone. If you love shopping malls, fear animals (dogs, lizards, birds, and some occasional millipedes) and must have any sort of regimented perception of luxury then I would steer clear of F.L. If you are rather narrowly focused in thought and/or believe in some sort of human hierarchy in class or the hegemony of one nation over another then you will likely be more than a little out-of-place here. If you are "chavy" or a "db" and you know if you are, then please do these wonderful people a favor and go back to Thailand.
What FREEDOMLAND is NOT:
1. This is not a super-attenuated hippie commune (shout out to the Clivester)
2. This is not an adults only resort (kids were here and along with the locals really made the atmosphere much like a family)
3. This is not hand and foot service, but it is honest, passionate, and unfailing in its efforts to make the experience and enjoyment of the island universal.
4. There is no fluff at F.L. and every action of the owners or the staff is done with intention and in the name of good faith and good community.
Laundry is hand washed and air dried...amazing deal so pack light and wash your stuff
The food prices, excursions, and drinks will cost heavy drinkers and do-ers (like us) about $40 a day for 2 (so cheap)
An open mind and a great attitude will make you a hero and amplify the beauty of your stay
You MUST go on the fishing boat trip to the North Shore with Peter and have steamed crabs on the beach. Absolute Paradise
Mosquitoes are abundant, but if you are from Texas, Louisiana, or Florida they are no worse than any of those places. Use strong repellent at dawn and dusk
In conclusion, this was the most human and immersive experience I have had since I was living and working in Southern Italy. FREEDOMLAND vastly exceeded my expectations and Peter and Rita are extraordinary hosts. In the immortal and resonant words of Peter "I like dat!"
See you in December FREEDOMLAND