Palawan’s Unexpected Vietnam Connection

Teresa and I continually put off our departure from Long Beach, but eventually we had to bite the bullet and arrange a van to take us back to Puerto Princesa where we had a flight leaving for Manila in a couple of days. We opted for an early ride back so we could still spend a decent couple of days in town before finally flying out.

Instead of staying near the airport as we had previously, we found a different guesthouse closer to the centre (although nothing was too far from anything else in Puerto Princesa). It’s called Casitas de Az Pension, a nice little grounds close to the water and with very friendly accommodating staff. Checking in was a breeze and they had numerous options for motorbike rental. I opted to pay a little more than I did the last time I rented in Puerto Princesa. I really wasn’t in the mood to be changing tires and tubes all over again (although we wouldn’t be travelling any significantly long distances this time around). I really enjoyed the sturdier blue semi-automatic bike they hooked us up with. It was a lot of fun to drive.

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We spent a great deal of time exploring every nook and cranny of town, even driving through the extremely busy market area near the centre. Tricycles clogged the streets here and the atmosphere was so lively and fun to be a part of.

We wound up back at the Indian restaurant we enjoyed so much, Lale, for some good vegetarian eats. Even after leaving Puerto Princesa and coming back, we couldn’t forget this spot and had to try it out one more time. We also stopped by a place on Rizal (next to a Jollibee, a fast food Filipino favourite for fried chicken) to get a couple gigantic bowls of halo-halo.

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During our drives out to the countryside, we passed by a little area called Viet Ville which obviously caught our attention instantly. After stopping at a coffee shop one day, we decided to do some research into this tiny little area at the northern edge of Puerto Princesa. It turns out that Palawan was a landing spot for Vietnamese refugees at the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. Many settled in this little spot which became “Viet Ville”. Now, though, it’s practically a ghost town. We drove in early one morning and there wasn’t a soul in sight. The shanty-like houses seemed completely deserted and there was an eerie feeling in the air.

Soon after parking, two men were walking up the main road and turned into the village. Instantly, Teresa recognized they were speaking Vietnamese to each other. She immediately engaged them in conversation and they were so surprised and delighted that this young lady, who everyone assumed to be Filipino since the moment we landed in Manila, was able to converse fluently with them in their language. They led us into the village and introduced us to some of the reclusive residents.

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The village is just how it looks from the outside, almost completely deserted. It used to be bustling with more activity, but as the decades went by more and more people simply left. The men took us to a house with only two rooms and inhabited by four other men, two in their 20s and the other two in their 40s. None of them spoke English or Tagalog, just Vietnamese. Teresa was able to talk with them and translate to me.

It turned out that these men had only arrived in Viet Ville a few months ago after spending even longer in a Filipino prison. They are fishermen who strayed too far into Filipino waters and were arrested and imprisoned for illegal fishing. A man who was born to a village resident a few decades back was helping them push their papers through and have them returned to Vietnam now that they’d been released from prison. While this conversation was going on, a group of Jehovah’s Witness missionaries came strolling up to have a conversation with them, and us. They consisted of Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Filipinos. There was so much going on at this moment that I just basked in the interesting and multifaceted political nature of what was going on. Clearly, these Vietnamese men were in a vulnerable situation which is a seemingly perfect atmosphere for missionaries to arrive and bring their teachings to the locals. At the same time, you had the interpreter trying to help these men but also explaining to us (in English so they couldn’t understand) that despite the former prisoners trying to paint their story as one of suffering and injustice, that they actually ought to be paying for their crimes and not solicit to us for our money (which a couple of them eventually tried to do, to no avail). He told us they were always complaining about how slow the bureaucratic process was that would eventually allow them to return to Vietnam. One of the former prisoners assumed we were reporters coming to help them and tell their story to a newspaper abroad to help speed up the process. Like I mentioned, there was just so much going on here with the Vietnamese convicts, the interpreter trying to help them on his own free time and free of charge, a few residents of the village watching us from the windows or from their stoops, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses showing up with bibles and telling them to embrace the teachings of God. Meanwhile, Teresa is translating the Vietnamese language into English for me to help me get a grasp of the conversation and what everyone was talking about.

After having some tea with the men, we eventually departed. The lead Jehovah’s Witness, a man named David Palacios, walked with us to the entrance where his Filipino wife, a very educated and seemingly well-to-do lady, and his children joined him. We had a brief conversation and exchanged emails with him before they departed. Later on, in December, he emailed me to let us know that the men finally got their papers pushed through and were able to return to Vietnam. It was such an interesting story that Teresa and I just stumbled into that I had to share it.

After David and his family departed, Teresa and I had lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant right next store. We enjoyed a bowl of pho, probably the most authentic version of it we’d seen in the Philippines, but it still wasn’t quite on par with anything we’d had in Vietnam, or anything Teresa’s mom cooks for us when we’re so lucky to have it.

David actually mentioned a Vietnamese restaurant close to the airport in Puerto Princesa that he told us was the most authentic he’d had there. I can’t remember the name of it now, but we had to check it out to see. I always crave a good bowl of pho, even now that I’m eating only vegan or vegetarian food.

My apologies to David, but I have to call out the inauthenticity of this pho restaurant by the airport. It was one of the worst bowls of pho I’ve ever had, for many reasons, but the main one being this: pho takes time and it takes love. There was no love put into this pho. You have to let the bones and the spices become absorbed into the broth for a good day, sometimes more. Instead, this place just loaded up the broth with exorbitant levels of oil and salt. The noodles were terrible and so were the vegetables. Think I’m exaggerating about the oil? Just look at these pictures. Terrible stuff. I usually like to keep things positive on this blog, but when something is done improperly, the fact of it can’t be denied.

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Ending on a positive note, we had a good couple of days to explore Puerto Princesa and it really is a lovely town. There’s a beautiful cathedral, across from which lies a war memorial signifying where and how the Japanese occupied Palawan during World War II. Those who suffered during this horrible time, as well as those who emerged as heroes, are commemorated, including a large group of American captives who were essentially enslaved and/or murdered.

We even found a vegetarian restaurant (in addition to Lale) that we had the opportunity to check out one evening. Teresa actually enjoyed this one more than I did.

Palawan was amazing, and a great way to end our trip to the Philippines. The flight out, back to Manila, is another story, an occurrence that had the both of us traumatized when it comes to flying on planes. Another adventure nearly over in its recollection with many more to come in the very near future…

24 thoughts on “Palawan’s Unexpected Vietnam Connection

  1. Can u believe I never had pho? Or halo-halo? But my husband loves pho from a local place – but I now wonder if it is authentic and I look forward to trying it.
    Enjoyed this post a lot! You have a nice writing voice and that was my favorite part.
    I also liked hearing about viet ville and the connections to the past-
    Some parts of the space coast in Florida have a deserted feel too and for some reason this is what I thought of – lastly – felt like I was right there during the convo with the prisoners – jehovah witnesses and all!
    Have a nice day

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should try pho if you get the chance, you’ll know it’s authentic if the broth is light but flavourful, it’s all about the broth! I’m glad my writing has made you feel like you were along for the ride as well, that’s always my goal! Are you from Florida or the area? The space coast sounds awesome, I’d love to visit sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I have family around the east coast near space center (friends and family used to be in “Titusville” back in late 80s and early 90s- which is the hardest hit place) and the area has always been so-so, but the good news is that if you go – you are a short distance from one of the best places to visit On Florida’s east coast – it is st Augustine – and that I think u would love – lance Armstrong used to train there too.

        Anyhow – back to this post – the displaced men who were prisoners really have an interesting story…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Just bring some water purifier and maybe some betaine HCI capsules to have with your meals – my hubs insists Florida is a spawning ground for all kinds of stuff that want to get into the human body – and I agree for the most part!
        Hope u have a nice weekend –

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love it when I can make a personal or ethnic connection with someone in a faraway land! What a great fun surprise for you guys. Sorry I’ve been light on my comments on your blog lately … going through some excruciating times with my mother these last few months, on top of a move halfway across the country, a sick dog, and even leaving my own long-time job! I AM reading, though, so please know that my simple “likes” more often than comments are mere tokens of my enjoyment. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just laugh every time I see the motorbikes you rent…thank goodness Teresa is tiny:) Interesting Viet Village you stumbled onto. How nice to have a personal translator:) That bowl Pho didn’t look any of the Pho I’ve ever had! Quite the oil slick on top.

    Liked by 1 person

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