The island of Palawan made its statement by poising such beauty and allure, it would make anyone visiting not want to leave. To be honest, I had never heard of Palawan before finding out we’d be living on the renown paradise island. It wasn’t until I had done a little research to find out that we were in for a treat.
This quant island boasts some of the worlds most beautiful scenery, and that might be an under statement. It has it all; beaches, mountains, the bluest water an ocean can have, friendly locals–the list goes on. But for me, there was something more that had really made my time here memorable and personal. An experience that would’ve never unfolded had it not been for a visit to the unassuming, Vietville, and a life changing phone call…
We settled in quickly having already spent a few days in Mactan and Bohol. Now, we’d be settled in our new home on Palawan for the next three weeks. Working at the Bamboo Hostel (one of the most relaxing hostels) was nothing short of amazing. We met other travelers, each having incredible stories to share, and on our days off, we’d squeeze in tours and scooter trips exploring the island.
Swimming with whale sharks, exploring the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, or heading north to El Nido, which opens a whole other world to the islands dynamics of beauty and adventure, are all must-do things, and that’s just to name a few. So…”what to do first?” When we had earned our first few days off, we decided to check out the Subterranean River, a river/cave system that I would highly recommend seeing. This trip was an amazing experience in itself but this isn’t where the story takes place. But of course, I still gotta show you some photos. 😉
It was actually when we were on our way to the subterranean river where we had crossed paths with Vietville. We had been driving through the tropical landscape for quite sometime and suddenly, a small but modern looking restaurant appeared with the name, Vietville, written out on a small wooden sign.
“A Vietnamese restaurant on Palawan”, I had thought. Which is indeed true, but I had also found out that it was much more…
A Place Called Vietville
For those who have been to the island, Vietville is probably the last thing on peoples minds. In all honesty, it would have been the same for me. If it wasn’t for the particular past of someone who is very dear to me, and who ultimately makes what this post is about, it has now been the highlight. Before I go on, let me explain Vietville.
In a nutshell, Vietville is a former refugee camp from the Vietnam war that eventually turned into a restaurant. It’s now a place for curious visitors to check out part of the island’s history. The majority of the camp still exists, although the nature and shrubbery surrounding it has taken its course over the years. Amazingly, there’s still a small group of former Vietnamese refugees who’ve decided to stay and call Palawan home.
As with any event that claims the lives of the innocent, or the dismantling of one’s home, the Vietnam war was no exception. It was a tragic event and remains steep in history. For those who escaped, not only the brutality of war, but the treacherous journey over relentless seas trying to seek refuge elsewhere, Palawan was one of these places. A place that opened its arms to nearly two-thousand Vietnamese.
Riding by you would never think it was once a former refugee camp. The main attraction, the Vietville restaurant, sits in the front. Surrounding it are small dilapidated homes, which at the time, were the original houses that the refugees had to call home.
The Phone Call
It had been a while since I phoned any of my family. I’m not even sure if they knew we were in the Philippines at this point. I thought it’d be a good idea to “check-in,” especially after finding out about Vietville.
My mom was the first person who came to mind. Just an ordinary chat updating her on our travels, how much we all miss everyone, any changes from back home…the stuff that comes to mind having not been home for about four months. Finally, I told her about Vietville…
“It’s amazing, there’s a former Vietnamese refugee camp on the island.” I told her.
What she told me next, I would of never expected. The following words from her mouth will forever live with me til the day I die…
As I excitedly explained Vietville, she abruptly said, “Donald, I was there.”
Just four simple words. Four words to make life stop as if someone had pushed the pause button on life’s remote control. I suddenly had goosebumps.
I immediately tried rethinking what she had just said. “Maybe she’s been to the Philippines or Palawan in a more general sense,” I had thought.
“Oh, you’ve been to the Philippines?” I replied.
She chuckled and reiterated–“I was there, at that same exact camp…”
Our trip here just gave itself a new meaning.
Our Vietville Experience
The day had finally come to make our trip to the place that had been on my mind for a while. It was our first full day off and we had the day planned: rent a scooter, check out Vietville, and end the day at Nagtabon beach.
Navigating around Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, is really easy and there’s a lot of nearby attractions. Hopping on a scooter and checking out what it has to offer is ideal. Vietville, being one of these places, is definitely worth the trip. It’s no more than a 25 minute ride from the city center and sits on the main road, so you can’t miss it.
We finally arrived to the long awaited destination and the first thing on our minds was trying the food. Before coming, we heard Vietville had pretty good Vietnamese food and at this point it had been a good while since I had a steaming bowl of Pho; one of my favorites growing up.
When our food arrived I was pretty damn excited. Spring rolls, a pork and chicken banh mi, and of course, a hot piping bowl of pho. The array of comfort food glittered our table. It couldn’t of been more than fifteen minutes until each plate only reflected the light that shined from above our table.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call the food authentic, but that’s not to say it wasn’t tasty. It was really good. Definitely different, hence the “not so authentic” comment, but still delicious and packed with flavor.
What We Stumbled Upon
After our lunch, we decided to take a stroll through the village and check out what once was the home of many Vietnamese people, including my mom. I couldn’t help but imagine her walking on the same exact path, while we explored the little village.
As we did, I noticed two people in the far distance doing yard work. I didn’t think of it as anything, but there was something in the back of my mind telling me that those could be the remaining Vietnamese that still reside here.
We went ahead and walked towards the couple and as we approached, I listened in on their conversation. It was as clear as day. They casually spoke Vietnamese to one another and eventually made eye contact with us as we walked by.
I’ll be honest, but for some reason I was a little nervous at this point. A lot of emotion ran through me as their dim eyes smiled at us. I eventually broke the ice and said hi in Vietnamese. Their was shock and surprise from both of them, but before I knew it we were in a full blown conversation.
I told them that my mother was a refugee here and I even asked if they might of known her. But they soon defused my curiosity after stating that they had come in 1989; nine years after my mother had come.
It was a really cool experience. We found out that the two were indeed a married couple and after our chat, the husband even insisted on showing us around. He took us through the whole village while reminiscing about his time here.
We said our farewells and off we went to Nagtabon. Overall, it was an incredible experience. If you ever get the chance, please check out the Vietville village. It’s a place that doesn’t get much recognition, but I think it’s well deserved. They have great food, everyone’s friendly, and the village itself shows a glimpse of raw history not so far into the past. If you happen to see the lovely couple who reside here, be sure to say hi as well 😉 I’m sure they’ll really appreciate it.
There wasn’t a better way to end our days journey at Nagtabon beach. Exactly what I needed to reflect and collect my thoughts…
My mom is an incredible women; someone who I look up to dearly. Despite what she’s been through, she has accomplished so much: she’s owned her own business, raised three children on her own, even sponsored her whole family (my extended family) to come to the United States.
And to think, before any of that had happened, she was here. Just twenty years old and determined to continue her voyage to America for a new beginning. As I walk along the same rubbled road and through the lush greenery of this beautiful island, it makes me think about how fortunate I am to be here–just because.
I had always known my family’s story of resettling in America, but this experience really gave me a whole new perspective. I feel as if I was some sort of detective who had found the remnants of a women’s journey and struggle in new lands.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an unfamiliar story. This is and always has been a reality for people all over the world.
“Home is where the heart is”, as the old saying goes. For some, that might mean leaving their hearts behind at the front door of wherever home is. For my mom, she left it in a place she calls Vietnam and her journey took her to the same island we find ourselves enjoying our time at. I think about this quite often. I think about how lucky I am to be traveling the world at my own leisure; doing everything that I am because I want to and because I can.
But most importantly, it wouldn’t have been possible without her. The courage and strength to have persevered the hardships of escaping a war-torn country, yet overcoming the obstacles of a new beginning from afar will be something I will never be able to comprehend.
To wrap up this post, here’s to all the mom’s out there doin’ what they do. The unconditional love and care they manifest is beyond me. No matter how much we put them through or how little we seem to care, they’re always by our side. Love you Má!!!