While plenty of expats make the visa run over to southern Cambodia and the beaches of Sihanoukville, few continue the easy two hour drive down the road to the newly opened border at Ha Tien, Vietnam, where just offshore, the tranquil island of Phu Quoc makes a short holiday seem like an eternity.
Phu Quoc, despite being a sleepy backwater, has had a rather colorful history. The island was occupied in the late 1800’s by the French, who created coconut and rubber plantations around the small fishing villages. Following a brief period of independence after WWII, Phu Quoc was taken over by the Americans, who housed 40,000 prisoners at the Coconut Tree Prison, which still serves as the island’s lockup facility today.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the island, but were soon overrun by the Vietnamese, and Phu Quoc became a major military base for the ensuing Cambodian-Vietnamese War, thus it wasn’t until the 1990’s that Phu Quoc transitioned from garrison to potential tourist hotspot.
These days, Phu Quoc eagerly welcomes tourists to its sandy shores, and in fact an international airport is in progress, with a lot of resort development projects on the way, leading to fears that the island will undoubtedly be transformed into another overcrowded venue like its Andaman Pearl sister, Phuket, has been.
But for now, Phu Quoc remains a fascinating place for an escape. Not only does it have some dynamite white sand beaches, but it also is home to a bustling local port town with a colorful market, a jungle interior to explore, and some excellent seafood. It’s also one of those rare island paradises where locals are mostly too busy engaging in the booming pepper farm and fish sauce industries to be bothered fleecing tourists, and the isle retains this exceptionally sweet and simple welcoming feel to it, and after a few days, one feels like staying much much longer.
The main town on Phu Quoc, Duong Dong, is built around the river of the same name, where dozens of laden fishing boats set off from each evening for trips into the nearby sea. The town is small enough to explore on foot, and comprised of its busy market, along with a collection of pleasant enough cafes to sit idly in and watch the world go by, savoring the sweet and ultra-strong Vietnamese coffee, which takes 15 minutes just to filter down from its drip cup. There are also lots of simple streetside eateries throughout town, offering Vietnamese staples such as bun cha (vermicelli noodles and grilled pork served in soup) or bun bo Hue (beef noodle) soup, where friendly locals will pantomime one through the correct eating techniques and bring out their children to shake hands with the foreigner.
Some of the highlights of Phu Quoc are either in Duong Dong or just a short motorbike ride out of town. The island is renowned for its fish sauce and fish paste, and throughout the countryside one comes across women in their conical hats laying out huge straw baskets of tiny anchovies to dry. Back in town, one can drop in at the local fish sauce factory, where free tours are offered, taking visitors into a chamber that slightly resembles a wine cellar, where huge wooden vats of the fermented delicacy sit waiting to come to age. Just like a vineyard, tasting is part of the tour, and surprisingly, the small sips we were given straight out of the vats were actually a lot more palatable than I ever would have imagined.
Another large industry on Phu Quoc is pepper, and throughout the island one comes across pepper plant farms, with large sheets of green and black peppercorns laid out to dry in the sun. Pepper is the most widely traded spice in the world, and Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter, controlling around a third of the market.
Exploring Phu Quoc’s jungle interior is yet another option, yet your average visitor is here for one reason alone, to laze on the island’s gorgeous white sand beaches. Nearest to Duong Dong, Truong or Long Beach is a strip of sand that runs almost ten kilometers. The northern end is packed with resorts, which peter out into some quiet patches of sand as one wanders further south. The odd fruit vendor wanders the beach, and there are some operations offering beach umbrellas and cold beer, but otherwise the modus operandi is that of sleepy.
The best beach on the island, and possibly one of the top three in Asia, is sleepy Bai Sao Beach, some 30 kilometers south of Duong Dong. White powdery sand, crystal clear turquoise water, and a beckoning sandbar are just a few of the reasons to linger long at this gem. Several resorts have sprung up, and undoubtedly, this is one paradise that won’t remain a secret for much longer. Better to get your Phu Quoc pearl now, while it is still fresh.
Phu Quoc can be reached by air on Vietnam Airlines or by hydrofoil from Ha Tien or Rac Gia in the Mekong Delta.
There are an abundance of good guesthouses ranging from $20 and up along Long Beach, but don’t show up during Vietnamese holiday periods without a reservation, as the island has become very popular destination amongst the middle class in Ho Chi Minh