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In part two of Georgia’s adventures in Vietnam, she waves goodbye to the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City to find a change of pace on the idyllic Phu Quoc island. Read part one here.
Only a 40-minute flight from Saigon’s sprawl, the island of Phu Quoc is a chance to see a completely different side of Vietnam. This unassuming island south of Cambodia was once a quiet backwater known for pepper farms and fish sauce (the best in the world according to those in the know), and its sandy beaches and swathes of dense jungle were Vietnam’s best kept secret.
After becoming part of the Kien Giang Biosphere in 2006, it was only a matter of time before it caught the eye of developers, and with hotels springing up and charter routes starting this year there’s a sense of urgency to go now, “before it’s too late”.
Leaving Duong Dong
Most visitors head straight for the 12-mile stretch of golden sand at Long Beach and the town of Duong Dong – east coast hubs with hotels, beach bars, seafood joints and a popular night market – but I’ve heard Phu Quoc’s gems wait beyond its coastline on the 15 islands of the An Thoi Archipelago. Two years ago, the island’s main dirt roads were replaced with stretches of freshly paved tarmac, greenery manicured into anchors and vases dividing the freeway.
Getting closer to the port though, sleek roads narrow to rusty red trails with rows of shops selling flowers, mini-motorbikes, rattan furniture, neon shrines and pyjamas – the daytime outfit of choice for Southeast Asian women. Open shop fronts reveal ladies getting their nails done; teenage girls uploading music to their phones; and a café packed with people watching a soap opera, iced coffees in hand, straws standing in condensed milk.
Phu Quoc port
Down by the water, ladies in conical hats lug buckets of squirming crabs and trays of anchovies, and traditional fishing boats bob alongside rumbling trawlers, their teal paint matching the water.
My vessel chugs into life and the maritime smell dissipates as we carve a path through heavy air into the open waters of the Gulf of Thailand; sailing beneath the gondolas of the newly built 8km cable car, beyond craggy headlands that jut into the sea and past long forgotten islands. Save for the occasional fishing boat, the archipelago is ours.
Snorkelling and island hopping on the An Thoi Archipelago
After snorkelling off the coast of Vong island, spotting parrotfish and angelfish flit to and fro in the coral of the protected marine park, we stop at May Rut island where a welcome breeze wicks seawater from my shoulders. A smattering of boats line the secluded cove, children sit cross-legged building sandcastles and sun-seeking parents recline on the sand beyond, but there are no signs of rapid development and the white beach is thankfully plastic-free.
Back on the boat, the crew whip up a spread of grilled tofu, noodles with heaps of vegetables, crispy spring rolls and chunky slices of watermelon as we putter back to the main island.
Exploring Phu Quoc
Only 30 miles north to south, it’s easy to travel the length of Phu Quoc and only a 45-minute drive from Long Beach to the seclusion of dense national park and hotels with private beaches. While you can fill days with sightseeing – learning about fish sauce production or taking a sobering trip to the prisoner of war camp at Phu Quoc prison – my time on the island is a welcome break to take stock after the mayhem of the mainland.
As a place in flux, only time will tell how much Phu Quoc will change. For now, tour buses are absent, sandy coastlines have plenty of space and there are more islands on the archipelago waiting to be explored.
In Ho Chi Minh City, my guide told me the scent of Phu Quoc’s fish sauce is so strong it can’t be taken on commercial flights, but there are far fewer suitcases than heavily taped brown boxes at the luggage carousel on my return. Tourism may be growing apace, but I suspect this pungent sauce still elicits more pride than a cocktail bar ever could.
Dreaming of paradise? Time to head to Phu Quoc (before everyone else does!)
Contact our team of Southeast Asia travel experts to find out more.
This article was originally published in issue 8 of east, our travel magazine.