Sitting just 15kms from Cambodia but 45kms from the Vietnamese coastline in the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc looks as if it should be a part of the closer country, but it was ceded to the Vietnamese by the French in 1949. The injustice of this situation must be doubly painful for the Cambodians, since development in the last decade on Phu Quoc promises to make it one of the most popular beach destinations in Southeast Asia.
Though there are several attractive islands off the east coast of Vietnam, none of them fits the bill as a tropical paradise for modern tourists quite as well as Phu Quoc. It’s ringed by beautiful, palm-fringed beaches, with offshore reefs ripe for snorkelling and diving. The lush, hilly and as yet undeveloped interior cries out for exploration, and a good range of accommodation provides somewhere for every pocket.
The only town of any size on the island is Duong Dong, situated in the middle of the west coast. It’s a typical small Vietnamese town with its market, fish-sauce factory, fishing harbour and high street, though the increasing number of foreign tourists means that several shops now cater for tourists’ rather than locals’ needs, and there’s a thriving night market too. The town is conveniently placed for visitors, as the beach that stretches south from here, suitably named Long Beach (well, it is around 20kms long), is where the lion’s share of the island’s accommodation is found.
Plenty of visitors to Phu Quoc see nothing of the island apart from a close-up view of the beach in front of their chosen resort, but there’s certainly lots more out there to see. The best way of getting around is by rented motorbike, which are available all over the island, though be sure to check things like brakes and lights before setting out. Most roads on Phu Quoc are unsealed, so riding around becomes an exciting adventure, though be prepared to arrive back at your lodgings covered in a red film of dust.
On Long Beach, far south of the resorts and hotels, Phu Quoc Pearl Farm shows how pearls are farmed and presents the chance to pick up a necklace or bracelet as a souvenir. At the extreme southern tip of the islands is a fishing village called An Thoi, and a few kilometres off the south coast are the An Thoi Islands, which some divers rate the best dive site in all Vietnam.
On the road leading to An Thoi are a couple of curious attractions. One is awar memorial in which is cut the shape of a human form, and the other is former prison, which chronicles the use of the island to detain political prisoners in the past. It is interesting to note while riding round the island that, unlike on the neighbouring delta, there are no rice fields here, though the island is famed for its black pepper and especially its fish sauce, deemed the most delicious in the land by connoisseurs.
Near the south end of the east coast are a couple of small beaches that take the prize for the softest and whitest sand. One of them, Ice Cream Beach, is controlled by the military and generally off-limits, but the other, Star Beach, is equally impressive and is a favourite among locals at weekends. A couple of small restaurants on the beach do a roaring trade in grilled fish and beer.
There are several other beaches scattered around the island, but only one of them has anywhere to stay. This is Ong Lang Beach, which occupies the stretch of the west coast going north from Duong Dong. There are just a few, rather exclusive, resorts here and an atmosphere of total peace, so this is the place to head for if you really want to unwind. Several bays are separated by rocky promontories, and offshore are coral reefs worth exploring with a mask and snorkel.
Diving is one of the most popular activities on Phu Quoc, though keep in mind that the season only lasts from November to May. Several companies operate dive ships in the region and any hotel will be able to make arrangements for you. Another unusual activity that appeals to some visitors is squid fishing. Every night boats head offshore and switch on bright lights to attract the squid; tourists can sign up to join a boat and watch the fishermen in action.
Where to stay on Phu Quoc Island
La Veranda: Delightful colonial-style building with every conceivable luxury in the rooms, as well as a spa, a swimming pool and one of the island’s best restaurants. Rooms from US$140; Tran Hung Dao Street, Duong Dong Beach, Long Beach/Duong Dong Town, Phu Quoc Island… more details and booking
Mango Bay: Occupying as big sweep of Ong Lang Beach, this laid-back resort is both eco-friendly (i.e. no air con etc) and pleasing to the eye; just the spot to snooze under the palms, lounge on the dining terrace or splash around the offshore corals. Rooms from US$42; Ong Lang Beach, Phu Quoc Island… more details and booking
More on Phu Quoc hotels and guesthouses.
Where to eat on Phu Quoc
Pepper Tree: This classy, open sided restaurant on the first floor of La Veranda Resort cooks up some of the most delicious dishes available on Phu Quoc. Splash out on the lobster, and wash it down with a chilled glass of wine. Open: 10:30-22:00 (daily); Long Beach, Tran Hung Dao Street, Duong Dong Beach, tel: +84 77 398 2988, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.laverandaresorts.com.
Le Deauville: Thoughtfully-prepared French cuisine makes this spot on Long Beach something special. Try the cassolette of stuffed squid or the barbecued chicken. In Kim Nam Phuong Resort,Long Beach, tel: +84 77 370 2679.
Getting to Phu Quoc
By far the easiest way to get to Phu Quoc is on a flight from Saigon, of which there are several daily (number depends on the season). A more interesting, but much more time-consuming approach, is via the Mekong Delta, soaking up the sights of rural Vietnam before soaking up the rays on the beach. Regular express ferries run between Phu Quoc’s east coast and the ports of Rach Gia and Ha Tien on the mainland.