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Phu Quoc Island

Posted by Helen on 17/07/2017
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On the palm-fringed shores of Phu Quoc, off Vietnam’s coast, a transformation is under way. With billions of dollars—and perhaps millions of visitors set to pour in—is this sleepy island ready to become the next great beach resort?

The largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc is nearer to Cambodia than mainland Vietnam. As a result, there is a sizable military force in this still underdeveloped tourist destination of just 103,000 residents, known for uncluttered beaches and the country’s best fish sauce—a key Vietnamese ingredient. There are vanilla-white beaches with guesthouses lining the shore in small villages, which can be visited by motorbike, the most common vehicle on the island.

Fringed with white-sand beaches and with large tracts still cloaked in dense tropical jungle, Phu Quoc rapidly morphed from a sleepy island backwater to a must-visit beach escape for Western expats and sun-seeking tourists. Beyond the resorts lining Long Beach and development beginning on the east coast, there’s still ample room for exploration and escape. Dive the reefs, kayak in the bays, eat up the back-road kilometers on a motorbike, or just lounge on the beach, indulge in a massage and dine on fresh seafood.

Phu Quoc is not really part of the Mekong Delta and doesn’t share the delta’s extraordinary ability to produce rice. The most valuable crop is black pepper, but the islanders here have traditionally earned their living from the sea. Phu Quoc is also famed across for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam).

For now, tourism is just a trickle. Phu Quoc’s tiny airport can accommodate nothing larger than an ATR turboprop; four to five daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City bring in a maximum of 335 passengers. The remaining visitors—backpackers, mostly—arrive from the mainland by ferry.

The first place everyone heads for is Long Beach (Bai Truong), a 12-mile sweep of hourglass-fine sand on the east coast, where most of Phu Quoc’s hotels and guesthouses are clustered. Development has so far been confined to the northern end of the beach, a pleasantly dizzy mile of thatched-roof palapas, concrete bungalows, seaside cafés strung up with twinkly lights, and volleyball courts.

The volleyball courts were empty for all eight days I spent on Phu Quoc, accompanied by my wife and two friends. Each morning we would stroll up the beach, bare feet squeaking in the sand. Clusters of Vietnamese women in indigo smocks and conical hats proffered pineapples, mangoes, and back rubs. Vendors outnumbered vendees. We watched one portly German flop down in the sand to receive, from an especially bored group, a 12-handed massage. Nearby, three bone-skinny cows grazed in the shade of a coconut palm, lowing in accompaniment to the German’s grunts and groans. Soon a young girl appeared, brandishing a switch of bamboo. At her coaxing the cows began a slow march down the beach, the surf splashing at their hooves.

When to Go

Phu Quoc is dry from November to April and rainier and more humid from May to October. The year-round average temperature is 81 degrees. December and January bring the biggest crowds.

Where to Stay

Grand Mercure La Veranda Resort & Spa
Tran Hung Dao St., Duong Dong Beach; doubles from $135.

Restaurants

Note: Expect to pay in cash only.

Banh mi cart
Ly Tu Trong at 30 Thang 4 (across from the Vietcom bank, outside the souvenir shop), Duong Dong; no phone. Lunch for two 60 cents.

Gio Bien
On the beach at Mui Duong, Ganh Dau District;  lunch for two $20.

Le Giang
7 Tran Hung Dao St., Duong Dong; dinner for two $15.

The Palm Tree
Bai Truong (Long Beach), next door to La Veranda; no phone; lunch for two $10.

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