Most tourists heading to SE Asia have one thing in mind: Thailand. They associate Thailand with some utopian paradise of ivory white sand beaches licked with crystal clear waters and fringed with coconut trees. That’s not actually too far from the truth, but what the brochure photographs don’t show is the thousands of other tourists who all had the same idea of hitting up the tropics. And for many people that is fine, more tourists bring more infrastructure, higher class hotels and McDonalds. But what about those people who want a hammock strung from a palm tree, reggae playing in the background, no one else around and a warm bottler of Saigon import in their hand. Well, this urge has pushed tourists to satellite out of Thailand and head for far strung islands in the Philippines, Indonesia and even Timor.
The problem with Phu Quoc is that it is in Vietnam, and not just in Vietnam, but close to Cambodia, which makes it close to Thailand. Let me unravel those a second, firstly it is in Vietnam. For years the Vietnamese have charged extortionate Visa fees for tourists and on top of this, made it so impossibly awkward, they didn’t even let you know the cost, you had to phone up and find out. Then, a couple of years ago the Vietnamese government decided to ramp up visa costs and expectedly, tourist numbers fell dramatically. In fact, so few tourists came to Vietnam that Vietnam had to pull out all the stops in getting people to come back. So, in June 2015 on a temporary 12 month basis they made visas completely free for all UK citizens and some EU folks too.
Rocking up in Ho Chi Minh is still as chaotic as it ever has been and it is easy to get your impressions of Vietnam from the glue sniffing chaos of the domestic terminal. But please, hold your judgment.
Phu Quoc is an island off the coast of Vietnam/Cambodia in the gulf of Thailand which brings me onto the second point, Cambodia has some pretty fine coastline going by the name of Sihanoukville, a cheaper, well connected town where sucky suckys really are five dollars and where beer is so cheap you have to scrape your pockets for change. Additionally, not far up the road is the stunning Angkor Wat. Combined, there was just was no reason for tourists to stray to an obscure island still unsure of its own identity. I say that actually because Cambodia decided one day that Phu Quoc was Cambodian. This was way back when the island was a torturous hell for prisoners of the many wars to hit Indochina. So, as you do. When someone claims something yours, theirs, you do what most normal countries would do – Build an army base and point your weapons towards Cambodia. It worked. For now at least.
The third point I raised about it being near Thailand would have at one time spoken for itself, but now it is not quite the striking out factor that it once was, for Phu uoc offers up not just amazing world class beaches, seafood and weather, it is served up by the most purposeful and genteel people in the whole of SE Asia: The Vietnamese. Genuinely, the Vietnamese are like nothing you have ever experienced, and from travel through countless countries I can say, only the Nepalese and Cambodians come anywhere near the kind nature of these people. From such a punishing history you might expect resentment, but in fact you will realise acceptance, warmth and a welcome unrivaled.
So what about the island itself? Reached easily in just a 27 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh and costing around $30 one way it has never been easier or cheaper to get to Phu Quoc. With most visitors currently happy basing themselves along Long Beach of the town of Duong Dong it is a quick 120,000VND ride in a taxi taking just 15 minutes from the brand new airport. You can alternatively reach Phu Quoc by taking a number of boats from the mainland, including the large phallic referenced ‘super-dong’ from both Hat Tien and Rach Gia fringing the Meekong Delta.
Once on the island expect life to change as the pace grinds to an instant halt. My advice is to skip the luxury resorts and go for somewhere with a little more personality like a locally run bungalow, I can personally vouch for the gorgeous Mon Bungalow and Ngoc Viet, both just a few hundred metres north of Long Beach Village. Actually, as a reference of cost, I stayed 2 nights at Mon Bungalow, destroyed the mini bar both nights, had breakfast both mornings (for two) and hired a moped for 2 days. The total was the equivalent of £64.
General costs on the island are approximately:
Beer: 13,000VND in shops, 30,000VND in bars
Soft drinks & Water: 6,0000VND/15,000VND
Fried Noodles: 45,000VND
Main Meal: 75,000VND
Large Pizza: 145,000VND
Moped for the day: 145,000VND
So what is there to do on Phu Quoc. Well, actually, not a great deal. But that is the attraction. You can do watersports, hire a kayak and cruise down rivers, walk to miniature waterfalls, visit a painfully brutal prison that really is a sobering reminder of the atrocities carried out on the island, and explore the island free from restraint. And that, for me was the selling point of Phu Quoc. Literally, we hired a moped, and set off. There is only one map of the island and every tourist seems to carry it, a skeletal outline of links between towns and it is every bit perfect. Stop and be lost, expect out of nowhere a local to appear, punch you in the arm, speak to you like you know what he’s talking about and then shimmy you on your way. From roads not yet built, to red sand pathways through dense jungle where every second is gratitude to the $4 genuine Ray Bans keeping the dust from your eyes, it is an amazing myriad of un-development. Every now and again you will stumble upon what can only be described as paradise, sadly, you are usually woken from your stupor by the fact Vietnamese seem unable to use litter bins. Even the most stunning of places are not too far from an empty coke can, or empty carrier bag and it is painfully frustrating. It really is with a heavy heart that I admit, most photographs I took were strategic so not to include the litter strewn across beauty. I just don’t understand it, Sao Beach is world class, it really is. White sand, warm turquoise waters, swaying palm trees and thatched huts, yet for some reason people have simply disposed of their litter right on the beach. It is so sad to see.
You shouldn’t let that detract from the island though, there actually has never been a better time to visit Phu Quoc. It is quickly turning into a concrete megalopolis similar to its brethren further down the gulf. Probably, and realistically, within 10 years Phu Quoc will be another Koh Samui and tourists seeking utopian beauty will be forced to seek for other pockets of perfection. But for now, Phu Quoc is still on its way to reaching its prime and within 10 minutes, from pretty much anywhere on the island you can find silence spoiled only by the calls of nature in dense jungle: Look a little further and you are never more than 30 minutes from a white sand beach. That said, wherever you are you are always surrounded by some of the most generous and warm people anywhere on earth. Will this change? I don’t know. But why take the chance, visit Phu Quoc now and experience serenity headed for extinction.