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Vietnam: Finding paradise on Phu Quoc island

Phu Quoc Island, just off the southern coast of Vietnam, has a chequered past. It was “discovered” initially by the Chinese, who used it as a base for harvesting sea cucumbers and pearls. It then became a fiefdom, later occupied by the French, then became a P.O.W. camp, and is even rumoured to have been a base for Malaysian pirates about 50 years ago. Today, it’s renowned for two main exports: black pepper and an excellent fish sauce. And, more recently, tourism, which is growing and will soon become its prime industry.

The island itself is about the same size as Singapore, but that’s where the similarity ends. With a population of 100,000, and two thirds of the island a national park, the draws here are the white sandy beaches and a totally relaxed, low-key, slow-down-and-spot-the-starfish kind of mood.

Many flights arrive each day from Ho Chi Minh City, and with the airport just outside the main town of Duong Dong, visitors are at the beach in a flash. The only tarmac on the island runs from the airport through the 25,000-strong town, after which you’re on red dirt roads. The dry season dust kicked up from traffic drapes a red layer over the roadside vegetation (as well as pedestrians) and motorcyclists wear facemasks. During the wet season – well, it gets extremely muddy.

 

Fortunately, all the accommodation on the island is located right on the beach, half a kilometre off the main dirt road – down what some would consider an alley but is a regular side street here. The roads are paved with a rough assortment of brick and rubble, leading to private homes, bars, businesses and resorts. Sadly, there is rubbish strewn everywhere, in typical third-world fashion, and it takes an effort to look beyond it. Arrival at any of the resorts (a loose term – most are simply a collection of bungalows with a restaurant tossed in for good measure) feels as though you are coming in through the back entrance. But once you’re past that, the beach frontage is remarkable.

While the pace here is certainly low-key, there is a burgeoning number of places to stay, from rustic round huts to four-star resorts, with a price range to suit. They are run by an assortment of nationalities. Some are Vietnamese family-owned and operated, others are run by Americans, Kiwis, and Swiss. One even has a South African chef. The island’s tourism community is definitely multi-cultural, and a wide range of cuisines is offered.

Sea Star Resort became our home by default rather than choice (other options were fully booked), but it turned out to be perfect. The large airy veranda with its lazy chairs gave us a wonderful vantage point once the sun got too hot for comfort. The room itself was basic but spacious and clean, with a big bathroom. The TV did not get turned on, but the fridge was put to good use, and the mozzie net added to the romantic ambience. The staff members were friendly, and Cho the hotel guide (aka Mr Information) had a wealth of knowledge on the island and its activities. Motorbikes were available for hire, and various tours on and off the island could be booked.

The place to “hang” here is Ba Keo beach (aka Long Beach). There are deck chairs beneath palm trees, an endless ocean to dip into, ladies offering massage in the shade, and the occasional fruit-seller squatting on her haunches to peel and slice fresh fruit for you. The sand is soft, and a cool breeze from the ocean keeps the humidity down and the temperatures gorgeous. For those with energy, there is volleyball, diving, and motorbiking. You can also visit the nearby fish factory and pepper plantation. Most of the fishing is done at night with lights, and there’s an assortment of fishing trips for tourists.

Sundowners are the thing to do. The most popular spot for this is also the least sophisticated – a row of red plastic chairs and rough tables facing the ocean and sunset, with drinks served from a basic shack. This unnamed little joint is run by young Vietnamese whose broken English is compensated for with warm smiles and an obvious willingness to please. An assortment of fresh fish can be grilled to order on an open wok. Cold beer and freshly grilled tiger prawns was our order of the day – with a slice of lemon and a sprinkling of peppery salt. Delicious! If you’re looking for something less rustic, stroll the length of the beach and you’ll find plenty of other places to eat.

There is something romantic about strolling barefoot along a beach, with light surf teasing the ankles and a light breeze lifting the spirits. Add a deep royal-blue sky, flickering stars appearing as darkness falls, and the beckoning lights of the restaurants.
It won’t feel the same as the island develops. Get there soon.

Getting There
Singapore Airlines and Tiger Airways fly daily to Ho Chi Minh City. Connect from there to Phu Quoc. Vietnam Airlines has several daily options from Ho Chi Minh City. You can also take a road trip to Rach Ghia and then a boat to Phu Quoc.

Visas
Most nationalities require visas. Exceptions are those from ASEAN nations, Korea, Japan, and Scandinavian countries, who are granted 15 days without a visa. For visa application forms, go to www.vietnamembassy-singapore.org/en. (Click on Consular Affairs and then Forms.) The Vietnamese Embassy is at 10 Leedon Park. Call (+65) 6462 5938.

Where to Stay
La Veranda ($$$)
Cassia Cottage ($$)
Sea Star Resort ($)

Where to Eat


Restaurants can be found along the beach at all the resorts. La Veranda has tables and a buffet on the beach every Saturday night. Mai House Resort has a great location, music, food. Sea Star Resort is a must-try for its rice-flour pancakes. For Aussies and Kiwis, Buddies in Duong Dong town has Vegemite toast and New Zealand ice cream.

Currency
You can use Vietnamese dong or US dollars on the island. Small change will usually be given in dong only. Major credit cards are accepted.

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