I don’t know where I had first heard of Phu Quoc. But what I do know is that I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever been there before.
I have always wanted to do that. It’s up there with walking into an airport and buying a ticket for a destination on the board that takes my fancy.
We got to Phu Quoc late, but there was no use complaining when we stepped onto land. We had made it, and we jumped in a shared taxi to our hotel on the other side of the island. We sat up the front with our driver, who spoke a little English. He got very, very excited about two things; the fact that we were driving on the only paved road on the island, and that a new international airport had opened the month before.
The Vietnamese are expecting big things for Phu Quoc. It’s the country’s biggest island and is situated just off the Cambodian mainland, which doesn’t make the Cambodians too pleased at all. They think it’s theirs, and the Vietnamese in turn made the island a glorified military base for decades. They’ve only just realised its aesthetic appeal and are calling it the Vietnamese answer to Phuket. They’re even thinking of waiving pre-arranged visas for overseas tourists.
Travelling in the 2000s, I often hear about the good old days. I always feel as if I’d just missed them; despite what travel brochures say, places like Krakow, Yangshuo and Ko Phi Phi have been well and truly discovered. Phu Quoc was going to change all of this, I decided.
And, after a slightly disappointing few days in the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc blew my mind. All my crankiness evaporated as soon as soon as we got to our accommodation; the comfortable and cozy Tropicana Resort. Our bungalow was only metres from the ocean, and the pool even closer. And there was hardly anybody about.
We spent the first afternoon pottering about; reading on the beach, drinking cocktails and eating fresh crab, right on the sand. There were a sprinkling of people along the beach but not many, and we’d exchange looks with every group that basically said ‘How awesome is this island?’ Just like in Ko Lanta, the other tourists were in the not annoying category. There were hardly any tribal tattoos and truckie caps about.
Instead, there were quite a few overseas Vietnamese; those living in Australia, North America or Europe. Their conversations would be in a smattering of Vietlish and their kids would have the broadest American and Australian accents you’d ever hear. I realised that it was these people who had put Phu Quoc on the map; they’d add on a beach holiday to visiting relatives in the big cities.
Phu Quoc island is relatively large and its beaches are spread all over, so the next day we did the popular thing and rented a motorbike. Paul had never driven one before, let alone one with me on the back (and on Vietnamese dirt roads, no less) so it took a bit of getting used to.
We headed south, away from the paved road and to a smattering of villages tucked away amongst the palm trees. Every so often we’d come across a vacant lot with a development sign, indicating a new resort was to be built in the coming years.
I didn’t really mind seeing those signs. So far, it looks like they’re keeping development relatively under control (there’s no high rises and the island has one traffic light) and the island is big enough for pockets of undevelopment to remain.
And the people were friendly. I mean, really friendly. We’d come to Vietnam after Thailand, the country that is perhaps the friendliest in the world, but the residents of Phu Quoc could give the Thais a run for their money. They’ve got good jobs, a beautiful island and perfect weather.
It’s easy for me to say that I want Phu Quoc to remain quiet and underdeveloped like it is now (which is true), particularly when we came across beaches like these. These were on the southwest side of the island, and we had them all to ourselves.
As the motorbike was taking a lot longer than expected, we decided to make our turnaround point Sao Beach, on the east side of the island. I’d read that it was the most beautiful beach on the island, but a tad tricky to get to. Ah, yes it was.
Somehow I figured that the beach was about three kilometres off the main road (which was made of red dirt) and we pretty much walked the bike down the last few hundred metres. It was worth it, though. There were a few people around at Sao Beach, but you’d kind of expect to have to share it when it’s this beautiful.
We got an American couple to take our picture, went for a swim and munched away happily on seafood. We could have spent longer at Sao but we were keen to see more of the island, setting off again through its interior. Almost as if to remind us that the island was still firmly focused on fishing (and manufacturing fish sauce, which gives the island a telling aroma in some parts) we came across a colourful fishing village along one of the canals.
We were back at the beach, drinks in hand, to watch the sunset. Dinner that night was tapas at a swanky place down the road run by two Spanish mates. It was some of the best tapas I’ve ever had, in the unlikely place of Phu Quoc.
We didn’t want to leave Phu Quoc; two nights wasn’t nearly enough. We finished up our last day with massages on the beach and one last visit to the nearby beach bar. I have no idea what Phu Quoc’s going to look like in a few years’ time. We departed from the new airport, which has been built to serve the masses. Less than ten per cent of the airport was being used, so there’s plenty of room for it to grow.
In a few years, I don’t think Paul and I will be the only people I personally know who have been to Phu Quoc. It’s too lovely, and the Vietnamese Government (and the Vietnamese themselves) are too business-savvy these days to let such potential not reap financial benefits.
For me, Phu Quoc was my ‘off the beaten track’ place. It was that hidden gem we hear about all the time, but so often aren’t hidden at all. Despite loving the place, I don’t think I’d like to come back in a decade and see all the development; I want my memories of Phu Quoc to remain pure. Riding the motorbike, eating crab on the beach and having whole coastlines to ourselves; they’re the moments that I’ll treasure.