Local Insight: Phu Quoc

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: May 27, 2016

The Gem Island

by Keith Hancock & Hannah Hayes

Phu Quoc is a much favoured getaway for Saigonese locals and the expat community. Its proximity by air to Vietnam’s largest metropolis makes it an ideal spot for a weekend getaway. Possessing marvellous beaches and amazing countryside it certainly has a lot to offer. The best time to travel to Phu Quoc is November to March.

There is huge development going on at the moment as the government presses ahead with its plan to turn Phu Quoc into the country’s premier holiday destination. Up in the north of the island the Vinpearl Land Phu Quoc resort, safari park and golf course dominate the holiday landscape. By the end of 2015 there were 6,000 rooms available on the island, this will rise to 15,000 by 2020.

“Possessing marvellous beaches and amazing countryside it certainly has a lot to offer.”

People come here for all kind of reasons: terrific beaches, good accommodation, the pearl farms, the pepper plantations, great seafood, and the countryside. If you want to really get into the jungle interior, avoid the touristy forest walks and try something a little different. Head to the Phuong Vi restaurant at Cua Can and rent a kayak. This is a great way to see the jungle. On the return leg just drift with the current, keep quiet and look out for snakes, monkeys and much more.

Rent a motorbike, just be warned that it can be challenging if you’re going with two people as the roads are not so great. Then drive as far out as you can to any edge of the island - there are many smaller roads that are not featured on maps. Park and walk. Finding beaches by foot often means less people and these places could be your perfect paradise.

Pearl farming is a vibrant and interesting business. It takes between two and five years to create a pearl. The technicians insert a core into an oyster, then follow a strict process washing them regularly and checking their growth, hopefully to produce the most perfect pearl possible. Take a car from Duong Dong, then a fishing boat out to the farm; the best time to visit is between December and May.

For a local boat cruise, head over to An Thoi town and negotiate with a local fisherman to take you down to the southern archipelago of the island. VND 300,000 should be enough. The surroundings by the archipelagos are stunning, and even if you don’t snorkel or swim, the boat tour to there is definitely worth the small amount you pay. The islands here are lined by rocks, formed in various flowing shapes by the currents. It’s a beautiful sight.

“If you want to really get into the jungle interior, avoid the touristy forest walks.”

The beaches really are superb and the water quality is among the best in the country. The island is popular among honeymooners, and it isn’t surprising, this is a very romantic place. Some of the beach front traditional style restaurants are excellent. There is one called Bien Hai Quan on Ganh Dau beach up in the north. Go a little further north of the Vinpearl developments and you will be rewarded with one of the nicest little corners of seaside that we have found anywhere in Vietnam. Sitting here watching the boats coming and going whilst enjoying fabulous seafood is a great way to relax. It is also worth remembering that as the island has beaches along both sides, if strong winds and rough seas occur, you can simply cross over to the leeward side.

You can find the 1,000 Buddha pagoda (Sung Duc Pagoda) at the most southern point of the island (An Thoi). The end of the road takes you to a small port/village - however walk up the road past the little houses and at the top turn right. You can only see the pagoda by a little temple roof - however, as soon as you get inside you are surrounded by Buddhas, big and small. Upon entering you have 50-100 buddhas on either side of the path leading up to numerous other buddhas in all different positions and situations. You might think this is all, but then walk past the shrine and here you will see an almost 30m reclining buddha. This has a wonderfully quiet atmosphere and feels very relaxed compared to many of the other temples on the island.

“You can find the 1,000 Buddha pagoda at the most southern point of the island.”

Whilst on the island you really should sample the pepper. You can visit the farms and buy direct from them. In order to find out what the fuss is about, try a local barbecue. They eat barbecued meat and fish accompanied by a sauce of pepper, lime juice and MSG. Also, the random coloured stuff you see on the side of the roads everywhere is people drying peppercorns. Stop! These are often smaller local vendors who will sell you massive bags of pepper that can last you for at least a year for a cheaper price than the official pepper farms.

For Western eats, arguably one of the best burgers we had in Vietnam was at Winston’s Burgers & Beer on Tran Hung Dao street. Just avoid the night market in Phu Quoc - it’s expensive and the food can be hit and miss.

There is no doubt about it, the ongoing development will change Phu Quoc, for better or worse. It does though look as though a fair bit of the original island is to be left alone. Hopefully this will leave us with the best of both worlds.