Phu Quoc Comes of Age
The best sunsets—possibly beaches and definitely fish sauce—in Vietnam are actually in the Gulf of Thailand. But Phu Quoc is coming of age. Jeninne Lee-St. John heads to the leafy, laid-back island before mass-tourism harshes its mellow vibe. Photographed by Morgan Ommer.
Published on Sep 10, 2015
Mid-morning, after a leisurely breakfast and a lounge in one of the birdcage daybeds on the empty beach, my friend Valerie and I amble up to the reception area of Salinda Resort, casually inquiring about going snorkeling. Industrious front-desk manager Thomas's face falls when he realizes we mean today. "I'm sorry but all the tour groups with other people left a while ago… like at dawn," he says, unnecessarily checking his watch. I picture a toocrowded boat of awkward strangers with selfie sticks, and reply, "That's okay. We don't really like other people so much anyway!" Well, in that case, we're in business. He lays out the options, in descending order of price: we can take a hotel car to the northwestern tip of the island and try to hire a boatman ourselves to take us to the reef; do the same via taxi; or, we can go with "reliable xe homs" (motorbike drivers) who can negotiate the price for us and take us to their favorite spots post-swim.
Hung shakes things up at Salinda's bar.
Wait. Xe homs? Really, that's an option? This is the first time any five-star in any country has ever suggested I take a motorbike taxi, "reliable" or no. It takes me a second to realize that I'm overjoyed. This is the exact reason I've come to Phu Quoc—for the laid-back vibe that lingers even as the island slowly but surely heads upscale. Vietnam's largest island chills out off its southwest coast, full of empty white beaches, shady seafood shacks, miraculously unsmelly fishsauce factories and an exceptionally unjaded population. The brand-new Salinda is one of a handful of fresh or rebooted faces luring luxury travelers to these sleepy shores, but their operations are all small-scale; there are murmurs of giant, global top-end chains coming in. The international airport already welcomes with special visason-arrival direct flights from Singapore and soon, the plan is, Seoul and Bangkok. Having never visited this pretty paradise when I lived in Saigon, I wanted to do Phu Quoc nice, but do it before the rest of Asia turned it into Phuket.
In my enthusiasm for this hotel-sanctioned but iffy-elsewhere idea, I exclaim, "Xe homs?!" Thomas tries to backtrack, but, no, no, I explain, we've both lived in Southeast Asia for ages. We are all for motorbike taxis.
And so an hour later we find ourselves on the backs of bikes, me with the English-speaking leader Mr. Wow—"Do you know why they call me that? I take people places and they always say, 'Wow!'"—clutching the purple Salinda beach towels Thomas handed us on the way out, heading up near-empty roads, crossing bridges over the little port and a lovely river, the only traffic coming from a family of cows in the road, their shepherd trying to corral them on foot. Super chill.
HAVE YOU EVER DRIVEN around an abandoned airport? You can in Phu Quoc. It's eerie, exciting, confusing (why'd they shutter this one when the new one looks almost the same?), and easy: the fences are down—just bypass the terminal and hit the tarmac. Driving the length of a runway on a 125-cc two-wheeler, you realize just how long 1,800 meters is and yet still can taste the thrill of unbridled freedom. Don't laugh, but I felt like we were channeling that scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise is racing his motorcycle alongside a fighter jet and, as it takes off, he pumps his fist in a rallying cry. We were racing a couple of lazy cattle; still, we, too, were pumped.
Dried seafood victuals at Phu Quoc wet market.
Have you ever hired a local fisherman to take you snorkeling? Okay, maybe you have. But once you agreed to the terms, did he also set a clandestine rendezvous point and time? Ours did. Mr. Wow conferred with the boatman and then said, "We must go 1.5 kilometers south, to a place where the little beach meets the big rock under the wide tree." Got it. We were approaching 13-hundred hours, time to get the package in the post.
Sure enough, we waited on the rock under the tree and, though I swear I had thought it was a clear day, it seemed like fog appeared right then purely for our long-tail boat to putter out of, like in a mystery novel. Once a bit out to sea, we had some perspective to contemplate what the coming construction will mean to the now mostly leafy green, super serene coastline. On this nearly empty northwestern stretch, Vietnamese mega-developer Vinpearl has a massive complex that includes a waterpark primed to open, and their twisty pastel tubes that make up the water slides seemed unnatural and ominous. I redirected my attention outward, to Doi Moi, the wee islet surrounded by a reef where we were headed to snorkel. Upon weighing anchor, the boatman, with a wink and a sly grin, uncovered two fishing baskets to reveal piles of snorkels and masks that looked homemade—"Wow, I wasn't expecting that," Valerie laughed—and into the water we went.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sipping ice-filled Tiger beers at a beach shack, in a gazebo made of bamboo poles stuck in the sand and covered with palm fronds, alternating between dipping our legs in the receding tide and kicking them up on the hand-hewn swings hanging from the branches. A meal of whole fish grilled with chilies and garlic, a side of morning glory and a platter of what are now my second favorite french fries in Asia (my favorite are on a Thai island, but that's all I'll say here) spelled complete satisfaction… or, to give our guide his due props, "Wow."
I wasn't sure a beach could get better than that deserted honey-hued languidness. But then I hadn't yet been to Bai Sao. If there's a more beautiful beach than Bai Sao in all of Vietnam, please let me know. Make your way past the tourists milling about the clutch of covered seafood eateries by the parking lot and emerge from darkness into the promised land. It takes a second for the eyes to understand what you're seeing because, in the blinding sun, the sea and the sky melt into each other in same sweet baby blue. To describe the sand in Vietnam, I've used "white" sparingly, and "cookie-dough" never, but that's exactly what my toes were sinking into at surf's edge. My toes, which I could see perfectly clearly even under a meter of water. At low tide, you had to walk out really far to get that deep, so mostly people knelt in the shallows with beers. People flopped down and beached themselves like whales on the sandbar; kids built drippy castles or chased fish. Every single person looked like he or she had won the lottery and wasn't sure about telling anyone.
Bai Sao Beach is the best in Vietnam.
Bai Sao is a long bay, and I could have spent days at the casual seafood stalls and beach bars, on rental loungers, looking south into the Gulf of Thailand. But sunset on Doung Dong Beach beckoned. Vietnam does classic colonial comfort very well, and the prime example of this in Phu Quoc is La Veranda Resort. Talk about pretty. A bar, the library and part of the breakfast restaurant comprise its eponymous, double-decker main porch, graced by rattan chairs, lazy fans, beach views and solicitous staff who all remember your coffee order. You'd never know there are 70 rooms and villas in this property, enveloped as they are in overflowing greenery. On the winding brick paths through the shady gardens and on the vast front lawn of the newer building housing the understatedupscale suites—think hand-tiled floors, four-poster beds and French doors—you'll rarely come across another guest, no matter how full the resort, but, if you time it right, you will find yourself dappled in the most exquisite late-day sun—rays lasering through the leaves, bathing everything in a tint of gold.
Lounging on my veranda, coconut in hand, watching the trees light up as the sun fell behind them, and, beyond, upon the swimmers in shadows on the mirror-face sea, I realized why it felt like magic. Vietnam is one, long, eastern shoreline; it's sunrises galore over the ocean, but the end of day is always lacking this pretty punctuation mark. I ordered another coconut and settled in for the glittering finale.
La Veranda's airy bar.
ANYONE WHO'S BEEN TO MUI NE, another fish sauce capital also known as the kite-surfing center of Vietnam, knows that if you get a gust of that famous wind going right in the wrong direction, the stench of rotting fish wafting from the factories can be enough to ruin any beach day. So, I was incredibly confused to find the entire island of Phu Quoc, no matter which way the breeze was blowing, scent-free—aside from the bitter yet sweet aroma of cashew apples. A visit to Red Boat fish sauce factory solved the mystery of why Phu Quoc fish sauce not only smells better but tastes better too. Elsewhere in Vietnam, the manager Mr. Sanh explained, fishermen go out to catch sardines, anchovies and other small swimmers, leaving their haul in their hulls for days at a time. When they return to port with a boatload of smelly fish, the higher quality ones are removed for other uses, leaving the least desirable to be salted and sentto the factory for the year-long fermenting-pressing-draining-remixing process. In that light, it's a wonder nuoc mam is edible at all.
In Phu Quoc, however, the original ingredients don't get the chance to get hinky because the fishermen salt them as soon as they're in the boat—all of them—ensuring they're preserved from the get-go. Red Boat, for its part, contracts only five fishermen, who catch black anchovies and use a specially pH-balanced sea salt as preservative. Strolling down their long aisles of 200 towering, 50-tonne wooden barrels drip-drip-dripping translucent amber, extra virgin, nuoc mam nhi ("first-press"), I couldn't hide my amazement: it almost smelled good. Did I want a spoonful? Oh, yes. The taste was light, nearly crisp, a little bit sour and a hint of sweet, but closer to the saltiness of soy sauce than the pungent sugariness of your usual nuoc mam. Did I want to bring some home? Most definitely. Ah, here's the problem. Like durian, fish sauce is not a favorite of airlines. No worries; in our region you can buy Red Boat in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia.
Fish sauce starts here.
On our last afternoon at Salinda, drinking white sangria filled with cranberries—cranberries! I've never seen fresh ones anywhere in this country—our favorite waiter, Hung, who had bantered with us in English and tried valiantly to understand my elementary-school Vietnamese and had the get-up-and-go to chat with the chef about dishes we might like, came into work early just to say goodbye. He handed us carved-shell keychain souvenirs he had bought in the market, and a hand-written note punctuated by a smiley face:
Dear Jeninne, sister,
Thank you for coming here with us. Wish you remain young and beautiful forever, and lots of success in life.
Aww, Hung. I wish the same for you. And for Phu Quoc. Throughout the inevitable face-lifts, please keep your youthful beauty. I know you're going to grow up. Just don't do it too fast. +
From most places, you'll need both to procure a visa in advance and to fly into Saigon, and then get a connecting flight to Phu Quoc on Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar, VietJet or Hahn Air Systems. Weekly direct flights connect Singapore with Phu Quoc on Vietnam Airlines, and special-economic-zone visas-on-arrival are available for travelers of this route; plans are in the works for a similar program for visitors flying in from Seoul and Bangkok.
Salinda Premium Resort Cua Lap Hamlet, Duong To Commune; +84 77 399 0011.
La Veranda Resort Tran Hung Dao Street, Duong Dong Beach; +84 77 398 2988.
The Shells Resort & Spa Low-slung, nouveau-retro hotel opened last year to excellent service reviews. Every room has a balcony, and "the shells" theme is pervasive from the overall design to the little touches. Ganh Gio Beach, Duong Dong Town; +84 77 371 8888.
Mango Bay One of the country's most eco-friendly resorts (think air-con-free bungalows made of rammed-earth, an offshore reef, and two resident sea eagles) long has been a favorite among Vietnam's expat community. Ong Lang Beach; +84 90 338 2207.
Mercure Phu Quoc Resort and Villas Currently the most southerly upscale resort on Long Beach, this new, cozy property has a swim-up bar. Book a second-floor room near the tennis courts for large balconies with ocean views. 1 Duong To Hamlet, Duong To Commune; +84 77 397 2999.
Flipper Diving Club If you don't fancy a secret rendezvous with a random boatman, try this pleasant, professional operation, for aquatic fun from snorkeling to PADI certification courses. 60 Tran Hung Dao St., Duong Dong.
The Embassy Rooftop tiki bar with grooving DJs and delicious cocktails. Need we say more? Tran Hung Dao Street next to Co.opmart; +84 96 806 7940.
Rory's Beach Bar Great spot for sundowners served by super friendly staff at a bar shaped like a fishing boat. 118/10 Tran Hung Dao, Long Beach; +84 91 933 3250.
The Shells stays stylistically on theme.