It may be on the doorstep of a heaving metropolis, but this island remains an undeveloped paradise, writes Craig Tansley.
In the milliseconds it takes to fall from a motor scooter at 50km/h onto a dusty, dirt road, time slows down – like you’re in The Matrix – until it clicks back into real time with a thud and a whimper as you hit the ground.
And while I did see this coming, that hardly dulls the shock. The road that runs alongside the entire length of Phu Quoc’s aptly named Long Beach is a never-ending, never-bending slippery slide of loose clay, deep ruts and falling coconuts. And scooters aren’t renowned for rough roading – probably why you don’t see them at motor cross events.
I dust myself off and check for damage: a bit of missing skin and a scratch or two on the bike’s chassis; nothing a lick of Betadine and a hasty exit from the shop I hired the moped from won’t fix.
Just as well too, for this is not an island to have a bad traffic accident on (unlike, you know, those islands made for them!). With over 70 per cent of Phu Quoc designated National Park – that’s about 31,500 hectares of dense jungle and empty coastline – it could’ve been some time before help came along. On Vietnam’s best-kept secret island, there’s a hell of a lot of nothing between anything resembling something.
Oh sure, the Vietnamese Government has been touting Phu Quoc as the next Phuket for years now as part of its plan to make Vietnam the number one tourist destination in Asia. But so far, thankfully, progress is still something only faintly detectable on the breeze. Mostly though the wind around here reeks of fish, squid and fish sauce – Phu Quoc’s economy is determined by humble fishermen, more so than tourism workers – and its landscape is dotted predominately with simple fishing villages. It’s also still best known to the Vietnamese as the island that produces the country’s finest fish sauce (or nuoc mam).
But perhaps the most incredible thing about Phu Quoc’s sleepy demeanour is just how close this place is to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City. Just 50 minutes flying time away from one of South-East Asia’s most high-octane cities. There’s six daily services costing as little as $25AUD one way.
With a city of eight million on its doorstep, you’d think the island would be overrun with visitors. But outside of public holidays (and the Christmas/New Year period where accommodation often triples in price) the island remains blissfully empty of tourists.
Accommodation choices consist mostly of bungalows set on sleepy beaches, restaurants come with sandy floors and a barefoot dress code, with sunsets into the ocean the only floor show. Like Koh Samui 30 years ago, there’s an innocence to the place – no-one bothers you offering good-time girls or to selling merchandise from their store. For my entire stay here a temperamental lock won’t work on my bungalow door, but no-one steals any of my valuables.
Night-time options don’t stretch too far beyond markets of fresh seafood straight off the boats and cheap, ice-cold local beer at beachside bars while squid boats light up the horizon. Unlike the rest of Asia, there’s barely any music to be heard, while Phu Quoc has been embraced by the backpacker market, it somehow remains devoid of the stock-standard R’n’B roar of Thailand’s seaside bars. Music’s more a BYO affair on Phu Quoc, bring your own guitar and create your own dance club.
Most of Phu Quoc’s development so far has been confined to the northern end of Long Beach, a few kilometres from the island’s biggest centre, Duong Dong, and the airport. But apart from a few high-end villas that generally blend into the background, you’ll mostly find bungalows down hard-to-find laneways off the main road that encircles the island, creating enough distance to induce a feeling of isolation.
Outside of this accommodation ‘hot-spot’, Vietnam’s largest island feels like it’s hardly been discovered. It’s home to some of Vietnam’s most pristine beaches – wide sandy strips of white ringed by clear blue waters. Its coastline is rugged, and often hard to access.
The island’s best beach, Bai Thom, is on Phu Quoc’s remote north-east corner amongst dense jungle dissected by winding, dirt tracks, while the runner-up, Bai Sao, is closer to a main town, but still requires a topsy-turvy, dirt-road battle on a moped.
But therein lies Phu Quoc’s appeal, it’s not as easily accessible as other hot-spots in Vietnam, granting it off-the-beaten-track status. And like most places that require extra commitment to get there, the rewards are all the more satisfying (the beach at Bai Sao is wide and sandy, fringed by coconut trees and thick undulating jungle to the horizon, with laid-back beach bars metres from a warm, blue-green sea).
Phu Quoc offers up endless days of sunbaking and swimming on quiet beaches, but it also caters for the adventurous traveller. The An Thoi Islands – a group of 15 islands just off the south coast of Phu Quoc – are some of Asia’s most pristine, devoid mostly, for now, of any development at all. Operators offer kayaking, diving, snorkelling, fishing and day tours to the islands. Or if you prefer, hire your own boat from An Thoi Town, or Duong Dong.
There’s also plenty of hiking on offer in Phu Quoc’s hilly interior, which is almost entirely covered in thick jungle (Phu Quoc’s highest point, Mt Chua, is 603 metres high and is by far Phu Quoc’s most challenging walk). In fact, most of Phu Quoc north of Duong Dong is completely covered in forest, with only red dusty tracks providing a passage through.
If you motor along Phu Quoc’s empty roads for long enough, you’ll see a tiny hint of things to come; the smell of fresh bitumen covering red dust tracks and signs for new resorts creeping a little further south along Long Beach. Backpackers in Ho Chi Minh City may well be speaking of Phu Quoc in whispers, but an island like Phu Quoc can’t stay a secret forever.