Vietnam’s tropical resort island of Phu Quoc is a great place to escape the city and engage with nature … so long as rapid tourism development doesn’t overwhelm the laid-back ambience.
The view from the windows of the world’s longest over-the-sea cable car was magnificent.
From our ephemeral perch, more than 500 feet above the Gulf of Thailand, Phong Lan and I looked down upon the fishing village of An Thó’i at the southern tip of Phu Quoc island. Hundreds of commercial vessels, their red decks sharply contrasting with the turquoise and aquamarine of the water, crowded close to a rocky shoreline where coconut palms and mango trees drooped over modern villas. Soon we soared above heavily wooded isles reachable only by sea, the tin roofs of their traditional homes sloping toward golden beaches and more boats moored in a crescent-shaped harbor.
We were on our way to the Hon Thom Nature Park, a fledgling tourist development on an archipelago of new visitor attractions. Opened in February 2018 by SunWorld, one of Vietnam’s hospitality leaders, the cable car extends 4.9 miles (7.9 km), hop-skipping two smaller islets in a 15-minute journey to Hon Thom. We had boarded the 30-passenger aerial tram in a grand Romanesque terminal beside Accor’s Mediterranean-style Premier Village lodging complex, still in development.
Lan and I spent several hours in the park before returning to the real world at An Thó’i. We admired the landscaping and architecture on Hon Thom isle, only 5 km long, and wondered at the Disneyesque features of the rides and slides (Medusa’s Trap, Poseidon’s Revenge) in the Aquatopia water park. But we saved our greatest pleasure for Bai Trao beach, whose graceful palms swayed above hammocks on a sandy strip framed by coral outcrops.
When travelers set their sights on tropical islands, they don’t often think of Vietnam. But Phu Quoc island is, indeed, one of the gems of this Southeast Asian country. Despite an onslaught of luxury hotel and theme-park development at both the south and north ends of the island, Phu Quoc (pronounced fook woke) retains a laid-back ambience across most of its 31-mile (50-km) length.
Geographically, Phu Quoc is often lumped together with the Mekong Delta provinces of southernmost Vietnam. But it’s well beyond the Mekong — so far west, in fact, that it’s closer to the Cambodian mainland than to the nearest Vietnamese port. (There’s regular ferry service to Phu Quoc from both Ha Tien and Rach Gia, but most visitors arrive at the international airport, in the center of the island.) As broad as 16 miles (25 km) in the north, tapering to a mere 2 miles (3.2 km) in the south, Phu Quoc is home to only about 180,000 permanent residents. Tourism, of course, multiplies that number.
Nearly half of the people live in Duong Dong, the only town of size. Midway down the west coast facing the Gulf of Thailand, it’s a lively community with many two- and three-star resort hotels, bustling day and night markets, and some outstanding seafood restaurants. Bún quậy is a local specialty food, a shrimp-and-noodle soup most famously enjoyed at Kiên-Xây, beside the harbor. Nearby, atop convoluted Dinh Cau Rock, a small Buddhist temple doubles as a lighthouse; devotees pray to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea. If you concentrate, your nose might detect Vietnam’s most famous fish sauce (nu’oc maam) factory. (Personally, I prefer the smell of the notorious durian fruit to the aroma of this pungent condiment.)
I didn’t stay in Duong Dong, instead choosing a homestay in the Ong Lan community about 6 miles (10 km) north. I’ll tell you more about that serendipitous choice in my next blog.
Exploring the island
I spent my first full day on Phu Quoc simply relaxing. By my second day, I was ready to explore. I hired a freelance guide, Hong, born and raised on the island, to take me under her wing (on the back of her motorbike) for a full day of simply tripping around.
Our first stop was Long Beach, locally known as Bai Tru’ong. Extending south more than 12 miles (20 km) from Duong Dong, it was one of the earliest parts of the island to be developed by luxury lodging groups. Hotels, many of them still under construction, are widely spaced along the golden sands, leaving a long sandy trek from one to the next — although they do beckon visitors to sip late-afternoon cocktails while watching often-spectacular sunsets upon the Gulf of Thailand.
One Long Beach highlight, not far from Duong Dong town, is the Ngoc Hien Pearl Farm. Established in cooperation with Japanese investors in 1994, this roadside attraction welcomes first-time visitors to its basement-level museum. Docents describe traditional pearl farming, recall the industry’s ancient history, and display undersea artifacts recovered by pearl vessels around the world, including Mediterranean amphorae and fossil giant clam shells. In a sterile laboratory, technicians demonstrate the surgical process of gently removing a cultivated pearl from an oyster. The upper floor of Ngoc Hien is an expansive jewelry store, featuring all manner of pearl necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings and more — in colors that range from “pearly white” to black, pink and golden yellow.
Crossing the island, we dropped into the fishing village of Hàm Ninh, nestled at the foot of a forested mountain ridge that extends up most of Phu Quoc’s eastern shore. A large flower market captured my attention during our brief visit. Village residents are famous island-wide for their local cuisine (including sea cucumber soup, boiled flower crab and foraged wild mu shrooms) and their medicinal drinks, made with seahorses, ginseng and seaweed.
Prayers and white sand
A highlight of our day was Ho Quoc Pagoda, a Zen monastery and the largest Buddhist temple on Phu Quoc. Erected in 2011-2012, its original ỉronwood architecture and stone carvings — including a dragon built into a staircase and a large marble Buddha — are at once classical and contemporary. Playful wind chimes make the bell tower a wonderful place for serene meditation, especially seated facing the sea with one’s back to the mountain.
Tourism promoters make a strong case for Bai Sao, the nearest beach to the temple, as Phu Quoc’s most beautiful because of íts fine white sand and clear blue water. Sao are starfish, and there’s a reason Bai Sao has been dubbed Starfish Bay: At slack tides on calm evenings, thousands of starfish move from deeper water toward shore under the protective cloak of dusk. Resort properties along Bai Sao are mostly moderately priced. A short distance further south, also on the east coast, Bai Khem (Ice Cream Beach) has become a luxury destination. Here you’ll find resorts like the J.W. Marriott and Kem Premiere, whose casitas flow across the isthmus of an adjacent peninsula.
The tranquility of the beaches and the pagoda are a sharp contrast to the shock of a visit to the ìnfamous Phu Quoc Prison, only a couple of miles inland from Bai Khem. Built by the French in 1949, it was declared a national historical site and opened to the public in 1995. But in the 46 intervening years, more than 40,000 Viet Cong soldiers, sympathizers and politicians who stood in opposition to French and American occupational forces were imprisoned here. Today the museum’s exhibits graphically depict the barbaric tortures administered, including electrocution, crucifixion and food deprivation.
At the south end of Phu Quoc, the colorful fishing port of An Thó’i is the gateway to the Hon Thom cable car and a center for fishing, diving and snorkeling expeditions. Hong and I took a look around, but didn’t stay. That would be left for my return visit to the nature park with Phong Lan several days later.
Next: A paean to Mango Bay.