Finding a comfortable home away from home is always something special for a traveler. Ong Lan beach on Phu Quoc island offered not just one, but two.
Ong Lan beach at Mango Bay, on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, is not a place you’re likely to be directed by most travel agents. To find it, you’ll have to stray from the beaten path, but not in the manner of an exclusive resort community (although it has a couple of those, too). It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Soft rock. Classic rock.
The long sandy beach, better known to locals than tourists, has a view down the Gulf of Thailand coast to the fishing pier at Duong Dong town, 6 km (3.8 miles) south. At its north end, the willowy needles of ironwood trees drift and land upon a rocky point where young children pursue tiny crabs skittering through tidepools, as their caretakers salute the setting sun with graceful twilight dances.
The neighbors are friendly. Five hundred meters inland, small cafés serve peach tea, avocado smoothies, egg coffee and, sometimes, weasel coffee. (More on that in a future blog.) A trio of Thai-Cambodian sisters do a brisk business in pad thai noodles, som tum papaya salads and pleasant conversation. Striking Thu’an, the proprietor of a souvenir shop (the tourist trade is slow during the pandemic), welcomes strangers to gatherings in her home. Everyone has a story to tell.
Mango Bay Resort
Extravagant accommodations are nice, to be sure, but a few days at the Four Seasons can get old quickly. The infinity pool, the concierge desk, the room-service dinners, the specialty spa treatments, the barkeep with a frozen smile pouring Ketel One on the rocks, cease to be exceptional when they become commonplace.
Ong Lan’s brand of luxury is more my style. The Mango Bay Resort conceals 44 bungalows and other guest rooms in a frangipani-scented forest that slopes gently to the beach. The design reflects the architects’ commitment to conservation and environmental sustainability. Solar panels provide much of the energy. There is no air-conditioning, no television, no wifi in the rooms. Off-site parking and shuttle vehicles assure traffic-free relaxation.
Mango Bay has two restaurants that serve regional and international specialties and cocktails. I enjoyed the chef’s original chicken curry with red rice as much as I did an Australian beef steak. Many weekends, a Filipino band performs everything from the Beatles to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” The resort has a full-service spa, morning yoga classes, a full roster of beach sports and equipment, and even a sand volleyball court.
Tropical Garden Homestay
But it was the Tropical Garden Homestay that stole my traveler’s heart. In the heart of Ong Lan township opposite the elementary school, this simple pension has everything a vagabond could want, and then some — beginning with the gracious host family. Vu and Linh made it happen with their 8-year-old son Huynh, an integral part of the restaurant crew, and 3-year-old Khanh (“Candy”), whose main function was entertaining guests.
Vu told me the couple came from central Vietnam about 10 years ago. After studying tourism and hospitality at university, they traveled around the country in search of a place to settle and build. They found it in Phu Quoc. Now their compound includes three private, air-conditioned guest rooms, a five-bunk dormitory and a small house to accommodate families.
The Yellow House Restaurant, serving both Western and Vietnamese food (with Linh’s seafood specialties), is built like a beach cabana, framed in bamboo with a thatched roof. Phong Lan and I enjoyed taking our morning coffee in the adjacent garden courtyard before heading out for a day of exploring or relaxing on the beach. When we did depart to discover more of Phu Quoc’s island-wide plethora of pleasures, Vu’s in-house travel agency arranged for our tickets when necessary (as for the Hon Thom Nature Park cable car) and provided us with a motorbike for backroads excursions.
The island’s north
We had already explored Phu Quoc from its midpoint south, from the main city of Duong Dong to the southernmost point at An Thò’i. Now we pointed our directional needle to the north.
More than half of northern Phu Quoc island was sheltered (one hopes forever) from 21st-century blemishes when 130-square-mile Phu Quoc National Park was proclaimed a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2010. Its mountainous spine, cloaked with broadleaf and evergreen forest, is home to a unique flora and such rarely seen wildlife as long-tailed macaques, silver langurs, slow lories and hornbills. Khu Rung Nguyen Sinh Forest Reserve, which can be reached via dirt roads from the gateway village of Ganh Dau, offers hiking, camping and memorable bird-watching. A hiking trail is being completed to the summit of Mount Chua, at 603 meters (1,978 feet) the island’s highest.
But Lan and I were greeted by something very different than wilderness on our ride north. About 20 minutes beyond Ong Lan, the VinPearl company is engaged in a massive real-estate development project, at the heart of which is the VinWonders amusement park — Vietnam’s largest. Covering more than 120 acres, the park could be a Disney clone with its castle-like, medieval European façade. Within, I learned, are over 100 rides and attractions, including a walk-through aquarium, a water park, roller coasters, restaurants and an amphitheater for live shows.
Nearby, more than 2,000 wild animals of 130 species are on exhibit at the VinPearl Safari Park, Vietnam’s largest zoo/wildlife sanctuary, along with 400 types of indigenous plants. The VinPearl venture also includes its original VinPearl Phu Quoc Resort and the Vinmec International Hospital. Rapidly taking its place in the grand scheme is the VinPearl Grand World, whose preliminary models display a strong resemblance to many of the great capital cities of Europe.
Had we wanted Europe, we would have flown to Paris. We preferred to pause for refreshing shells of natural coconut water at Ganh Dau, the fishing village at the head of Phu Quoc island. From here, we could look beyond a small fleet of brightly painted fishing vessels to the border isles of neighboring Cambodia, so near yet so far. In these times of the COVID-19 virus, international crossings are tightly guarded.