This article was written by Justin Teo of Asia 361.
Unless you are a connoisseur of the fish sauce, it is likely that you have never heard of the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, located off the western coastline of Vietnam. Right near the southern border that Vietnam shares with Cambodia is the tropical island of Phu Quoc, famed for the quality of the deep amber liquid that is ubiquitous in the cuisine of Indochina.
I was invited by Vietjet Air, a new-age low cost carrier in Vietnam, to tramp off the usual Vietnam hotspots and suss out the island, and perhaps get my hands on some premium fish sauce from the local factory.
Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Although Phu Quoc has seen a dramatic increase in domestic visitors over the last fifteen years, from only 25,000 in year 2000 to 1.5 million in 2015, most foreign visitors seem to be relatively unfamiliar with it, compared with other more popular island destinations like Phuket or Bali in the region.
The Phu Quoc International Airport, which replaced the original Duong Dong Airport built by French colonists and newly opened in 2012, feels starkly modern when juxtaposed with the surrounding green hills and natural vegetation. I see further signs of rapid development on the island as my shuttle bus rolled into the newly opened Novotel Phu Quoc Resort; Half constructed bungalows and town houses dot the surrounding area, with what seems to be a golf course taking shape besides the road leading up to my resort.
Going off the beaten path does not mean having to forgo creature comforts, if you are fortunate enough to land yourself in a newly minted resort like Novotel Phu Quoc like I did. The resort is located on one of the island’s most beautiful white-sand beaches, with views of the setting sun over turquoise waters. Sited near Duong Dong town and not far from some of the island’s other top attractions, such as Sao beach on the east coast, fishing village and various pearl farms.
The layout of the resort is quite compact, with a short walk from the main cluster out to the natural beach. The main foyer leads up to a lap pool, with a feature pool further down and closer to the beach. Guests can choose from the resort’s 366 contemporary spacious room types, including 120 suites and villas. Some of accommodation type features a sofa bed, a balcony or terrace and 42 inch LCD TVs, while 20 of the villas boast private pools.
The wicker trimmings on the wardrobe and furnishing on my balcony hints of a local tradition, and the azure blue covering on the chairs matches the shades of the sky and the ocean.
I also experienced some of the best service at Novotel at Phu Quoc, with the concierge calling my room shortly after I checked into my room to ask if everything was satisfactory. Although nothing was amiss, the call made me feel that service was readily available and help is just a phone call away.
I was especially delighted to find a universal power socket with a USB power outlet socket besides the bed lamp; Tiny touches that the modern traveller like myself appreciates; Everyone needs to charge their mobile devices nowadays and I only have so many power socket adapters.
Highlights: Sao Beach, Coconut Tree Prison, Suoi Tranh Waterfall and Dinh Cau Night Market
There were a few highlights during my short stay on Phu Quoc, and I suspect there were other gems left uncovered by us during that one and a half days on the island.
Before we alighted from our bus, near Ham Ninh Fishing Village, we were warned not to buy the bright red starfish sold by children at the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. According to the guide, these starfishes, that are sold for between 10,000 VND to 20,000 VND, would start to smell within a day and may foul up our hotel room. So even though the starfishes looked like an attractive souvenir and a way to help the local kids with some pocket money, the only souvenirs I got were photos of them and the kids.
Our trek to the Suoi Tranh waterfall after lunch was precarious, with the rocky path made slick from the passing tropical showers after lunch. The perilous journey from the main entrance to the waterfall also seemed much longer than the quoted 600 metres by the guide, perhaps because of the wet and drizzly conditions. After the treacherous walk, I couldn’t resist taking a dip and having my back massaged by the cool waterfall.
Despite the rain, some local visitors had stayed on and were even continued their picnic session on top of the waterfall! It would have been an awesome experience if not for the adverse weather conditions. Besides watching out for sharp rocks at the bottom of the shallow waterfall, do remember to check the water levels at the Suoi Tranh stream before visiting – the waterfall may run dry at times.
For beach bums, you’d be pleased to know that Sao beach on the east coast of Phu Quoc is allegedly the best beach in Vietnam. I haven’t been to all the beaches in Vietnam, however the natural soft white powdery sand and the shallow shelf that runs out from the shoreline, together with the clear turquoise water, seem to argue strongly for the title.
For the best beach in Vietnam, the place is remarkably underdeveloped, and we had to access the beach via a bumpy bit of unpaved road to get to it. For sure, there are bistros, shower facilities and hawkers at the beach, catering to mostly Vietnamese visitors, and even several boats anchored near the shore too. However, compared to other famed beaches in the region, the buzz at Sao beach seemed almost modest.
Away from the main section, the beach curves out on both sides and offers tranquil stretches of pure tropical bliss. Depending on the prevailing seasonal winds, either the east or west coast experiences calm waters while beaches on the opposite coasts gets rough waves.
Behind the façade of a tropical paradise, Phu Quoc hides a tragic past — there was a time when island was the Alcatraz for prisoners from the mainland. Originally built by the French colonists to house resistance fighters, the Coconut Tree Prison was later used to intern political prisoners during Vietnam war.
The camps remind me of photos I have seen of Auschwitz concentration camp, with rings of barbed wires and rows of barracks constructed from corrugated metal sheets. Today, visitors see various methods of torture employed by the guards on their fellow countrymen during those turbulent war years.
Although I failed to make it to a fish sauce factory or the pepper farm, I managed to at least get my hands on some local pepper at the Dinh Cau Night Market. The market is good for grilled seafood with some local beer or shopping for souvenirs. The guide warned us against buying any of the pearl jewellery on display unless you’re an expert in pearls.
It’s not a big night market by any means, and should be covered quickly within half an hour if you just want to browse. I highly recommend checking out the roasted nuts coated with a myriad of flavoured. Free samples are readily offered and they make a great souvenirs for friends and family.
Getting there with style, Skyboss style
Phu Quoc is served by Vietjet Air via Ho Chi Minh City currently, which meant I got to stay a night in the luxurious Rex Hotel. The historical hotel was used by the American military command during the war, and its rooftop bar was popular with war journalists. Near the hotel are also several landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City, including the Saigon Post Office, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and Ben Thanh Market.
The affordable pricing of Vietjet Air allows the budget traveller to travel like a boss with their Skyboss premium service without having to sell an organ for a business class ticket. Not only did I get business lounge access at the airports and priority check-in, my favourite part of being a Skyboss was getting priority boarding with the Priority Private vehicle; Shuttle buses are used to board passengers at many of the domestic airports in Vietnam, such as Phu Quoc, and being a Skyboss meant we got to skip the boarding queue straight onto a separate private bus just for us.
I knew it was too good to be true when I was greeted by an attractive Vietjet Air flight attendant clothed in her stylishly cute official uniform – the famous bikini-clad flight attendants stunts were done for Vietjet Air’s special launches, and are not a feature on their regular flights. Being a “new-age carrier well-known for its playful and professional service”, Vietjet Air has been surprising passengers with in-flight weddings and appearances from Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe lookalikes. In that case, I suppose they might even allow me to wear my own bikini on-board.