Phu Quoc Island
One of Vietnam’s star attractions, mountainous and forested Phu Quoc is a splendid tropical getaway set with beautiful white-sand beaches and quaint fishing villages. Adventure comes in many forms here – from motorbiking the empty dirt roads circling the island to sea kayaking its quiet inlets, scuba diving the coral reefs or simply having a bang-up seafood meal followed by a cocktail on the beach. Once a sleepy, backpackers’ retreat, Phu Quoc has ramped up tourism significantly, and visitors can now choose between five-star resorts and rustic family-run bungalows. Plans are underway for developing the island even more heavily – a la Phuket style. If package tourism isn’t your bag, get there now before this happens.
The tear-shaped island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, 45km west of Ha Tien and 15km south of the coast of Cambodia. At 48km long (with an area of 1320 sq km), Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and its most politically contentious: Phu Quoc is claimed by Cambodia; its Khmer name is Ko Tral – which is why the Vietnamese have built a substantial military base covering much of the northern end of the island (thankfully, the military presence is fairly invisible).
Phu Quoc Island served as a base for the French missionary Pigneau de Behaine during the 1760s and 1780s. Prince Nguyen Anh, who later became Emperor Gia Long, was sheltered here by Behaine when he was being hunted by the Tay Son Rebels.
Phu Quoc is not really part of the Mekong Delta and doesn’t share the delta’s extraordinary ability to produce rice. The most valuable crop is black pepper, but the islanders here have traditionally earned their living from the sea. Phu Quoc is also famous in Vietnam for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam).
The island has some unusual hunting dogs, which have ridgebacks, curly tails and blue tongues and are said to be able to pick up their masters’ scent from over 1km away (the nuoc mam their masters eat certainly helps). Unfortunately, the dogs have decimated much of the island’s wildlife. Despite the impending development (of a new international airport, a golf course and a casino), much of this island is still protected since becoming a national park in 2001. Phu Quoc National Park covers close to 70% of the island, an area of 31, 422 hectares.
Phu Quoc’s rainy season is from July to November. The peak season for tourism is midwinter, when the sky is blue and the sea is calm; however, when it’s not raining it’s stinking hot. Bring sunglasses and plenty of sunblock. Take plenty of water when setting out to explore the island.
Getting there & away
Numerous companies operate speedy hydrofoils that sail between Rach Gia and Phu Quoc. Boats leave the mainland daily between 7am and 8.30am, and return from Phu Quoc between 12.30pm and 1.30pm. Ticket prices for the 2½-hour journey range from 150, 000 to 200, 000d for adults, and 70, 000 to 90, 000d for children. Tickets must be purchased in advance – though you can usually find a seat by booking as little as 30 minutes ahead. There are no fast boats going between Ha Tien and Phu Quoc, though dodgy wooden market boats also make the journey.
Hydrofoil companies include Super Dong (Rach Gia 077-878 475, Phu Quoc 077-980 111), Duong Dong Express (Rach Gia 077-879 765, Phu Quoc 077-990 747) and Hai Au (Rach Gia 077-879 455, Phu Quoc 077-990 555). All have offices by the dock in Rach Gia and in Phu Quoc – both by the An Thoi dock and in Duong Dong. Most travel agents can book passage.
All passenger ferries departing and arriving at Phu Quoc use the port of An Thoi on the southern tip of the island.
Vietnam Airlines has four flights daily between HCMC and Duong Dong, Phu Quoc’s main town.
A popular round trip between HCMC and Phu Quoc is to travel overland through the Mekong Delta, taking a ferry to the island from Rach Gia and, when you’re finally tanned and rested, taking the short one-hour flight (US$35) back to HCMC.
Place To Visit
An Thoi Islands
Off the southern tip of Phu Quoc are the tiny An Thoi Islands . These 15 islands and islets can be visited by chartered boat, and it's a fine area for sightseeing, fishing, swimming and snorkelling. Hon Thom (Pineapple Island) is about 3km in length and is the largest island in the group.
Bai Cua Can
Bai Cua Can is the most accessible beach.
Being a remote beach in a military area, rest assured that it is not crowded. A new road to Bai Dai cuts down on motorbike time and red dust in your face. The beach is open to the public and sports a couple of restaurants.
A beautiful white-sand beach along the southeastern part of the island. South from here is undeveloped Bai Khem, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island and also, sadly, a military area that's closed to the public.
A beautiful white-sand beach with a couple of beachfront restaurants. There are several places to rent kayaks along Bai Sao beach, and its protected, fairly calm waters make for a smooth ride. In addition to locals who hire out boats, you can ask at either restaurant along the beach: My Lan (990 779) and Ai Xiem (990 510).
Being a remote beach in a military area, rest assured that it is not crowded. The military usually opens Bai Thom to civilians on Sunday but you must leave your passport with the military receptionist while you're on the base. In any event, do not try to sneak onto the beaches: make local inquiries and obey the rules
According to tourist brochures, Duong Dong's main attraction is Cau Castle . In fact, it's not so much a castle as a combination temple and lighthouse. It was built in 1937 to honour Thien Hau (Goddess of the Sea), who protects sailors and fishermen. The castle is worth a quick look and gives you a good view of the harbour entrance. Around sunset, locals stroll along the promenade leading from the castle to the decrepit Huong Bien Hotel.
Coconut Tree Prison
Being an island and an economically marginal area of Vietnam, Phu Quoc was useful to the French colonial administration - chiefly as a prison. The Americans took over where the French left off and as a consequence Phu Quoc was used to house about 40,000 VC prisoners. The island's main penal colony was known as the Coconut Tree Prison and is near An Thoi town. Though it's considered an historic site, plans to open a museum here have been stalled.
Fish Sauce Factory
OK, so it's not your average sightseeing attraction, but more than a few have enjoyed a visit to the distillery at the Fish Sauce Factory of Nuoc Mam Hung Thanh, the largest of Phu Quoc's fish-sauce makers. At first glance, the giant wooden vats may make you think you've arrived for a wine tasting, but one sniff of the festering nuoc mam essence brings you right back to reality (it's actually not so bad after a few minutes).
Long Beach is indeed a long, spectacular stretch of sand from Duong Dong southward along the west coast, almost to An Thoi port (20km). The southern end of the beach is known as Tau Ru Bay (Khoe Tau Ru). The water is crystal clear and the beach is lined with coconut palms.
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