Taking a short two hour flight, I escaped from the bustling capital to soak up the sun and splash about in the blue water off Phu Quoc island. No matter the budgetor the season, there are always many ways to discover the beauty of the pearl island.
Published on Vietnam Traveller Magazine, Sep-Oct 2015. Click here to view .dpf file (bilingual).
From the “deluxe” taxicab….
For the guiding spirit “Everyday is a new experience”, we booked a full-package taxi tour for our first day on Phu Quoc. From Duong Dong region – the metropolis of the island district, we headed to the south towards Bai Truong on a dusty and sometimes muddy red soil path. Phu Quoc’s longest beach stretched for20km as far as the eye could see, with soft sandy beaches and swaying coconut palms. Scattered huts swayed about in the wind. “Most inhabitants sold their lands for investment projects, and moved to resettlement areas in the centre,” our driver explained.”These cottages are ragged, aren’t they? But locals here like that style.”
The first stop in our journey was SimSon – the Sim honey and Sim wine (also known as myrtle wine) distillery has been present for almost 15 years. If Phu Quoc is called the myrtle island, then the myrtle flower could certainly be the symbolic flower of the island. Phu Quoc National Park is covered with myrtle trees growing wild on mountain slopes, hillsides and valleys. I had never seen such big myrtle trees before, they look just like wood trees.
The fully ripened myrtle fruit has a dark velvet skin. There are two kinds of fruits: rose myrtle and little myrtle, but only rose myrtle can be used to produce Sim wine through a traditional method of fermentation. Sim honey and Sim wine help to digest food, so most locals drink Sim Wine when eating seafood and sardinella salad.
Towards the edge of Bai Truong, our cab passed through a forest trail. The peaceful and quiet atmosphere was suddenly broken by a flurry of long-tailed monkeys. They swung from branch to branch and screamed aloud. The driver was even more excited than us. “It’s very lucky for you!” He proclaimed cheerfully.”I have never seen somany monkeys before!”
Arriving at An Thoi town, we visited the island’s most famous fish sauce factory, Phung Hung warehouse. There were hundreds of hulking wooden vats, each holding tons of anchovies. Phu Quoc fish sauce is made by combining fresh anchovies and Ba Ria salt and then fermented through various stages for a year before being drained from the vats. The process leaves the sauce with high protein content, and a dark puce colour. Please note that when departing Phu Quoc by air, carrying fish sauce on the plane is not allowed because of the risk of breakage and the pungent fumes that are extremely difficult to remove. You can, however, pay the warehouse a deposit, and they will organize delivery for you in one week.
Leaving the fish sauce distillery, I wanted to go bathing immediately as my body was covered with the smell of fish sauce. Our driver continued to be a great guide when he chose Sao beach as our next destination. The beach is located in the south of the island with soft white sand, warm turquoise water and gentle sea breeze. It was amazing to see a group of jellyfish swimming close to shore.
After lunch at a restaurant on Sao beach with braised fish and selachian hotpot, we headed to Ham Ninh ancient fishing village, where the life of residents is still tied to old houses with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. It is said that the most stunning sight in Ham Ninh is at night when you can witness the moon’s shadow floating and drifting on the gentle sea. Locals have lived mainly on catching pearls, sea cucumbers and fishing. Crab is the specialty of this island. Fresh-cooked crab has red shells and firm meat. Enjoying it with lemon, salt and Phu Quoc pepper dipping sauce is the best.
Pepper and cashew are the economically important plants on Phu Quoc island. We passed through vast cashew gardens heading to Khu Tuong region to visit pepper plantations. Phu Quoc pepper is divided into three kinds: red pepper (dried ripe pepper), black pepper (dried young pepper) and white pepper (black pepper with rubbed off husk – the most expensive and delicious). Phu Quoc pepper is famous for its spice and heat, the pepper corns are firm and their spice is notorious.
We said goodbye to our taxi driver at the gate of Dinh Cau night market as street lamps lit up the road and threw ourselves into the noisy food street. We chose fresh shrimp with their bodies for grilling, and their heads and tails for hotpot. Of course, it was incomplete without chili-salt grilled snail and sea urchin fried with fat and garlic; tasty dishes that you should definitely try when visiting Phu Quoc. The perfect accompaniment was, of course, some 39% Sim wine.
…to the motorbike riding
The next day, we hired motorbikes to ride through the national park. We spent several hours swimming in the cool water of Tranh stream, and then we rode to the north and crossed the forest to find Thom beach which retained the pristine beauty of an unspoiled place.Our unforgettable trip took over two hours through the lush green jungle and along the red soil path. Our motorbikes maintained a “rush-hour” speed and we always had to jam on the brakes. The path was mostly dry, although we encountered some wet patches. Along the dried-up streams and rougher stretches, the path was paved by wood and bamboo which could not be thinned any further. When we saw a local’s motorbike passing by, we tried to follow quickly but we could not catch it.
Travelling a total of 30km, we could not find Thom beach, and we felt our stomachs churning after riding on the rocky path. While eating roasted meat bread on Tran Hung Dao street, we realized that our skin had turned red due to sunburn. Hence, in the evening, we decided to go to Ti Ni restaurant to enjoy the sardinella salad as some form of compensation. We picked up a slice of sardine with vegetable, coconut rice and noodle, rolled them in rice paper, dipped it in sweet and sour peanut sauce and enjoyed it with a little Sim wine.
The Phu Quoc I had always known through historical books was a place reflecting on a heart-breaking loss during the resistance against French colonists. Yet Phu Quoc today is really a paradise blessed with natural sights and many local delicacies. Tourism services from luxury to budget are blossoming. However, the pristine environment remains largely undamaged on this pearl island.
– Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and is situated in the Gulf of Thailand. It is an island district of Kien Giang province that consists of 22 other islands.
– The best time to visit Phu Quoc is during the dry season which lasts from late October to March because the weather is dry, calm and clear. If you are not afraid of the rain, you can come here from April to October to enjoy a quieter atmosphere. You should consider the season of various specialties (such as myrtle, pepper, mangrove, and sardines) to have a more interesting experience.
– You can travel to Phu Quoc through direct flights by Vietnam Airlines or VietjetAir from Hanoi, Saigon, and Rach Gia. Tourists can also take a ferry from the Vietnamese port towns of Ha Tien or Rach Gia directly to the island. However, the ferry does not operate during bad weather.
– The price of a full-day tour by taxi for travelling around the island is about VND 1,500,000 per day if you work directly with drivers. Prices of agencies or half-day tours are more expensive. If you hire a motorbike, it costs VND150,000 per day.
Translated by Vietnam Traveller Magazine