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PHU QUOC
VIETNAM’S HIDDEN GEM

Beaches to dream of ever after are not easy to find these days. Some 30 years ago, there were some romantic beaches on Phuket Island and Koh Samui, and the secluded beaches from Sihanoukville in Cambodia are just now getting to be developed.

In Vietnam, the long sandy beaches of Da Nang’s China Beach and the palm-fringed beaches in Nah Trang are well known since the infamous Vietnam War, but did you ever hear about Phu Quoc or have you even been there?

Phu Quoc is a new emerging island paradise at the outmost Southwest of Viet Nam near the Cambodian border. Actually, Phu Quoc consists of 26 islands and belongs to Kien Giang Province , which is part of the vast Mekong Delta.

With its population of approximately 85,000, Phu Quoc is the name of the largest island with an area of 573 square kilometres (about the size of Singapore ).

Besides a myriad of beautiful unspoilt beaches, the mountainous island is home to Phu Quoc National Park , which boasts a rare flora and fauna of original tropical rainforest. That is why Phu Quoc is also called “Emerald Island” - in contrast to the “Golden Island” - Hainan, better known as the Hawaii of China, where the original forests are long gone already.

Situated in the Gulf of Thailand , Phu Quoc is some 45km west of Ha Tien on the Vietnamese mainland and only 15km south of the coast of Cambodia . In former times, Phu Quoc was a Cambodian island named Koh Tral.

Nowadays, Phu Quoc is well known for its high-quality fish sauce and boasts arguably some of the best seafood in Vietnam. Fishing is still the main industry on the island, but there are more and more plantations coming up to produce the highest quality pepper.

Another distinctive feature of Phu Quoc is its native dog, which was originally a wild dog and only later domesticated. With a line of spirals running on the back, its unusually sharp teeth and razor-like claws are remarkable.

My plan to survey Phu Quoc was confirmed, when I had met Alban

Mangione, GM of Chen La Resort & Spa on the island, during ATF2009 in Ha Noi. As he had invited me to come down to inspect his property.

Duong Dong (“place of the poplar”) is the administrative capital of Phu Quoc Island and is nestled along a river with the same name. Fishing boats and sail junks a-bound and serve the central market with fresh seafood on a daily basis, while vegetables, fruit, and other consumer goods are carried from the mainland.

To be near the people and inspect the cultural sites of the island, I changed residence to be near the fishing port, which is overshadowed by a Cao Dai (“Holy Eye”) sanctuary. Astonishingly, Vietnam has a diverse mix of religions, including Ancestor Worship, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The dominant religion seems to be Buddhism, but Christianity is also strong as a result of decades of French colonial rule.

Interesting to note is that Cao Daism is a mixture of all the existing world religions – founded in 1926 by Ngo Minh Chieu and now flourishing with an estimated 2 million followers, mainly in the populous Mekong Delta.

First of all, I stayed one night in the Sasco Blue Lagoon Resort & Spa, which is getting modernised under Singaporean management. The 75-room resort seemed to be busy with affluent Russians and is just next to the luxury 4-star Sai Gon-Phu Quoc Resort & Spa, which is the centre of the island’s booming tourism industry, with visiting Europeans and Vietnamese alike.

When the annual “Tet” Festival arrived on January 25, Chief Marketing Officer James Doan Anh Phuc kindly invited me to the resort’s New Year Party, which featured local zither music, a rice cake baking demonstration and a fierce beer-drinking contest.

Along the beach, it is easy to reach other properties by walking, such as the newly opened “la veranda” – Accor’s Grand Mercure Resort & Spa. Its 43 rooms and villas, including 6 suites in a colonial-style ambience, reflect the new pride of the island – just 3km away from the airport.

Over seafood (mussel) dinner in a tropical garden setting, GM Nicolas Josi revealed that sightseeing options on the island are countless. Also, the island itself is calling for brave investors.

The rest of the quiet island days, I stayed in the centrally located Voi Vong Guesthouse, from where it was easy to walk downtown to explore Duong Dong’s important temples, such as Sung Hung Co Tu, a huge park-like area, where a spotless white statue of Kwan Am is venerated.

Not to be missed are the ancestral shrines of Dinh Than Duong Dong in town and Dinh Cau, which is right near the busy port. Both temples tell intriguing stories about the earliest Vietnamese settlers of Phu Quoc Island .

Another tour takes tourists to the South to visit a famous pearl farm at Duong To Village, operated by New Zealander Grant Johnston. Some 32km south from Duong Dong Airport, you arrive in An Thoi, port and gateway to a bunch of islands, which are good for coral reef diving.

An Thoi houses a big Christian church and offers a busy fish market. Also, there is the former Cay Dua colonial prison with a characteristic French architecture that was rebuilt in 1967 to jail Communist rebels. Today it is a tourist spot.

Coming to the eastern side of the island, tourists like to visit Bai Sao Beach , where Robinson comes alive. Already, there are 10 wooden bungalows to rent for $10 each and a scenic seafood restaurant.

The tour also touches down at Ham Ninh fishing village, where sea turtles and the protected “dugong” will be regularly sighted in a respectively clean environment. A crab eating experience is in order. Coming back to Duong Dong, there will be a visit to a fish sauce factory, Sim winery, and to the lively Night Market. A tour to the North of Phu Quoc includes a visit to Ganh Dau,where people worship at the shrine of Nguyen Trung Truc, a national anti-French hero (1838-1868), and stroll along newly reclaimed land. Cape Ganh Dao is just 5km from the Vietnamese-Cambodian sea border and near Sihanoukville in Cambodia . A recommended seafood (shrimp) restaurant is called “Gio Bien” at one of the most romantic beaches. On the way back, tourists can enjoy the tropical rainforest and visit one of the pepper plantations.

Highly advertised is “night fishing” by heading to the sea for catching fish and squids. Being a fisherman for a short while, you find yourself at night on board a fishing boat. In the distant, you see the light from the other boats stretching out like on a pearl chain.

The bait is usually a worm to attract the fish accordingly. When successful in your catch, you will realise that Phu Quoc is still Viet Nam ’s hidden gem.

I left Phu Quoc on January 27 to return to Ho Chi Minh overland via the huge Mekong Delta. With a Cantho- Vinashin Passenger Boat (190.000Dong or $11 p.p.), I first went to Ha Tien on the mainland from the new ferry departure point of Bai Vong Beach in the East. I stayed there for two nights at the Duc Tai Hotel to survey the city near the newly opened international border gate to Cambodia .

After that, I took a minibus from Ha Tien to Rach Gia and Long Xuyen, from where I made a side trip to Oc-Eo in An Giang Province. From there, after one night at the small An Long Hotel, it was not far to reach the river town of My Tho, where I stayed for another night at the Huong Duong Hotel to see the recently inaugurated 9km long Rach Mieu Bridge.

Built by Vietnamese, the modern bridge now connects Tien Giang and Ben Tre Provinces. This is a clear sign that the Mekong Delta will be strategically developed to upgrade infrastructure, including Phu Quoc Island .

It is projected that some seven million passengers will pass its doors in 2030. With its natural and cultural potentials, as well as proper investment projects, Phu Qouc will be then at the core centre of economy and tourism in the Asean region.

 

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