Fringed with white-sand beaches and with large tracts still cloaked in dense, tropical jungle, Phu Quoc rapidly morphed from a sleepy island backwater to a must-visit beach escape for Western expats and sun-seeking tourists. Beyond the resorts lining Long Beach and development beginning on the east coast, there's still ample room for exploration and escaping. Dive the reefs, kayak in the bays, eat up the back-road miles on a motorbike, or just lounge on the beach, indulge in a massage and dine on fresh seafood.
The tear-shaped island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, 45km west of Ha Tien and 15km south of the coast of Cambodia. It's no lightweight: at 48km long (with an area of 574 sq km), Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island – about the same size as Singapore. It's also politically contentious: Phu Quoc is claimed by Cambodia who call it Koh Tral and this explains why the Vietnamese have built a substantial military base covering much of the northern end of the island. It was only granted to Vietnam by the French in 1949, as part of the formal annexation of the Mekong Delta.
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 famed across Vietnam for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam).
Despite development (a new international airport, a golf course, new roads and a planned 'casino eco-tourism resort project'), 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 darkens skies from late May to October, when the sea gets rough and a lot of diving stops. The peak season for tourism is midwinter (December and January), when the sky is blue and the sea is calm, but it can get pretty damn hot around April and May.
Sights in Phu Quoc Island
Long Beach is draped invitingly along the west coast from Duong Dong almost to An Thoi port. Development concentrates in the north near Duong Dong, where the recliners and rattan umbrellas of the various resorts rule; these are the only stretches that are kept garbage-free. With its west-facing aspect, sunsets can be stupendous.
A motorbike or bicycle is necessary to reach some of the remote stretches flung out towards the southern end of the island.
There should be no problem for beachcombers to stretch out their towels on the sand, but you may get moved on quickly if you get too close to the paying guests.
There are several small lanes heading from the main Ð Tran Hung Dao drag down to Long Beach that shelter some of the nicest places to stay and eat. There are a few bamboo huts where you can buy drinks, but bring water if planning a long hike along the beach. Beachside massages are popular, but be clear about what you’re paying for: a neck rub can quickly turn into a foot massage, manicure and leg-hair threading – often all simultaneously.
An Thoi Islands
Just off the southern tip of Phu Quoc, these 15 islands and islets can be visited by chartered boat. 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.
Most boats depart from An Thoi on Phu Quoc, but you can make arrangements through hotels on Long Beach, as well as dive operators. Boat trips generally do not run during the rainy season.
Other islands here include Hon Dua (Coconut Island), Hon Roi (Lamp Island), Hon Vang (Echo Island), Hon May Rut (Cold Cloud Island), the Hon Dams (Shadow Islands), Chan Qui (Yellow Tortoise) and Hon Mong Tay (Short Gun Island). As yet, there is no real development on the islands, but expect some movement in future.
Nha Tu Phu Quoc
Not far from Sao Beach in the south of the island, Phu Quoc's notorious old prison, built by the French in the late 1940s, contains a small museum that narrates the gruesome history of the jail. A war memorial stands south of the prison on the far side of the road.
Fish Sauce Factory
The distillery of Nuoc Mam Hung Thanh is the largest of Phu Quoc’s fish-sauce makers, a short walk from the market in Duong Dong. 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 jolts you back to reality.
Most of the sauce produced is exported to the mainland for domestic consumption, though an impressive amount finds its way abroad to kitchens in Japan, North America and Europe. Take a guide along unless you speak Vietnamese.