Phu Quoc has been contested by Cambodia and Vietnam for decades, and it’s no wonder: the tiny ocean paradise boasts unmarred beaches and bags of charm. But by the end of the decade, Vietnam’s government expects the island will attract more than two million visitors a year.
Amelia Woodside roamed the beaches and bars.
After a four-hour ride we staggered out of the car and blinked at the deserted border-town casino: the point where Cambodia ends and Ha Tien, Vietnam, begins.
The driver buoyantly pointed to the “border”, marked by two dirt-stained pillars. This was as far as he would go, he said, before dumping our bags in the rust-coloured mud and driving off.
Men on motorbikes descended from all sides. In less than 10 minutes, I was on the back of one, with two legs wrapped around both my bags, strapped on either side of the moto, as the sun turned the rice fields flamingo pink and my oversized helmet slid over both eyes.
We were three girls fleeing from Phnom Penh with visas and without working phones, about to enjoy four days on Vietnam’s largest island, Phu Quoc.
The island, home to some 100,000 people and nearly 59,000 hectares, is an hour’s ride by boat from Ha Tien. They depart several times a day, which was just as well seeing as we missed ours by 12 minutes.
No matter – we walked about a kilometre over the bridge to find Ha Tien Floating Restaurant, which serves grilled baguettes, fried eggs and charges nothing for corkage.
When we finally made it aboard the wooden vessel at the port, rakishly named The Superdong, it looked as if it was originally designed to truck hooch down the Mississippi River but was somehow marooned in an Asian border town.
Phu Quoc lies mere miles from Cambodian shores and the island has long served as a bone of contention between the two countries.
Originally under the dominion of the Khmer Empire, the island was scooped up by the French as part of its colonisation of Vietnam from 1862 to 1953, and gifted back after Vietnam gained independence.
Today, some Cambodians continue to refer to the island by its Khmer name, Koh Tral.
Each night we spotted ships skirting the coastline – locals speculated they were military ships involved in surveillance.
It’s no wonder both countries want to claim the island: Phu Quoc’s sleepy beauty has often been compared to Phuket, before the latter earned itself a notorious reputation. If Phuket is known for rowdy backpackers, Phu Quoc is famed for a dark and pungent nuoc mam fish sauce and its tangential geopolitical import.
Shadows of the past
Conflict has left its mark on the island. As we approached the shore we spotted sunken blue tombstones. They bear the names of French colonials who occupied Phu Quoc in the 19th century. A little more than a century later, in April 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces briefly invaded the area, whose northernmost tip is ten miles from the Cambodian shoreline.
But the most haunting reminder of the island’s past is the skeleton of Vietnam’s largest prisoner of war camp, located on the island’s south point, near a US naval base. Coconut Tree Prison, or Nha Lao Cay Dua, was built by the French in 1953 and repurposed by American and South Vietnamese forces in 1967. Thousands of prisoners of war are believed to have died behind its walls. You can visit for less than five dollars. We didn’t.
Today, locals live a more peaceful life, caring for pepper vines and catching fresh seafood. Tourism is, increasingly, another source of income. Long Beach, a 12-mile strip of sand running south from the island’s largest town, Duong Dong, offers accommodation to suit a wide range of budgets.
We bunked at Beach Club, 15 minutes south of the airport. Built right on the beachfront, the club has six rooms and four bungalows; all with a sea view – prime real estate to watch the sunset. A room is $35 while bungalows go for $45. Prices are negotiable during the rainy season.
If you want to know everyone involved in running the joint by the time you depart, this is where to go. Family-owned and run for nine years, the restaurant serves flavoursome vegetable curries and tasty squid pasta. Look out for the vibrantly coloured fruit shakes, too.
Nearby, Anna’s Spa offers a spine-tingling hour-long Thai massage for $16.
A few caveats about Long Beach: packs of aggressive dogs roam the beach at night and riptides are sneakily camouflaged by calm evenings. And be careful if you stay at Beach Club during the rainy season: on our last morning we woke up with water tickling our ankles; our possessions, while soggy, were thankfully saved thanks to our hosts’ loud wake up call.
Duong Dong, the island’s chief fishing port on the central west coast, is where to hang in the daylight hours: the only place with cold beer, salty peanuts, and a few stray Australians. It houses a night market packed with food stalls selling lobsters mixed alongside pearls. Try the steamed clams marinated in lemongrass and flavoured with the island’s white and black pepper smashed inside the shells – it’s a dish lauded by the locals. Large drafts of Saigon beer paired with roasted prawns coated in garlic and butter also make a delectable combination.
Half a block from the market is Moe’s Bar. Doors sprawled out in a welcoming gesture, the joint serves a strong dose of Americana alongside a soundtrack of international tunes. The bar gets its name from The Simpsons’ Moe Szyslak, a grouchy character with an ambiguous ethnic origin, and images from the cartoon series coat the deceptively cavernous interior. A large projector screens HBO against the bar’s marigold walls.
Phu Quoc’s answer to Moe is Mike, who hails from a town about two kilometres outside of Paris. He opened the place six years ago after a brief sojourn from Saigon turned into a long-term stay. “Open seven days a week until the last person standing rolls out,” he told us while leaning against his wooden bar.
Big speakers and free Wi-Fi easily wile away an afternoon. Add a double-decker bacon cheeseburger into the mix, rated a seven out of 10 by a travelling companion with sophisticated taste, or sip a well-concocted gin fizz (only 65,000 dong, amounting to a little more than $3).
Don’t miss Rory’s Beach Club and Bar, owned by two charming Australians. Rory contends he’s got the biggest deck on the island, grinning widely as he described any life worth living in Asia as worthy of “a leap of faith”.
Open late, seven days a week, the bar with its wooden deck and strong, half-price mojitos and mango daiquiris, draws the coolest international crowd on the island.
Now or never
But like Thailand’s once unspoiled beaches, Phu Quoc won’t remain untouched for long.
The island is in the process of a rebranding. Advertisements for new resorts and condos litter the shoreline. Glossy billboards laud the healing power of days spent relaxing under coconut palms.
Since the opening of Phu Quoc International Airport in December 2012, flights can travel non-stop from Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong to Duong Dong, the island’s first international airport.
By 2020, the island is expected to net 2.3 million visitors a year, according to the Vietnamese government, which approved a “master plan” for the “development” of Phu Quoc in 2004.
Perhaps the best illustration of creeping tourism came on our second night at Beach Club.
As we tipsily toed the water’s edge after leaving behind new friends, we spotted an arched shape jutting from the ocean.
It was a larger-than-life mermaid statue, with startlingly defined breasts, illuminated by light leaking from the empty resorts. Beside it was a posse of equally bizarre Disney-esque dolphin statues.
The generously endowed statue was an odd contrast to the quiet repose of local women fishing on the docks and bored taxi drivers playing with trilling radios - a lifestyle still dictating its own time on its own terms. Is this the shape of things to come?
It’s time to go to Phu Quoc. Go before the dense foliage thins and the salty shapes held between the hinges of clamshells are overharvested. Go before the sound of traffic begins to compete with the waves and the mostly uninhabited northern sliver of the island is overrun with more and more thatch-covered bungalows.
Go before Phu Quoc’s soulful whimsy is lost.