A group of Habitat volunteer travelers to Vietnam believed they uncovered perhaps the next hotspot in the making during their break from volunteer duties. Though not quite the hotspot like Phuket in Thailand yet, Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam has all the ingredients of a hotspot — pristine beaches, untouched natural environment, easy going and relaxed atmosphere, good food, friendly locals — and the Vietnamese government is intent on making it a destination!
Earlier this year, a group of Americans and New Zealanders volunteering with Habitat for Humanity International to build houses for eight families near the city of Rach Gia, in the southwest Mekong Delta region got to take in some local vista. After long, hot days of digging muddy foundations, mixing mortar and concrete by hand, tamping dirt floors and schlepping rocks and bricks, the Habitat leaders offered a welcome break: 2 ½ days on the lovely island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand. The island is about 50 minutes from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) via Vietnam Airlines or a 2 ½ -hour ferry ride from the city of Rach Gia on the Superdong Fast Ferry.
Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island. During the Vietnam War, the island was used by Americans as a prison for captured Viet Cong. To help put itself on the world stage, a Phu Quoc hotel manager mentioned that the island expects the completion of an international airport in 2015. At the moment, it boasts lovely beaches, tourist-worthy hotels and an assortment of good restaurants. “Ten years from now, this place will be exploding,” ventured the Habitat co-leader, Lou Piezzo of Long Island, N.Y.
There are basically two seasons: rainy (May through November) and dry. Phu Quoc is noted for its excellent fermented fish sauce (nuoc mam), pepper-tree farms and native hunting dogs, which have ridgebacks and blue tongues. People get around on motorbikes, but it’s much easier to dodge them there than on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. (Pedestrians in Vietnam apparently never have the right of way.)
The Habitat folks gave the island a glowing review noting that Phu Quoc has the same characteristics as the Vietnamese mainland — surprisingly good restaurants, wonderful people — plus those beautiful, pristine beaches. It’s a haven for water sports and even for non-beach goers, there is downtown and watching people and fishing boats. Certainly the island is not as polished yet — still needs to improve its services — for the Western taste. But if you’re fine with the local style of doing things or prefer that the destination primarily not cater to Western preferences, then Phu Quoc has a lot to offer already!
Phu Quoc Island is in the Gulf of Thailand in southwest Vietnam, about 50 minutes from Ho Chi Minh City via Vietnam Airlines (several flights a day), or about a 30-minute flight or a 2½-hour ferry ride from the city of Rach Gia.
Just a few miles off the coast of Cambodia, Phu Quoc is about the size of Singapore, but only about 90,000 people live there. About 80 percent make their living from fishing and most of the rest are government administrators who have moved from the mainland.
Some of the better hotels are clustered along Tran Hung Dao Street near the center of Duong Dong Town. They include the four-star Saigon Phu Quoc Resort, the three-star Thien Hai Son Resort and the four-star Sasco Blue Lagoon Resort. Rates through September or October range from about $60 for a double room with sea or mountain views to $295 for a bungalow, breakfast included. All have pools and their own restaurants.
There are good restaurant choices on the island. Captain Skewer, on the beach whose owner is French, has a moderately priced eclectic menu. Lots on skewers, of course, from squid to vegetarian to the “Royal” (meat and seafood), as well as dishes such as grilled fish and shrimp and, for dessert, crepes with chocolate sauce or honey rum. Others praised Robinson’s for dinner and Buddy’s Ice Cream & Info Café for breakfast or lunch; both are near the market in Duong Dong. The latter was described by a New Zealand visitor as a fine place for “the peacefulness, airiness and cleanliness, as well as good food (especially the toasted sandwiches) and even a book exchange.” Dinner at the ritzy Saigon Phu Quoc Resort was disappointing, with tough grilled and sautéed abalone dishes.
For more info on Phu Quoc Island, visit www.discoverphuquoc.co