Phu Quoc Island by

Phu Quoc is the classic “before” model of a tropical island. The kind of place you might find just before the forward scouts of “after” arrive — the schemers and avaricious dreamers for whom paradise is never enough. Shaped like a mini-South America, this 48-km long island dangles in the Gulf of Thailand just 11 km off Cambodia, although it belongs to Vietnam some 70 kilometres away.

Phu Quoc is a languid, throwback place of rutted roads and jungle hills. Fishermen’s shacks made of palm thatch and tarpaulins dot beaches that host far more grazing cows than tourists. It could be the Phuket of yesterday. Vietnam wants it to be the Phuket of tomorrow. With a little luck and a lot of good management Phu Quoc won’t become the Phuket of today.

An hour’s flight south of Ho Chi Minh City (in an aircraft with disturbing signs that caution, “Do not open door during flight”) we land at Duong Dong, “capital” of Phu Quoc. The sealed road stretches as far as our beachfront hotel, Kim Hoa Resort, about two kilometres south of town. After that the sealed road runs out. And why not? The island has barely 90,000 residents, most of them dwelling around Duong Dong, and annually hosts a modest 40,000 international visitors — although there’s a Great Leap Forward-style plan to triple number that by 2010.

Colonial France occupied the island in 1869, establishing rubber and coconut plantations. From 1967 to 1972 the post-colonial Americans ran a prisoner of war camp near the southern tip of the island, holding up to 40,000 Viet Cong and others. The penal theme lingered for some years after independence in 1975 when collaborators and the politically incorrect were exiled here for re-education. Cambodia lays a logical (but no-chance) claim to the island, given Phu Quoc’s very close presence to their coast and its relative distance from Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s even briefly invaded the island in an attempt to annexe it Cambodia. A hefty Vietnamese garrison ensures there’ll be no more stunts like that.

“Hullo. Where are you from?” calls a young man who is lolling in the clear tepid waters in front of the resort. I tell him I’m from Australia. “I’m from Perth,” he answers. A Vietnamese Australian, Dan tells me he’s come back here to market what sounds like “roperty.” Thinking he has said “rubber-tree,” I take the conversation on an unlikely tangent until he corrects me: “Not ‘rubber-tree’ — ‘property’.” Despite us being divided by a common language, he explains that he’s here to ride the wave of Phu Quoc property development, adding that that foreigners can now even obtain 40-year land leases here. Kindly, he doesn’t try to sell me one.

I opt for a sunset investment, strolling along the aptly named Bai Truong — Long Beach — that stretches 20 kilometres down the west coast to the southern end of the island. Beach massage ladies offer willing hands for 40,000 dong an hour. “Tomorrow,” I promise. Fishing boats with nets draped between long, mantis-like booms head home beneath the westering sun.

Phu Quoc’s west coast could be Polynesia without the pareus – just add your Gauguin fantasies and the white flare of a reef. I am reminded of a line from the old Eagles’ song, The Last Resort, about the capacity of our species (especially as tourists) to inevitably destroy the beautiful places we escape to. They sang, “Call some place Paradise — kiss it goodbye.”

Hoping to see Phu Quoc before it is marketed as “paradise”, my friend Angie and I hire motorcycles (for about 100,000 dong a day) to explore the coast all the way south. An aisle of unsealed red road runs parallel to brilliant green verges that give way to an empty beach and an almost powder-blue sea. Cattle graze below a line of she-oaks while fishermen haul in their nets on wooden windlass reels. The dress code for the rural women we pass is floral Pyjama Party plus conical hat. For men it is t-shirt, jeans and a motorcycle.

At 596 square kilometres — about the size of Singapore — Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and is known as “the isle of 99 mountains” because of its numerous high sandstone ridges. Plantations of black pepper trees dominate the flatlands. With some 500 ha under cultivation, these ranks of tall, columnar pepper trees look like lush, vertical vineyards.

We light incense at a little Buddhist temple in the forest then turn east to the island’s most celebrated beach, Bai Sao, a kilometre-long scoop of pale sand and pellucid water that’s cupped by jungle ridges. If “celebrated” means one restaurant, a hammock, three foreigners, five Vietnamese and a few kids, then Bai Sao is far from being spoiled by success. Our lunch is grilled fish marinated in a hot sauce, followed by more fish in a clay pot, plus coi chom chom, sea snails grilled in chilli salt. Throw in a few drinks, rice and tips, and a three-course lunch for two costs us only about 150,000 dong.

“It’s like Bali 30 years ago,” enthuses an older French-Vietnamese man — he’s even wearing a Francophile beret — who is strolling by. His wife adds a familiar sentiment, “And I hope it won’t be the Bali of tomorrow.”

Back at our three-star resort the menu’s English spelling is a bit eccentric; “chicken poured down by hot animal fat” and “slided steam with flagrant weed (elephant snail)” turn out to be far more succulent than their descriptions suggest. For US$ 22 a night, including breakfast, we haven’t come here to expect perfect proofreading.

Breakfast is either glass noodle pho with cuttlefish and prawns or a Western-style omelette with fresh rolls. The French colonials may be long gone from Vietnam but they left behind excellent bread making. The breakfast rolls are even better when washed down with dense, rich Vietnamese coffee dripped into a tumbler over an inch of sweetened condensed milk.

Other than swimming and road touring — plus perhaps diving and shopping for pearls — the big event on Phu Quoc is eating well, and eating often, especially the seafood. The Sang Tuoi restaurant (which describes itself perfectly as “an airy and polite place”) overlooks a curve in the Duong Dong River. Here at night we demolish a delicious mess of star crabs, followed by very tender and fresh cuttlefish. Next comes mango shrimp salad followed by “jump snails” (because they jump out of their shells when you put them near elephant snails, according to Angie) flavoured with lemon grass and Phu Quoc’s famous nuoc mam (fish sauce). After which there is no way I can fit in the final dish, pigeon rice soup.

Teaming up with Trevor and Thuy, an Australian-Vietnamese couple from Perth, we hire a car and driver to tour the rugged, hilly northern half of the island. At Ganh Giau we find the Hero Temple that commemorates Nguyen Trung Truc, a local resistance leader who sank a French battleship in 1861. For this he was executed, but not before he defiantly prophesied: “Only when Westerners have exterminated all the grass in Vietnam will we run out of anti-Western fighters.”

Soon after, on a boat ride out to a fish farm pontoon we meet yet another Vietnamese Australian, Joe who is here to look at the possibilities of building a small resort for his retirement years. Being viewed by his new national government as an American collaborator at the end of the conflict in 1975, he escaped by boat to Malaysia and was eventually re-settled in Australia. All this, it seems, is now forgiven.

This capacity to paper-over the schisms of the past, and specifically the conflicted loyalties that arose during what the Vietnamese call the “American War,” are highlighted when Angie reveals that her mother’s brother and sister (who was killed in action) who were both Viet Cong. Meanwhile, her own husband was working for an American firm. “So, your mother had immediate family fighting on both sides?” I ask. “Yes. But in different years,”

Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Ho Chi Minh city; the one-hour flight costs approximately US$ 85. Ferries to the island run from Rach Gia and Ha Tien on the mainland. Phu Quoc has a monsoonal climate, with the two main seasons being rainy (July-November) and dry (November-June). It’s hot year-round.

Back in Duong Dong town, in the cool of the evening everyone seems to drag out a chair onto the streets or sit at a footpath café. Lacking multiplex cinemas, malls full of franchised clothes shops and a strip of bars and dance clubs, the people of Phu Quoc make-do nicely with that pre-tech substitute, simple conversation. Meanwhile, local kids without iPods and X-Boxes ride by, three-up on a bicycle built-for-two, laughing for no special reason.

Over noodles, we swap our cross-cultural verdicts on Phu Quoc. Thuy and Angie both like the island’s beautiful beaches but have reservations about its “poor” villages and Duong Dong — “not exciting”. Unspoiled as it is, Phu Quoc for them is somewhat boring. Which suits Trevor just fine. He says: “No jet-skis, karaoke or casino? No Macdonalds or Starbucks? Perfect.” I’m on his side.
Sabung Ayam