One of Vietnam’s most popular holiday destinations, Phu Quoc Island rises from the country’s slender southern tip like a genie released from a bottle. Its soft-sand beaches, swaying palms and limpid waters have been casting spells on visitors ever since its tourism potential was finally realized in the late 1990s. Progress was initially slow – it’s almost impossible to believe that electricity from the mainland only arrived in 2013 – but a recent glut of construction, and a volley of flights arriving from the mainland and beyond, means that Phu Quoc is now challenging Nha Trang as Vietnam’s top beach destination.
Phu Quoc is located in the Gulf of Thailand just 15km off the coast of Cambodia, a country that still has territorial claims on the island (which they refer to as Ko Tral). Phu Quoc’s isolation made it an attractive hiding place for two of the more famous figures from Vietnam’s past. Nguyen Anh holed up here while on the run from the Tay Son brothers in the late eighteenth century, and so too did Nguyen Trung Truc in the 1860s. Today, over eighty thousand people – and a sizeable population of indigenous dogs, recognizable by a line of hair running up the spine instead of down – dwell on the island, famous throughout Vietnam for its black pepper and its fish sauce (nuoc mam), which is graded like olive oil.
Like Mui Ne, Phu Quoc is a favourite bolthole for expats living in Ho Chi Minh City, and its future looks rosy. Yet while resorts and bars are springing up fast and access roads are being sealed, for the moment Phu Quoc still retains something of a pioneer outpost feel; though the island is a spacious 46km long, many places can still only be reached via dirt tracks and the beaches are largely free of vendors. In the rainy season (between May and Oct) Phu Quoc is relatively quiet, and room rates become more easily negotiable, though in peak season (between December and January), accommodation prices can increase sharply and advance booking is necessary.
Phu Quoc is the kind of island that is ideal for exploration, and there is little traffic, making it easy to ride a motorbike around. Over seventy percent of the island is forested at present, and the hills of the north are particularly verdant. If you do this, be aware that few roads are surfaced, so you are likely to return to your resort at the end of the day covered in a film of red dust – wearing a helmet is compulsory and a face-mask is a good idea too.
All over the island, and especially in the north, you will pass by pepper plantations, the plants easily identifiable as climbers on three-metre-high poles; at places like Khu Tuong, a few kilometres inland from Ong Lang beach, they welcome visitors to look around. There are also two cleansing streams in the centre of Phu Quoc: Suoi Da Ban and Suoi Tranh. A walk beside them reveals moss-covered boulders, tangled vines and small cascades, though they tend to dry up between January and May.
There’s a reason why visitors come in droves to Phu Quoc from November to May, and why resorts raise their rates then. It’s because during those months the waters surrounding the island become limpid and ideal for diving and snorkelling. Some visitors snorkel optimistically in front of resorts on Ong Lang beach, but the best locations are around the An Thoi Islands to the south or Turtle Island off the northwest coast, both of which can be visited by boat trip from Phu Quoc. At these reefs (particularly the former, which is rated by some as the best dive site in Vietnam) you can float above brain and fan corals, watching parrot fish, scorpion fish, butterfly fish, huge sea urchins and a host of other marine life. Most resorts can sort out snorkelling trips, charging around $15–20 per person (depending on the number in the group) and including gear rental, fishing and lunch. Diving will, of course, cost a little more – check out Rainbow Divers for an idea of prices.
Phu Quoc Island’s west coast is quite rugged, but the beautiful bays tucked along Ong Lang Beach are certainly worth visiting, and a few cosy resorts, separated from each other by rocky headlands, offer the chance to really get away from it all. Ong Lang Beach is much quieter than Long Beach, and has a few coral reefs just off the coast, though for really good snorkelling you’d need to join a boat trip to the north or south end of the island. North of Ong Lang, there are a few more attractive beaches called Cua Can, Vung Bao and Dai. Resorts are beginning to spring up here too, though the region still has a feel of splendid isolation.
You’ll probably find no real need to go into the only town of any size on Phu Quoc – Duong Dong – since most resorts, and the main road linking them, provide all basic needs. However, it’s worth dragging yourself off the beach to spend a few hours here – early morning or evening are the best times. There is a small lighthouse and temple (Dinh Cau) situated on a promontory at the entrance to the harbour, which is of no great consequence but does provide good views down the northern part of Long Beach. The town’s market, on Ngo Quyen, to the left across the rickety bridge in the centre of town, is always bustling and photogenic with its throng of shoppers and displays of fruit and flowers, and is at its best early in the morning. There’s also a night market that sets up each evening along Vo Thi Sau near the lighthouse, where you can pick up a few souvenirs and check out the good-value Vietnamese food stalls.
The main attractions on Phu Quoc are its fabulous beaches, and the west coast has some of the best. The majority of resorts and guesthouses are strung out to the south of Duong Dong, along Long Beach (Bai Truong) – an appropriate name, as it stretches almost to the southern tip of the island some 20km away. Most resorts are fronted by fine stretches of soft yellow sand and coconut palms, and the beach is ideal for sunbathing, sunset-watching and swimming. Beyond the first seven kilometres or so south of town the beach is completely deserted, and the coast road southward provides some classic tropical beach views.
If you’re here for rest and relaxation, you need do nothing more than saunter back and forth between your resort and the beach. If you get restless, you can always rent a motorbike to explore the island or sign up for a boat trip.
This museum, the only privately owned one in the Mekong Delta, is located on the main road behind the resorts on Long Beach and about 5km south of Duong Dong; it is well worth a visit to get an overview of Phu Quoc’s natural and political history. The carefully arranged exhibits include whale, dugong and swordfish skeletons, samples of sand and petrified wood, a fantastic variety of shells, a potted history of the island’s past, ceramics from shipwrecks and, if you make it up to the fifth floor, sweeping views along the coast. There are also handicrafts made of local materials on sale, though a shell-encrusted chair might be a bit big for your backpack.
The east coast is, so far, largely undeveloped, though it does have a good surfaced road running halfway up it (from An Thoi to Ham Ninh and Duong Dong) that offers some respite from the constant dust kicked up off the dirt roads throughout the rest of the island.
Signposted just north of the T-junction where the road from Long Beach meets the road up the east coast, Star Beach (Bai Sao) is a hot contender for best beach on the island. Its dazzling white sand and pale blue water are mesmerizing, and while the waves crash on Long Beach during the monsoons, Star Beach often remains calm. A few beach restaurants do a healthy trade, particularly at weekends when the beach gets overrun with locals, and there are even a couple of places offering lodgings. In season there are kayaks for rent and half-day snorkelling trips by boat.
A little south of Bai Sao, Ice Cream Beach (Bai Kem) is also a blinding white colour, but the military generally prohibit entry to foreigners not arriving on a boat tour.
In the middle of the east coast, Vong beach and Ham Ninh provide jetties for hydrofoils arriving from Rach Gia and Ha Tien. There’s no beach to speak of at Vong beach – just mudflats. The only other beach on the east coast is Thom beach, in the extreme northeast of the island, which is only reached after a wearing, 35 kilometre-long motorbike ride over rough roads from Duong Dong, and has virtually nothing in the way of facilities.
Accommodation options are expanding fast, and many new places were under construction at the time of research. Not all mid-range options include air-conditioning, TVs and fridges, so check before booking if these are important (the first one certainly can be). While resorts on Ong Lang beach are quieter, they are separated from each other by headlands, so there’s not much choice when it comes to eating – it’s certainly not like Long Beach. Bear in mind that during the rainy season (May to October), many small places close for several months, and those that are open usually reduce their prices. By contrast, it can be difficult to find a room in the high season, so advance booking is advised.
Duong Dong’s night market is a great place to sample authentic Vietnamese dishes at very cheap prices. Not surprisingly, every beach resort, apart from the cheapest guesthouses, has its own restaurant; most have reasonable menus and some have sea views, but the quality is erratic and prices are often inflated. Bear in mind that if you stay anywhere but Long Beach, you’ll be more or less limited to your resort’s restaurant unless you have a rented motorbike. Long Beach may be busier, but you do get several dining choices in a small area.
Whether you arrive by air or by sea, you will likely be besieged by touts trying to drag you off to their favoured hotel or guesthouse, so it’s a good idea to have somewhere in mind before arrival. If you have made a prior booking, most resorts provide free airport transfers, saving you a lot of hassle and expense.
Flights land at the sparkly Phu Quoc Airport, around 9km south of Duong Dong town and less from many of the resorts lying in between the two; as well as the domestic destinations listed here, China Southern and Lucky Air fly from China, Vietnam Airlines come from Cambodia and TUI offer flights from London and Stockholm – which gives you an idea of how big Phu Quoc might yet become.
Speedboats run to Phu Quoc from Ha Tien and Rach Gia; the precise jetties used on the island’s east coast have been in flux for some time, though wherever you go there’ll be taxis and usually minibuses waiting to take passengers to their accommodation. Heading back out, it’s best to buy your ticket in advance; ask your hotel or guesthouse to help you, or visit the offices at the top of Tran Hung Dao, just behind the northern end of Long Beach (some offer through-tickets to Cambodian destinations, via Ha Tien); there’s often a minibus transfer fee, though some hotels and operators offer it for free so it pays to ask around.
There is currently no organized bus service so – unless you hire a motorbike – you’ll have to take a taxi or xe om to get around the island.
Prices depend on the type of motorbike you rent. Most resorts and guest houses rent motorbikes, or will know where to point you – check yours over carefully, as many of these machines are falling apart. Wear a helmet, face-mask (for the dust) and plenty of sunscreen.
The Vietcombank at 20, 30 Thang 4 in Duong Dong will exchange money and has an ATM.
There is a hospital towards the eastern end of 30 Thang 4, and there are plenty of pharmacies around, including one along Ngo Quyen beside the market.
The post office is also on 30 Thang 4.
Top image: Mong Tay island in Phu Quoc island, Vietnam © Jimmy Tran/Shutterstock