Experience the lesser known and unspoiled side of Phu Quoc before it becomes a tourism boomtown
As the ancient bamboo bridge across the ravine began to creak under the weight of the scooter, I started to regret promising my riding companion “an adventure in Vietnam”. To be honest, we probably should have turned around after he had crashed. But with his words of “never go back” echoing in our ears we nervously pressed on. And two hours later we were definitely glad we did.
First, let’s rewind to the beginning. As we fly into the airport outside the capital Duong Dong (DD to the locals), it feels like the pilot has alarmingly overshot the entire island, before the plane banks steeply, turns around and descends over the ocean towards the runway. While slightly unnerving, it is a maneuver that thoughtfully gives passengers a breathtaking view of a forested paradise island in a turquoise sea.
Arriving at the new airport gives you the first sense that Phu Quoc has grand ambitions. It has been built to accommodate international flights from across the globe, bringing larger numbers of tourists that will be the catalyst for an undoubted period of growth. The island lies 45 km off the western coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand – only a 55-minute flight from HCMC or a two and a half hour ferry ride from Rach Gia if you’re feeling adventurous. An island of beaches, seafood and waterfalls, it remains relatively undeveloped and is still a part of Vietnam comparatively untouched by the mainstream tourism of other areas like Nha Trang and Mui Ne.
However, Phu Quoc is currently an island of two halves. Most tourists stay in the string of hotels south of DD on the west coast, relaxing on the long sandy beach and swimming in the warm ocean. The days are lazy – this is classic beach tourism – but luckily the majority of places to stay at are still small scale and with personality. The nights invariably consist of a trip to DD’s night market to gorge on a dazzling array of cheap, fresh seafood.
The night market sparks into life at about 5pm as the BBQs are lit and the numerous stalls start laying out the day’s catch, everything from whelks and snails, through to lobster and prawns the size of… well lobsters. Everyone sells the same thing and it can be a little overwhelming the first time to choose somewhere to eat. Try Quan Cat restaurant about half way down on the right-hand side if you’re heading in from the roundabout. The owner speaks good English and is more than happy to suggest what to try, encouraging you to maybe step outside your seafood comfort zone, which I promise you won’t regret. Opt for a whole fish simply grilled with garlic and chili, or for the more adventurous, start with the scallops dusted with peanuts and follow-up with the crab in tamarind sauce (ask for napkins!)
Now, there is nothing wrong with spending a week lounging on the west cost of Phu Quoc dedicating your evenings to stuffing your face with seafood (trust me, I’ve done it more than once and it’s a joy). Most people don’t venture further than that, but the rest of the island is one of the few remaining gloriously undeveloped and untouched parts of the world – and it won’t remain that way for long.
With an 18-hole golf course under construction on the northeast coast, a huge resort planned to follow and a nearly completed main road dissecting the length of the island, it is only a matter of time before the tourist money overwhelms the sleepy traditional fishing villages and deserted beaches. So go before it’s too late if you want to see the unspoiled side of Phu Quoc. Rent a scooter, pack water and some snacks and head east!
Heading out of DD on the road to Ham Ninh, you’ll soon find yourself on dusty red roads through the rainforest accompanied by the distinctive smell of fish sauce and pepper. Along the way stop and join the locals enjoying a picnic at the Tranh Stream waterfalls. The more adventurous can cool off by jumping from the bridge into the river below.
Continue on to Ham Ninh jetty. Stop for a cold beer, resist liberating the seahorses in tanks before they get deep fried and take a walk along the jetty from where ferries leave for Cambodia. If you’re lucky the boat will be arriving or leaving – perfect for people watching and admiring scooter skills as heavily laden bikes speed up and down the narrow jetty at breakneck speeds.
Refreshed, scoot north along the local dusty track (left just before the jetty) and you quickly find yourself tootling through fishing villages running parallel to the coast with regular glimpses of the sea through the palms. Keep following the road and you’ll eventually see a little guesthouse on the right hand side called Coconut Tiki Grove Beach. Stop. My riding companion and I spent a couple of hours here, drinking cold beers and swimming with the owner’s dogs on a completely deserted beach before making the fateful decision to carry on north. It is places like this that make the east coast so wonderful, and it’s places like this that will slowly be swallowed up by the onward march of tourism.
From here there are two choices – head back to DD, or (if you are an experienced rider) keep heading north. The second option is not for the faint-hearted and shouldn’t be attempted during rainy season or bad weather as the road hugs the coast and you need to traverse at least seven ravines, which are slippery, bumpy and frequently require you to cross bamboo bridges that require a little leap of faith. That said, you’ll obviously be passed in both directions by the usual array of locals on scooters laden with half of Lotte Mart who make it look easy. For mere mortals, this is a real taste of adventure scootering, and an experience that reveals a part of Vietnam that would otherwise pass most of us by.
One (gentle) crash, four near misses, a lifetime of incredible scenery and a lot of adrenaline later we emerged unscathed and exhilarated at Thom beach near the north of the island. We stopped at a deserted bar, pulled up a hammock and drank a toast to the other side of Phu Quoc and the road less travelled before heading home on the significantly easier big new road. Vietnam is changing quickly, so go out and explore before the smell of fish sauce is permanently replaced by the smell of tarmac.