#006: Phu Quoc Island, VietnamTak's dispatch released on 25 November 2014

Fishing at Sunset, Phu Quoc, Vietnam
You are greeted each morning to the cacophony of Saigon’s streets: the puttering and wheezing of tired motorbike engines as they weave through crowded streets; pre-recorded messages of bicycle vendors that blare from speakers mounted onto handlebars; and clouds of dust kicked up from the street activities.

Several days ago, you walked to Huyen Tran Cong Chua—known as a street for sports equipment and apparel—and purchased a dirty, but new (from the 1980’s), white Wilson bathing suit from a packed clothes rack in the back of a store. You are now folding it, along with sunscreen, bug spray and a host of other items that you have not had a use for in Saigon.

You throw your leg over the padded blue seat of the worn Honda motorbike, as you affix the helmet strap. Slicing through the clouds of cars, bicycles, fruit carts, pedestrians and motorbikes, your driver expertly forges ahead as you clutch your luggage.

You drink the last of the complimentary water provided by Vietnam Airlines* as the wheels of the ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop, touch the runway. After what seems like a ten-minute taxi, the aircraft lurches to a halt, the backstairs are dropped to the runway and your feet are waltzing upon Phu Quoc island.

*Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet and Jetstar all fly to Phu Quoc. However, you prefer to use mainline carriers like Vietnam Airline rather than low-cost carriers like Vietjet and Jetstar when the prices are similar as you get better service, drink service and things like checked baggage at no extra charge.

Arrival to Phu Quoc, Vietnam

You walked out from the airport and took out your phone to dial Lam Anh, the owner of Lam Anh Homestay. Before you can hit “call”, a smiling face seeks you out. After an enthusiastic hello, and what appears to be very genuine interest, you and your friends hop on respective motorbikes and set off along the newly paved road from the new airport.

New and Old Airport

Phu Quoc is growing at a pretty high rate over the past couple years. This has brought new roads as well as a new airport. Whereas the old airport lays just north of Duong Dong town (and a walk away from Lam Anh Homestay), the new airport was built south of town. When you look at figures on the internet, you note that some sites (like Lonely Planet) use errant kilometer/mileage details when noting how far it is to certain things from the airport (surprise surprise). As such, make sure you are getting directions (or calculating a cab fare) from the correct airport. The airport next to Duong Dong town is no longer functional. In fact, roads cut through the runway now and the hangar is used as an amphitheater amongst other things. As in, if you are flying into Phu Quoc, you are flying into the airport south of Duong Dong.

The Phu Quoc Beach, Part I

You have heard that the Phu Quoc beaches are amazing and that the Phu Quoc beaches are full of trash. You rent motorbikes from Lam Anh (150,000VND) and set off.

Phu Quoc Village Scene
After a quick tutorial on the automatic motorbikes, you cruising over the old runway, heading north. After filling up on fuel (~75,000VND), you continue along. The wind counteracts the sun making for a perfect cruising temperature. You turn left onto a minor road which turns to dirt. You find yourself in the middle of a simple village, with houses on stilts, a convenience store and chickens and dogs roaming freely. You take a random left and then a right and are at a dead-end. There is a worn bridge jutting out. A man laying in his weathered house stares out and gestures that no motorbikes can go on the bridge—it hardly looks safe for any use.

Phu Quoc Village Scene II
Back in town, you continue the way you were before the detour, until you are at another bridge, this one arching at a pretty good angle. The planks are thin and fastened in somewhat random fashion. Heavily-worn boards are patched by less heavily-worn boards. You look at a local, point to your bike, point to the bridge and upon his nod, turn the throttle and watch the boards flex as you clatter along.

You watch a European couple, the only tourists on your motorbike journey, heading towards you. They stop and note that the road ahead of you is unpassable and speed off. You take the warning with amusement and continue on. You come to a resort on your left and a giant mud puddle in front of you. You note that there is a narrow shoulder built up on the left side, and use that to get yourself by. Halfway along, a Vietnamese local motors on by, straight through the mud and the water.

After a fair bit of driving, you turn left into a clearing. Old hammocks are slung on trees and a few locals laze nearby. You ask if they have food, which they do and bring out menus. The prices are directly proportional to your food options around this area—high and low. You order some grilled fish, fried fish and some drinks. Your shoes are kicked off and you clamber through the sand and into the warm water.

The Beaches of Phu Quoc

Trash on Phu Quoc Beaches
In a country where people throw their trash on the ground (for sweeping up later), it is not the craziest outcome that there is trash on the beach. Yes, there is some litter on the beach. Is it so thick that you are wading through plastic bags, car batteries, food containers and the like? No. When you go swimming, are you battling plastic bags everywhere? No. But there is some pieces of trash. (One of the worst concentrations you saw is pictured above)

If you need perfectly clean beaches with groomed sand, you might want to not visit Vietnam or book some opulent resort that does these things. But anyone with a small amount of flexibility can easily overlook the litter here and there and see a beautiful beach with warm, clear water.

Generally, the beaches of Phu Quoc are nice. There are plenty of areas where you can go where you will be the only one on the beach. If the beach were full of people and had litter, it would lose much of its charm. But a little bit of litter on an otherwise empty beach doesn’t seem like the greatest problem of all, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level that some act like it does. Another thing is that some beaches have more trash (and more people) than others. The fun of Phu Quoc is that you can just motor along until you find something to your liking. Another option is that you can try going to the beaches of the resorts. The worst that will happen is that they tell you no. This might be more difficult in high season but, based on how things are in general, your chances will probably be good anyways.

The beaches along the north-western coast, north of Duong Dong, are nice. There are also some nice beaches south of Duong Dong. In speaking to locals, it seems the beaches on the southeastern coast may have more tourists and trash but who knows.

Vietnamese Cockfighting on Phu Quoc

You find yourself on the back of a motorbike. A man is in the brush with tools, but he is not doing anything. Just at that point, the motorbike hooks left and pushes along, up a very narrow rock-strewn, dirt path. A minute later, there is a clearing with motorbikes parked every directions visible. You are led past the parking lot and encounter perhaps 150 locals standing in a circle.

Tape is woven around the rooster’s feet and a metal claw is fastened next to each spur. The scale is setup; the roosters are weighed. Older woman line the exterior of the clearing, cooking fried fish and rice cakes, and selling cakes, drinks and other snacks. Some spectators have climbed up into the trees.

Those closest to the action are squatting down. A man inside the ring thrashes a thin branch all around the edge of the circle, forcing the observers to back up. Each time they crowd in too close, the man goes around thrashing the ground—and the occasional foot if movement backwards isn’t expeditious.

The two roosters are brought by their handlers into the ring. The crowd is in a frenzy, yelling and pointing. Using a stick, a line and two boxes are scraped into the ground. Each rooster is set in its area and the handlers back up. Neck feathers flare, the shouting intensifies and the birds start pecking and clawing each other. One jumps onto another, and motion ceases. The handlers immediately pick up their respective birds. They stroke the feathers, put their mouths to the bird and blow on them and then set them down again. The roosters continue to nip and claw.

At the end of a match, some people come forward to bid on the losing rooster (if no longer alive). It seems matches can be ended if one rooster is clearly going to kill the other, or if one rooster does kill the other. Interestingly, there is not a lot of blood or gore involved. It seems at one moment the roosters are both alive, and another moment one rooster is not.

Apparently cockfighting is legal in Vietnam as a sport as long as gambling is not involved.

The Phu Quoc Beach, Part II

The new highway suddenly turns to gravel. You ride over the uneven terrain, past piles of drainage pipes, bulldozers and dirt mounds. You are south of the strip of resorts that line the coast, so you turn; the sun is at your back.

Through puddles, over narrow bridges and past abandoned structures, you hum along until you get to a small fishing village. You turn left. The dirt road is wide, with what looks like restaurants and homes at either side. The edge of the buildings facing the road is open—no doors, no windows. The roofs, made of corrugated steel; the walls, a patchwork of the same steel sheets and pieces of wood.

The village takes less than a minute to drive through, and once again, it is more open road. A long beach flanks out on your right side. You turn off the road, down the embankment and along the grassy hill which abuts the coast. You take off your helmet, latch it to the bike and make your way towards the ocean.

The water, once again, is warm and clear. Small schools of fish can be seen swimming with an occasional splash from a slightly larger fish feeding. The temperature, the sun, the water; it is a great and perfect combination.

Fishing Boat, Phu Quoc, Vietnam
To the northeast, a wooden ship with a Vietnamese flag draws closer. Two fisherman come into focus. They come quite close to shore and drop an anchor. They scramble out of the boat with ropes and bring them to shore. The other brings a wooden contraption. Within minutes, they have hooked the rope to the wooden equipment and have created a winch. One pulls the wheel while the other lays the rope in a circular pattern in a large plastic basket.

And then, another boat arrives and follows the same procedures; and yet another. You walk out to the hillside next to your motorbike. It is quite clear that they have dropped a net in the waters and are now wheeling the net ever closer with each pull of the wheel. Another motorbike arrives. The woman stops next to you, gets off and opens a basket containing a scale and some other tools. She carries those over to one of the pairs pulling in the nets, and relieves one of the men of his task.

Yet another motorbike arrives, this time carrying two middle-aged tourists, a man and a woman. They park it just behind the fishing townsfolk who are busy at work. The foreign couple walks down to the beach, dodge the ropes that lead into the sea, and start collecting wood. The wheels continue to crank, 90 degrees at a time.

The tourist couple make their way back to their motorbike, arms full of driftwood. They drop it in a pile and start putting kindling in a pile. The Vietnamese woman sees this and glares at them. One of the fisherman points away and says “Over there”. “No, you go, you go, I stay here,” retorts the man in Russian-accented English.

The Vietnamese start motioning that a fire built just behind them, with the offshore wind, will smother them in smoke. The Vietnamese lady starts to yell at them in Vietnamese. “No, we stay here. You move,” the Russian man exclaims.

Women Fishing in Phu Quoc
Of course, there is no way for the Vietnamese to move their apparatus at this point. They have spent the morning dropping the nets, and have spent perhaps a good 15 minutes pulling the nets in, crank by crank; they still have quite a ways to go.

The fire is now burning, sending small amounts of smoke right into the fishermen. The younger or the two throws a small rock at the fire. The Russian snaps his head up and immediately walks forward. At arms-length from the Vietnamese fishermen, he yells at them in Russian and punches the younger fisherman in the head. He continues to rebuke him as he walks back to the fire. The younger Vietnamese fisherman glares at him, with heightened breath, then gets up, mounts his motorbike and speeds off towards town.

The Russian is now in some bushes with a knife, cutting pieces off. He then skins off the thin bark and sharpens one end to a point. The Russian woman has open various containers and is cutting up pineapple and chicken. The fire is now hurtling large amounts of smoke at the Vietnamese, but, with no other options, they continue to crank.

The Russians put together their kabobs and grill them over the red coals. The Vietnamese meanwhile have gotten the net very close to shore, and have setup even closer to water’s edge; a conclusion is imminent. The Russian man walks down in between the two ropes (i.e. where the net is) and enters the water. He swims amongst whatever fish the Vietnamese are trying to catch. His final provocation draws no action. He resurfaces and exits.

The cranks cease and the fishermen enter the sea. Soon thereafter, the Vietnamese woman follows with a large basket. She gives it to one of the men who scoops it into the sea. The basket is brought to shore, filled with fish; squid and other sea creature. It is dumped into a bucket on shore. This process is repeated, so that a second bucket is full.

The buckets are then brought to the woman’s motorbike. She mounts her motorbike, with the catch secured, and roars off through the grassy area, up the embankment and straight into town. You jump on your bike, start it up and give chase. The road is now full of sand, having been gone over by a grader just previous.

Women Sort Fish in Phu Quoc Village
You pull into town to see the catch dumped onto blue tarps. A couple woman are going through the buckets, sorting out the different kinds of seafood— piles of squid, each various kind of fish, and one-offs. You survey the scene, and make hand-gestures inquiring about buying the fish to eat. The responses are disheartening, it seems the sellers are only interested in selling the fresh catch and not in cooking it.

Fresh-cooked Squid in Phu Quoc
Armed with an idea you came across in Sri Lanka, you buy some squid, which is given to you in a plastic bag. You then walk it over to what appears to be a restaurant and hold the bag up for the lady inside. She takes the bag, opens it, looks inside and nods. She then walks over her kitchen setup and gets the process started. Pretty soon, you are sitting in front some rice, some nước mắm pha sauce and the freshest cooked squid you have ever come across.

The Food on Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc Shellfish
The food on Phu Quoc is generally a bit more expensive than Saigon. At the night market, which is assuredly a tourist market, there are quotes for a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of cooked prawns starting at 400,000VND (~$10/lb). These figures can be negotiated down, of course, but compare that to the fresh catch in town the other day which was something around 50,000VND and you realize that Phu Quoc is an island that it into the tourism swing of things.

The banh mi sandwiches were a smidge more expensive than Saigon, nothing statistically that would qualify as more. The sugarcane juice was the same price as Saigon in the fishing village and more expensive in town. The fruit was a slight bit more expensive, due, assuredly in part, to transportation costs. It can roughly be summarized like this: if you eat at a resort or any place that caters to tourists, prepare to pony up. Where Saigon will have you counting in tens for a meal (e.g. 20K, 30K, 40K, et. al), Phu Quoc can very easily have you counting in hundreds for a meal (e.g. 100K, 200K, et. al). That said, there still is affordable options if you stick to places that locals go.

Fish Steak at Phu Quoc Night Market
Interestingly (although maybe not so surprisingly), most of the expensive (e.g. tourist-directed) food was disappointing. The fish at the beach up north was expensive, overcooked and served at ambient temperature. The rice at that venue was also some of the worst experienced. The prawns from the night market were large and nice, but simply grilled and not necessarily worthy of the relatively high expense. In contrast, the banh mi, and the food at the cockfight (which was as cheap as you can find in Saigon) were both very good. This said, there were two standouts. The first was found in the center of town and the second was put together with the assistance of Lam Anh.

The Rotisserie Chicken in Phu Quoc

From Lam Anh’s, you take a left onto the dirt road which leads to the road that cuts north across the airstrip and south into town. Follow it south, perhaps for two intersections until you come to a corner with a Pho dealer and some fruit stands. Unless he isn’t there, or you are blind, there exists a bunch of chicken spinning around each night on a rotisserie. The chicken there is done perfectly. It is full of meat, it is juicy and it is flavourful. This is also up-charged a little bit, and you get the feeling that you are being given a different price than the locals. For a wing, it was 20,000VND each, and for a meaty thigh, 50,000VND (which was clearly the better value). Negotiation is possible here but only for grizzled negotiating veterans.

The Last Supper

Lam Anh turns to you and asks if you want to join him fishing tomorrow night, to which you of course say yes. Tomorrow comes, and he is headed out. He grabs a white nylon net, a snorkel mask and the keys to a motorbike. Off you go.

Down by the night market, the scooters pull to a stop. You get off and follow him up the breaker wall, down the boulders which form the breaker and into the sea. He swims alongside and you help lay the net. After perhaps 15 minutes or so, you come out of the water and wait some time, as the sun sets straight ahead. He heads back in, gathers his net and comes out with only a modest number of fish tonight.

As he is about to head back, you decide perhaps you will split off and have dinner somewhere. You ask him what the price should be for red snapper, with a plan to negotiate for a fair price at the night market. He notes the price depends heavily on the catch for the day. You then ask if he knows of a good place to buy grilled fish. He says to follow him.

Pretty soon, you are in the thick of rush hour traffic in Duong Dong. Much like Saigon, motorbikes and a host of other vehicles jockey for position on the roadways, while half-ignoring traffic signs. You dart alongside the river and hook a right over a temporary bridge, which is there as they construct a giant new bridge overhead. At the other end of the bridge, you come to a sudden halt behind Lam.

Fish Sellers Phu Quoc
A couple sits on the side of the road with a couple different fish laid out. He gets into a discussion with them about the various fish they have on display. After some ruminating and negotiating, you purchase two fish, load them onto the motorbike and re-join the vehicular clouds blanketing the streets.

From Lam’s new house that he is in the process of building, a flutter of activity emerges. In the kitchen, his wife and daughter are preparing greens, chopping and sauteing garlic and putting together side dishes. Around the corner, Lam is using a hammer and a dulled butcher-knife to cut fish steaks. Out front, a fire within a ceramic pot licks a metal grate.

Mi Xao Cai Ngot Tom (Stir Fried Noodles with Shrimp and Choy Sum)
Seated on the floor—in what will perhaps be a living room—with a stack of new plywood utilized as a makeshift table, the full spread (one dish shown above) is laid out in front of you. The two kinds of fish purchased at the market, along with the fish Lam caught are all delectable treats. The sides, the soup and the atmosphere are all just as great.

The Departure from Phu Quoc to Ha Tien

There are a couple different boats that run between mainland Vietnam and Phu Quoc, and a couple different ports. You decide to leave first thing for the coastal city of Ha Tien, Vietnam, with hopes of connecting to transportation that will bring you to Chau Doc, a town to the north on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.

You awake at 0600, get your belongings together and head out by 0700. You settle up your bill with Lam and jump aboard a small bus that Lam has arranged (50K VND) to bring you to the port. As it rumbles along, you again notice that the Phu Quoc roadways are quickly being modified from quaint island roads to western-styled split-lane highways, evidence of infrastructure “improvements” and the future-look of Phu Quoc.

At the dock, there awaits the Superdong I and the Superdong III. The bus stops first at the Superdong III (which connects Phu Quoc to Rach Gia, with a departure of 0800 and arrival into Rach Gia at 1020). You get off the bus at the urging of the woman who ushered you onto the bus at Lam’s, wait a bit, get your ticket from her (230K VND), and then make your way to the Superdong I for its 0830 departure.

You watch the handful of tourists wrestle their giant bags, the locals taking their assigned seats and the crew loading on motorbikes which temporarily block the bright sun from your window, as they move past outside.

The WiFi password is incorrect on the notices aboard, but after changing case, you figure it out. The boat departs, exhibiting good stability and speed. The crew passes out free waters and you leave Phu Quoc in the wake.

Where to Stay on Phu Quoc

Location is somewhat important on Phu Quoc unless you will have a motorbike (or other transportation) AND totally comfortable driving at night. In this instance, it really seems the best location would be somewhere around Duong Dong as it allows for you to walk or easily find transportation to dinner, etc. During the day, you will be centrally located, so if you want to check out the north or south or east—they are roughly similar distances. If you stay out in the boondocks, sure, it will be quiet, but just outside of Duong Dong is quiet too.

Pepper Farm Phu Quoc Bungalow

Several weeks before leaving Saigon, you booked a bungalow at Pepper Farm Phu Quoc Bungalow. It has high accolades no matter what you look at, tripadvisor, agoda, booking.com and so forth. So you figure, this is a great place if they have space. You email them inquiring about rooms in a specific date range. A day or two later, they (Phạm Văn Hùng) responds saying they have a family bungalow available at $40USD. You respond and confirm that you would like it and they confirm everything is good to go. You will be having two friends join you and the family bungalow sounds to be the perfect accomodation.

You then email them to ask about airport pickup and they offer the service. 150,000VND (~$7.50) for pickup by motorbike (so 450,000 for three people) and 500,000VND (~$25) for pickup by car. You reply back and say you will have pickup by motorbike, figuring the experience of landing and jumping on motorbikes will enthuse your friends. They reply asking if you want to eat at their farm and after a couple emails back and forth, they offer you dinner at their farm for 150,000VND (per person? total?) and motorbike rental for 200,000VND (per bike) a day (which is approximately 50,000VND more than what most places rent motorbikes for on Phu Quoc).

Now you are in Saigon where a good-sized dinner costs anywhere from 20,000 to 45,000. If you go absolutely wild and have a fish hot pot, you might pay 80,000, yet they are asking 150,000. It seems excessive if it is per person, so you email asking whether it is 150+150+150 or 50+50+50 (to be clear since you are dealing with a foreign language communication gap). If it is 50*3, you note, you will do the dinner. If it is 150*3, you will pass. They note it is the latter and you respectfully decline.

So there you have it: two weeks before you land, you have secured accommodation and transportation. Done, done and done.

About a week later, you get an email that they are too busy to pick you up via motorbike and that instead they will call a taxi for you. You note that this is okay (although you are disappointed that the motorbike experience will not occur) but that you will just a hail a taxi yourself in this instance (figuring that you can get a taxi to town for dinner and then another to the farm as the farm is located far from town).

And then, approximately 24 hours before you are to leave for Phu Quoc you get an email that reads:

I really want to say sorry you about our bungalow family have some problem so we can’t to open and sell rooms for you…Could you book at others hotel…
Thank you for your time!
Best regards,
Peppper farm Phu Quoc bungalow

A back and forth ensues. You note to them that you are very sad to hear this news and ask them to define the problem, noting that it is possible you will stay anyways. They refuse to tell you the problem, replying that “[they] cannot welcome you to our farm”. You ask in vain if they can help you with re-booking arrangements at the same rate. This request falls on deaf ears.

So there you are, 24 hours before the day you arrive, one friend flying in from overseas, and you have gone from having accommodation for two weeks to having no accommodation at the last second thanks to this establishment pulling the rug out. Furthermore, you are offered no help whatsoever to rebook something and so off on a mad dash you go, burning up time to find something affordable that will work for your group of three.

What you believe happened is this: You booked a room with them and everything was great. However, after declining dinner (due to what seemed to be excessive pricing) and taxi (due to them breaking the motorbike reservation), you have a supposition that they found a higher paying guest, at which point they broke the reservation with you and swapped in that guest.

The Pepper Farm Phu Quoc Bungalows totally failed and cannot be trusted. But, after some luck and a couple phone calls, another door was opened…

Lam Anh Homestay, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

There are some people that, from the first moment you meet, you can tell have great souls. This is the case with Lam Anh. He is truly helpful and very engaging. His homestay is more a guesthouse than a homestay (there are some that get aggravated when guesthouses are called homestays). In the end, it worked out perfectly to have had the terrible experience with the Phu Quoc Pepper Farm Bungalow because not only was Lam Anh’s location far superior, but the experiences enjoyed in large part due to Lam were impressive. Overall, Lam’s Homestay in well worth your consideration. A slightly more robust review will be posted shortly.

Conclusion of Phu Quoc

You like adventure, quiet and an island mindset. You appreciate being able to get away from everyone else and finding your own isolated beach, but also appreciate (or are okay with) having a lively town to utilize for your needs (stores, ATM, pharmacy, etc.). You can see the beauty in the beaches, even if they aren’t worldclass. A little bit of trash doesn’t send you into a tizzy.

As for time frame, the dry season sets in sometime around mid-November through April. Rain makes driving on dirt paths (the ones that hug the beaches) not as easy.

And speaking of time frame, it really is changing as evidenced by the infrastructure “improvements” and the relentless sights of construction. Thus, this isn’t some Robinson Crusoe deserted island anymore (although there is still plenty to explore). Resorts are being built along the coastline (i.e. the desolated beach you enjoy will be a private resort one day), international air service has begun and Duong Dong town is much more active than you would think. As of now, it still has its charm. But give it ten years and it will probably be a completely different place.

Currently…

The rain hasn’t been completely vanquished in the south, but the less humid air that has arrived is a welcome relief. Hope all is well in your neck of the woods.

Sunset, Phu Quoc, Vietnam
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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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