Castaway on Phu Quoc’s North Shore

I am what is known as a late adopter. (Fine. It’s not strictly one of the technology cycles but much preferable to being called a “laggard“.)

I didn’t climb aboard the iPhone bandwagon as much as I was chloroformed-into-a-moving-van onto it by a friend who had an after-contract 3GS ripe for the taking. By the time it got to me, no one was even selling cases for that model anymore. (The upside was I finally found one in a dusty discount bin somewhere for 99 cents. Score!) I’ve upgraded once in the past three years, again, thanks to being a sad, sad technology-have-not charity case. I don’t mind that I’m perpetually two generations behind everyone else or that local Vietnamese are more than happy to part with a month’s salary to obtain the latest offering, casting pitying glances at my iPhone4, the kind usually reserved for homeless people, an uncomfortable mix of pursed lips, sad eyes and a subtle, slow shake of the head.

My utter innovation adoption failure extends to other things, though, not just technology. I saw the Chatroulette version of Wrecking Ball before I had actually heard the song. (And I may or may not have had to Google what Chatroulette was…)

Recently, I pretended to laugh along when a lawyer colleague made a joke with the punchline, “Better call Saul!”. Alas, television’s highest rated show of all time had already aired five seasons’ worth of episodes and finally ended, me blissfully unaware. (Although this oversight was rectified with some serious binge-watching, so if you were one of the people who tried to contact me unsuccessfully in mid-April, my apologies.)

So when my blogging nemeses, the awesome Steph and Tony of 20 Years Hence, suggested that I join Instagram, I balked. “It’ll be fun,” they said. “You’ll like it more than any other form of social media,” they said. “All you have to do is press “like” on the pretty pictures,” they said. This coming from bloggers equally disdainful of social media as I was. I’m already on Facebook. I barely understand Twitter.  I have this blog. Do I really need another avenue to express myself?

Cue chloroform and moving van with blacked out windows.

Free Candy Van

The lure of Instagram

So, armed with my new Instagram account, I promptly took a trip to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, posting photos willy nilly. Just miles off of Cambodia’s coast, most of Phu Quoc’s (pronounced: Foo Kwok) hotels are centered around the town of Duong Dong, towards the middle of the 31 x 16 mile island. Everywhere else is pretty much undeveloped, with the pearl farms and fish sauce factories to the south, and the national forest and sleepy fishing villages to the north.

After visiting gorgeous Bai Sao (Star Beach) and doing a tour around the island’s south side, I headed up to the north shore for a few days, intrigued by a boutique hotel that promised seclusion – deserted beaches, more hammocks than people, miles away from the trappings of civilization. Open less than a year, Peppercorn Beach Resort had already shot up to #2 on TripAdvisor for Phu Quoc hotels and I was determined to find out what the fuss was all about.

There are three roads to get to Ganh Dau, the northwesternmost point of the island where Peppercorn is located, and also point closest to the Cambodian mainland just 8 miles away. One dirt road hugs the coast, just meters from the beach. A two-lane cement road paralleling the coastline was finished just months ago, cutting the travel time practically in half, to about 30 minutes. Very strangely, it’s not well marked as you make the turnoff from town and bizarrely starts with a runway from Phu Quoc’s old airport. Cue Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone”.

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Revvin’ up the engine of my 125cc scooter, listen to her howlin’ roar

Alas, bad directions from the receptionist at the resort (last resort?) where my friends were staying led me to take the road that cuts up the middle of the island, through Phu Quoc’s national forest. Dusty but scenic, with no road signs to speak of, I’m glad I got a chance to see the island’s interior, but thankful that it was during daylight hours as pot holes and sand traps needed dodging.

Road to Peppercorn The stress of the drive melted away once I pulled up to Peppercorn, a group of four bungalows (eight rooms) set right off the beach. And oh, what a beach.

Phu Quoc - North Shore Peppercorn Beach-1

About 400 meters up the road, there’s a sad Vietnamese-run place called Gio Bien. I checked out the bungalows and while they weren’t terrible, they weren’t particularly inviting. Both places are popular as lunch spots for Vietnamese who want to visit the north coast without committing to staying so far away from the action.

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Down time at Gio Bien which hair hygiene aside, served up some tasty meals

Along the walk over, there are a few ramshackle homes housing fishermen and their families.

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Looking out over the water, past the netted enclosures where locals raise sea mollusks, you can see the nearby Cambodian islands, but really, the reason to come all the way out to this part of the island is to get away from it all.

Vietnamese-Australian Linh and her Australian husband Robert actually built a vacation home here in 2006, over time buying up the surrounding plots. Now based in Singapore, the couple have turned over day-to-day management of the new resort to family members, but have set everything up to Western standards. Linh happened to be there during my stay and she shared her philosophy of operating the resort while preserving the beauty of land and people that brought them here in the first place. The resort is eco-friendly, utilizing rainwater collection, solar panels and energy efficient appliances. Linh’s family is also involved in the community. While I was there, one of the bungalows was provided to an British man rent-free while he was setting up an English education project for local youths.

We also talked about the sticker shock of the room rates (USD 100-160, depending on the season), for rooms which are cheery and clean, but not ostentatious, a big leap in price from comparable accommodations on the mainland.

Peppercorn Resort - Room

“The appeal for guests is that it’s unique, different,” says Linh. “My concept is I like to go somewhere remote and unexpected but with a little bit of luxury. We’re very well equipped but in the middle of nowhere. What people don’t understand is that we’re paying more for electricity. Everything has to be shipped in. And it’s harder [on a small island] to get quality workers. We explicitly mention on our website that we are secluded and remote, with limited facilities.”

For instance, there’s no swimming pool or spa. But when you throw open the French doors in the morning, walk down two steps and already feel sand through your toes, those things fade into insignificance.

Peppercorn Resort - CommonA restaurant on site serves up fresh fruit and a cooked breakfast in the mornings, as well as a some delicious meals throughout the day. Mains were about $7-8.
Peppercorn Resort - Food
Wifi was surprisingly fast, fast enough to stream live sports, but… why? Days are meant to be spent swimming in the ocean, reading a book on your porch or in the comfortable common room, or taking one of the resort’s bicycles to explore the surrounding village.

I tore myself away from the beach one morning to take a drive through the sleepy fishing village of Ganh Dau, where an ominous-looking waterspout was the most excitement the town had seen in a while.

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Not to worry. I took shelter in a photogenic pagoda and waited for blue skies to return.
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The weather soon cleared and I made my way past the picturesque fishing village.Boats… and found little cottage industries centered around the products of the sea, like these tiny fish drying in the sun.

Drying fishThe little home factory processes 2-3 tons of fish daily that when dried are ready to be used as soup stock or fried up as a tasty snack.

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Every now and then, some small cuttlefish are found amongst the fish, which the owner steamed up and offered me to snack on while I was exploring his little home factory. His daughter seemed to like them, too.

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Further down the road, I came across a dried shrimp factory where shrimp are boiled with a bit of salt and coloring, then laid out to dry. Afterwards, they go through a drying machine.

Dried ShrimpAnd finally, neighborhood women are used to pick out shells and bits before the shrimp are packaged and sold all over Vietnam.

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Most of the coastline is rugged and undeveloped. Here, two graves are positioned with an eternal sea view…
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About 10 minutes away, where the new paved road starts, lies Sunset Beach and a lovely restaurant by the sea serving up two of my all-time favorites, plucked live from tanks: tamarind crab and sweet and sour soup with shrimp.
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The northern part of the island also has a few dog training and breeding facilities. The Phu Quoc Ridgeback, characterized by a telltale ridge of hair that runs in the opposite direction along its spine, is just one of three ridgeback species (the other two are from South Africa and Thailand), and are found everywhere on the island.

I took a quick tour (entrance: USD 2) around one of the family-run places that breed and train these friendly, teachable dogs. When I asked the locals about these places, they all gushed about how the dogs can climb fences “like people”. Seeing it in person, I couldn’t decide whether it was fascinating or terrifying. I played out a scene in my mind where I was being chased by vicious dogs, managed to haul my hefty, nonathletic body over a fence and collapse in a heap of sweaty relief, only to watch in horror as they started scaling said fence Commando-style. Yes, my mind is a very dark place. Fun. But dark.

Phu Quoc - Dogs
There was even a dog cemetery, with graves marked by cause of death: “old dead”, “biting death” and “disease and death”. My mind soon saw a human cemetery organized much the same way: “squashed by falling piano”, “alien spawn through chest” and “waiting to be zombie-fied”.

Viewing Fee Extra

Viewing Fee Extra

In addition to fish sauce, the island is also known for its pepper. Plantations line the roads, and people were very friendly when I asked to stop and just wander around. There’s just one harvest per year, with each bush yielding 3-4 kgs of pepper in a bumper season.
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The island also produces small quantities of sim wine, a very sweet dessert wine made from the pretty Rose Myrtle. While I didn’t care for the wine, we did buy a bottle of sim concentrate (which tastes somewhere between grape and mulberry) to throw in with rum and seltzer.
How long will the charms of this idyllic island continue to beckon? Phu Quoc was just connected to the national electricity grid earlier this year, a huge step towards modernizing the island. It also brought electricity prices down from VND25,000 per kwh down to just VND1,500, according to Linh, leading to stable internet, air-conditioning units that can run through the night and making life in general easier for the population and for tourists. Previously, lots of locals simply couldn’t afford to have electricity or were too far away to have electric lines connected to their homes. Being so remote, Peppercorn had to pay for 2km of wiring all the way to their property, allowing some locals to have access they couldn’t afford previously.

Visitors will notice road construction everywhere, both to the island’s south and north coasts. A recent tourism initiative allows visitors to fly directly to Phu Quoc without a Vietnamese visa for 30 days, an effort to bring the world to this quiet paradise.

Just south of Ganh Dau, there’s a long stretch of undeveloped beach called Bai Dai (Long Beach). I remember going there in 2008, when there were no restaurants, no canteens, no nothing. Just a wild, deserted place to throw down your towel in the sand and go for a swim.

This trip, though, I drove past the future site of a massive 500-room resort, already under construction by the Vinpearl Group (who also developed the amusement park / resort of Vinpearl Island off Nha Trang’s coast). Families have been bought out, trees cleared, materials brought in. The heavy footfalls of “progress” are inevitable.

Vinpearl Group
“The locals are quite optimistic because they see opportunities for them. Maybe this will drive up the price of their land or will open up more job opportunities,” says Linh. Personally, I can’t help but wonder if they truly know what’s in store. All morning, I asked the locals if they had thought of how life would be different once thousands of people, staff and guests, move in so close to where they live. Won’t that affect the price they pay for goods, since demand will rise? They all assured me that these resorts would bring everything over from the mainland and that life would go on just as it always has, the Pollyannas. The only dissenting voice I came across was from the proprietor of the Sunset Beach restaurant. “I’ve been here more than ten years,” she said. “But once that resort opens, I don’t think they’ll let me stay here. They can’t have good, cheap food available to their guests.”

So, if you’re fortunate enough to be in this part of the world, make time for Phu Quoc. Make time for its quiet, sandy beaches.

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Make time for its glorious sunrises and sunsets.

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Make time while there’s still time.

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16 thoughts on “Castaway on Phu Quoc’s North Shore

  1. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    Yessss! My entire life’s mission was not to travel the world, but to become someone’s blogging nemesis… now I can die happy! 😛

    From one “retarded adopter” to another, I’m glad you are enjoying Instagram and that you also enjoyed your time on PQ. No matter how much we vow that we’ll venture south of HCMC, Saigon always seems to snare us and never lets us go… One day we will make it to PQ, though. Your pictures are too pretty for us not to go! (Although $7-$8 mains… what is this? Canada?!?)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Travel Photo Roulette #81: The Face of a NationMy Profile

    1. James Post author

      I know. There’s not a whole lot of other options, unless you want to get on your bike and go 10 minutes away… Just don’t expect “mainland” prices in Phu Quoc and you’ll be OK…

      Thanks for turning me on to Instagram. I like it that I can post everywhere all at once. Now if only I could figure out Google Plus and why people are continually adding me to their “circles”. What in the world are those? Sigh. I’m hopeless.

  2. HEDIGER Thi Mac

    I loved your report on Phu Quoc. The restaurant owner’s advice is to be taken seriously because that area will change drastically with the 500-room hotel. The same happened with El Nido in the Philippines that we visited some 20 years ago when there were just a few family-run bungalows and very few but enthusiastic tourists. Jimmy really makes me want to go and enjoy Phu Quoc’s northern beaches. Thank you and so long, for another report.

    1. James Post author

      Thanks! It’ll be interesting to see what the area looks like a year from now. I can’t imagine that it’ll be “better” than it is now. Just hope the right government officials are in charge and are looking out for the island’s welfare more than their own!

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Dana! Yeah, I’d probably say very little packaged food is “all natural” these days. Sorry to burst the bubble! (Still tastes good, though!)

  3. MJK

    Hi James!!

    I was so happy to stumble on your wonderful blog while researching Phu Quoc. My husband and I love SE Asia and Vietnam in particular. This April will be our third trip to Vietnam since 2013 but our first year visiting Phu Quoc.

    Just wanted to get your advice on Phu Quoc since I know you’ve been there a few times in 2008 and recently. We will have 5 nights in Phu Quoc, and I’m trying to see if it will be worth splitting the time between Mango Bay and Peppercorn Resort. Mango Bay so we can spend some time enjoying Ong Lang Beach and it will be closer from there to do a trip into Duong Dong and the night market, and a day trip to Sao Beach, then a few nights at Peppercorn to check out Ganh Dau, the fishing village, Dai, and Sunset Beach.

    After spending time in Peppercorn Resort, would you recommend skipping Duong Dong/night market and Sao Beach all together–especially if we’ve been to lots of other local markets in Vietnam?

    It looks like there is a lot to explore with the local fishing villlage and nearby fish/shrimp drying businesses, and Peppercorn serves up some wonderful seafood to rival the nightmarket.

    Trying to get some insight on whether 5 nights at Peppercorn might be too redundant with food options/things to do or if it would be the perfect amount of time explore the surrounding area, beaches, and mingling with the locals.

    Thanks for your input!


    1. James Post author

      Hi MJK:

      If I were you, I’d do 2 nights in Duong Dong and 3 nights at Peppercorn. Advantages: You’ll at least get a feel of the “town” part of Phu Quoc. There are some cool restaurant / lounges there and you’ll enjoy the different food options. The Night Market isn’t even really a market. It’s more food stalls lining both sides of the street. It’s kinda fun, at least once, walking down and looking at everything on offer. Also, all tours to the south of the island leave from Duong Dong. They will do pick-ups at Mango Bay but at added cost. So if you’re thinking of doing a day tour, counting the pick-up / drop-off time, there’s no value to staying at Mango Bay because you’ll literally be gone all day. I was JUST talking to someone about this last night who just came back from Phu Quoc (staying at the brand new Vin Pearl mega-resort towards the north of the island) and they were talking about the drawbacks of being isolated, ie. having to eat just at the hotel.

      For first-timers to Phu Quoc, I would recommend doing the snorkeling / fishing tour. You’ll get to see the south of the island (before more mega resorts go up along that stretch of beach) for really cheap / good value.

      Have an awesome time!


  4. Jenia from HTL

    AHHHHHHH. Must go now! Seriously, peppercorn sounds like perfection. We went to Rabbit Island in Cambodia, from which you can see Phu Quoc. And while we enjoyed ourselves, and Rabbit Island is charming – the accommodations did NOT look anything like this. And I bet Phu Quoc being Vietnam, there is even extra fast internets! Every post I read here is inspiring me to move to Vietnam more and more )
    Jenia from HTL recently posted..Cai Rang Floating Market TourMy Profile

  5. Pingback: Phu Quoc Travel Guide: Where to stay and what to see on Phu Quoc Island - Vietnam

  6. Sonasea

    I was near this island a few years ago, but we decided to go to Sihanouville across the border for some beach time. It looks like I might have to go back and check out Phu Quoc after all.


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