I’m trying to think of the exact moment I became the beach equivalent of a vapid, disconnected supermodel.
Having traveled to some of the world’s best beaches in Zanzibar, Curacao, Hawaii and countless Thai beaches, I can relate to supermodel Linda Evangelista who famously said: “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”
While I wake up for a lot less, I am somewhat of a beach snob. If there aren’t crystal clear blue waters, gleaming white sugary sand, and a palm-fringed backdrop, don’t even bother trying to get me out of bed. Soaring mountain cliffs optional.
Despite Vietnam’s 2,000 miles of coastline, I wasn’t impressed with what I’d seen. The famed white sand beaches of Nha Trang extolled in song? Meh. The “it” beach of Mui Ne, four hours north of Saigon? Whatevs. The perennial day trip to Vung Tau, aka Cap Saint Jacques when it was a playground for the French? Yawn.
So when I first heard of Phu Quoc (pronounced: foo kwok) a decade ago, I was stoked. The 31 x 16 mile island just off of Vietnam’s southern coast sounded like my seaside Shangri-La. Moby’s Porcelain was already playing in my head.
While my first trip to Phu Quoc was charming, it left me feeling like I should’ve stayed in bed. I went with a group of friends from Cambodia, as we hauled ourselves overland to Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta and down to Rach Gia, on the coast. We then took a ferry over to the island, and what I found were beaches much like in Cambodia (not surprising, since the Cambodian mainland is a mere 8 miles away), nice but not spectacular. Yes, I am very well aware that I have first world problems.
The island was pleasantly underdeveloped, but ultimately not worth the buses, vans, ferries, tuktuks and motorbikes we took to get there.
Fast forward six years and I was ready to give Phu Quoc another try. I prepared myself for a fun and relaxing, if not droolworthy, getaway with a bunch of friends, sweetened by a promotional USD 50 return airfare.
But this time, I was going to stack the deck in my favor. As my friends booked themselves into a perfectly nice hotel, I did my own hotel hunting. While I can definitely slum it with the best of them, I felt like I needed a bit of civility. What I settled on was La Veranda, an M Gallery, Accor-managed, French-colonial inspired oasis in the middle of sleepy Phu Quoc. When photos of a property make you gasp, I always take that as a good sign. From the moment I stepped onto the lushly landscaped property, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be. Every sip of my welcome lemon tea washed away the guilt at ditching my friends just down the road, but a world away. (“Resort or last resort?” one of them quipped on check-in at their small but cheery boutique hotel.)
I surreptitiously Instagrammed photos of my room with four poster bed, faded French country tiles and welcome cookies, hoping that bad wifi would keep my friends blissfully unaware of my posh digs.While we hooked up for meals, my main decision-making efforts centered around the age-old question: Beach or Pool?
Phu Quoc has been called “up and coming” and “the best undiscovered destination” for years now. Hotels are recessed off the main road down little paths, so you don’t see lots of people walking around in swimwear, giving the town less of a beach vibe but still sleepy nonetheless. The center of Duong Dong, the main town, hasn’t been overrun by tourists, other than the tired “Night Market” where everyone tends to gravitate for uninspiring food choices.
The beauty of Phu Quoc still lies in its natural charms. To get anywhere, you’ll need transportation, though. Surprisingly, the Ho Chi Minh City armada of Mai Linh and Vinasun taxis are practically non-existent here. (I think there are 6 Mai Linh taxis on the island.) Instead, you’ll find Sasco.
Heading down to the island’s best beaches in the south is an expensive cab ride. So either rent your own motorbike (~VND 150,000 per day) or hire out a taxi for an island tour (4 hours, VND 630,000 or VND 780,000 / USD 37 for a full 8 hours), which takes you to gorgeous Bai Sao (Star Beach) with stops at points of interest along the way. (Because there’s really only one loop to get to Bai Sao from Duong Dong, a 45 minute trip one-way, the taxi will have to wait for you anyway, so might as well make a day of it.) Roads are mostly good, with some dirt stretches (construction is ongoing). Be prepared to ask for directions along the way, though.
Alternatively, take a snorkeling tour and you’ll see many of the same sights as the taxi tour. We asked around and John’s Tours was repeatedly recommended. For USD 17 per person (we were offered an additional USD 2 discount because we were a group of 5 and booked directly with them), we had a fun, sun-drenched romp around the island’s south side.
Of course, there was the requisite shopping stop at one of the island’s ubiquitous pearl farms which included a demonstration on how pearls are seeded and formed.
The bus then heads down to An Thoi pier for snorkeling at two stops (limited variety of fish, mainly hard coral) with fishing (squid, fish) on the way.
The boats are privately owned and contracted out by the tour companies. So expect a bit of a sales job by the boat personnel, although soft drinks and beers were reasonably priced at about USD 1 each. Grilled sea urchins (aka Vietnamese viagra) will also be for sale for USD 1 each.
If you’re not interested in seeing some of the other stops on the taxi tour (pepper plantation, one of Phu Quoc’s specialty items, in addition to fish sauce, or the so-called Coconut Prison from French colonial times), the bus / snorkeling tour is great.
The final stop is at Bai Sao, the island’s best beach for about an hour in the afternoon. There’s only one hotel here (a set of new, concrete bungalows) but quite a few restaurants serving up rather expensive dishes like fried calamari (USD 8) and refreshing shakes. The beach is quite long, with most daytrippers congregating by the restaurants (and attached lounge chairs for rent). Walk a couple hundred meters down the beach to either side, though, and you’ll be able to stake out a stretch of sand all to yourself. At the very north end of the beach is the future location for an extension to La Veranda Resort, a large complex of luxe villas. Right now, there’s only a chic restaurant with the most comfortable loungers on the beach (USD 5).
The tour drops you back at your hotel at roughly 4:30pm, making for a fun full day, just in time to catch the gorgeous sunsets which Phu Quoc is known for.
The town of Duong Dong makes a good base for exploring the island. In fact, 95% of the island’s accommodations are located there. Expect to pay more for accommodation than on mainland Vietnam, though, perhaps 30-50% more on average.
Getting there: Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet service Phu Quoc from Ho Chi Minh City. I snagged a USD 50 deal on Vietjet (but beware, they take their 7 kg maximum carry-on weight very seriously and they WILL weigh your bag). I’m going back in a few weeks with a different set of friends and will be going on Vietnam Airlines for USD 70 (also on sale).
From the airport / pier: Ferries from the Vietnamese mainland go to Bai Vong pier, about 10 minutes’ drive to Duong Dong. From the airport, it’s about a VND 150,000 / USD 8 cab ride into town.
Taxis and tours: I checked with both taxi companies and the going rate for the taxi tours is pretty much the same. Every hotel can book day tours for you. If you’re booking multiple tours or have a larger group, phone the tour operator directly to negotiate preferential rates.
Care to share? What get-there-before-it’s-gone destination do you recommend?