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Travel: Phu Quoc

FOR most westerners and ex-pats exploring Vietnam, it’s the orchards, paddy fields and swamplands of the mighty Mekong Delta that bring the country to life, an agricultural miracle pumping out more than a third of the country’s annual food crop from just ten percent of its land mass.

But Vietnam is also home to some of the world’s best beaches with a coastline spanning over 3,400km with infinite stretches of powdery sand, coves, lagoons and tropical islands. Lying in the balmy waters of the Gulf of Thailand, 45km off its south-western coast and just 15km off the coast of Cambodia is the country’s largest island, a sleepy secluded paradise rapidly morphing into an essential stop on the south-east Asian beach trail.

The same size as Singapore and at times claimed by Cambodia and Thailand, Phu Quoc was virtually unknown by outsiders a decade ago, but with the arrival of an international airport and a growing list of accommodation options from simple beach bungalows to luxury 5 star resorts, the island is fast becoming a serious alternative to beach heavyweights like Nha Trang.

Fringed with white sand and with large tracts still cloaked in dense jungle, Phu Quoc National Park is a protected area covering close to 70% of the island which leaves ample room for exploration and escaping. Many places can only be reached via dirt tracks and the beaches are largely free of vendors, but the island is currently undergoing major development and now is the time to visit before the construction of big resorts, casinos and facilities for mass tourism strip the island of its raw, natural beauty.

Explore

Most people come to Phu Quoc island for one purpose only: lazing the day away on a deserted beach and watching a blistering sun go down over the turquoise ocean. But for those looking for adventure, there is plenty on the island to keep you entertained.

Motorbike Riding

This may not sound like the most adventurous activity, but once you get out on those Phu Quoc red dirt roads, you’ll understand why hiring a motorbike is probably the most interesting and exciting way to explore Phu Quoc.

Some of the best off the beaten track places can be found north of the island, including riding around Bai Dai Beach and Ganh Dau headlands in the top northwest and riding back through the national park area. The even more remote Bai Thom Beach Area is at the top of the island, with lots of sandy tracks leading to the beaches through cashew nut plantations. Riding around the old bridges of Cua Can Village is also an interesting experience, just watch out for oncoming traffic.

Boat Trips

Boat trips can be arranged from your hotel or alternatively, find yourself a keen fisherman and hire him and his boat for the day or a couple of hours wherever you are. Half the adventure is bargaining a price, the other half is exploring what’s out there. Here are some of the best spots:

An Thoi Town: you can’t really go wrong here, boats leave all the time to the islands down south and there are plenty of fisherman here keen to take you out.

Duong Dong: Another good place to try just because of the large number of fishing boats. It’s not as close to some of the small islands around Phu Quoc, so you might end up fishing, though viewing the Duong Dong river is another interesting alternative.

Cua Can: Plenty of fishing boats, however it might be possible to find someone to take you around the scenic river around town, and there’s a couple of small islands a little further north.

Vung Bau Beach is close to Turtle Island (Doi Moi) and you might be able to get across for a snorkel or a swim.

Squid Fishing

There are plenty of tours on offer with prices dropping as sunset approaches, so head out for an evening of squid fishing and if you’re lucky, you’ll have your own self caught dinner grilled on the spot.

Dive

Scuba diving is relatively new to Phu Quoc island, only having been recently introduced in 2002, so divers have the unique opportunity of discovering the marine life around the island for the first time. There are two zones – north and south – with many areas to the north and in the coral gardens off Bai Dai, North East off Bai Thom and Rach Vem largely unexplored. Check out Flipper Diving for more information

National Park Walks

There are a couple of basic walking tracks in the national park, however if you’re thinking of attempting any walk on your own through the thick jungle, make sure you’re very prepared and tell someone where you’re going. There are plans in the future for a walk to the highest point on the island at Mount Chua 603m with a viewpoint, though this is still some way off.

Local Markets

Dinh Cau Night Market is Duong Dong’s night market and hands down the most atmospheric and affordable place to dine on the island with dozen of stalls serving a delicious range of Vietnamese seafood, grills and vegetarian options for about £1.50 a meal.

Pepper

The most valuable crop on the island is black pepper and it produces an incredible 400 tonnes of it each year. You’ll find pepper plantations mostly around the central and northern parts of the island and most farmers won’t mind you stopping to take photos. Organised tours also visit the Khu Tuong pepper gardens for a close look at the pepper gardens and cover the overall harvesting and drying process.

Find Your Own Beach

On the western side of the island lies the most popular beach, Long Beach in between Duong Dong Town and the airport. All the major resorts, hotels, restaurants and tour operators are located here, but if you’re looking for privacy, there are still plenty of empty sun drenched beaches to be found around the northern part of the island.

Fish Sauce

Phu Quoc is famed across Vietnam for its production of high-quality fish sauce, nuoc mam, a dipping sauce made from combining anchovies, salt, water and pepper grown on the island Phu Quoc produces over an incredible 12 million litres of fish sauce each year and has around 85 factories on the island, so it’s well worth visiting one of the many factories on the island. Many local fish sauce factories have a shop attached to it, but getting it home might be a problem. Carrying fish sauce on the airplane from Phu Quoc is not allowed and some airlines have banned it altogether because of the risk of breakage which create pungent fumes that are extremely difficult to remove. You can however purchase some fish sauce at the airport in the departure lounge, and they currently organise delivery for you to Ho Chi Minh.

Pearl Farming

If you’re keen to see the Pearl farms of Phu Quoc, start at the pearl farm shop run by an New Zealand based company Treasures From The Deep. Here you will find some remarkable pearls and some information about the history of pearl farming on the island

Stay

Set on the powdery sand of Ganh Dau and surrounded by coconut palms, Peppercorn Beach is a secluded boutique resort located on the northwestern tip of the island about a 30 minute drive from Duong Dong.

Reached via a bumpy dirt track beside a quaint fishing village, the resort offers simple beachfront rooms in a gloriously remote location for those looking for somewhere to switch the world off completely.

Bound on the west by Cape Ganh Dau and on the east by Rach Tram, the pristine beach is framed by forest and mountains, the water is calm and clear with a cluster of wooden fishing boats just offshore and the Cambodian islands lie only a few kilometres in the distance.

Hammocks are used as an alternative to obstructive sun-loungers and umbrellas to retain an authentic desert island ambience and the resort embraces eco-friendly practices such as rainwater collection and solar panels for lighting, refrigerators and air-conditioning.

Each of the eighteen rooms has a balcony with either a sea or garden view, TV with international channels, Wi-Fi, free mountain bike use, two bottles of mineral water daily and complimentary breakfast.

The beachfront restaurant is open all day and uses fresh seafood and local produce to serve a range of international and traditional home-cooked Vietnamese dishes from chargrilled squid and crispy pancakes to tamarind shrimps, grilled scallops and local fish caramelized in a clay pot.

There is a daily complimentary shuttle into Duong Dong town and the warm, English speaking staff can help arrange anything from snorkelling trips with local fisherman to preparing alternative Vietnamese dishes, but one of the most enjoyable things to do here is to observe the daily life of the locals, a place where you will see anchovies drying out in the sun ready for the fish sauce factories, children playing freely and dozens of brightly coloured fishing boats filling up the harbour by afternoon.

Or stay in your hammock and listen to the brush of waves on the beach, the distant thud of a fishing boat engine or the hoot of an animal in the far wooded distance.

Prices start at £80 per night for a double room. For more information and rates go to http://www.peppercornbeach.com/rates.html

When To Go

Between October and April. Phu Quoc’s rainy season darkens skies from late May to October, when the sea gets rough and a lot of diving stops.

Getting There

Flights from London to Ho Chi Minh start at £450 return including tax with Vietnam Airlinesand fares from Ho Chi Minh to Phu Quoc start at £40 return with Jetstar.