GO VIETNAM: Having first discovered the Vietnamese treasure in the Gulf of Thailand five years ago, PADDY WOODWORTH returns to evaluate the developing tourism product that is Phu Quoc
IT’S STILL QUITE easy to walk alone on an idyllic beach in Phu Quoc, and imagine you are the only person on a pristine island. It’s even easier to imagine you are alone if you walk 100 metres into one of the remaining patches of majestic jungle.
But it is not as easy as it was. We first went to this Vietnamese treasure in the Gulf of Thailand five years ago. Already the high-rise hotels on some stretches of the west coast were reminiscent of the worst of the Costa del Sol, with outraged TripAdvisor reviews to match.
This time around, we could see from the plane that many hectares of jungle had been gouged out for a massive international airport in the middle of the island. Unless a few resorts that offer tourists real encounters with Phu Quoc’s remarkable environment and culture can turn the tide, the fate of yet another “paradise island” seems sealed.
In reality, of course, neither the beaches nor the jungle have been truly pristine for a very long time. They have been fished and logged for many centuries, but only recently, and quite abruptly, has their exploitation threatened to become unsustainable. And Phu Quoc has probably never been much of a paradise for its own people, and certainly not over the last century.
During the worst years of the American war (as they understandably remember it here), the South Vietnamese army, allied to the US, established a huge prison camp on the island for NLF insurgents. After the latter’s victory in 1975, the new communist authorities turned it into a rather grim museum, billed as one of the top 10 tourist attractions today.
Phu Quoc also saw fierce fighting between the new government and the notorious Khmer Rouge, who claimed it for Cambodia, in the early 1970s. Today the island (pronounced as “Fu Wook” by locals, but as “Foo Kwok” by most tourists and agents) is at peace, though the rush to development makes life a grim struggle for the poor. The small capital, Duong Dong, boasts markets that offer dazzling cornucopias of local produce: fish, fruit, spices and vegetables of mind-boggling diversity and often – to us at least – startling shapes and colours. The prices also seem rock-bottom to our pockets, but many local people can’t afford them.
Wander just 50 metres off the tourist trail, and you will encounter hovels that match anywhere in Asia for abject poverty, in sharp contrast to the often garish McMansions that are springing up along the main roads.
So we set out for Freedomland with a sense of guilty irony, because this little resort markets itself on offering very few of the comforts demanded by most western tourists, but remains utterly beyond the reach of most of Phu Quoc’s residents. There is no hot water, much less air-conditioning, and you may find that your small hut offers a challenging intimacy with snakes and spiders.