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.
Where Freedomland scores, in our experience and that of all the fellow guests we talked to, is in its seemingly invisible relaxation switch that flicks as soon as you arrive. The grounds are the opposite of manicured, the communal central building is ramshackle and just a little dusty. You soon find yourself lounging happily in a hammock, watching huge cobalt butterflies float from tree to tree above your head.
Peter Trung, a Vietnamese photographer, and his Portuguese partner Rita have somehow created an ambience that makes it easy for people who usually find it hard to do nothing to do just that. The range of clients, from hardcore bikers to corporate executives, is remarkable, and in the evening everyone gathers to eat around a single long table.
We all agree that these kind of arrangements often lead to nightmare encounters with pests and dunderheads, or at best to long and awkward silences. And we are all pleasantly surprised by night after night of camaraderie, with not a sour note, and all the silences easy.
The secret of this miracle of conviviality must lie at least partly in the dishes Trung puts on the table, after preparing them happily with his staff, literally under our noses, for most of the day. There is no menu, and the main problem is restraining your appetite on the delicious early courses to leave space and taste for whatever comes later. Suffice to say we feel we have never eaten better, anywhere, ever, period.
If you feel moved to wander, you can hire motorbikes and head to those still-empty beaches and forest trails in the north of the island. But be careful if you do. Phu Quoc’s red dirt roads are notoriously tricky, and several guests at Freedomland suffered injuries ranging from scratches to fractures in the few days we were there.
I abandoned this mode of transport after skinning my kneecaps on a lonely forest road. There were compensations for my misfortune, but I was lucky. A friendly postman happened by on a bicycle, and helped me bend my Honda 50 back into a shape that was, just about, serviceable. We used rocks as hammers.
And the owner of a lovely little Vietnamese-owned resort, hidden away nearby, bathed my scrapes in iodine and dosed my restorative coffee with a little brandy. He also dissuaded me from going further into the rainforest in the midday sun than is wise for an inexperienced Irishman.
One wonderful excursion is feasible on foot, though it is a little further, if you are not an Olympic racewalker, than the 12 minutes quoted on the Freedomland website. Ong Lang beach seems to go on forever, and you can have it to yourself, especially in the early morning and around sunset. A little south of Ong Lang lies Mango Bay, a much more luxurious and formal resort than Freedomland, but still pretty laid back. It is very “low density”, which means that here, too, you can enjoy a spacious segment of beach for swimming, canoeing and snorkelling in peace and quiet. You often share the space only with a couple of local fishermen – beaches happily cannot be privatised in Vietnam – and the friendly cattle from a nearby farm.
The owners reinvest some of their profits in local environmental and social projects. This may partly explain why the staff are among the friendliest and most helpful we encountered in the country. The resort is quite rich in wildlife. You can swim with huge sea eagles and copper-coloured kites overhead, and find the exquisitely patterned and very big Tokay gecko in your bedroom. It does squawk like an offended pheasant when disturbed, but it minimises the mosquito presence without a whiff of pesticide.
It would be nice to believe that Phu Quoc’s tourism will take the route mapped out by Freedomland and Mango Bay, though experience suggests otherwise. Still, they are the kind of places that license more hopeful dreaming than we would generally indulge in.
How to . . .
GET THERE: Turkish Airlines ( turkishairlines.com/en-ie) offers competitive fares and good service from Dublin to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, with a stop-over in Istanbul, from about €700 return. Emirates, Air France and Lufthansa offer other good options. Vietnam Airlines offers flights from HCMC to Phu Quoc from about €300 return.
WHERE TO STAY: Freedomland: Rooms from $30 to $75 a night, not including food; free wifi; Freedomland will organise a taxi from the airport. See: freedomland-phuquoc- resort.comMango Bay: rooms range from the 120 sq m Reef House through family bungalows (65 sq m) to Veranda Rooms (30 sq m); more expensive than Freedomland, but good deals can be negotiated.
WHERE TO EAT: You won’t want to eat dinner anywhere else if staying at Freedomland. Also, good lunches are available, within walking distance, at Bo Resort and Mango Bay.
WHERE TO RELAX: To chill out in Duong Dong, there is nowhere better than Buddy Ice Cream and Info Café, at 26 Nguyen Trai Street, with great coffee, muesli, yogurt – and ice cream of course. WHERE TO VISIT: A Cao Dai temple.