One of Viet Nam's star attractions, mountainous and forested Phu Quoc is a splendid tropical getaway set with beautiful white-sand beaches and quaint fishing villages. Adventure comes in many forms here – from motorbiking the empty dirt roads circling the island to sea kayaking its quiet inlets, scuba diving the coral reefs or simply having a bang-up seafood meal followed by a cocktail on the beach. Once a sleepy, backpackers’ retreat, Phu Quoc has ramped up tourism significantly, and visitors can now choose between five-star resorts and rustic family-run bungalows. Plans are underway for developing the island even more heavily – a la Phuket style. If package tourism isn’t your bag, get there now before this happens.
The tear-shaped island lies in the Gulf of Thai Lan, 45km west of Ha Tien and 15km south of the coast of Cambodia. At 48km long (with an area of 1320 sq km), Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and its most politically contentious: Phu Quoc is claimed by Cambodia; its Khmer name is Ko Tral – which is why the Vietnamese have built a substantial military base covering much of the northern end of the island (thankfully, the military presence is fairly invisible).
Phu Quoc Island served as a base for the French missionary Pigneau de Behaine during the 1760s and 1780s. Prince Nguyen Anh, who later became Emperor Gia Long, was sheltered here by Behaine when he was being hunted by the Tay Son Rebels.
Phu Quoc is not really part of the Mekong Delta and doesn’t share the delta’s extraordinary ability to produce rice. The most valuable crop is black pepper, but the islanders here have traditionally earned their living from the sea. Phu Quoc is also famous in Viet Nam for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam).
The island has some unusual hunting dogs, which have ridgebacks, curly tails and blue tongues and are said to be able to pick up their masters’ scent from over 1km away (the nuoc mam their masters eat certainly helps). Unfortunately, the dogs have decimated much of the island’s wildlife.
Despite the impending development (of a new international airport, a golf course and a casino), much of this island is still protected since becoming a national park in 2001. Phu Quoc National Park covers close to 70% of the island, an area of 31, 422 hectares.
Phu Quoc’s rainy season is from July to November. The peak season for tourism is midwinter, when the sky is blue and the sea is calm; however, when it’s not raining it’s stinking hot. Bring sunglasses and plenty of sunblock. Take plenty of water when setting out to explore the island.