Beach Life: Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

Fri, 14/08/2015 - 12:35pm
Read Time: 2.6 mins

Where is it and how do I get there

Phu Quoc may be Vietnam's largest island, but at 43km end to end, it's small enough to get around easily by car, motorcycle or mountain bike. The tear-shaped land mass is actually nearer to the Cambodian coast than to mainland Vietnam – hence the army base stationed on this long-disputed territory – but it's just half an hour by air from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam's south. Between Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar and local budget airline VietAir Jet, there are at least 10 direct flights to Phu Quoc daily. Alternatively, you can take one of two daily ferries departing from the charming colonial town of Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border.

When is the best time to visit?

High season is December to April. For the best chance of blue skies and high temperatures, without the crowds, book a trip for November or late April/early May.

Bai Sao beach Bai Sao beach



So what's so great about Phu Quoc?

Perhaps due to its semi-isolation, Phu Quoc's tourism industry had a relatively slow start. There is plenty of accommodation available, but the untrammeled development so common on Vietnam's mainland beaches is only just beginning to arrive. As a result, many of Phu Quoc's gorgeous alabaster-white beaches are largely deserted – especially outside of weekends, when the day-tripping mainlanders descend. Try the beaches on the more remote northwestern side, like Bai Dai and Bai Ganh Dau, or the absurdly beautiful but increasingly crowded Bai Sao in the south.

Most of the tourist activity is based around Bai Truong (aka Long Beach), which sweeps 20km along the western coastline. The touristy northern end is a good base if you want somewhere accessible to both the beach and the shops and restaurants of Duong Dong, the island's main town. But Long Beach is so, well, long, you'll find lots of spots further south for a secluded swim.

Long Beach, Phu Quoc Long Beach, Phu Quoc



Idyllic tropical beaches? Sold. But what else is there to do?

Back before its tourism industry kicked into high gear, Phu Quoc was locally famous for two things: their unique breed of native dog, the Phu Quoc ridgeback,  and its nuoc mam, the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce. You can spot the former, recognisable by the mohawks of hair along their backs, roaming wild around the streets and beaches. They may look scary but they're unaggressive and generally cared for well by the locals. As for the latter – with around 85 factories on the island producing an incredible 12 million litres a year, you'll find the pungent condiment hard to avoid, like it or not. There are racks of drying anchovies, nuoc mam's key ingredient, all over the island; if you want a closer look at the manufacturing process, join a tour group or just bowl up to a factory with a Vietnamese-speaking guide.

If neither feral dogs or smelly sauce are your thing, other options include snorkeling and scuba diving (check out the coral-rich areas at either end of the island); a visit to Duong Dong's magnificent temple dedicated to the indigenous Cao Dai religion; or a wander around the morning and night markets – of which more below.

Night market at Phu Quoc Night market at Phu Quoc



What's the food like?

If you love seafood you're going to be in heaven here. Fantastically fresh and cheap squid, prawns, scallops, crab and all kinds of fish, grilled while you wait, are available from beachfront and streetside stalls across the island. Be sure to swing by the night market, daily from 6pm, for more of that incredible seafood, plus other cheap-and-cheerful Vietnamese dishes. For breakfast, try the local speciality bun ken, a fish-and-noodle broth with green papaya, bean sprouts and cucumber.

We know you're unlikely to require an excuse for cocktails, but it's worth remembering that you will need to buy a drink (or something to eat) in order to use the beach in front of most resorts. Try the local tipple ruou sim, an alcoholic drink made from the fruit of the rose myrtle, or stop by Long Beach Resort for a pint from their in-house microbrewery.

Catherine McGregor

Catherine McGregor is the deputy editor of The Spinoff and a travel writer with a too-long travel wish list including Jordan, Mexico, Croatia and Taiwan.