Now home to one of the most imaginative new five-star resorts in the region, Phu Quoc seems one step closer to emerging as Vietnam’s premier beach destination (sorry, Nha Trang). For the time being, though, its mellow charms endure, as does a local spirit as distinct as the island’s famous fish sauce.
Island paradises tend to go through different stages of tourist discovery, starting out as rustic retreats for intrepid surfers or backpackers before being flocked to by families or morphing into private, palm-fringed retreats for the jet set. And at no one stage is everyone content; concerns can quickly shift from a lack of facilities or opportunities for locals, to overcrowded beaches, condominium-choked shorelines, or speculators encroaching on local land and traditions.
Whisper it, but the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc may be one of the closest things Southeast Asia currently has to a happy medium. An inverted teardrop suspended in the Gulf of Thailand just 15 kilometers off the Cambodian coast, it’s roughly the same size as Phuket but far less of a household name, despite its abundance of fine white-sand beaches and proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, an hour’s flight east. Unless, of course, the households in question are Vietnamese, as Phu Quoc is a renowned source of two staples of the local kitchen: nuoc mam (fish sauce) and black pepper. It’s also known for its seafood, pearls, and a delicate pink wine made from the fruit of the rose myrtle tree—a bounty that partly explains why the Vietnamese and Cambodians were tussling over Phu Quoc even in French colonial times. A few nationalist politicians continue to assert Cambodia’s claim on the island (which they call Koh Tral) to this day.
Tourism, then, is a relative newcomer, and even within the confines of Phu Quoc’s newish international airport—it opened in late 2012—ads for shiny new beachfront hotels seem eclipsed by those touting fish sauce and other elixirs. On the roads, too, though stretches of sand and emerald ocean sometimes come into view, my eyes are more often drawn to the colorful trawlers that dot every cove, and the impromptu markets that seem to pop up at every intersection, where the backs of trucks burst with mounds of ripe fruit and racks of squid dry in the sun. Holidaymakers are all well and good, the message seems to be, but Phu Quoc has plenty of other business to attend to.
That said, the March debut of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay is as sure a sign as any that tourism is set to play a bigger role here. Statements don’t come much more grandiose than this. Occupying pride of place on Khem Beach on the island’s southeast coast, the resort is accessed via a freshly blacktopped road that passes through an imposing gate flanked by massive Art Deco–ish dog statues. These are both a nod to local culture—there’s a breed of ridgeback dog indigenous to Phu Quoc—and a taste of what lies within: one of the most elaborate mythologies ever constructed around a vacation property.
The dogs, it turns out, are the “mascots” of what Bangkok-based architect and designer Bill Bensley has styled as a vast colonial-era university, complete with its own invented history. Which goes something like this: In 1880, a wealthy trader started a college on the island to ensure local boys would have access to a world-class education. The institution was dedicated to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, an early French proponent of evolution whose theories (and fortunes) were soon eclipsed by those of Charles Darwin. While Lamarck University eventually fell into disuse, the JW Marriott is built out of the remnants of its magnificent campus.
It’s a convincing enough tale for many guests, especially when they’re confronted with the degree of detail Bensley has brought to the table to lend it veracity. In the lobby, display cases full of scuffed trophies and weathered student records—all genuine European antiques and artifacts sourced by Bensley’s team—stretch nearly to the lofty ceilings. Walls are covered in fading portraits of glowering professors and ruddy-cheeked students on sports teams. Outside, there’s a regulation-size running track, complete with home-and-away scoreboard. The resort’s pretty European-style buildings, rendered slightly fantastical by bright pastel hues and castle-like flourishes, are divided into various “faculties,” such as zoology or conchology (the study of shells, for those not in the know), that inform the designs of the bright, airy rooms within.
It’s slightly affected, yes, but also impeccably executed, so much so that—as one staff member confides—many guests take the backstory at face value. Given the effort involved, I find this somehow comforting; at least people aren’t breezing obliviously past the distinctive surroundings and heading directly for the beach. (Though one might understand if they did: Khem Beach is gorgeous.)
Once guests tire of the water and activities like kayaking and surf yoga, there’s the equivalent of a small town to explore. The resort’s main avenue, Rue Lamarck, takes its inspiration from the historic town of Hoi An, lined with shophouses occupied by boutiques and “classrooms” for local activities such as lantern-making. There’s a fungi-themed spa with private suites plucked straight out of Alice in Wonderland; an auditorium big enough to host a concert in; and a bar called Mixology (a.k.a. the Department of Chemistry), where the drinks are mixed in beakers against a backdrop of periodic tables. “It’s hard to explain to people how unique [the resort] is,” general manager Ty Collins admits to me. “When they arrive they’re a bit overwhelmed.”
For an island that a decade or so ago was virtually off the radar to all but backpackers, the JW Marriott is an audacious project. It’s not alone, of course. Phu Quoc has been earmarked for development as Vietnam’s premier beach destination since 2004, and a raft of other upmarket resort properties—La Veranda, now part of Accor’s MGallery by Sofitel collection; the elegant Salinda on Long Beach; outposts from Novotel and Centara and Meliá—have opened in the intervening years. Tourist numbers have followed suit, growing from a mere 20,000 at the turn of the millennium to 1.5 million in 2015, driven mainly by domestic visitors. More international flights from major cities like Bangkok are said to be in the offing, and the government is scrambling to expand the airport to cope with a surge in new arrivals. For now, though, the island’s laid-back charms have yet to be erased, and Collins is confident Phu Quoc is on a different trajectory than other resort destinations.
“I can see the development happening fast, which is concerning of course, but at the same time I can see [business] owners and the government working on putting sustainable infrastructure in place so that it develops in the right way, which is encouraging,” he says, adding that the JW Marriott is trying to set an example through activities like beach cleanups and cooperating with local business groups. “Because it’s a small community, there’s a lot of collaboration to develop the island sustainably.”
As beautifully executed a fantasy as the JW Marriott is, eventually one has to return to reality, and it turns out there’s a good dose of that just a short bike ride down the road in the form of Phu Quoc Prison. Now an open-air museum, the historic site is a testament to a darker side of the island’s past that seems all the more incongruous in its idyllic surrounds. Originally built by the French colonial government, it was used to house Communist prisoners during the Vietnam War; at its peak, it contained up to 40,000 inmates. The barbed-wire perimeter and ominous guard towers are still largely intact. The only current denizens of the rusting “tiger cages,” claustrophobic tunnels, and chicken coop-like holding pens are mannequins, contorted into torturous positions. But it’s easy enough to imagine in the midday heat how infernal conditions here must have been, even amid the hordes of selfie-taking day-trippers who swarm the venue at peak hours.
The next day I decide to get a literal taste of what may still be—for now—Phu Quoc’s main industry. There are numerous fish-sauce factories on the island, but few have the pedigree of Red Boat, which is the culmination of a dream for Vietnamese-American émigré Cuong Pham. Troubled by the way Thai manufacturers had taken over the industry with mass-produced, additive-laden sauces, he came to Phu Quoc determined to resurrect the kind of fish sauce he remembered an uncle producing here in his childhood. “It was good enough to bring tears to my mother’s eyes,” he tells me.
Located deep in the countryside, Red Boat boasts a pretty riverside setting, with a little brick house and boats pulling up to a makeshift dock to unload buckets of freshly caught anchovies. These are transferred swiftly to a couple of large warehouses and dumped into towering 13-ton vats, where they’re mixed with raw sea salt and left to ferment into a liquid that’s drawn from the barrels like fine whisky. As Cuong walks me through the production facilities, I’m immersed in a pungent, earthy, but not entirely unpleasant aroma. Taken directly from the barrel, the finished product is a surprise; a lovely amber liquid that’s salty and tastes only slightly of the sea, with a sweet undercurrent that lingers on the tongue like honey. Like liquor, the taste depends heavily on the vintage; “rawer” varieties have a slightly skunky kick, while versions that are filtered and fermented for up to a year impart a more delicate flavor. “No two barrels are alike,” Cuong says proudly.
Further exploration of rural Phu Quoc reinforces just how beautiful the island is beyond its beaches. Dominated by a ridge of thickly forested mountains that resembles the backs of its native dogs, the island is more than half covered by protected national park and dotted with lagoons, waterfalls, and walking trails. There are also a large number of working farms, many all too happy to receive visitors. One is the Phu Quoc Bee Farm, situated at the end of a bumpy red-dirt road that winds its way through plantations of tall, spindly pepper trees. A network of paths takes me past clusters of boxy beehives in and out of which the insects lazily drift—though the worker who’s taken it upon herself to show me around, Lin, is quick to warn me that “the bees get aggressive when they feel it’s too hot.” Most of the bees I see are Italian imports as the local species is endangered, but there are separate “shelters” set up for them too, from which no honey is taken. After a long walk I cool down with an icy mix of coconut water and honey at the farm’s open-air café. It’s a pity the bees can’t do the same.
Not far away is Phu Quoc Countryside, a farm that’s been operated by the same family for 20 years but has recently transformed into something of a showcase for local produce. It’s moved on from growing pepper to organic vegetables, tinctures made from local herbs, and dangerously drinkable craft beers. Guests are free to wander the grounds, play with an ever-expanding resident population of puppies, even stay in one of a half-dozen bungalows set deep in the surrounding forest. A young, enthusiastic group of volunteers offers guided tours and cooking classes with ingredients harvested straight from the fields. It’s definitely a commercial enterprise, but, like the bee farm, there seems to be a genuine passion for artisanship and creating the kind of products that sustained Phu Quoc well before the first hotel brick was ever laid.
If Phu Quoc can be said to have a commercial center, it is Duong Dong. Set halfway up the west coast, the island’s administrative capital has none of the somnolence of your typical beach town; instead, Duong Dong is a buzzing kaleidoscope of commercial activity, with traffic signals struggling to bring a semblance of order to motorcycle-crammed intersections and an abundance of phone shops and bike mechanics. Picturesque it’s not—except, perhaps, from the vantage point of the outdoor terrace at Chuon Chuon, a “bistro and sky bar” perched on a hill above town with panoramic views of green mountains and glimmering ocean. As dusk approaches, well-heeled local youths descend on the tables to drink excellent coffee or ice-cold beer and watch the sunset, with only the occasional honk or putter of an outboard motor floating up from below to break the peace.
Duong Dong is also home to some of the best seafood on the island, if not all of Vietnam. Bup, for one, is a justifiably renowned restaurant that makes up for its lack of frills with culinary artistry. Owner Pham Anh Thuan is a former hotel manager and mainland transplant who came to the island and, as he puts it, “fell in love,” learning to cook the kind of dishes that would satiate his wife’s seafood cravings. His recommendations come quick and fast: creamy sea urchin with herbs and crushed peanuts and a spicy coconut garnish; a potpourri of tofu, wild mushrooms, and plump octopus in a soy-based sauce; grilled local mackerel that flakes off the bone, served with a mound of fresh herbs and sheets of translucent rice paper to wrap it all in.
Not far from Duong Dong is Long Beach, where most of the island’s hotels and guesthouses are concentrated. After a rather bucolic afternoon it seems like an assault on the senses, heaving with budget hotels and tapas bars, karaoke outlets, and mud saunas. One of its newest, and now its defining, features is Long Beach Center, a boxy entertainment and shopping complex sheathed in shimmering LED lights, the biggest (and certainly most garish) landmark for miles in any direction.
“New lighthouse,” my cab driver chuckles ruefully as we pass it on the way back to the resort, and I have visions of confused fishing boats flocking to the shore beyond. For now, set against everything else I’ve experienced on the island, Long Beach Center seems out of place, and I find myself hoping it doesn’t point the way for Phu Quoc to go.
Where to Stay
Khem Beach; 84-297/377-9999; doubles from US$400.
Duong Dong Beach; 84-297/398-2988; doubles from US$120.
Where to Eat
108 St. 30 Thang 4, Duong Dong; 84-90/ 268-7990.
Tran Hung Dao St., Duong Dong; 84-297/360-8883.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An Island In Full”).