HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This is Bliss

I got back this morning from a three-day trip to Phu Quoc over the Lunar New Year with my roommates, Anthony and Allison. Phu Quoc is Vietnam's largest island, located about 70 miles off the western edge of the Mekong Delta. Oddly enough, as you can see on the above map, the island is far closer to Cambodia than it is to Vietnam - less than 10 miles. This was a source of tension in the past, and blood has been shed over the land, but Phu Quoc has been firmly under Vietnamese control for at least the last two decades. As a result there is still a military presence, although it isn't really noticeable to a tourist. 

What is noticeable is that this island is staggeringly beautiful, and largely undeveloped - though that is set to change. With an international airport and a four-lane highway under construction, as well a possible enormous casino/resort complex on the way, Phu Quoc looks set to become the next Phuket. Therefore, we wanted to get down there before the place becomes just another stop on the international tourism circuit.

Anthony and Allison were on an earlier flight than me, so after landing at the single-building, single-runway airport I hopped on a xe om and met up with them at our hotel. We headed to Long Beach, the most developed stretch of sand on the island - though that isn't really saying much. Much of it is closed off by private resorts, but it's pretty simple to just walk through or claim you're checking out a room and head onto the beach. Long Beach is certainly an apt name - the broad swath of sand stretched as far as I could see in either direction. Lined with palm trees, chairs, and the occasional simple restaurant, this was a great place to relax. Add in the placid surf, blue skies, and roving fresh fruit sellers, and we were set for the day. The only downside was the surprisingly large number of flabby Russian tourists beached on reclining chairs.

After whiling away the afternoon we took in a stunning sunset over the Gulf of Thailand: 

After that we cleaned up and walked over to the Dinh Cau night market in Duoung Dong, the island's main town. The street was lined with open restaurants displaying the catch of the day: mouth-watering fish, prawns, oysters, clams, and numerous other shellfish I had never seen before. 

I don't even know
We picked a place at random and ordered up a small feast.
sea urchins - a first for me

For some reason - probably the holiday - there was one poor woman doing almost everything at the place. Seating customers, taking orders, delivering orders, etc. Cooking was practically the only thing she wasn't doing, and a table of two persnickety Russian couples repeatedly demanded her attention for God knows what - and they only spoke Russian! They kept asking things from the woman in rapid Russian, as if she was understanding it, before ultimately doing it themselves. At one point one of the guys even demonstrated to the grill man precisely how he wanted his eggplant cooked. Needless to say, we left a nice tip. We walked back to our hotel through the cool night air, under a clear sky full of stars that just aren't visible in smoggy Saigon.

We rented three motorbikes on the morning of our second day and headed south on the main road along the coast, which quickly switched from pavement to hard-packed red dirt. Though bumpy and at times slick, the scenery was awesome: to the right, the palm-fringed beach, to the left the lush interior and the odd abandoned building or run-down village. We were looking for Sao Beach, which we had heard glowing reviews of from multiple people. The rough roads were poorly signed and we ended up in the bustling main port at the southern tip of the island.

Back on the road, I manged to spot the sign pointing to Sao hidden behind a building, and we turned onto another dirt road, which eventually just turned into loose sand, before pulling up to the beach. It was, in a word, gorgeous. The fact that one of the most beautiful places I've ever been is down a narrow, nearly unsigned sandy path proves just how unknown Phu Quoc is...for now. Sadly, there was a fair amount of garbage tangled in the trees above the beach, but I think it probably washed in from the sea, judging by how empty the place was. We picked a spot under a palm tree, with no one within 100 yards of us on either side, and relaxed. The only sound was the surf; the aquamarine water postcard-clear; and the sky azure blue.

After laying around for a bit we headed over to a rocky section, where the remains of an old structure were clearly visible. The rocks went on as far as we could see, and as we scampered over them around the next curve we saw a completely empty cove, albeit lined with rocks, and marveled at how unspoilt large parts of the island are. I truly hope the coming development wave doesn't change this too much.

We eventually got back on our bikes and headed back through the island's interior on our way back to the hotel. Hillsides have been carved out to make way for new roads, and there were large sections of forest cleared. We watched another sunset from the roof of our hotel, got dinner, and then walked into town to watch the Tet celebrations. The receptionist said there would be fireworks at midnight.
Sadly, at precisely 10:15, obscured behind a row of buildings, the fireworks unexpectedly exploded into the sky. The show wasn't bad, but they clearly don't understand the concept of a grand finale, since the explosions sort of just petered out to a desultory conclusion. We then worked our way to the hotel while seemingly every single person on the island left the area on a motorbike.
Overnight Anthony came down with some sort of stomach bug, leaving him stricken in bed whenever he wasn't running to the bathroom to explode out of both ends. He didn't want to bring us all down though, so he was fine with Allison and I going back to Long Beach for our last day. We literally did nothing until a couple hours before sunset, when we headed back to make sure Anthony was alright. He was much better by the following morning, and we headed back to the quaint airport for our quick flight back to Saigon.

This trip was exactly what all of us were hoping for (minus Anthony's stomach problems): a relaxing getaway with clean air, open skies, and no work. Phu Quoc is absolutely beautiful, and I hope to make it back sometime to explore more of the island, preferably before mass tourism hits with its considerable force. I'm sort of letting the cat out of the bag here, but try to visit this unique place before all of the new stuff is finished. There aren't that many unspoiled places left, especially in this part of the world, making Phu Quoc a national treasure for Vietnam. I only wish we could've spent a bit more time there.


  1. Awesome pics, Mike! I'm super jealous!

  2. Very nice report and pictures.
    Which hotel did you stay at and can you recommend it?

  3. Thanks! We stayed at the A74 Hotel, and I would recommend it. Rooms cost from $30-$40 a night or so, and the staff is really pleasant. Short walks to town and the beach as well.