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[Weekend getaways] Island paradise: Phu Quoc

It is still easily to find complete seclusion on this idyllic tropical island, for now at least…

Glen MacDonald

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In the Gulf of Thailand, almost kissing Cambodia, rests a colorful island paradise in the middle of a tourism boom. Known as the “Pearl of Vietnam,” Phu Quoc is an up-and-coming destination in Southeast Asia. As once-popular Thai locales begin to decrease in attendance, Phu Quoc’s tourism boasts exceptional growth, with the island witnessing an increase in visitors by over a third from 2017 through 2018.

Phu Quoc Island Ron Caswell
Phu Quoc Fishing Boats. Photo by Ron Caswell

For those wishing to escape the crowds, no worries. During ​Chào’s ​late December visit, a notoriously busy travel period, many tranquil beaches and quiet seaside bars could still be found.  While the streets of the main town Duong Dong are often buzzing with families and tour buses, the 228-square mile island holds many remote places to soak in the immense beauty shaped by the Pacific.

Phu Quoc Maks Burkhno
On Phu Quoc Island. Photo by Maks Brukhno

Phu Quoc is a mecca for photographers in search of gorgeous scenery. As a new resident of Phu Quoc, photographer Maks Brukhno finds plenty of inspiration among the island’s beaches, jungles, and mountains.  “Around golden hour, everything looks like a dream,” he says. 

Even on Christmas Day, the popular beach saw many tourists but not to the point of overcrowding.

Phu Quoc is a breath of fresh air for Brukhno. Originally from Ukraine, Brukhno spent several years in Shenzhen, China. While super advanced, the city’s heavy pollution made for a stressful environment. Fortunately, Phu Quoc’s clean environment and photogenic sunsets were enough of a reason for Brukhno to join Phu Quoc’s sparse expat community.  

“I love working on the island because of the atmosphere and color,” Brukhno says. “You see certain types of colors only by the sea.”  One such location is Bai Sao, a sunny getaway on the southeastern side of the island. To be honest, Chào ​spent many days here just adrift in crystal blue waves and cans of Tiger beer. Although more extreme activities like paragliding or jet skis were offered, nothing can match the serene thrill of sitting on a white-painted swing, drink in hand, coasting over a gentle tide.

Phu Quoc Ron Caswell
View from the Cable Cars on Phu Quoc Island. Photo by Ron Caswell

Plenty of bars and restaurants dot the beach, serving cocktails and fresh seafood. Even on Christmas Day, the popular beach saw many tourists but not to the point of overcrowding. A chair, an umbrella, and a quiet space were made readily available on arrival. A local family-run restaurant serves fresh seafood for lunch. The only major downside of Sao Beach is that it does not have a good view of the sunset, the perfect capsulation of a good beach day. For that, head to Long Beach, which greets the western horizon. 

Phu Quoc Island Aerial

Colonies of starfish rest in the shallows as sunburnt feet dance around them.

Long Beach is sharply divided by luxury resorts, over-priced beach bars, and a public strip of sand that has seen better days. This is easily Phu Quoc’s most commercial area. Funnily enough, it is also one of the best places to view the sunset. Joe’s Beach Bar or Mandala, two popular Long Beach dives, offer a good enough vantage point. Every night, exhausted day-drinkers lounge in sandy beach chairs and watch as the sky erupts in a kaleidoscope of colors.

Joes Bar Phu Quoc
Joe’s Beach Bar on Phu Quoc Island

The service at both locations, although friendly, strained over the huge amount orders from their nightly onslaught of customers, a side effect of the tourism boom. In fact, while many restaurants in Duong Dong deliver a tasty blend of Eastern and Western flavors, they remain largely understaffed, leading to a bit of a wait. Fortunately, places like the Saigonese Eatery and Anba Coffee offer a pleasant atmosphere. While the staff may be busy, their infectious smiles lull customers into a slower, more peaceful tempo. 

Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Ron Caswell
Phu Quoc’s Famous Fish Sauce. Photo by Ron Caswell

For an even sleepier vibe some head to Ong Lang Beach, a series of quiet coves on the western coast of the island, nestled midway between Duong Donng and Ganh Dau village. Here you can witness buffalo roaming along the idyllic beach, almost as if they own it, among elderly ladies selling fresh barbequed squid, a pitch perfect snack after a day lounging under the sun.

Phu Quoc Night Beach

There is not terribly much in the way of nightlife in Ong Lang but the village does offer a few fine places to grab a cocktail or a nice meal. Sunrise bar is often open late with owner Ut often happily serving up drinks till the wee hours of the morning, while the hungry ought to check out So True Vietnamese Kitchen, an informal eatery serving up fine local cuisine. The Grilled Cobia with salt and pepper here is a triumph.

Phu Quoc Restaurant Grilled Cobia Fish
Grilled Cobia Fish at So True Vietnamese Kitchen in Ong Lang, Phu Quoc

“Everyone here moves to the rhythm of the ocean,” Brukhno says, with an easy grin.  “Things will be slower but no one will be stressed out.”  Possibly Phu Quoc’s most calming location, the aptly named Starfish Beach harbors white sand, sleeping starfish and plenty of easygoing, island vibes. The beach eyes Cambodia, and the peak of Mount Bokor is visible over the waves. Colonies of starfish rest in the shallows as sunburnt feet dance around them. A long, dusty, unkempt jungle road defends Starfish Beach from larger crowds. The remote shore is quite far from accommodations in Duong Dong and difficult for motorbike or taxi. Although the commute is hell, the result is a literal paradise.

Someone in the nearby fishing village is singing, their happy tones echoing over the waves.

As one of the newly discovered beaches, Starfish Beach is still largely secluded. Besides a floating restaurant and a few beer joints, the area remains one of Phu Quoc’s more peaceful spots. A nearby mountain river pours into the sea, keeping the water at a pleasant temperature for both swimmer and starfish. (Note: Do not take the starfish out of the water. They don’t like it. Feel free to take a picture of them just chilling in the shallows.)

Phu Quoc Macdonald 7
Starfish Beach on Phu Quoc Island. Photo by Glen MacDonald

As Phu Quoc gains popularity, some beaches have been closed to create a new resort. Currently, the Khem beach offers a view of cheery yet empty beach-front lodgings. The beach itself is currently inaccessible. Construction workers shoo away discouraged would-be beachgoers. The tantalizing sound of unseen waves is heard over a barricade of dump trucks.  Within the last 10 years, Phu Quoc has constructed a new international airport, several five-star resorts, and a world-record setting, eight-kilometer long cable car.

Phu Quoc Boat Beach

While the island continues to enjoy economic success, the effects of over-development lurk in the horizon.  “Of course it will happen,” Brukhno says. “I think in three or five years we will not recognize this place.” 

Phu Quoc Beach Cove

To witness Phu Quoc’s “final frontier,” drive down the east shore. The area is still largely undeveloped. At some parts, the dirt road is partially blanketed by random pockets of sand. Despite these dangers, a clear golden sky eases any fear. A gift from a far off sunset, the final rays begin to dance.

Phu Quoc Sky Tram

On the north’s Local Beach, a crew of grandmothers, toddlers, and dogs dig for clams under an orange horizon. In a few moments, the color shifts again to a deep red. Someone in the nearby fishing village is singing, their happy tones echoing over the waves. As the evening sky paints over itself with ever-changing colors, Brukhno words come to mind.  “Why did I come here? Just look at this light, look at this sunset!” 

Phu Quoc Island Chao Hanoi

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