Doug's Vietnam

Phu Quoc Island - A trip to old school Vietnam

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Phu Quoc Island - A trip to old school Vietnam
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The motorbike way
Reunification Express - Saigon to Da Nang
Phu Cat air base then and now
Gia My's photos - Phu Quoc Island
Bus and boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Letter from Cambodia
Bangkok, Thailand
Phu Cat Air base links

The spring of 2006 I took a side trip out to Phu Quoc Island from Saigon. Phu Quoc lies 30 miles off the Southern tip of Vietnams Mekong and 10 miles off Cambodias coast, in the Gulf of Thailand.Cambodia claims ownership as it would seem to sit in Cambodian waters, but with Vietnams military firmly entrenched on the island, my guess is it will stay a part of Vietnam.  


Do to its far flung location, up until a few years ago Phu Quoc was a tough place to find.  Nowadays Vietnam Airlines shuttles intrepid travelers aboard spiffy 68 passenger Aerospatia/Alena Saab 72 turbo props four times daily from Saigon. Please note when checking around for flights and availability to pay close attention to the pricing as it seems to vary. Also, be aware of the agents attempt to close the deal by getting a serious look on his/her face and advising that seats are in short supply.  This may have been true in the past, but I doubt if thats the case now. Anyway, I didnt have a problem with my last minute bookings. Ive also heard that flights have been known to be cancelled at the last moment, and considering Phu Quoc's location I can see how that might be true. From Saigon the round trip airfare is somewhere between $66.00 - $86.00 for the one hour flight. Remember to check those prices  


The old school, more colorful way of getting there is by spending a day on a bus to the Mekong costal town of Rach Gia or signing up for one of the Mekong tours through one of the travel cafes in Saigon, and then having them drop you off in Rach Gia on the Saigon return leg. In making your overland plans I offer a word of caution. If you are thinking of using a mini bus, don't unless you have an iron stomach, nerves of steel and thrive in confined spaces. After arriving in Rah Gia you need to take lodging in preparation for your early morning eight-hour crossing on one of those aging, overloaded ferries you read about that sink in freak storms. Again, a new day is a dawning because now for $13.00 you can board one of the new, high speed ferries leaving every morning or afternoon for a three-hour trip to the island. 


Most travelers havent caught onto these new and improved travel options, so the rush hasnt hit yet  and Phu Quoc is still a pretty kicked back place.Though the winds of change are blowing hard and fast, and as soon as the Vietnamese bureaucracy figures out who gets what, things will be changing. On my visit I heard stories of developers falling all over each other to be the first to get their hands on the islands primo real estate. Even more so there is big talk by the Vietnamese government of Phu Quocs future, and some say rivaling Thailands island hot spots. Time will tell. Though I can visualize this new development, especially if unchecked, sucking the laid back charm out of the island. Even with the way it is now and as more people find out about the island and how easy it is to get to, coupled with the Vietnamese governments on-going promotion, laid back Phu Quoc might be a limited edition, so visit sooner than later. 


Phu Quoc has a population of 80,000 inhabitants of Cambodian or Vietnamese ancestry, with one of the oldest virgin growth forests in Vietnam. Due to its poor soil, agriculture, other than pepper plants, has offered limited success. Though maritime industries such as fishing for tuna, prawns and squid have prospered. It is probably due to the islands fishing success that Nuoc Man (fish sauce) came to be produced.


The main city on the island, Duong Dong, is much different from the mainland of what could be best described as Vietnam. At the center of the city is an interesting fish market, and the other typical stuff found in most open air markets in the country side, along with the always interesting people, vendors and shoppers.The island is famous for fish sauce, distilled under the name of Nuoc Mam Hung Thang, the growing of peppercorns, Phu Quoc Ridge Back dogs and the remains of long deserted prison camps of the American Warm and fatrher back yet, the ones the French used.


Keep in mind, if you get hooked on the fish sauce, that the airlines wont allow you it to be carried on-board, so if you must, triple seal the container and hide it in your luggage. The sauce should be available in Saigon. Also, if you have a burning desire to your senses and want to see how fish sauce is made, ask around, and youll be able to visit the factory. You can carry peppercorns on-board and both white and brown are available at the airport. Anyway, they were when I was there.


I stayed at place called Mango Bay Resort located about a 20 minute drive south of the airport in Dung Dong. A little pricey but try your hand at negotiating. Anyway, even at full price its a great little resort, even for a non-resorter guy like me. It bills it self as an eco-resort, solar heated hot water, no a.c. but my duplex bungalow was built with what they call rammed earth technology which is supposed to keep it cool. The ceiling fans did a good job of blowing the air around, but while the cotton muslin over my four poster bed looked great and did keep the bugs off, it also blocked out a lot of the breeze from the fans and open doors and windows. Guess that brings us to the form vs. function argument, but they are really smashing looking rooms that at times are uncomfortably hot. Which brings us to my favorite part of the bungalow, the alfresco bathroom, half walls around the sides for privacy, roof overhang to shelter the sink and toilet from the elements. What a place to star gaze and for additional entertainment there is the rhythmic hollow clunk de clunk of wooden cow bells from the grazing cattle trimming the lawn.


After being in Saigon for a couple months the quite of Mango Bay was deafening. The resort is small, 16 units spread over 20 hectares and with a kilometer of beach frontage so its not a problem bumping into people. Over all, the resort offered a good combo friendly, open air restaurant, club house, and a bar to hang out in and watch the sunsets.


As it always seems to go, then before you know it, its time to leave. Next time I am going to rent a motorbike and get out to see the island or then again maybe get a spot on the beach, listening to the clunk de clunk of the grazing cow just off the beach and wait for the sun set.   Ya, thats the ticket!