Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam: Phuq off!
The Story -- Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
A tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. Probably, the best beaches in Vietnam. Soft sand. Warm turquoise waters. It sounds like a paradise — like an amazing way to spend a week after a long stretch of hard work (for Sara, not me). Unfortunately, this vacation didn’t turn out the way we had hoped. How could this be? Were we attacked by a Kraken? No, I can’t blame squid. In fact, squid definitely made the vacation better. The blame comes down on the island itself. Phu Quoc currently isn’t the paradise that it should be, but hopefully that will change.
Sample Budget (for 2)
Ferry from Rach Gia: 700,000 VND + 60,000 VND bus to Duong Dong = 760,000 VND ($34)
Hotel: 900,000 VND for 2 nights ($40)
Food: 980,000 VND for 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners ($43.75)
Motorbike Rental: 300,000 VND for 2 days ($13.40)
Phu Quoc to Ha Tien by ferry: 460,000 VND ($20.50)
Total: 2,640,000 VND ($117.80 or $29.45 each per day)
After over 2 hours of delays, we were finally in the air for our 1 hour flight from Saigon to Phu Quoc’s new 771 million dollar international airport. As quickly as possible, we headed to a hotel and crashed, eager for the next day to arrive. We only booked our first night in Phu Quoc, because we knew we’d be arriving late and we didn’t want to be scrambling to find a place in the dark. HotelQuickly is great for last minute, cheap bookings. Download the app, install it, and go to the CREDITS section to redeem our promo code RNEMU. You’ll get about 400,000 VND in credit.
We spent our first Phu Quoc morning looking for a hotel, which turned out to be quite easy. We went to Hoa Nhat Lan Bungalow, saw their beautiful garden-view bungalows, and agreed to pay 450,000 VND ($20) per night. The rooms had everything we needed, but the walk to the beach took about 10 minutes. We spent our first full day on the island doing what people do on tropical islands: hanging out on the beach, eating seafood, drinking too much, and relaxing.
On the second day, we rented a scooter (150,000 VND per day) and set out to find some adventure. As we headed south on the main road, the fresh island air… was non-existent. Multiple construction projects made the island a dusty mess. There seemed to be construction everywhere, but we only saw a handful of people actually doing work. We got out of town and, using our tourist map, veered for a back road that would hopefully be free of the large construction trucks that dominated the highway. Unfortunately, that road was under construction. We bobbed up an down over pot-holes, trying to avoid thick patches of mud. Every few kilometers there would be a stretch of pavement that was heaven to our already sore asses, but the pavement would dissipate into rubble and our bums would be battered some more. Eventually, we made our way back to the highway and we cruised down to the very southern tip of the island, An Thoi. This small village was closer to what I was looking for on Phu Quoc Island. There wasn’t much in An Thoi, but it was very Vietnamese. Tourism didn’t touch this part of the island and there wasn’t any construction crapping the place up. We drove the small streets, exploring every corner of the small village that is surrounded by beautiful waters and colorful boats.
Back on the road to Duong Dong, Phu Quoc’s main town, we detoured down a very bumpy muddy road to what was probably my favorite beach on the island Bãi Sao, or Star Beach. The beach’s white sand had a softness that you can’t get along the east coast of Vietnam. The water’s were also much calmer than the South China Sea. We sat at Beach House Resort, which apparently was once called Gecko Jacks. It’s hard to find any up-to-date information about this place, but I thought the location was great and their food (pizza and caprese salad) was very good. After a couple hours, we headed to Phu Quoc Prison, aka Coconut Tree Prison.
The prison was built by the French during the early 50s. It was used to hold people who were considered a threat to the French colonist government. During the Vietnam War, it imprisoned Northern Vietnamese soldiers. There are many reports of torture and inhumane acts taking place at the prison. Our visit wasn’t exactly pleasant -- you are reminded at every turn that awful things happened there. I think the worst one was the exhibit showing the man getting his genitals burned. I guess it’s a good reminder that life could be worse. Maybe if I would have come to Phu Quoc Prison later in my trip this article would be called Phu Quoc: Not great, but better than having your genitals burned.
The next day, we explored the northern part of the island. We drove to Gành Dầu and had a quick look around before heading to Dai Beach, or so we thought. We took the mud slathered road that runs along the north-western coast. When we hit our first patch of heavy mud I should have listened to, or at least considered, Sara’s question. Should we turn around? In hindsight, the answer was ‘absolutely’, but the man in me revved the bike up and plowed through that mud puddle. It was a success, we made it without a problem. However, the success we had in that 5 seconds would only light a fire that would burn both our skin and our pride. The next 3.3 kilometers were spent with my hands gripped to the handlebars, and my feet slopping through mud. I learned a lot about the abilities of a Yamaha Nouva that day, and a lot about my abilities as a driver. Eventually, we turned a corner and a perfectly sparkling beach awaited us, I wish. No, instead we were suddenly stopped by a security guard. He made a large ‘X’ with his arms and said, “No go”, like we were on X-Factor or something. We were not permitted to go any further down the road. After having driven for 30 minutes in horrible conditions, we had to turn around and go back. I argued with no success (as it tends to go when arguing with someone that doesn’t speak your language), so we waddled the bike around and slopped our way back down the sloppy road like a couple of slop-bags. With my feet battered in mud, a switch was flicked inside of me. That switch turned on the power that led to the chair that Phu Quoc was strapped into. Phu Quoc was dead to me.
We eventually we got back to the main road and made our way to Vung Bau Beach, an amazing stretch of sand complimented with glass-like blue waters. It was picturesque, but it was also too late. Beauty only made me angry -- I was the Beast pre-Belle. After an hour or so, we decided to leave. Oh look, we have a flat tire. That’s awesome. *Punches Phu Quoc in the face* That night we did what anyone would do after a bad day of vacation, drank a bottle of gin and passed out before brushing our teeth.
The third day’s plan was to explore the north-east part of the island, but that wasn’t going to happen. Our asses were too sore, probably from a combination of riding bumpy roads and being prison-style raped by the island. Instead, we went to Suoi Tranh, a small waterfall park. We hiked along a rocky trail and for-the-most-part enjoyed our time there. For lunch we zipped back into town and tried a burger at Winston’s Burgers. This was our most expensive meal in Phu Quoc, but also our mind-blowing-est. We both agreed that we hadn’t had a burger that good since we were back in Canada. It cost us 400,000 VND ($17.90) for a cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger, fries, waffle fries, and 2 lemonades. With our bellies full and a recharge in faith, I insisted we do a fish sauce tour. It consisted of standing in a very smelly room. That is all. Of course, that waste of 10 minutes got us caught in a very heavy downpour on our way back to the hotel.
By the time the rain stopped, it was dinner. We went to the night market for seafood and shopping. I’d highly recommend visiting this short street that has some great food and some reasonably priced trinkets. I bought a new pair of sandals, since mine were destroyed in the great mud battle of Bai Dai. We ate deep-fried squid (150,000 VND), some grilled scallops (70,000 VND), stir-fried veggies (60,000 VND), and some very delicious fish rice porridge (100,000 VND). Admittedly, the food prices at the market aren’t great, but the atmosphere makes it worth it. We had some dessert. A hardworking french man ran three booths that seemed to be doing quite well. Ice cream, banana-chocolate crepes, and caramel roasted peanuts. I don’t know why this man wasn’t 300 lbs. We actually had a little of everything and bought some peanuts to take home with us.
The next morning would be our last on the island — although, our flight didn’t leave until 7:45PM, so we had around 7 hours to kill once we checked out of the hotel. Of course, Phu Quoc had to say goodbye to us in its own special way. The rain came hard. We watched it violently pour as our check-out time quickly approached. It actually let up a bit just as we had to leave, but alas, we turned the corner and were met with a flood of water, a stream of brown that cut across the path to the reception.
After paying our bill, we brown-water rafted to CocoBar, where we spent the rest of our day, eating, sipping, and waiting until we could leave this dreaded island. When the plane finally took off (it was delayed about a half-hour), I felt like Dr. Grant as the helicopter departed at the end of Jurassic Park.
Sorry Phu Quoc
If you’re still reading this, you deserve a bit of an explanation. Of course, Phu Quoc isn’t the worst place in the world, and through a series of mishaps we had a relatively negative experience, but the facts are true that the island is changing faster than it can handle. It currently sees about a half million tourists a year. They (don’t ask me who ‘they’ are) are hoping to boost those numbers to 2-3 million by 2020. That makes me want to shake ‘they’. The economy has grown over 500% in the past 10 years. It makes me wonder what the island was like a few years ago. Probably a nice place. It also makes me wonder what the island will be like in 2020. I think Vietnam is looking to build a high-end island paradise that will attract visitors from across the world, but I just don’t see it happening. Yes, the beaches are probably the best in Vietnam, but they don’t compare with what the Philippines has to offer. The key to tourism in Vietnam is in its unique culture. In its delicious, well-balanced food. In it’s natural beauty. Putting tons of money into an island that’s surrounded by amazing island destinations, seems futile. Even if the people come, high-end resorts and over-the-top amusement parks are only taking away the charm of Phu Quoc. I’d much rather see eco-tourism as the focal point, with the island’s rare species and impressive jungles being used to draw people in, not destroyed to build things that might draw people in. It will be interesting to see what happens to Phu Quoc. Whether it will be ready for the influx of tourists. Whether the tourists will even come. But for now, I say pass on the island. It’s not ready for you, and you’re better off experiencing what the rest of Vietnam has to offer.
The Facts -- Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Getting In and Out
Flying in to Phu Quoc is relatively easy with their fancy new airport. Budget airlines will take you to and from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang. Vietnam Airlines also has cheap flights from Can Tho. New international routes are becoming available frequently, so you don’t necessarily have to come to mainland Vietnam first. In fact, Phu Quoc is the only place in Vietnam that no one needs a visa to visit. However, if you are flying directly there from outside of Vietnam, you must have an onward ticket. If you decide you want to go to mainland Vietnam after spending some time in Phu Quoc, you’ll have to leave the country to get a Visa, or arrange a Visa on arrival and fly to Saigon, Hanoi, or Da Nang.
If you do arrive via the airport, a taxi will cost you about 100,000 VND to get to Duong Dong, where most of the resorts are. Getting back to the airport, consider booking a ticket with Jetstar’s shuttle service. The cost is 50,000 VND each and they’ll pick you up at (or close to) your hotel. You’ll find many travel places selling this service around Duong Dong.
There are 2 fast ferries that go to Phu Quoc Island. From Rach Gia, the trip takes about 2.5 hours and costs 350,000 VND. From Ha Tien, it’s about 90 minutes for 230,000 VND. Both trips can be booked at their respective ferry ports, or buy tickets ahead of time in Ho Chi Minh City at 12 Nguyen Ngoc Loc, District 10. The ferry schedules can be seen here. In Phu Quoc, you’ll be dropped off at Vong Beach where you can take a taxi (about 220,000 VND) or minibus (30,000 VND) to Duong Dong.
If you want to head back to mainland, you can often buy ferry tickets at Vong Beach’s terminal, but during high season there’s a possibility that they will sell out, so it’s not a bad idea to get a ticket ahead of time at the Duong Dong office (see map below).
Your last option is a slow ferry from Ha Tien to Da Chong, Phu Quoc (north east). It costs 185,000 VND per person and takes 3 hours. This is a great option if you are coming with a vehicle (note: it is possible to take small motorbikes on the fast ferries as well). Da Chong is a little out of the way, and taxis to Duong Dong may be hard to find, but if you bring your own transportation you’ll be fine. The cost for a small motorbike is 80,000 VND while a small car will cost you 700,000 VND.
If you’re coming all the way from Saigon, the bus to Rach Gia takes about 7 hours, so if you want to catch the last boat out (at 1:00PM), you’ll have to leave at around 5AM to make sure you’ll make it. Buses leave Saigon from Mien Tay station every 30 minutes or so. Mai Linh and Futa Bus are pretty good options. The cheapest, and best way to save time would be to take an overnight bus and hop on a ferry in the morning — not that I’d want to do that.
Best Budget Hotel in Phu Quoc, Vietnam
It’s hard for me to recommend a hotel unless I know what you want from Phu Quoc. Are you looking for a lively beachfront bungalow? A quiet place to relax? Or do you just want a basic room to crash in?
For an escapcation, a good option is Vung Bau Resort. It’ll cost you about $30 per night for a pretty basic fan-only room, but you’ll be steps away from one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Vietnam. One of the only problems with Vung Bau Resort is that it’s so secluded. Your food options will be limited to what’s at their somewhat pricey restaurant (and the restaurants of the other few resorts that are close by). It will also cost you more to get there by taxi as it’s about 45 minutes from the airport.
If you want a bit more action, Kim Bungalow on the Beach is on Long Beach, just a short walk from some of the popular bars and restaurants. Expect to pay between $25 and $35 depending what time of year it is. There are cheaper on-the-beach options, but they aren’t as central or as nice.
If you definitely want to stay around Long Beach, and don’t mind a 5-10 minute walk to the beach, I would show up with nothing booked and do a walk around. We found that walk-in rates were cheaper than what Agoda was offering. There are a plethora of accommodations in the area, so it’s very unlikely that you won’t be able to find anything in your budget. Start close to the beach, maybe at Kim’s, and make your way back along the road that runs beside Kim’s. That little area has many places that aren’t even advertised online. By staying at Hoa Nhat Lan Bungalow we saved about $10/night, enjoyed a beautiful bungalow, and only had to sacrifice 10 minutes of walking to get to the beach.
If you are arriving via the Superdong Ferry, you might want to consider catching a taxi to Kinh Bac Hotel. This place is the best bang for you buck. It’s new, the staff is extremely friendly, and the restaurant is good. However, it is pretty secluded and not within walking distance to pretty much anything. You’ll want to have a motorbike for the majority of your stay here. With a bike, it’s close to Phu Quoc Prison, Tranh Waterfall, and my favorite beach on the island Sao Beach. A ride in to Duong Dong will take about 30 minutes, but try heading to An Thoi (about 15 minutes drive) for some very local meals.
Best Budget Restaurant in Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Food can get expensive on Phu Quoc. Western joints will set you back 150,000 VND per meal — more if you want the best hamburger in Asia.If you go into Duong Dong you’ll have more options at better prices. For breakfast, try Banh Canh Phung for a delicious, filling bowl of fish noodle soup (20,000 VND).
Kim’s Seafood was probably the best dinner we had. For only 220,000 VND we enjoyed 2 cokes, seafood spring rolls (rolled to order), a large salad, and braised Cobia with rice. Cobia is a delicious salt-water fish that’s pretty popular in Phu Quoc.