It had been six years since I was last in Phu Quoc, and things have changed fast there, even by Vietnam’s standards. The last time I visited I called it Southeast Asia’s next big thing. I was thinking in the context of it becoming a more known destination.
The megaprojects that now dominate the island hadn’t started when I last visited, and I had no idea of what was in the pipeline. To give you an idea of the scale of the development on the island, I’ve made a master list of everything being built on Phu Quoc. If you don’t know what is happening, save that link for later if you don’t want any spoilers for this article.
It was interesting to research the modern history of Phu Quoc, and how it grew so quickly. Most of the news reports in the 2000’s relate to the island’s famous fish sauce. Phu Quoc briefly made international news in 2008 when a “UFO” explosion was reported above the island, but apart from that it was still relatively undiscovered.
[The perfect color palette of a tropical island paradise (at Kem Beach).]
In 2010 the government announced big plans for the island, and a few months later NBC was the first publication to run a “see it before its gone” article.
The New York Times arrived to the party at the start of 2012, describing it as a still untrammeled escape. The new Phu Quoc airport opened at the end of 2012, making a prominent demarcation point of when development began in earnest.
[Old Phu Quoc Airport.]
I wanted to see for myself what was going on, so I spent a week there to investigate. It’s hard to overstate the amount of development going on there, and I’m not one for overstating.
[Road widening in Phu Quoc.]
Map of Phu Quoc
This map includes places mentioned in this post.
Phu Quoc notes
This trip report is an amalgam of two trips. I went in January but I unexpectedly had to cut my trip short, so I went back to finish my project in March/April.
Long Beach is my preferred area to stay in Phu Quoc. In particular, the section that is closest to the main town of Duong Dong. This area is from Saigon Phu Quoc Resort & Spa to Istanbul Beach Club. It has the right combination of fancy resorts, mid-range hotels, and budget guesthouses.
This section of the beach has more restaurant and bar options.
[Tiki Beach Bar, Long Beach.]
Unlike the easterly-facing mainland beaches of Vietnam, Long Beach is west-facing, so you get beach sunsets here. Many of the hotels and restaurants have set up Instagrammer props for the sunset crowds.
If you get a good sunset you don’t need props to go with it.
I like this area because there are enough local eateries to choose from, so you are not held captive by a remote resort and its expensive food options. I sometimes wonder as a travel writer if using the phrase “local restaurant” is correct, then I saw this restaurant called Restaurant Local. The word binh dan means economical, so this is a cheap local restaurant.
I was staying near the Rabbit Hole, an Irish bar that serves pub meals. Sometimes you get noodled out and you just want a hamburger.
I stayed at the Huong Giang Bungalow, which offers bungalows in a big garden setting.
[Huong Giang Bungalow (here is my review).]
Duong Dong is the main town of Phu Quoc. Apart from a tourist night market and a few hotels, it’s more of a working town that is home to a large fishing fleet. As such, not much has changed here and it stills feels the same as from my first visit. I like Duong Dong as it’s a good panacea to island resort life.
There is not much in the way of heritage architecture here, apart from the post office and some old villas that are obscured by other buildings. It’s too bad there isn’t an old town like Con Dao.
There is a good assortment of temples, including this Cao Dai temple.
Food is surprisingly cheap here. Islands in Southeast Asia usually have an island premium due to having to import food. Phu Quoc is a big island though, so there is an economy of scale that keeps the food prices reasonable.
For example, you can still get a banh mi from a street stall for 20,000 VND ($0.87 USD), so if you are on a budget stick to eating in Duong Dong.
One of the things I love about Vietnam is regional food specialties, and in Phu Quoc, the food to try is bun quay. This local specialty was brought in from Binh Dinh or Kon Tum, with more seafood added to make it a distinctly Phu Quoc dish. This is a rice vermicelli noodle dish, where shrimp, fish, and squid paste is pressed into the bowl, and then the soup is added.
[Bun Quay at 77 30/4 Street, Duong Dong.]
And follow up your bun quay with coconut ice cream.
[Kem Trai Dua, 56 Nguyen Trai, Duong Dong.]
The old airport still remains undeveloped, which is surprising given how quickly everything has been built here. There was supposed to be a new urban area built here, but for now it still remains as a short cut across town.
Phu Quoc in the time of the coronavirus
[A distinct lack of Aussies and other international tourists here.]
Like other tourist destinations in Vietnam (and worldwide), Phu Quoc has not fared well during the pandemic. It was depressing to see so many shops closed down.
The ghosts of these shops still remain on Google Maps. I marked these places only to find they were closed when I got there.
My memory of my first trip to Long Beach was that there were many restaurants on the beachfront. This time around a lot of the places were closed. Whether temporarily or permanently is a question that every guidebook publisher will be looking to find out when this plague is over.
I stayed in the same section of Long Beach on both trips this year. I had found a little beach restaurant that had tables in the sand, so I stayed near there. When I came back I was dreaming of having lunch there as my first meal back, so my heart sunk when I saw that it had been demolished.
With no international tourism to speak of, some places have resorted to offering monthly rentals. With the rise of remote working during the pandemic, this is just as applicable for Vietnamese as for expats.
Phu Quoc Kim was offering bungalows for rent from 4,000,000 VND per month ($130 USD).
At Ong Lang Beach I saw Vela Phu Quoc offering rooms from 3,000,000 VND per month ($174 USD).
These deals would be changing all the time, so if you are looking for a place, do a search on Facebook for the various “Phu Quoc Expats” groups.
Long Beach at Sonasea
Apart from staying in the northern section of Long Beach, I also stayed at Long Beach south of the airport. This is where most of the new hotels are being built.
The developments in Phu Quoc are divided up into large blocks, where a single developer then subdivides their allocated lot into separate projects. I stayed in the Sonasea Villas and Resorts Complex by CEO Group.
My hotel was in the Sonasea Shopping Center section of the CEO Group area. There is a pedestrian plaza flanked by shophouses, and it appeared that the area was establishing itself before the pandemic hit. Most of the shops were closed due to the coronavirus.
Near the Sonasea Shopping Center area is the Sonasea Paris Villas. This was my first sighting of the big projects that are characterizing the new Phu Quoc. All the villas are the same, and each street has the the same colour.
These are new villas and most of them are still empty. 66 Paris Coffee was the only sign of commercial life in this area so far.
[66 Paris Coffee]
There are more new resort areas south of Sonasea, so I rented a bike to have a look.
[Keeping hydrated on the road.]
South of the CEO Group projects is the Phu Quoc Marina by BIM Group. This area is split up into different zones, and the first zone I visited was the area known as Waterfront.
I had no idea this place existed, so I was amazed at what I saw. As best as I can describe, Waterfront is trying to evoke the feeling of being in a Mediterranean town.
With these places that aren’t written about online, I usually do a search on Google Maps to see if there is anything showing up on the map. Despite this area being empty, there were signs of life with a bakery.
I was happy to find a fully-fledged French bakery.
Au Bon Pain was set up by a French expat who is one of the early adopters in the Waterfront quarter. I said that this was the best pain au chocolat I’ve had in Vietnam (and I meant that sincerely). I asked what was the secret, and he invited me downstairs to the bakery to meet Pierre, a real French man cranking out these amazing pastries. I ended up going here three times. The bakery was the only business that was open, but there were customers there every day that I visited.
The apartments are being sold to investors as hotels, and I saw one that looked like it was about to open, and a couple more that were in the process of setting up. No doubt there will be listings on Airbnb in the future.
[Charming Hanoi Homestay at Waterfront.]
Waterfront seemed to be 99% finished when I was there, so I would like to go back and see what it looks like when it is lived in.
The Waterfront is next to the InterContinental Hotel, which we will visit soon.
Zombieland in Mini-Europe
In the same development zone as Waterfront is the area called Marina Square. This is also a uniform Europeanesque neighbourhood.
The buildings were structurally complete with nothing inside, like a Hollywood movie set.
It was fascinating to walk around and be the only person here. If you are a filmmaker based in Vietnam, hurry up and come to Phu Quoc to make a zombie apocalypse movie.
I couldn’t put my finger on what city in Europe this reminded me of. It’s not a copy of any particular city, rather it’s like if an AI bot had to generate what a European city looks like. There was one intersection that reminded me of Budapest. This is an octagonal intersection, which instantly made me think of Oktogon in Budapoest.
I saw one business that had set up shop, popping my illusion of being in an abandoned zombie city.
This is a hotel, so maybe I will stay here next time to see how things are going here.
I’ve been keeping up with developments in Phu Quoc, but I didn’t know anything about this place. It was like watching a movie without seeing the trailer – it was a total surprise. I visited the official website after I visited, and here is a render of what these streets might look like once it is fully occupied.
[Future Phu Quoc Marina Square.]
I was in Marina Square killing time while waiting for the InterContinental rooftop bar to open. I was having a good time pretending to be in an apocalyptic zombie movie when all of a sudden I heard the sound of motorbikes and a large crowd. Zombies?! No, the sound was next door at the Regent Residences construction site. I looked at the time and it was 5.01 pm. As a former labourer I know only too well the eagerness of waiting for the clock to strike 5 pm, and not working a single second afterward. Down tools and go home!
The coolest rooftop bar in Southeast Asia
I had seen an article about the rooftop bar at the InterContinental, so I added it to my list of things to do. The bar was operating on weekend hours due to the pandemic, so I ended up having to go back when it was open.
For non-guests like myself, you can buy an admission ticket for 200,000 VND ($8.65 USD), which goes towards a drink purchase. Cocktails such as the Uncle Ho Penicillin start at 150,000 VND.
I got a mocktail (of course) for 200,000 VND, plus tax and service, so 233,000 VND ($10 USD). When you are the tallest building on the island you get to charge such premiums.
There were a lot of people on the rooftop, and my guess was mostly Saigonese weekenders. Waiting around for the sunset was worth it.
If you want to stay in Phu Quoc in style, check the rates for the InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort.
New An Thoi
The new European city theme continues at Sun Grand City New An Thoi.
Once again I found myself wandering around a project that was nearly finished, so I was one of the only non-workers here.
Some shops were in the process of setting up, giving a glimpse of what the shopping area will look like.
There is a decent park off the main road which should be a model for any new urban development. What I don’t understand are these random faux classical statues that have no context to Vietnam. And why is this man naked but wearing sandals and a cape? I’ve never seen a naked sandaled statue before. Did he put on his sandals first then realise that he forgot to put on his pants, then thought, bugger it, I going out like this?
This is a massive development, and I was driving around wondering how the hell will they fill all these apartments. New An Thoi is to the north of An Thoi town, which I guess can now be called Old An Thoi.
[Old An Thoi]
Primavera – If Positano and Venice had a baby
There had been many surprises on this trip so far, but one project that I’ve been seeing everywhere in Facebook advertising is Sun Premier Village Primavera. This is another European-inspired development, which I can only describe as if Positano and Venice had a baby.
Again, I found myself in a new urban development with European streetscapes and no people.
The development is on a hill that overlooks a bay, with apartments looking out over the sea reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
This was also not quite finished, and only a few businesses have moved in so far.
The Venice comparison comes from the clock tower that is styled on the Campanile in Venice.
Upon closer inspection, the time was painted on.
[Midnight or Midday, take your pick.]
This project is going for an old Italian village feel, with fake crumbling plaster walls showing fake bricks. This feels like cheating, like buying pre-torn denim jeans. I used to wear ripped denim jeans back in the day, but those rips had to be earned. The same goes for buildings. These crumbling walls should be earned.
Also fake are these window shutters, which appear to be concreted into the wall.
The cannons were also concrete.
The fake European aesthetic bothers me, but I can’t deny the views. Maybe in the future, these buildings will be truly run down, and the fake crumbling plaster will fall off to reveal waterstained concrete. The buildings will fall into disrepair and people will stop going here. Then artists and bohemians will move in to make the most of the cheap rent, and they will paint murals on the walls and fill the shops with cool cafes. Then people will come back and start holidaying here again, and rich people will buy apartments here and force out the artists who made it cool again.
Sun Group is one of the biggest property developers in Vietnam. If you are reading this outside of Vietnam, you’ve probably never have heard of them. You may though know their most famous creation that went viral on social media, the Golden Bridge near Da Nang. There was so much buzz about it that it made me want to see these hands holding a bridge.
Even though fake European villages are not my taste, the phenomenal success of the Golden Bridge probably means that this development is going to be huge.
[People more influential than me will be influencing you with photos at this spot.]
Kem Beach and the Melodia shophouses
The new shophouse mania continues at Kem Beach.
Melodia Boutique Shophouse is another project by the Sun Group, and I would describe this as European-style apartment blocks in Caribbean colours. By this point of my trip, I was just staggered at the number of shophouses that have been built, and if they will ever be filled.
It’s hard to tell how these places will go, and if people will stay for a holiday or move into an apartment. I also tried to visualise what these laneways will look like in the future.
Most people I saw here were workers. I was amazed at the timing of this trip, to be in Phu Quoc at this point in time when so many massive developments are at the point of nearly being finished.
On a completely unrelated note, I think that if I wasn’t an internet nerd I would enjoy being a garden waterer.
Next to Melodia is the New World Resort, which has the beach frontage at Kem Beach.
Grand World and Vinwonders
Many of these projects were news to me, but if you’re living in Vietnam there is no escaping the news of Vingroup and their massive development in the north of Phu Quoc.
Vin has already opened some resorts and a safari park in this corner of Phu Quoc, and they were on the cusp of opening the Grand World project when I arrived.
This is another Venetian-themed destination, with multi-coloured shophouses, a grand canal, and gondola rides to go with it.
For some reason there is a teddy bear museum here.
This bell tower is also somehow familiar to me. It’s either an exact copy of a tower I saw during my years of wandering around Europe, or it’s a composite of many familiar towers.
In contrast to the naked statue in the Sun World development, here we have a robed David.
Moving away from the Venetian theme, there is a section called Indochine. These statues are a copy of the River Merchants in Singapore.
I’ve mentioned in previous notes how Lotteria is opening everywhere in Vietnam. I wasn’t surprised to find that they were the first food chain to set up here, and possibly the first fast-food chain in Phu Quoc.
Grand World is one section of the Vingroup United Center. I was here three weeks before it officially opened, so I mostly had the place to myself. I spotted one photoshoot, and I suspect this will become a popular photo location when it’s fully open.
The Corona Casino Phu Quoc opened in January 2019, about one year before a more famous corona entered the world’s lexicon. Even though corona is Spanish for crown, it hasn’t escaped the corona jokes. It has the distinction of being the only legal casino licensed for Vietnamese to play. There are casinos on Cambodian borders that have been taking money from Vietnamese and Thais for years, so the government in Vietnam figured that they may as well stop the outflow at Bavet on the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
The next section in the Vingroup area is the Vinwonders theme park. This appeared to be just another theme park, then I kept riding.
Vinwonders is surrounded by these half-timbered shophouses. This is also new with no tenants yet.
These Hogwarts-style shops are called Fairy Town Vinwonders, and they are also at the main entrance to Vinwonders. The scene here looked like a hybrid between Disney World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ (Disneywarts?)
Cafes in Phu Quoc
Throughout my time in Phu Quoc, I sought out the best cafes on the island. Cafe culture hasn’t really taken off here yet, so maybe that will follow when all these shophouses start filling in with businesses.
When in Duong Dong I like visiting Buddy Cafe. They also have travel information, giving it a travellers cafe vibe.
In the old section of Long Beach, I like working at the Istanbul Beach Club.
On Tran Hung Dao (the main beach road), Kapa Cafe had one of the best coffees that I could find.
Island Coffee on Tran Hung Dao is also a good coffee spot.
An alternative place to go for coffee is at resort beach cafes. I dropped into the Pullman Hotel to have a coffee at the Beach House.
Oddly enough, even though the big hotel brands have descended upon Phu Quoc, cafe chains have still not made a mark. At the time of my visit, there was one solitary Highlands Coffee in Duong Dong. I like their Americano coffee so I am a regular visitor. This branch might be in the top 5 nicest Highlands branches in Vietnam.
Once all these new urban area mega-developments open there will probably be more chain cafes. I saw at Grand World that local cafe giant The Coffee House was opening a branch.
[The Coffee House at Grand World.]
On my second trip, I got a flight from Ho Chi Minh City. There are several flights a day from all the airlines, and it’s only a 45-minute flight.
Final thoughts on visiting Phu Quoc
The massive scale of development on Phu Quoc has polarised lovers of “Pearl Island” (a reference to pearl farming rather than being another Pearl Of The Orient).
Personally, I’m all for some tourism development here, but as someone who follows urban planning, they could have made something so much better with only a quarter of the land they have used. The cookie-cutter villas and phony Euroland buildings everywhere are also dismaying. And then there is the matter of the rubbish on the beaches, which has been making the news for a decade but still the problem persists.
While writing this article and the articles for Future Southeast Asia, I ended up with more words on the problems and potential solutions for Phu Quoc, so I will leave that rant for another post.
The good news is that Phu Quoc is a big island, so you just have to make more of an effort to get away from it if you prefer to be somewhere less developed.
[Old Phu Quoc vibes at Ong Lang Beach.]
I published a Phu Quoc construction report on my other site at Future Southeast Asia. I plan to do annual reports for the biggest cities, and considering how much is going on in Phu Quoc I will be back to report its progess.