Phu Quoc is an island of Vietnam in the deep south of the country, off the coast of Cambodia. I had never heard of it until I came to Vietnam, and having been in Vietnam for much of the past two years I’ve since heard varying opinions about it.
For my first visit I combined a Mekong Delta trip, making my way through the Delta to Rach Gia for the ferry to Phu Quoc, and then got a flight back to Saigon. I figured three days would be enough time to visit. Turns out I was wrong. The island is bigger than I realised (about the same size as Phuket in Thailand) so there is enough to explore if you want to do more than sit a beach chair all day.
These notes cover my personal travels and thoughts on the island, and travel practicalities can be found in the Phu Quoc travel guide.
It had been a while since I had a beach break so there was no question where I was going to spend the first day. Like most visitors, I began my Phu Quoc trip at Long Beach (Truong Beach). The beach runs north-south on the west coast, making it the perfect beach for sunsets.
As the name would suggest the beach is long – too long to walk the length and back in a leisurely stroll (even by my standards).
I read some blog posts from beach connoisseur’s who said that there are beaches with whiter sands and clearer waters elsewhere the island. Reading these reviews gave the impression that Long Beach wasn’t worth a visit. Armed with low expectations my expectations were exceeded. The sand is soft and the water is calm and clean.
It’s touristy, yes, but it’s not on the same level of trashiness as the main beaches of, say, Samui or Bali. I enjoy touristy beaches anyway (in small doses). While remote beaches are pretty, I like to be able to stop for a coffee or coconut under the shade of an umbrella. And Long Beach is, er, long enough to spread the development out.
After staying near Long Beach I moved accommodation to Duong Dong, the principal town of Phu Quoc. I used Duong Dong as a base to explore the rest of the island, plus there are local eateries at Vietnamese prices, so I didn’t have to eat resort-priced food. You can still walk to Long Beach easy enough from Duong Dong so it was a good location for me.
I didn’t know what to expect with the local food scene so I was pleasantly surprised to find a variety of Vietnamese food options. A bowl of pho was around the 40,000 VND mark ($1.85 USD) and better quality than any of the resort offerings.
I found a lady making bo la lot on the street, and found dishes I’ve never seen anywhere else.
After moving to a guesthouse in Duong Dong town I went about exploring the town and surrounding beaches.
While international visitors come for the beaches, Phu Quoc is probably better known for its fish sauce. And where there is fish sauce there is fishermen. In the harbour and river is the islands fishing fleet. The bridge on Nguyen Trung Truc gives you a good view of the boats along the river.
Part of the reason I wanted to visit Phu Quoc was to “see it before it’s gone”, so to speak. There are plans to turn the island into an international resort. Part of the expansion plan is to turn Duong Dong from a fishing town with its population of 20,000 into a 200,000 peopled international city.
Along the riverside where the boats are moored is an area where workers from the fishing industry live. There were billboards here proclaiming future apartment blocks.
Walking around the town you get a sense of how much fishing is part of life, so where the fishing community will end up when Duong Dong is developed is another question.
In terms of things to do it’s not exactly a tourist town, but I can always entertain myself wandering around markets. The central market here is across the bridge by the river. If you need an antidote from the beach resort scene this is a good place to come for a taste of working Vietnam.
Being the kitchenless nomad that I am, fruit is about the extent of my market purchases. If I buy jackfruit I usually get it pre-peeled to save space. In this case I couldn’t resist the smile of this jackfruit merchant so I ended up buying a chunk of jackfruit, which I carted around with me until I had time to sit down and peel away.
Immediately north of Duong Dong is the old airport. A bigger airport has been built in the south of the island, which has paved the way for Duong Dong to expand. The old airport accessible to the public so you can ride your bike on the tarmac or come here to practice your bike riding if you are a newbie.
The Fishermans Beach
North of the Duong Dong harbour is a beach occupied by a fishing village. It’s like the mirror opposite of Long Beach to the south – this is still a working beach with no hotels or resorts in sight.
I ended up here by accident as I was originally scouting for hotels on the beaches north of Duong Dong. It turns the hotels were miles further north so I never saw them. Instead I wandered along this stretch of beach which was one of the highlights of my trip.
The sand and water clarity is on par with Long Beach. With its proximity to Duong Dong it can only be a matter of time before these shacks will be demolished to make way for hotels.
I saw no swimmers on this beach apart from some domesticated ducks.
I was feeling a little self conscious being on a working beach and taking photos, though everyone I met had plenty of hellos and smiles for me. I was invited to eat with a group of fisherman, who were having lunch in front of their fishing shack.
Can we all pause for a moment and agree that the lady in red is the best dressed fisherwoman you’ve ever seen.
I got to see the process of drying squid up close. By now you’re probably wishing I had taken some photos of some Swedish backpackers on Long Beach, but I found this process fascinating.
And as the case with Long Beach, I had to decide how long I would walk on the beach before turning back. There was miles of sandy beach calling my name to walk a little further.
Around the island
While I was able to explore Duong Dong and its surrounding beaches by foot, I rented a scooter to visit the rest of the island.
A short ride outside of Duong Dong it gets rural real quick, with cows and chickens wandering the roads. I met this cow who was munching on some jackfruit scraps, because cows like jackfruit too it seems.
Most of the major roads are sealed but the backroads are compacted gravel. I ended up on a few stretches of sand as well (which is not recommended on a small scooter).
Apart from the main roads there is barely any traffic (at least it seems that way having spent so much time in Saigon.)
There are tours available that will take you around to the highlights of the island, but a bike will get you to the quiet beaches on your own terms.
If you are hunting for secluded beaches bring your own picnic supplies as there will be no vendors.
Along with the development of Duong Dong, there are plans for many of the beaches of Phu Quoc to be developed for resorts. I’m not against development; I just hope that there are beaches that are spared or protected as some sort of national park.
I went down some isolated sand tracks and saw some beaches that were a mess of construction. I made my way back to the main road and found a brand new amusement park waiting for patrons. Somewhere on the island there will also be a casino (because there’s always a casino).
The good news is that the island is big so it’s not like the whole island is covered in concrete (yet). I got through the resort construction area and found my way back to the fishing villages.
At the start of the day I picked up a useful map of the island and circled some beaches I wanted to see. I lazily stuffed the map in my back pocket and it fell out soon after I left, so I was left to randomly visit places for the rest of the day.
This turned out to be just as good, as I went down any side road that I thought would lead me to something interesting. I went through village markets, riding through narrow alleys lined with fish vendors, and rode by houses built on the water. I went down occasional dead ends too, which was the price of unmapped wanderings that I was willing to pay.
Jackfruits and coconuts. Definitely on a tropical paradise island.
As with my lack of map consulting when I wandered on the fishing beach, I didn’t pay much attention to the actual size of Phu Quoc either. I figured I would just quickly ride around the island in a day like it was something that you could do.
By the mid-afternoon I was still only at the northern end of Phu Quoc, having only ridden a quarter of the way around the island. My weakness was all the little side roads that would lead to yet another beach. I had Google Maps on my iPhone but I didn’t load it for offline reading, so I just got a dot on a fuzzy map.
There was a big green blob on the map which turned out to be a national forest. I realised as I entered the forest that I was running low on fuel and started to get range anxiety. I made it through the other side with enough fuel to spare.
Running north-south down the spine of the island is a 4-lane highway that connects with the international airport and ferry port on the east coast of the island. I took this back to Duong Dong to save myself any more tempting diversions.
I got back in time to return the bike and go for my daily sunset walk along Long Beach. This was my last night here but I already knew I would have to return with more time to explore.