When the folks in Phú Quoc tell you its population has multiplied from about 5,000 in 2014 to more than 90,000 today, they do so with quiet pride and an unvoiced hope that the Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand will continue to grow. The way they say it makes visitors feel welcome for being a part of that growth.
There are pockets of construction along the hour-long drive from Phú Quoc International Airport to Bai Dai Beach, where hospitality group Vinpearl supported a familiarisation trip for media members at its resorts recently, together with AirAsia. But what catches the eye are the many colourful houses sprouting up beside the main road — signs of new affluence — and small businesses helmed by a people long known for their industry. You get the sense that everyone is putting their shoulder to the wheel to shift Phú Quoc’s economy from farming and fishing to tourism.
About half of Phú Quoc — the name denotes fertile nation — is part of the Phú Quoc National Park, a Unesco heritage site. Comprising 28 isles spread across 574 sq km, the district is 45km from mainland Vietnam and 4km from Cambodia.
Visitors who stumble upon this relatively unknown destination are smitten by its beguiling attractions, whether they seek to unwind and recharge in seclusion, explore mountain trails or marine ecosystems, throw themselves into watersports, get a real taste of Vietnamese culture, enjoy delectable street food and international fare, or watch the hours pass as shadows slant across fine sand as the sun dips into the horizon.
Guests at the Vinpearl properties in Phú Quoc — Vinpearl Resort & Golf, Vinpearl Discovery 1, 2 and 3, Vinpearl Resort & Spa and VinOasis (which houses a casino) — do not have to wander far to relish a holiday that will stay on their minds, and within photo frames back home.
You can ease into your stay by lying flat out on a cosy bed in Akoya Spa and surrender body and mind to a soothing traditional Vietnamese massage. Time your treatment for the evening and you can catch the sunset on your back. Rejuvenated by firm hands kneading out knotted muscles, you may move on to a round of golf on manicured grounds surrounded by sea, land and hills.
Then, as the lights come on, make your way to Pepper Restaurant, where grilled seafood and succulent meats await. Feast, catch up with old friends and make new ones as the resort’s performers entertain you.
BBQ at Sabbia is an unforgetable experience for those who fancy clinking glasses to the sound of waves. If you are celebrating a special occasion, let the staff know early and they will happily cordon off a circle for table, balloons, twinkling lights and flowers to make it all the more unique.
As a prelude to the main meal, catch a cooking demonstration by chef Le Phuc Thanh and you will learn more than what goes into his crispy popiah — goose liver, cashew nuts, apricots or raisins. One of the pioneers roped in by Vinpearl when it decided to build its first hotel from scratch about seven years ago, Thanh will regale you with behind-the-scene stories, such as what group chairman-cum-owner Pham Nhat Vuong told the team: “We have nothing, just money.”
When you have had your fill of wine and good food, take a ride to the night market at Duong Dong, Phú Quoc’s largest town, where vendors sell an array of trinkets, clothes, dried fruit, fried ice cream, Vietnamese coffee and snacks, fresh seafood and piping hot noodles, as well as souvenirs fashioned from leather, wood, metal and plastic.
Tourists planning an exciting day outdoors will not want to miss Vinpearl Safari, the country’s largest wildlife conservation park, where 130 species of animals snooze, graze or frolic in a 380ha sanctuary that is also home to 400 plant species. Grab a bag of bananas and get close to the elephants and giraffes. Reaching up to these creatures always brings smiles all round — the best way to spend a morning.
If you crave thrills and spills, head for Vinpearl Land, an amusement park offering water games and fun-filled activities. For an even headier adventure, take the 8km cable car ride to Hon Thom, also called Pineapple Island, where you can have a quick dip in the shallow enclave, followed by a nap on a hammock. Enroute in the gondola, look down and gaze on clusters of rooftops, restaurants, jagged coastlines, a pearl farm, corals thriving in clear waters and lush hills in the distance.
Airconditioned toilets that are clean and dry are a pleasant surprise, and relief, for visitors to the safari and Hon Thom.
For a glimpse of what the locals like to do in Phú Quoc, make a detour to the Dinh Cau Rock Temple, where statuettes bedecked in embroidered finery and glittering necklaces command attention. A stone’s throw away, visitors leap gingerly from one outcrop of rocks to the next, the better to position themselves for selfies or have shots snapped by shutterbugs. This is a popular spot for those on a day’s break from work, our guide says.
Ngoc Hien Pearl Farm is an eye-opener on how tiny beads are painstakingly inserted between oyster shells and “nourished” before being placed in cages that are then put on the sea bed, where they slowly evolve into the beautiful gems prized for their timeless elegance. The farm’s success is a heart-warming tale about its founder, a fisherman who worked his way up. The boat he used to sail out in sits among bits of fossilised giant clam shells, remnants of pieces sculptured into art products.
Sim Wine at Bay Gao is another story about Vietnamese enterprise. Here, a locally grown plant is used to produce tidbits, biscuits and a wine that has various levels of alcohol content. After these two retail stops, a break for lunch at Nha Hang is timely. The seafood restaurant, which has jars of “health tonics” lined up on a counter at its entrance, serves a boiling soup that tempts you to refill your bowl again and again.
Annual tourist arrivals to Phú Quoc are expected to hit two million by next year, compared with 568,000 in 2014. The fact that 78% of that number were locals speaks volumes for the gems waiting to be unearthed on this isle.
With a balance of the authentic elements Vietnam is famed for and fun facilities designed for young and old in spanking resorts as well as budget hotels and homestays, Phú Quoc is poised to host tourists looking for a new Asian tropical getaway. AirAsia flies there five times weekly, in under two hours from Kuala Lumpur. Time to plan your next holiday?
The article first appeared on Apr 22, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.