I was happy to get out Ho Chi Minh City, a city of 8 million people and 7.43 million registered motorbikes. It’s an urban landscape of constant honking and dodging the onslaught of motobikes coming in all directions. When I arrived on Phu Quoc (pronounced foo-kwock), Vietnam’s largest island, the stresses of Ho Chi Minh City escaped my body as I was finally able to breathed in the fresh island air.
I heard of Phu Quoc in 2009 when I was living in Thailand. Everything I read about the island drew me to it. It was a sleepy island of small fishing villages connected by a lonely dirt road thruoghout much of this large island. Phu Quoc was southeast Asia’s best kept secret greeting visitors with soft white sand beaches scattered along the coastline. It was the idyllic and seculed paradise for any traveler’s bucket list. Unfortunately it took me 9 years to get there.
I finally made it and just in time as the island today is seeing some major changes in development. While many tourist hotspots around the world are challenged with overtourism, Phu Quoc is prepping and welcoming an increasing number of visitors each year. It is expected that Phu Quoc with an island population of 103,000 will recieve 2,000,000 annual visitors by 2020.
Below are some of the highlights from my recent visit to the island.
The Hero of Phu Quoc Island
There’s quite a few temples on the island. The best known and most visited is the Dinh Cau Temple also called the Rock Temple of Phu Quoc Island. The temple is part shrine and part lighthouse making it a popular spot to view the sunset.
I didn’t go to Dinh Cau temple. Instead, I traveled north by motorbike with two new friends from my guesthouse. We planned a day trip to the northern part of Phu Quoc. Our first stop was Nguyen Trung Truc temple, a much quieter and less crowded temple dedicated to a national hero who is celebrated throughout Vietam, but particularly here on Phu Quoc.
Nguyen Trung Truc was a local fisherman living on Phu Quoc who became a leader in the anti-French colonial uprising in South Vietnam. Nguyen organized and led local militia forces against the French in the mid 1800s. He is known for destroying the French ship L’Esperace. Nguyen was evenually caught and executed by the French. But his legacy continues and villagers visit his shrine to honor and pay tribute to him.
There’s also an annual festival celebrating Nguyen’s defense of Vietnam against the French. It is a 3-day festival held each August. Thousands of locals gather and celebrate his life culminating in an reenactment of the the battle and sinking of the L’Esperace.
Phu Quoc Pepper Farms
As we drove around the island, there was a wonderful aroma of pepper filling the air. That’s because Vietnam is the largest exporter of the world’s black pepper. And Phu Quoc is known to have the best pepper in all of SE Asia.
4 types of pepper varitiety are farmed on Phu Quoc: white, green, red, and black. Unlike in other pepper producing regions, farmers use organic fertilizers and dry the peppers in the sun. When they’re ready, they are harvested and sorted by hand. A popular ingredient in many Vietnamese dishes is the flavorful green pepper.
There are plenty of pepper farms around the island and visitors are welcome to stop in learn more about pepper farming, take a tour, and buy different varities of pepper as part of any day trip.
Starfish beach on the northern shores of Phu Quoc takes a bit of time to reach. To get to Rach Vem Beach (it’s offical name) takes you through some remote roads in the north. The paved road eventually turns into a red clay road that often alternates to a pebble rocky road.
The beach is rather secluded but is becoming more popular because of the large number of starfish that live in the water. There are hundreds if not more scattered throughout beach. It became popular in the last few years because of visitors posting selfies of the starfish.
There’s an ongoing online debate as to whether starfish can survive outside of the water long enough to take a selfie. The issue is most people do not know how to handle these creatures properly. Whether it’s holding starfish by one of its legs or picking up starfish with sunscreen on your hands, these actions hurt and add stress to starfish.
The water at Starfish Beach is shallow enough where it is easy to take a picture without disturbing them. It is also worth noting that these particular starfish are spiny so be mindful of where you walk.
As responsible travelers, it is best leave them alone and observe them instead in their habitat.
Phu Quoc Gallery of Contempory Art
Phu Quoc’s resident artist, Peter has big plans for contemporary art on the island. Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art or GOGA for short is the island’s first and only modern art gallery. It recently reopened from renovations from the summer.
It is located off the main road in Ong Lang village and is a space for Peter and other Vietnamese artists to showcase various art forms including conceptual art, visual art, photography, painting, sculpture, art installation, and much more.
I had the opportunity to visit the gallery during my visit to Phu Quoc where I stayed at Peter’s eco-friendly riverside homestay (also recently reopened as The River Mouth Phu Quoc). Peter’s artwork included abstract painting and sculptural pieces inviting viewers to contemplate “what is real?”
Phu Quoc Today
Phu Quoc much like many places in Vietnam are undergoing massive tourism development. The island was designated a Special Econimic Zone allowing 30 day visa exemptions for travelers visiting only the island. It’s being developed as Vietnam’s luxary tourist destination. There are now several European airlines with direct flights to Phu Quoc. This means new high-end luxury resorts, new golf courses, and attractions are popping up all over the island at an extremely fast rate. New attractions like the new safari amusement park and a new cable car, the world’s longest have been built to lure the luxuary traveler.
During my visit, it was clear how much development was taking place. There are large swaths of cleared out land primed for development. Luckily for now, the northern part of the island hasn’t seen as much changes as the south. The protected national park in the north has forstalled massive development for now but who knows how long tht will last. Much of the building is around and leading up to the island’s largest town, Duong Dong.
A Vietnamese tour guide reluctantly admitted that the government wants to turn Phu Quoc island into its own version of Hong Kong or Singapore. When I read an article mentioning getting to Phu Qouc NOW, I had to make the trip to experience a little bit of what I yearned for when I first learned about the island. I give the same advice to anyone wanting to visit Vietnam today.
What You Should Know Before Visiting Phu Quo
- Foreign visitors can get a 30-day visa exemption. It ONLY applies to visitors who enter, exit and travel by air or arrive by cruise ship to Phu Quoc. If you plan to travel throughout Vietnam, you will need a regular tourist visa.
- Peak season is Decemember to February and the TET new year holiday. Prices during this time are high. March is a perfectly good time to visit while you may see some rain the weather is still beautiful.
- Explore Phu Quoc by motorbike but be careful. In the northern part of the island as it gets a bit more remote, the roads alternate from red clay to pebble roads. For the inexperienced motorbiker, take your time and follow the path laid by previous motorbikess. Driver’s are suppose to have an international driver’s license so rent at your own risk.
- Phu Quoc is in the midst of rapid development so be prepared to see and hear construction throughout the island.