From Hanoi, we flew to Phu Quoc island, just south of Cambodia. After much dispute, it has been in the hands of Vietnam since 1982. Though it’s a gorgeous, tropical island, far from the mainland of Vietnam, it did see action during the war: American troops were here guarding the Coconut Tree Prison where Viet Cong leaders were housed.
My heart soared and sank on Phu Quoc island. A month earlier, we were on Koh Chang island in Thailand: similar deal – beautiful tropical island with lots of beaches, a few towns, and a large nature reserve. Koh Chang was gorgeous and not very developed as far as tourist destinations go. It was pretty much perfect.
Phu Quoc is in an awkward stage right now – kind of like a pimply teen slowly blossoming into an investment banker. The entire island is a construction zone – everywhere there’s the creation of new roads, new sidewalks, new pipes, and too many huge resorts under construction to count. We stayed at a lovely, small new hotel, and while we mostly stayed close and enjoyed the beach and pool, we also took a day to rent a scooter and explore. We ended up spending a lot of time on roads in various stages of construction and Nate became a pro at navigating all kinds of surfaces. Our goal for the day was to find a quiet, secluded beach, hang up our hammock, and relax. We found a long, winding road toward the shore, and then hiked down a short path through the forest. We found our deserted beach, but it was covered in trash. Hearts broken, we continued on. Eventually we found a small resort that let us hang there if we bought some drinks, but even that had trash on the shore, too. Finally, we checked out the fishing town of Hàm Ninh, met some fisherman, declined buying some crabs, saw some starfish, and headed home. Not the best day exploring a tropical island, but an experience nonetheless.
Phu Quoc’s economy, aside from the incipient tourism industry, provides three main products: seafood (a lot of squid), fish sauce, and pepper. As we drove around the island, we got to see pepper farms in action and smell their peppery pungency. Fish sauce, we had had enough of at this point.
Our last night at the hotel was New Year’s Eve, which would have passed without much fanfare except that our hotel hosted a free poolside BBQ. Score! Excluding the fact that they played the same five annoying Christmas songs on repeat, it was a great, festive way to ring in the new year. Sometime around midnight when everyone had gone to their rooms and all was quiet, Nate and I sat in the hammock on our balcony, looked up at the moon, and reflected on what a unique year this has been.
We chose Phu Quoc as a destination for the week between Christmas and New Year’s because it was far cheaper than going anywhere else. It was a good place to relax but the small pleasures of a beautiful tropical island have given way to massive construction and mammoth resorts. It made us remember our days on Thailand’s Koh Chang fondly and hope that some small pockets of authenticity can be preserved on the island.