Palm trees sprout between ramshackle huts. Mopeds groan under crates of fish. Wooden fishing boats bob. A huge concrete pylon rises out of the jungle, standing sentinel on a cliff.
I zoom up towards this pylon in a cable car, taking photos as if I’ve just discovered a lost nirvana. As I reach it, my stomach drops. A spectacular island chain extends before me, as far as the eye can see, into the shimming Gulf of Thailand. The scene reminds me of the 1996 novel The Beach where a group of backpackers in Thailand swim to The Dream, an island hardly anyone knows of.
Except, despite every sense telling me I’m in Koh Samui or Phuket, I’m not in Thailand. I’m in Vietnam, in Phu Quoc – a 22-island archipelago 50km off Vietnam’s southwest coast.
Phu Quoc Island itself, at 48km long, is Vietnam’s largest. It’s shaped like a teardrop and is about the size of Singapore. At its southern end sits islands in the An Thoi archipelago.
With a seaport and airport, Phu Quoc is developing quickly. A national tourism report stated that, as of February 2021, Phu Quoc had attracted almost $25 billion in investment projects, and investors were getting incentives to develop the islands into a destination like Phuket, Bali, Hawaii or even the Maldives. And it appears the plan is working, with 6.1 million people visiting in the first nine months of 2022 and the islands seeing an annual tourism growth of 20-30 per cent.
The plan is for tourism to be sustainable, too. As our Vietnamese guide, Thành Vuong, told me, Phu Quoc is “61 per cent natural forest” and there are no plans to change that.
Once you venture outside the resorts, almost everything is steeped in local culture. On the night I arrived, the things that made the biggest impression on me during my drive from the airport were not the hotels or the casino, but the circles of men sitting on the floor chatting, table tennis halls, hammocks and street vendors selling plastic cups of coconut juice with cumquats floating in them.
I did question the sustainability hype on day one as our boat motored through the plastic bag-choked waters of Bach Đang Park Harbour on my way to Ông Lang beach – a snorkelling spot about 20 minutes north. But the litter lessened and I soon succumbed to Phu Quoc’s charms and had a great time snorkelling in the warm water and fishing with a handline like the locals do.
On the return trip, I lazed in the sun on the top deck of our fishing boat. This set me up perfectly for a lunch of local delicacies including pig’s ear (shaved into a salad), oyster porridge, abalone with oyster sauce, sea snail salad, and grilled squid that was so fresh it could have wriggled off my plate. Phu Quoc’s famous fish sauce was also on hand (two of the island’s biggest exports are fish sauce and black pepper).
After docking, I was driven through Duong Dong Town, the largest town in Phu Quoc. Situated on Phu Quoc’s west coast (much of the east side is uninhabited, with the top right part of a Unesco Biosphere Reserve), Duong Dong struck me as a sleepy version of Bali’s Seminyak with its cafes, homestays, moped rental shops, a couple of clubs and stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood.
The next day I explored the southern tip of Phu Quoc and hopped on the longest non-stop, three-rope cable car in the world. Spanning 8km, it passed over the fishing village of Bãi Xep and then two small islands, which people were snorkelling and fishing around, before touching down on another small island, Hon Thom.
Here, I flew down the slides at the Aquatopia Water Park and lazed on the beach to the sound of distant jackhammering from nearby hotel construction sites. Then it was back into the cable car and back to the mainland, pondering this growing island paradise.
The writer was a guest of Bamboo Airways and Meliá Vinpearl Phu Quoc.
Originally published as vietnam/i-found-asias-next-island-hotspot/news-story/b160479e2e851013db5188d00b171e0a”>I found Asia’s next island hotspot
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