Just 45kms west of the city of Ha Tiên on the western coast of Vietnam and Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, lies a beautiful underdeveloped paradise island called Phu Quoc. The island itself is surrounded by some 27 uninhabited smaller islands. Having earmarked Vietnam and Cambodia for our onward journey from China, we found some really interesting articles about this island. We read that it was practically unspoiled and untouched by the tourist industry. It has only recently been discovered as a potential tourist destination and already it’s been named the new “Bali” of Asia. We thought, why not take a trip there to see what everyone is raving about? Before it’s over-run with high rise hotels and the multi-million dollar tourist industry that is already planned for its future. Recently, the Ritz Carlton has begun construction on a new hotel on the island, along with many more hotels. Half of this small island is a protected natural park, with beautiful landscape for miles, and so it was a no-brainer to book a three week stay at a small resort on the west coast of the island in one of the main towns, Duong Dong.
One evening, just a few weeks before we left for Phu Quoc, my phone pinged with a message from a dear friend of mine back home, Irene. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened it. She was coming out to Asia to join me for a few weeks of my travels and asked where we would be in October! “Phu Quoc” I replied when we got chatting! “Oh…well if you put it like that, she said”…and then the penny dropped. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like when you say it fast 😂 “No, no, no”, I said. “It’s the name of the island off the west coast of Vietnam where we’ll be staying” I explained, in hysterics laughing. And so, within a matter of hours, Irene had booked into accommodation right next door to us in the Vela Phu Quoc Resort just outside Duong Dong. Now, I think it’s important to explain before going any further that this was Irene’s first time in Asia, so the usual sight of unfinished buildings and construction sites everywhere was not something that she was accustomed to, nor the living conditions in Asia generally. This is what the term “culture shock” was invented for I guess. I too had had my fair share of it travelling throughout some parts of Asia I must admit. And so the planning got underway for Irene’s long haul journey from Ireland to Asia. The excitement for both of us was palpable. Added to the sense of excitement was the fact that Irene was also bringing out with her some Irish cheese and bags of Tayto crisps! Oh the joys of the simple things in life when you’re away from home! Sure we were laughin’ 😂. Transporting Irish sausages and bacon was also considered, but discarded just as quickly, as Irene understandably couldn’t hack being banged up abroad for too long if it went wrong 💥
Irene, you see, is one of the most feminine of women I know. She has been my close friend for many years. It’s not unusual to meet her donning a beautiful flower tucked behind her ear, with her beautiful sun kissed blonde hair perfectly styled, her petiteness and long girly eyelashes wrapped around big glistening blue eyes, dressed to feminine perfection no matter what the circumstances. She has it all! Having spent almost a year travelling with my wonderful husband, trekking around in tee-shirts and jeans, Irene was like a whirlwind of fresh air to have around. Her happy and sunny disposition, her sense of childlike fun came just at the right time, and I was so excited at the prospect of spending a few weeks with her after all this time.
Irene’s arrival to Phu Quoc preceded ours by a few days. Her “culture shock” experience was hilarious to witness on occasions. While in Vientiane I received a message from her saying “it’s like a construction site here Martine, I don’t think you’re going to be too happy with it.. maybe I should say something to the resort owner?”. There were Kango hammers going at the small wee hours of the morning and all through the day. On arrival, we very quickly realized that this was everywhere, every resort, every building was being demolished and rebuilt, or extended etc. And that’s Asia! It’s something to be aware if you are considering travelling here. Noisy construction work is pretty much the norm and unavoidable, albeit bloody annoying. But it’s one of the very few downsides to experiencing this beautiful part of the world.
As sure as night follows day, as soon as Irene opened her door when we arrived, she was beaming with excitement from ear to ear with a beautiful pink flower pinned to her immaculately groomed hair. After lots of hugging and air kissing, we made our way down to the lovely restaurant on site and caught up with all our girly gossip to make plans for the following day. Bicycles were top of the list so we could begin exploring our surroundings the following morning.
I remember as a young girl cycling out past Dublin airport along the small country roads, with my girlfriends in tow, excited that my parents had given me the freedom for the first time to travel further than my nose and with the wonderful anticipation of finding new places as we travelled further and further away from home. Well, getting on a bike with Irene and Colm the following morning was the very same. I was 13 again! And with the same sense of excitement we headed off down the pot-holed roads of Phu Quoc, over dirt tracks where old cows with square bells tethered to their necks, (their eyelashes not a patch on Irene’s beautifully curled ones), looked on at us with curiosity as we passed by. And then the gasps! We arrived slap bang into paradise, to one of the most gobsmackingly picturesque beaches I had ever seen in my entire life! The sand was ice-cream white and just as soft! Palm trees everywhere and a little bamboo hut bar/restaurant with sun beds for us to lie on free of charge. Crystal clear blue water for us to swim in! But where was everyone? Only two people, aside from us, were sitting on this huge stretch of beach…how could it be possible that no-one else was here? That we had the whole beach to ourselves? We soon discovered that there are so many beaches on the island and that most of them remain undiscovered (as we had heard), and untouched! We had just found one of them! A secret beach that we had all to ourselves! Well, we felt like we’d hit the jackpot! Towels came out, and clothes came off and we ran into the warm sea to cool off from the heat of the early morning sun. All three of us, like children, spent the day splashing around in the water and lazing around on the beach until the sun went down over the horizon, drinking lime juice with fancy straws like it was going out of fashion. We were in heaven for sure! And this was our life for the first few days on the island. Cycling around, discovering yet another beach to explore…and continuously gasping with delight to find yet another gem, and huge tree swings to keep us occupied when we wanted to take a break from our endless dips in the sea.
Our next adventure was a boat trip to three of the islands that lay south of Phu Quoc, one of which is known as “Robinson Crusoe Island”. This was going to be fun! Snorkeling off the huge boat that took us from one island to the next. Each island more spectacular than the last. We spent hours snorkeling and swimming amongst spectacular coral reefs, with the most colourful fish and sea creatures. Visiting some more jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches, swinging on hammocks and eating some of Phu Quoc’s most famous dishes! My favorite was chicken wings smothered in the island’s really famous fish sauce. It sounds incompatible with chicken, but trust me it was absolutely delicious. Phu Quoc is renowned for it worldwide. There isn’t enough of it to export to other countries so the only place you can get it is on the island. It’s sweet and syrupy and really doesn’t taste too much like fish at all. Also, pepper farms are sprinkled everywhere on the island, and some of the pepper sauces served with food are to die for. Irene became addicted to the large coconuts on sale at every street corner. When I say “large”, they were often not much smaller than herself 🧚♀️🧚♀️🧚♀️. Not a day went by that she wasn’t sipping coconut water from a huge green ball of a coconut
Our trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip to mainland Vietnam. Irene had mentioned that she would love to see what the mainland was about and so, without further ado, we booked a boat to takes us for an overnight trip just 45kms across the water to the city of Ha Tiên. Now this was probably the most hilarious part of witnessing Irene’s culture shock! Walking around the markets on the quay when we got off the boat and watching her gagging as we passed the fish market, with sea creatures staring up at her that I wouldn’t even begin to guess what they were. At one point she was beginning to retch and we thought it best to move along. 😂😂😂. We carried on through the fruit market and into the area where people were haggling for live fowl. We came across a bicycle with large baskets on either side of it. In the baskets were huge live chickens and turkeys squawking and flaying their wings trying to escape. Their legs tied together and pinned to the baskets. One of the traders, noticing my discomfort looking on, proceeded to pick one up and teasingly chased me around the market with it, much to the amusement of all of the other traders! I was terrified but hysterical with laughter as she chased me from stall to stall to the roars of laughter from all of the other traders. A fabulous moment shared with all of the hardworking women at the market that day led to chats and a wonderful welcome to us naïve and privileged travellers who had come to have a peek into their world for just one day. I have the height of admiration and respect for the women throughout Asia who spend long hours doing backbreaking work at these markets to earn a crust for their families. I know I would never be able to endure for one hour what they do every single day of their lives, and I know that Irene felt the same having met these people on our visit to Ha Tiên. Witnessing the extreme poverty of the people living on the outskirts of the city, similar to what I had seen in Saigon, was gut wrenching. There are no words to describe the desolate conditions that many of the Vietnamese people have to live in. Watching poverty-stricken elderly women pushing heavy carts through the markets just to earn enough to feed and clothe themselves is a disgrace in this day and age! Enough said…I feel another rant coming on, so moving swiftly along…
Our accommodation in Ha Tiên was basic and clean. We stayed at a Hostel, with an Entrance Hall that had gold-painted walls from floor to ceiling and Buddhist statues everywhere. Thankfully, that color theme didn’t run through to our bedrooms. We settled into our rooms across the hall from each other. Well, that was until I saw the picture hanging over our bed! A young naked woman covered in flowers smiled down at me from the picture frame! Nope! There was no way I was having that sort of competition in my bedroom! And even moreso, over my marital bed?! No wayyy! So I quickly dashed over to Irene’s room to see if we could casually “switch” rooms. Oh No! An even more beautiful naked woman hung on her wall! Back to my room, I was wrecking my brain for a solution. And I found one! A bit ingenious if I may say so myself (see the picture below). Maybe not very discreet, but beggars can’t be choosers! 😂😂😂
We ventured out and about around Ha Tiên and came upon some of the most ornamental and colourful Buddhist Temples. We dipped in and out of as many of them as we could, joining in meditations and lighting candles for everyone we thought might need a bit of Buddhist intervention along the way. As the sun went down, we lazed by the banks of the Giang Thanh River sipping a Gin and Tonic before heading back to our Hostel for the night, with me feeling quite happy with myself knowing that that floosy in my room was well out of sight 😂
Before leaving to return to Phu Quoc Island the following morning we decided to pop into the only bar in the city that served a good hearty English/Irish Breakfast, The Oasis. There we met the owner “Andy” who sat and chatted to us about our travels and gave us some tips about travelling on to Cambodia which was next on our travel plans. Explaining to us about the corruption that can go on when tourists try to cross over the border from Vietnam to Cambodia, where Visa application costs can be ramped up on the whim of anyone we might meet at the border control office, he offered to help us with our passage across. And so we arranged to return to his bar a week later before we crossed into Cambodia. Andy promised he would provide us with a local “negotiator” and a driver to take us to the Vietnamese side of the border and then another driver to meet us on the Cambodian side who would take us safely to our accommodation. Andy, in a nutshell, was a godsend for us at that point of our journey.
With only a couple of days left of Irene’s holiday on Phu Quoc Island, no trip would be complete without a girlie pampering day together. So off we trotted to the local Vietnamese beauty parlor for massages, manicures, pedicures and whatever else we could have done for a quarter of the price we would normally pay for them at home. Delighted with ourselves that we had managed to avoid the “Drag Queen” look when we were done, we of course had to have a little celebration with none other than some more lime juice and coconut water. No day passed without us downing litres of the stuff. 🍹🍹🍹.
Sure enough, all good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes, sadly, to Irene one morning as she headed off for her return trip home, but feeling very much rejuvenated and the better for having spent such a wonderful fortnight with her. We were ready and motivated to go on with the rest of our journey.
With only a few days left ourselves on this paradise island, we decided to take a trip across to the eastern side of the island to have a glimpse at what that held. An early morning bus took us to Sao Beach, where we spent a few hours rambling around. While it is a beautiful beach, the west side of the islands beaches are far superior. We stopped off for a visit to the famous Fish Sauce Factory and the Pepper Farms and took a tour of the notorious prison camp “Coconut Prison” where North Vietnamese soldiers were held and tortured during the Vietnamese war. Even with tourists gathered at the camp, the silence was eerie and the shock of what went on here many years ago was clearly sketched on every persons face who had come to see it. It is not a comfortable experience and I was happy to leave it and return to Duong Dong that evening. It was yet another learning experience and one that again left me shocked at the atrocities that human beings can inflict on each other when brainwashed enough.
In Phu Quoc, there are no “seasons” as we know them. There is only a “wet season” and a “dry season”. Our stay was right at the end of the “wet” season. While most of the torrential tropical rain fell at night time, with spectacular thunder and lightning storms, on the day we travelled back to Duong Dong from the east side of the island, one of the heaviest rainstorms hit. Within minutes of our journey back, roads turned into rivers. Shopkeepers were up to their knees in rainwater inside their tiny shops, desperately trying to put up barriers to keep the rain out and sweep out the rising levels of rainwater from inside. The roads have little or no drainage so the water rises rapidly. Thankfully we had boarded the bus before the worst of it hit, but the two hour journey back was pretty hair raising in parts, as the bus driver struggled to deal with the road conditions. Yet, by the time we arrived back and had our meal, the heat of the sun had dried up every inch of rainwater and it was as though it had never happened. The locals take this regular occurrence as part of the course during the wet season. They mop up and just get back to business within hours basically. Whatever damage is done is temporarily fixed until the next downpour. No insurance claims or payouts to victims of the weather…it’s just life in the eyes of the local people.
Our time on Phu Quoc Island was most definitely one of the highlights of our journey, and if we could we would have stayed much longer. Right now it is a paradise island where everything is cheap and affordable. Our stay at both the resort and the hostel in Ha Tiên cost us no more than €15 per night. Food and drink is extremely cheap and we paid for everything in dollars rather than the Vietnamese Dong (you can opt for either currency). But if you opt to use dollars, make sure to bring US Dollars with you as they cannot be got from the ATM machines on the island. Another red carrot they offer to tourists planning to travel to Phu Quoc is that if you travel through Vietnam directly to Phu Quoc a visa isn’t required, for up to maximum stay of 30 days. The beaches and surrounding islands are spectacular and are like nowhere else we have ever been. Clean and stunningly beautiful with some of the most amazing sunsets we have had the pleasure of seeing. We have been so lucky to have had the chance to spend time on this island before the mania of the tourist industry hits and possibly destroys it. And it will! There is evidence everywhere on the island that this is earmarked by the powers that be and the big guys in the hotel and tourism industry that major development is coming. There has been no provision made apparently for the impact on the island’s eco system which the locals are extremely concerned about. But being poor, they will have no say over the wealthy conglomerates plans to invade their home. We will most definitely be coming back someday to see for ourselves the changes that will happen in the next few years. In the meantime guys, if you get the chance, go visit it in its natural and raw state before it becomes yet another tourist trap. It has been an experience of a lifetime for us for sure!