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Hon Chong - Rach Gia - Phu Quoc Island


IDD code: ( + 84 ) 77 / pop 85,000
One of Vietnam's star attractions, mountainous and forested Phu Quoc is a splendid tropical getaway set with beautiful white-sand beaches and quaint fishing villages. Adventure comes in many forms here - from motorbiking the empty dirt roads circling the island to sea kayaking its quiet inlets, scuba diving the coral reefs or simply having a bang-up seafood meal followed by a cocktail on the beach. Once a sleepy, backpackers' retreat, Phu Quoc has ramped up tourism significantly, and visitors can now choose between five-star resorts and rustic family run bunga-lows. Plans are underway for developing the island even more heavily - a la Phuket style. If package tourism isn't your bag, get there now before this happens.
The tear-shaped island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, 45km west of Ha Tien and 15km south of the coast of Cambodia. At 48km long (with an area of 1320 sq km), Phu Quoc is Vietnam's largest island and its most politically contentious: Phu Quoc is claimed by Cam bodia; its Khmer name is Ko Tral - which is why the Vietnamese have built a substantial military base covering much of the northern end of the island (thankfully, the military presence is fairly invisible).
Phu Quoc Island served as a base for the French missionary Pigneau de Behaine during the 1760s and 1780s. Prince Nguyen Anh, wlio later became Emperor Gia Long. was sheltered here by Behaine when he was being hunted by the Tay Son Rebels.
Phu Quoc is not really part of the Mekong Delta and doesn't share the delta's extraordinary ability to produce rice. The most valuable crop is black pepper, but the islanders here have traditionally earned their living from the sea. Phu Quoc is also famous in Vietnam for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam).
The island has some unusual hunting dogs, which have ridgebacks, curly tails and blue tongues and are said to be able to pick up their masters' scent from over 1km away (the nuoc mam their masters cat certainly helps). Unfortunately, the dogs have decimated much of the island's wildlife.
Despite the impending development (of a new international airport, a golf course and a casino), much of this island is still protected since becoming a national park in 2001. Phu Quoc National Park covers close to 70% of the island, an area of 31,422 hectares.
Phu Quoc's rainy season is from July to November. The peak season for tourism is midwinter, when the sky is blue and the sea is calm; however, when it's not raining it's stinking hot. Bring sunglasses and plenty of sunblock, lake plenty of water when setting out to explore the island.
The main shipping port is An Thoi at the south ern tip of Phu Quoc island. This town is not blessed with scenic sights, though the market here is definitely worth a peek. This is the embarkation point for Rach Gia. or for day trips to the An Thoi Islands (below).
The island's chief fishing port is Duong Dong, on the central west coast. The airport and most of the hotels are here.
The town is not that exciting, though the markets are mildly interesting. The bridge nearby forms a good vantage point to photograph the island's fishing fleet - you'll notice that this tiny harbour is anything but clean.
The post office is in downtown Duong Dong.
Internet access is available in the big hotels (try La Veranda, Sasco Blue Lagoon or Saigon Phu Quoc). In Duong Dong, there are several internet cafes including Net Cafe ( 5 Đ Nguyen Dinh Chieu; per hr 10,000d; 7am-10pm).
Flights back to HCMC can he booked through the Vietnam Airlines office in front of Saigon-Phu Quoc Resort ( 1 Đ Tran Hung Dao). This is also where you'll find a useful ATM.
There's a pharmacy (Nha Thuoc Khai Hoan; Tell: 993 756) on Đ Ngo Quyen near the market.
Sights 6 Activities

Bai Dai & Bai Thom
These are both remote beaches: Bai Dai is in the far northwest and Bai Thom is on the northeastern coast. A new road to Bai Dai cuts down on motorbike time and red dust in your face. You can rest assured that neither beach will be crowded.
Both are in military areas, but Bai Dai is open to the public and has a couple of restaurants, The military usually opens Bai Thom to civilians on Sunday but you must leave your passport with the military receptionist while you're on the base. In any event, do not try to sneak onto the beaches: make local inquiries and obey the rules.
Bai Cua Can & Long Beach
The most accessible beach, Bai Cua Can is in the northwest. It's 11km from Duong Dong.
Long Beach (Bai Truong) is indeed a long, spectacular stretch of sand from Duong Dong southward along the west coast, almost to An Thoi port (20km). The southern end of the beach is known as Tau Ru Bay (Khoe Tau Ru). The water is crystal clear and the beach is lined with coconut palms.
Long Beach is easily accessible on foot (just walk south from Duong Dong's Cau Castle), but you will need a motorbike or bicycle to reach some of the remote stretches towards the southern end of the island. The beach around the family-run guesthouse area is a particularly popular spot. There are a few bamboo huts where you can buy drinks, but bring water if you're planning a long hike along this beach.
Bai Sao & Bai Dam
Two beautiful white-sand beaches along the southeastern part of the island are Bai Sao and Bai Dam, situated just a few kilometres from An Thoi. There are a couple of beachfront restaurants at Bai Sao.
Just south of these beaches is undeveloped Bai Khem, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island and also, sadly, a military area that's closed to the public.
Compared with the waterlogged Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc has very little surface moisture; however, several springs originate in the hills. The most accessible of these is Suoi Da Ban (Stony Surface Spring; admission 1000d, motorbike 1000d). Basically, it's a white-water creek tumbling across some attractive large granite boulders. There are deep pools and it's pleasant enough for a swim. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
Another pleasant waterfall is Suoi Tranh (admission 1000d, motorbike 1000d), which is reachable by a 10-minute walk through the forest from the ticket counter.
Phu Quoc's poor soil and lack of surface water have disappointed farmers for generations, although their grief has been the island's environmental salvation. About 90% of the island is forested and the trees now enjoy official protection. Indeed, this is the last large stand of forest in the south. The forest is most dense in the northern half of the island. The area is a forest reserve (Khu Rung Nguyen Sinh). You'll need a motorbike or mountain bike to get into the reserve. There are a few primitive dirt roads, but no real hiking trails.
Off the southern tip of Phu Quoc are the tiny An Thoi Islands (Quan Dao An Thoi). These 15 islands and islets can be visited by chartered boat, and it's a fine area for sightseeing, fishing, swimming and snorkel-ling. Hon Thom (Pineapple Island) is about 3km in length and is the largest island in the group. Other islands here include Hon Dua (Coconut Island), Hon Roi (Lamp Island), Hon Vang (Echo Island), Hon May Rut (Cold Cloud Island), Hon Dam (Shadow Island), Chan Qui (Yellow Tortoise) and Hon Mong Tay (Short Gun Island). Most boats depart from An Thoi on Phu Quoc, but you can make arrangements through hotels in Duong Dong. The Tropicana Resort has a large boat for charter that can make the trip directly from Long Beach. You can also inquire at Rainbow Divers (see below). Boat charters are seasonal and generally do not run during the rainy season.
Though Nha Trang gets the biggest billing as Vietnam's best dive destination, diving opportunities also abound around Phu Quoc - but only during the dry months of November to May. The reputable Rainbow Divers has a dive centre on the island and offers a wide range of diving and snorkelling trips. Find it at Saigon-Phu Quoc Resort.
Other dive outfits are Coco Dive Center ( 58 Đ Tran Hung Dao) and Vietnam Explorer ( 36 Đ Tran Hung Dao). A two-tank dive costs around US$45; snorkelling trips run US$20.
There are several places to rent kayaks along Bai Sao beach, and its protected, fairly calm waters make for a smooth ride. In addition to locals who hire out boats, you can ask at either restaurant along the beach: My Lan (Tell: 990 779) and Ai Xiem (Tell: 990 510). You can expect to pay around 60,000d per hour.
On an isolated stretch of Long Beach, Phu Quoc Pearls is a requisite stop if you're shopping for pearls. A small shop sells pear) necklaces and earrings, and wall panels describe (in English) how the oysters yield their goods. There's a tiny cafe on site. Avid pearl hunters can find cheaper wares at kiosks in the village of Ham Ninh.
Being an island and an economically marginal area of Vietnam, Phu Quoc was useful to the French colonial administration - chiefly as a prison. The Americans took over where the French left off and as a consequence Phu Quoc was used to house about 40,000 VC prisoners. The island's main penal colony was known as the Coconut Tree Prison (Nha Lao Cay Dua) and is near An Thoi town. Though it's considered an historic site, plans to open a museum here have been stalled. It's
still used as a prison, so not surprisingly, few visitors come to check it out.
According to the tourist brochures, Duong Dong's main attraction is Cau Castle (Dinh Cau; admission free). In fact, it's not so much a castle as a combination temple and lighthouse. It was built in 1937 to honour Thien Hau (Goddess of the Sea), who provides protection for sailors and fishermen. The castle is worth a quick look and gives you a good view of the harbour entrance. Around sunset, locals stroll along the promenade leading from the castle to the decrepit Huong Bien Hotel.
OK, so it's not your average sightseeing attraction, but more than a few have enjoyed a visit to the distillery ( admission free; 8-11am & 1-5pm) of Nuoc Mam Hung Thanh, the largest of Phu Quoc's fish-sauce makers. At first glance, the giant wooden vats may make you think you've arrived for a wine tasting, bus one sniff of the festering nuoc mam essence brings you right hack to reality (it's actually not so bad after a few minutes). Most of the sauce produced is exported to the mainland for domestic consumption, though a surprising amount finds its way abroad to kitchens in Japan, the USA, Canada and France.
The factory is a short walk from the markets in Duong Dong. There is no admission charge to visit, though you'd be best off taking a guide along unless you speak Vietnamese. Keep in mind that although nuoc mam makes a wonderful gift for your distant relatives, you may not be able to take it out of the country. Vietnam Airlines, among other carriers, has banned it from its planes.
Your best bet for booking tours is through your hotel, as there's no local tourism authority in Duong Dong. Most travellers get around the island by hired motorbike. There are a handful of English-speaking motorbike guides on the island, the most notorious of whom is Tony (Tell: 091 319 7334). Raised by a US military family. Tony speaks a distinctive breed of Ai Pacino English that could easily land him a role in the next Sopranos episode.
Depending on the tourist load. prices for Phu Quoc's hotels and resorts are very much negotiable. Between late December and early January, accommodation fills up fast, so it's advisable to book well in advance. At last count, more than two dozen resorts littered the sands of Long Beach. Most hotels provide free transport to and from the airport; inquire when you book.
Khach San A74 ( 72 Đ Tran Hung Dao; r 150,000-250,000d) This plain but friendly hotel is a good fallback option. It has clean, modern, sizable rooms, some with sea views.
Lam Ha Eco Resort ( r/bungalow US$12/15; Friendly, family-run Lam Ha is excellent value for money, with trim and tidy rooms and bungalows (some with verandas) scattered around a lush setting.
Tropicana Resort (d US$15, bungalows US$35-70;The unassumingly pretty Tropicana is the kind of oasis you might need after a rough ferry ride. Attractive, handsomely furnished bungalows, all with veranda, face around the garden or the sea, and friendly English- and French-speaking staff give a warm welcome. Rates include breakfast.
Beach Club Run by an English-Vietnamese couple, this laid-back spot provides great value for the money. Accommo dations are in rustic but cosy sea-fronting bungalows (with hot water) or simpler rooms (with cold water). The owner is a great source of local info. There's a pleasant beachside restaurant.
Sea Star Resort r US$20. bungalow US$30-38; New in 2005, this resort features pleasant, modern, yellow bungalows, all with individual porches; the best are just a few feet from the sea. Rooms are simple, clean and tidy.
Kim Hoa Resort ( r US$22-32, bungalow US$22-35; This popular guesthouse has wooden-sided bungalows (some overlooking the ocean) and rooms opening onto a garden. Accommodations are clean and nicely outfitted.
Thien Hai Son Resort ( 68 Đ Tran Hung Dao; r US$32-35, bungalow USS42-44; This green-hued complex has comfortable, airy rooms and trim, tidy bungalows, some with sea view. There are massage .services, a tennis court and a pool. Breakfast included.
Sasco Blue Lagoon Resort ( s/d from US$80/100, bungalow US$100-140; New in 2006, this high-end resort offers trim, attractively furnished rooms and bungalows - all with balconies Spa services available.
Saigon-Phil Quoc Resort (1 Đ Tran Hung Dao; r US$95 190; Attractive rooms here are in villa-type houses, and have good views overlooking the beach. Rates include buffet breakfast; book through the website for significant deals.
Down a narrow road to the beach, 1km south of Tropicana, is a string of family-run bungalows and guesthouses as well as a few high-end options:
Thanh Hai ( r/bungaiow from US$4/6; One of the best deals on the island, this peaceful, family-run spot in the woods has clean and simple rooms and bungalows.
Nhat lan ( bungalow US$8) Run by a kind family, Nhat Lan has comfortable concrete bungalows with thatch-roots; there are hammocks for relaxing and a pleasant restaurant.
La Veranda (r/villafromUS$140/210; Phu Quoc's fanciest resort, la Veranda has airy, stylish rooms with all the creature comforts and top-notch service. There's also a spa and the island's best restaurant (mains US$12 to US$15).
Although it is rockier and less beautiful than Long Beach, Ong Lang Beach, 7km north of Duong Dong near the hamlet of Ong Lang, is unquestionably less crowded and quieter.
Phu Quoc Resort Thang Loi (bungalows US$15-30) A lovely resort, the Thang Loi has 12 wooden bungalows in a vast open garden setting, under the shade of cashew nut, palm and mango trees. The staff are friendly and the restaurant is cosy. Room rates vary depending on the sixe. Email ahead for reservations.
Mango Bay (bungalows US$25-50) This attractive, relaxed resort offers stylish rooms and bungalows, all with terraces, li's also an eco-friendly resort that uses solar- panels and organic and recycled building materials.
Bo Resort (bungalows US$30-65) Recommended by travellers, this resort with a good restaurant is run by a French-Vietnamese couple.
My Lan (Tell: 990 779; bungalow US$15) Currently the only place to stay on this lovely beach. My Lan rents small, rustic but charming bungalows, each with wood floors, a thatch roof and a cold-water shower and toilet out back. There's a decent restaurant where you can eat fresh seafood and dig your feet into the sand.
Most travellers prefer to stay at the beach, though there are options if Duong Dong town steals your heart.
Hiep Phong Hotel ( 17 Nguyen Trai; r100,000d; A friendly family-run spot of fering clean, tidy rooms with air-conditioning and hot water bathrooms.
My Linn Hotel (9 Nguyen Trai; r with fan/air-con 100,000/130,000d; A few doors down from Hiep Phong, this mimhotel is similar value with new rooms and English-speaking owners.
Although few travellers care to stay in workaday An Thoi, there are some decent options.
Huyn Tham (Khu Pho 1; r with ran/air-con 100,000/150,000d; One of several sparklingly new minihotels on the main toad into town, Huyn Tham has clean, comfortable rooms, some with views over the water, It’s 150m from the ferry pier.
Tuoi Tham (Đ Tran Hung Dao) A popular local place with good food (mains around 10,000d to 30,000d) and welcoming atmosphere on the way from Duong Dong to Long Beach. Outdoor seating.
Le Giang (289 Đ Tran Hung Dao; lunch & dinner) This is very similar to Tuoi Tham in terms of popularity, atmosphere, location and prices. Outdoor seating.
Pho Cali ( 39 Đ Tran Hung Dao; mains 15,000-20,000d; lunch& dinner) This inviting noodle shop serves tasty bowls of pho and hot spring rolls. The English-speaking owner is a good source of island info.
Gop Gio (78 Đ Tran Hung Dao; mains 30,000-50,000d; lunch & dinner) On the main road into Duong Dong, this casual indoor-outdoor eatery has excellent seafood, with fresh, tasty dishes like shrimp with mango and steamed grouper with ginger.
German Biergarten (50 Đ Tran Hung Dao; mains 30,000-80,000d; lunch & dinner) A favourite meeting spot of local expats, this place serves Bockwurst, pork chops, beef goulash and other Teutonic hits, along with German beer in bottles. There's bench-style seating and Johnny Cash singing overhead.
Ai Xiem (Tell: 990 510; Bai Sao; mains 40,000-60,000d; lunch & dinner) Located on the lovely white sands of Bai Sao beach, this is a great, low-key place for fresh seafood (including barbecue fish and fish cooked in clay pot). Tables are on the sands, a few metres from lapping waves. To get here, follow the paved road a few kilometres north of An Thoi and look for the 'My Lan' sign on the right, which leads down a rugged dirt track to the beach.
My Lan (Tell: 990 779; Bai Sao; mains 40,000-60,000d; lunch & dinner) About 400m south of Ai Xiem, My Lan offers equally good seafood and the same beachside allure.
For atmosphere and fine food, check out the seafront terrace restaurants at the Tropi cana Resort and the Kirn Hoa Resort. La Veranda serves excellent dishes in a marvellous setting.
For something a bit more local, try the restaurants in the fishing village of Ham Ninh. There are several along the pier (end of the road), including Kim Cuong I (Tell: 849 978; Ham Ninh; mains 30.000-40.000d).
There are heaps of cheap food stalls all around the market area in Duong Dong.
Run by the same great crew who made this erstwhile Nha Trang institution a legendary good time, the friendly Rainbow Bar is located right on the beach, just south (150m) of Tropicana Resort.
Getting There & Away
Vietnam Airlines has four flights daily between HCMC and Duong Dong, Phu Quoc's main town.
A popular round trip between HCMC and Phu Quoc is to travel overland through the Mekong Delta, taking a ferry to the island from Rach Gia and, when you're finally tanned and rested, taking the short one-hour flight (US$35) back to HCMC.
Numerous companies operate speedy hydrofoils that sail between Rach Gia and Phu Quoc. Boats leave the mainland daily between 7am and 8.30am, and return from Phu Quoc between 12.30pm and 1.30pm. Ticket prices for the 21/2 -hour journey range from 150,000 to 200,000d for adults, and 70,000 to 90,000d for children. Tickets must be purchased in advance - though you can usually find a seat by booking as little as 30 minutes ahead. There are no fast boats going between Ha Tien and Phu Quoc, though dodgy wooden market boats also make the journey.
Hydrofoil companies include Super Dong (Rach Gia Tell: 077-878 475, Phu Quoc 077-980111).Duong Dong Express (Rach Gia. Tell: 077-879 765, Phu Quoc 077-990 747) and Hai Au (Rach Gia. Tell: 077-879 455, Phu Quoc 077-990 555). All have offices by the dock in Rach Gia and in Phu Quoc - both by the An Thoi dock and in Duong Dong. Most travel agents can book passage.
All passenger ferries departing and arriving at Phu Quoc use the port of An Thoi on the southern tip of the island.
Getting Around
Phu Quoc's airport is almost in central Duong Dong. The motorbike drivers at the airport will charge you about US$1 to most hotels in Phu Quoc, but are notorious for trying to cart people off to where they can collect a commission. If you know where you want to go, tell them you've already got a reservation.
If you can ride a bicycle in the tropical heat over these dusty, bumpy roads, more power to you. Bicycle rentals are available through most hotels for about US$1 per day.
there is a skeletal bus service between An Thoi and Duong Dong. Buses run perhaps once every hour or two. A bus (tickets10,000d) waits for the ferry at An Thoi to take passengers to Duong Dong.
You won't have to look tor the motorbike taxis -they'll find you. Some polite bargaining may be necessary. For short runs within the town, 5000d should be sufficient. Otherwise, figure on around 10,000d for about 5km. From Duong Dong to An Thoi will cost you 30,000d.
Motorbikes can be hired from most hotels and bungalows lor around US$7 per day though some of these bikes are fairly dodgy; inspect thoroughly before setting out. Por pricier but very reliable motorbikes inquire at Pho Cali (Tell: 994 177; 39 Đ Tran Hung Dao; per day from 250,000d).