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Fah Thai Magazine Jan-Feb 2018

PHU QUOC F rom the

PHU QUOC F rom the plane, the lush green of nature strikes you when descending into Phu Quoc – Vietnam’s largest island just off the Gulf of Thailand. A hotspot for beach and outdoor lovers, Phu Quoc races toward transformation with fast-paced and mega-infrastructure construction. Paved roads are being built to connect the entire island, and five-star resorts settle on many stretches of its beautiful beaches. But more than half of Phu Quoc’s unspoiled nature is strictly preserved as part of the Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve and protected with a UNESCO designation. This is an island with two worlds: one existing in its original greenness, and the other one possessing world-class beachfront accommodations. Visitors can explore scenic farms with abundant pepper plants. Farm tours with friendly staffers educate visitors on understanding quality pepper. When the Vietnamese government listed Phu Quoc in its National Tourism Master Plan more than a dozen years ago, locals immediately felt the changes. Over the past five years, the island has changed very rapidly into quite a tourist destination. Most visitors to Vietnam need a visa to enter the country, but not if Phu Quoc is listed as one of the destinations. Huge investments are approved in a rapid manner to provide sound infrastructure on the island. Undersea high voltage 110kv cables have been laid to provide much- needed stability to the island’s once sporadic electricity supplies. The island’s water treatment plants - worth almost US$100 million – have been in the works. The new airport opened in 2012 and has already seen additional expansion. It will soon service larger aircrafts by the time the island expects to welcome as many as three million visitors per year by 2020. We drove by Phu Quoc’s old Duong Dong airport on our way to the famous pepper and bee farms up north. Construction has levelled out some areas into stretches of emptiness awaiting development, with roads leading to the airport used conveniently as shortcuts for locals going between the seaside and inland. The front end of the abandoned airstrip is now dotted with fruit trucks, mainly colourful 6-wheelers and open-through beds piled high with local fruits. Among them are durians ferried over from the Mekong Delta. The newly-built roads mean easier passage from north to south of this big island of almost 600 square kilometres. Phu Quoc’s developed centre is ‘Duong Dong’ which had early establishments of hotels, banks, and shops that used to cater backpackers. The river running through this area makes it a vibrant living port. Fishing has always been and still is Phu Quoc’s main industry. The island is famed for its naturally aromatic and high-protein fish sauce, still largely made from tons of anchovies steeped at least for two years in salt and water. Of the island’s many fish sauce factories, four cater to tours and tasting. Go to one of the local restaurants for Vietnamese spring rolls - fresh or deep-fried - and dip it into their famous fish sauce. Most locals you meet on Phu Quoc are descendants of fishermen on the island. Our chatty guide Danny could talk endlessly on how changes on the island in recent years dramatically impacted his family and day-to-day lifestyle, all said with an understandable mix of pride and dread. “I was still in the generation that had to travel to the mainland for a higher education,” said our local guide, who’s 25. “But now, Phu Quoc is seeing a new foreigninvested hospitality university and my younger brother who is now in a local high school can choose to get an education here, or venture onto the mainland like I did. Life should be easier for him with more education and jobs on the island in the near future. I got it a bit rough living away from family back then.” Adventurous Europeans first discovered Phu Quoc over 20 years ago. They were drawn to its remote, Clockwise from Top Right A real eating town, freshness guaranteed. Phu Quoc produces fish sauce prized by Vietnamese households. Visitors on ecotours learn about honey bee conservation at bee farms. Pearl farms show how oysters create these little ‘gems’. true far-away destination. Clear, unspoiled emerald-green beaches were a big magnet. Before direct flights from Bangkok became available, people who flew to Phu Quoc needed a full day’s journey that included a long layover in Ho Chi Minh City. Now, you can even fly in directly from Scandinavia countries and London. There are also daily ferries from Phu Quoc to seaport cities like Ha Tien and Rach Gia that are south of Vietnam. Long beach, not too far south from Duong Dong, caters to many tourists with its extensive stretch of beach – full of beachfront resorts, bars, and restaurants - both local favourites and ones catering to tourists. The island’s famed night market is also there, just under the main bridge and opposite the town’s main fresh market. It is quite easy to get around, with options of a metred taxi, a private tour or a scooter rental. And like other parts of Vietnam, ear-splitting honking is the roadside norm. The cacophony is enough to remind you of Phu Quoc’s rapid ascension on the hot list of getaways. Luckily, there’s also the option for a quiet escape to its protected nature. TO-DOS: Phu Quoc is also famed for ecotourism and tourists can roam around sampling away –from the fish sauce factories in Duong Dong area all the way to the north, which is abundant with pepper farms, bee farms and sim or rose myrtle wine factories. At Phu Quoc Countryside, the farm-stay pepper farm has good facilities - including their own restaurant and draft beer brewery. The sim plant is wild and abundant in Phu Quoc’s forests, and from that comes an island specialty. Sim wines – ranging from light enough to be 36 37