THE MEKONG DELTA || PHU QUOC ISLAND
Located just 15km off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, PHU QUOC ISLAND rises from its slender southern tip like a genie released from a bottle. Virtually unknown by outsiders a decade ago, it has now cast a spell on enough visitors, with its soft-sand beaches, swaying palms and limpid waters, to challenge Nha Trang as Vietnam’s top beach destination. Spanning 46km from north to south, it’s Vietnam’s largest offshore island (593 square kilometres), though Cambodia also claims the island, calling it Ko Tral. Phu Quoc is just 45km from Ha Tien, and a little under 120km from Rach Gia.
The topography and vegetation are quite unlike the rest of the delta, and give the place a totally different feel. Phu Quoc’s isolation made it an attractive hiding place for two of the more famous figures from Vietnam’s past. Nguyen Anh holed up here while on the run from the Tay Son brothers in the late eighteenth century, and so too, in the 1860s, did Nguyen Trung Truc. Today, over eighty thousand people – and a sizeable population of indigenous dogs (recognizable by a line of hair running up the spine instead of down) – dwell on the island, famous throughout Vietnam for its black pepper and its fish sauce (nuoc mam), which is graded like olive oil.
Like Mui Ne, Phu Quoc is a favourite bolt-hole for expats living in Ho Chi Minh City and, with work almost complete on an international airport in the centre of the island, slated to open in 2012, its future looks rosy. Yet while resorts and bars are springing up fast and access roads are being sealed, for the moment Phu Quoc still retains something of a pioneer outpost feel. Many places can only be reached via dirt tracks and the beaches are largely free of vendors. In the rainy season (May–Oct) Phu Quoc is relatively quiet, and room rates become more easily negotiable, though in peak season (Dec–Jan), accommodation prices can increase sharply and advance booking is necessary.
Snorkelling and diving
There’s a reason why visitors come in droves from November to May, and why resorts raise their rates then. It’s because during those months the waters surrounding the island become limpid and ideal for diving and snorkelling. Some visitors snorkel optimistically in front of resorts on Ong Lang Beach, but the best locations are around the An Thoi Islands to the south or Turtle Island off the northwest coast, both of which can be visited by boat trip from Phu Quoc. At these reefs – the former of which is rated by some as the best dive site in Vietnam – you can float above brain and fan corals, watching parrot fish, scorpion fish, butterfly fish, huge sea urchins and a host of other marine life.
Exploring the interior
Phu Quoc is the kind of island that is ideal for exploration, and there is little traffic, making it easy to ride a motorbike around. Over seventy percent of the island is forested at present, and the hills of the north are particularly verdant. If you do this, be aware that few roads are surfaced, so you are likely to return to your resort at the end of the day covered in a film of red dust – wearing a helmet is compulsory and a face-mask is a good idea too.
All over the island, and especially in the north, you will pass by pepper plantations, the plants easily identifiable as climbers on three-metre-high poles – at places like Khu Tuong, a few kilometres inland from Ong Lang Beach; they welcome visitors to look around. There are also two cleansing streams in the centre of Phu Quoc: Suoi Da Ban and Suoi Tranh. A walk beside them reveals moss-covered boulders, tangled vines and small cascades, though they tend to dry up between January and May, when the trip is not worth it.
THE HEROICS OF NGUYEN TRUNG TRUC
From 1861 to 1868, Nguyen Trung Truc spearheaded anti-French guerrilla activities in the western region of the delta: statues in the centre of Rach Gia and at the temple dedicated to him depict him preparing to unsheathe his sword and harvest a French head. In 1861, he masterminded the attack that culminated in the firing of the French warship Esperance; as a wanted man, he was forced to retreat to Phu Quoc, from where he continued to oversee the campaign. Only after the French took his mother hostage in 1868 did he turn himself in and in October of the same year he was executed by a firing squad in the centre of Rach Gia. Defiant to the last, his final words could have been lifted from a Ho Chi Minh speech: “So long as grass still grows on the soil of this land, people will continue to resist the invaders.”