Phu Quoc is a delightful spot with an unfortunate name. While some say “faux cock” (which reminds me of a fake rooster, or worse) and others attempt a potty-mouthed “poo wok”, the correct pronunciation of this Vietnamese island, which sits off the coast of Cambodia, is “foo kwuk”. Learn it now because this tear-shaped island is poised to become south-east Asia’s next big thing.
I’m on AirAsia’s inaugural flight from Kuala Lumpur to Phu Quoc Island, the new route confirming the heightened interest in this little-known archipelago. To make entry even easier, tourists can stay visa-free for 30 days.
The final descent brings us over a swathe of blue: an indigo scarf laced with white sand and fringed with palm trees. Phu Quoc is the largest island in an area made up of 28 islands, most of which are uninhabited or can be reached only by boat as day trips. One exception is Hon Thom, often referred to as pineapple island, which can now be reached by cable car.
Opened in February 2018, the 7.9 kilometre cable, said to be the world’s longest non-stop three-rope cable car, connects the southern tip of Phu Quoc to the district’s second largest island.
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A “build it and they will come” initiative of Vietnamese entertainment brand Sun World, this little pineapple is set to become a megastar, boasting a water park (April, 2019), theme park (April 2020) and aquarium (April, 2021). For now, it remains largely unspoilt: an arc of sugar-white sand lapped by azure waters, a couple of stalls selling grilled seafood, a beachside restaurant, gift shop and water activities. The main drawcard is the snorkelling and diving tours to the 14 islands of the remote An Thoi archipelago.
The cable car ride is a thrilling 30-minute flight across uninhabited islands, rising like an eagle then swooping low before leap-frogging across the blue expanse dotted with fishing boats. The tide of tourism is on its way, but fishing remains the island’s most important industry.
We learn just how important when we visit the Phung Hung fish factory, just one of the many family-run businesses that have been producing fish sauce for more than a hundred years. Thanks to the plankton-rich waters and a native anchovy known as ca com, Phu Quoc fish sauce is as vital to Vietnam as tequila is to Mexico. In fact, in 2012 it was awarded the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
We smell the acrid vats before we see them, row after row of silo-sized casks where tonnes of anchovy are mixed with salt and left to ferment for 12 months. “The vats are made from the boi loi tree, which is found only on Phu Quoc,” explains our guide Cong as he gives us a small thimbleful of sauce to taste.
From a centuries-old product we are catapulted into the island’s bright future at the newly opened Premier Village Phu Quoc Resort. Once the domain of backpackers, Phu Quoc has developed a rash of new resorts over the last five years. While there are genuine concerns that the island will be spoilt by rampant development, the low-rise Premier Village fits snugly into the environment rather than presiding over it.
Managed by AccorHotels and opened in April 2018 this beachfront, all-villa resort is located at the end of Ong Doi Cape on the far south-east of the island. Comprising 217 one to four-bedroom villas – each with its own swimming pool, full kitchen and en suite bathroom for each bedroom – the peninsula location gives a sense of an exclusive beach getaway.
We take a late afternoon drive to the east coast, stopping at Ham Ninh floating fishing village before heading to Sim Wine Factory for a tour and tasting. This unique wine is made from fruit of the rose myrtle tree, hand-plucked from Phu Quoc’s forests and fermented from a recipe used by one of Vietnam’s ethnic groups who live in the country’s Central Highlands. While the 2 per cent is smooth and refreshing, the 29 per cent looks like blackcurrant juice, tastes like moonshine and kicks like a buffalo.
Our final nights are spent on the more developed west coast at Novotel Phu Quoc Resort, another Accor property with 366 rooms, suites and bungalows on Truong Beach. While the Novotel offers a plethora of resort-based activities – kids’ club, day spa, cooking classes – its real strength is its easy access to the unspoilt northern region of the island.
Almost 50 per cent of Phu Quoc is protected as a national park set within Vietnam’s Unesco-designated Kien Giang Biosphere, a 25,899-hectare reserve that protects not just the forest, but the extensive seagrass ecosystems, coastal mudflats, coral reefs and lakes. I, too, have concerns about large-scale development changing the island, but I’m optimistic that this national park, with its future plans for eco-tourism, will be the island’s saving grace.
On a day-excursion to the rugged north we take a sneaky shortcut along an abandoned section of the original airfield, built in the 1930s and further extended during the Vietnam War, to the outskirts of the national park. After a few wrong turns we reach Phu Quoc Countryside, an eight-hectare pepper farm that has tours, tastings and cooking classes. We make our way through the platoon of pepper plants, their tendrils wrapped and tacked to sturdy posts making them look like ranks of khaki-clad soldiers.
“Phu Quoc red and black pepper is the most highly-regarded pepper in Vietnam,” says chef and owner Pham Thi Quynh. “Our secret ingredient is the organic byproducts from the fish sauce factories.”
Later, during a cooking class, we use fruit and vegetables grown on the organic farm to prepare tuna with passionfruit, spicy mango salad and fresh spring rolls with dipping sauce made from the famous Phu Quoc fish sauce. The hand-painted sign at the entrance – “Let’s have free farm tour with us” – the rustic kitchen and shy smiles of the staff hint that tourism is still a novelty in these parts. The brand-new embroidered aprons project optimism for the future.
Optimism is something Phu Quoc has by the bucketful, er, kegful. Wandering back through the farm we stumble on a brewery, its “Kinh Beer” sign decidedly out of place in a pepper plantation. The whim of a scientist called Professor Kinh, the brewery is produces a dark and blonde beer for local restaurants.
If you missed Bali or Phuket before the hordes, now is your chance to be that traveller who visited Phu Quoc before it, too, changed. To say, I remember when the wine was made from flowers and Kinh was the only beer. And most importantly, you’ll know how to pronounce this delightful island’s disarming name.
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of AccorHotels, Novotel Phu Quoc Resort, Premier Village and AirAsia
Superior rooms at the Novotel Phu Quoc Resort start from $110. VAT not included. See novotelphuquoc.com
Two-bedroom villas at Premier Village Phu Quoc Resort start from $491, including breakfast. VAT not included. See premiervillage-phuquoc.com
The Hon Thom cable car costs 300,000 VND (NZ$18) an adult, return. See honthom.sunworld.vn
Phu Quoc Countryside pepper farm is about 14 kilometres north of Duong Dong
Sim Wine Factory has tours and tastings. See phuquocislandguide.com/sim-wine/