Vietnam: Standing still in time

By Jacqueline Le

Vietnam's Phu Quoc is what Phuket was 40 years ago. But it won't last, says Jacqueline Le.
Phu Quoc's beaches are a well kept secret, but that's set to change as the Vietnamese Government pushes to turn the country into the most popular tourist destination in Asia. Photo / Thinkstock
Phu Quoc's beaches are a well kept secret, but that's set to change as the Vietnamese Government pushes to turn the country into the most popular tourist destination in Asia. Photo / Thinkstock

What's the price of freedom?

In Phu Quoc it's roughly $8.

That's how much it costs to rent the scooter we use to make our way through dense, tropical forest to the white sand beaches on this small Vietnamese island.

As we park our yellow Honda at the edge where soil becomes sand and start thinking about a lock, it hits us.

There's no need to ward against possible theft. No one else is here. It's just us and the clear blue water.

A secluded paradise is the best way to describe this teardrop-shaped isle in the Gulf of Thailand.

Phu Quoc needs to be seen to be believed, but you better do it quickly because it's on the cusp of change.

This 48km long island off the coast of Vietnam is actually closer to Cambodia, but was given to the Vietnamese by the French in 1949 when colonial Indochina annexed the Mekong Delta.

I'm told Phu Quoc (pronounced "foo qwock") is what Phuket was like 40 years ago, before the Thai province became a major tourist attraction full of bars, hotels and stumbling backpackers. For the moment there's not a single fast food store or major hotel chain here, but it won't stay this way for long.

This idyllic island is part of the Vietnam Government's plan to turn the country into the most popular tourist destination in Asia. It's still a year or two away from achieving this, but already some of Phu Quoc's unpaved tracks have been transformed into bitumen roads, and sections of the forest have been cleared to make way for large resort complexes.

There's even a shiny new international airport primed for an influx of package tours.

To add to this, the Government in September approved a proposal for a casino which will reportedly house 2000 slot machines once built. But most of the people who come here on holiday don't want the sleepy backwater to evolve into a busy tourist trap.

It's hard to imagine Phu Quoc's innocent fishing villages and dusty red tracks will one day be overrun by tourists. Roughly 70 per cent of the island is a protected natural reserve, leaving only 30 per cent for human activity.

Hopefully, development won't drive away the simple coastal villages as families here have for generations relied on the ocean for their livelihoods. The warm water lapping against the rugged coastline is teaming with black anchovies, used to make high-quality nuoc mam or fish sauce.

Unlike wine in France, there's nothing romantic about the way this amber-coloured liquid is produced. The robust, almost stifling aroma of fish forces us to cover our nose and mouth when we ride past the factory. But used in soups, marinades and diluted in sauces, its fishiness mellows out to the earthy taste of umami - that elusive je ne sais quoi savoury flavour. The so-called fifth taste.

It's not the only seasoning produced on the island.

En route to the island's southern tip, we pass fields full of bright green, column-like plants which villagers tell us are pepper vines. Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of the spice, but Phu Quoc is home to the finest black pepper.

We forgo the chance to buy a packet of the famous peppercorns in favour of a dirt track that takes us to Bai Sao beach, towards the southern tip.

Getting there is tricky, and the free tourist map is at best a guide, but the locals tell us it's worth it.

It's fun exploring small villages on a scooter, being greeted by the excited waves and hellos from local kids.

There are bemused smiles from mothers sweeping their front step when they see us slow down and ask for directions, and Phu Quoc's native ridgeback dogs stare and bark before they are quickly admonished.

After a few wrong turns, we find the opening we've been told to look out for, partially hidden by overhanging branches.

We beat a path through the foliage and follow a bumpy trail of orange dirt until the smooth, turquoise surface of the Gulf of Thailand comes into view.

Our bikes are quickly silenced, taken over by the squeak of bare feet on sugary white sand and the ecstatic whoop of an explorer who's discovered gold.

Best $8 I've ever spent.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Phu Quoc is a 50-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Ferries leave the mainland city of Rach Gia, which is a two-and-a-half hour trip away, daily.

Accommodation: Options range from budget hotels to luxury resorts. High season runs from October to March. Sirena Resort near the island's town centre of Duong Dong has private bungalows.

Top tip: Renting a scooter or motorbike to explore the island is easy; just walk into a rental shop or ask your accommodation to organise one. Make sure your travellers' insurance covers it. Go kayaking, snorkelling or trek Phu Quoc's national park as part of a tour, or bring your own equipment.

- AAP

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