This is a guest post written by Nikhil Gonsalves. When he’s not using his luggage, he tries to sell you some – Nikhil manages the Digital Marketing for Samsonite India. You can follow him on Instagram at gudbudguy.
Naina: Lombok is closed in March – it’s raining!
Naina: Let’s go to Vietnam. We’ve both never been.
Naina: But we still need to have adventure!
And so we Google searched “Best beach in Vietnam”. Yes I know, not too imaginative but we knew what we were looking for – an idyllic, but not so popular, beach destination in Vietnam. A few phone calls to friends always seemed to throw us the same suggestions like Nha Trang, Hanoi and Halong Bay. We wanted something relatively unknown. A few searches later we stumbled upon Phu Quoc Island and after much mulling and a heap of skepticism, Naina and I decided that it was well worth the risk. If the images were anything to go by, we’d be in for a proper island adventure.
A 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City took us straight to the heart of Phu Quoc Island. We landed at the spanking new Phu Quoc International Airport, built in anticipation of the inevitable tourism surge. The maximum baggage allowance of only seven kilograms per passenger ensured that traveling light was mandatory and for good reason – you don’t really need much more than your backpack, swim shorts, sunscreen and a really good pair of shades.
Our hotel, the Famiana Village Resort, was a short 10-minute drive from the airport. Because it was situated near the fishing village of Duong Dong, we were never far away from a street lined with bars and places to eat. We promptly asked for a motorbike to be arranged. With the bike showing up in a little less than 15 minutes, a map in hand and super helpful resort staff telling us all about the things to see and do on the island, we were finally set!
The sun set pretty early – 6pm everyday – as we’d soon find out. We had just enough time to fuel up and ride to the main Duong Dong township area where prep for the daily night market was in full swing. By then we were just happy to be riding a bike on the island without an agenda. We decided to head back to the room, freshen up and come back for a meal. With a night market at your doorstep, why would you eat anywhere else?
Crab in tamarind sauce with a side of island-manufactured salt & pepper and sliced lemon was hands down the first and best meal of the trip. Naina played it safe with some coconut water since she’s allergic to shell fish and pretty much every utensil had a splattering of some kind of seafood on it (not to mention that she’d already eaten a sweetish waffle crepe and some gelato!). By the way, did I tell you how soft, succulent, sweet, tangy and peppery that crab was? Recalling that dish is making me bloody salivate!
We tucked in early-ish pretty much every night. In fact the entire island seemed to, save for Rory’s Bar but more on that later. The next morning we were, rather I was, up by 8:30am (Naina really, really enjoys her sleep). Breakfast was always on point, a lovely daily spread comprised of noodle soup, a sausage preparation, potatoes, fresh fruits and juices, freshly baked bread, pancakes, waffles, cereal and eggs to order – the whole shebang! The noodle soup had a different meat mixed in on all four days, but it was the flavourful broth that did the trick every morning.
Pictures of Bai Sao beach, located on the South-Eastern shore, were the only reason why we reached this point. Making our way down the coast along the West side, we traversed a road that transformed from smooth paved to gravel to a mud track to a construction site and finally to a highway. We stopped a couple of times. The first was at a small shack for a quick beer and a dip in the ocean to cool off. The second was a – “look at that, what is that, let’s stop!” stop. In front of us was a man-made rocky path that led straight into the ocean. Stops like these added incremental amounts of awesomeness and slowly but surely made our decision of coming to Phu Quoc seem like the right one. And we hadn’t even reached Bai Sao yet.
A couple hours into our ride, back on the main highway was a small nondescript left turn that the locals promised would take us to Bai Sao. After ten minutes of riding down a very bumpy gravel path, we finally made it! There it was – Bai Sao. Two hours on the bike had taken its toll on our backs, but the sight of the “only seen on the internet” surf peering through the shacks got the adrenaline pumping and made the soreness disappear in a second.
We couldn’t believe our eyes. I’m serious, I hate to use hyperboles, but there is no way to comprehend the sheer beauty of this particular beach. White sand – check; turquoise water – check; chilled beer – check. Pictures will do the rest. Thank you.
The next few hours were spent switching between sipping, snacking, frolicking in the ocean and sleeping. Snacking was garlic fried rice, grilled scallops and grilled beef salad, all served with a side of the inimitable Vietnamese dipping sauce. Yes, I am Indian and I love rice. It makes me feel…good. Fish sauce manufacturing and peppercorn farming are the island’s mainstay and are therefore ingredients in most preparations. They fortunately add just the right amount of bite and tanginess to every dish. And are also conducive to a good siesta!
Content with our day and knowing full well that the sun would set at six, we decided to head back. A massage on the beach was the perfect end to the tiring, fun-filled day. Naina’s masseuse asked if she had been to Bai Sao beach that day. Amazed, Naina asked how she made such an accurate guess. Apparently white powdery sand was unique to Bai Sao beach and Naina had plenty of it on her feet.
We spent another day at Bai Sao but not before a pretty scary bike ride through some forest. On our third morning, we decided to explore the North and headed straight for Cape Ganh Dau. After asking a couple of locals for directions, only to be met with blank stares and the occasional warm but equally unhelpful ear-to-ear grin, we were back on the newly constructed main highway that was flanked by peppercorn farms. Naina was anxious about riding but was at her happiest when she finally took control of the handlebars.
We eventually spotted a sign that indicated we needed to turn left except the road had now turned to dust. We were on a proper off-road, dirt track with pebbles and rocks for the next twenty kilometres. There were barely any signs of human life. We counted all of eight people on our way through the forest, all headed in the opposite direction. The thought, “I hope we don’t skid, fall and get eaten by something that’s attracted to the smell of fresh blood” whizzed through my head for a second. Adventure on!
Slightly sore from the ride, we finally reached and decided that a quick dip would do us some good. The Cape was pretty stunning but our standards for “awe-inspiring” had been re-calibrated with the prior day’s visit to Bai Sao. The next couple of hours were spent being a beach bum. Before we left, however, we strolled on the beach, lay down on some rocks and spent some time staring at neighboring Cambodia.
Our ride back to the Duong Dong area was straight out of a novel. Beach hopping was always on the to-do list, right from planning Lombok, and boy did we check that off. Our first stop was at Vung Beach, another idyllic strip of sand with a scattering of tourists. The water was absolutely brilliant, definitely my second favourite spot on the island. After a quick snack and mandatory dip, we rode twenty minutes down to Ong Lang Beach, the site of our first pick for a place to stay, Mango Bay. In retrospect we were lucky that it was booked out. Don’t get me wrong, the property was tastefully done and blended into the natural surroundings, but it was a bit cut off. A 30-minute ride into town – where the real action was – was not something we would have relished. Sour grapes or not, you can visit and decide.
Fast forward to our last night, where we finally made it to the very well-marketed Rory’s Bar. Run by an elderly Australian gentleman, Rory, this place is as lively as it gets on the island. And by that I mean there were about fifty-odd people, straight relaxing and sipping on cocktails while sitting around a bonfire. Our German waiter was just out of college and supported his and his girlfriend’s travels around the world by doing odd jobs at each destination. They had handed us flyers on the beach earlier that evening. That, coupled with an encounter with Rory himself at the night market, ensured we’d visit. Rory’s was a good attempt at a lively nightspot, but the beach vibe was deeply entrenched in everyone. No amount of poppy club music was going to get anyone to dance. People were in chill mode – a situation that makes it easy for DJs to get annoying quickly and easily. Thankfully Rory’s kept it just right.
With Wi-Fi in our resort room, gentrification a few years away and bikes being the preferred mode of transport for both locals and tourists, Phu Quoc provided the perfect mix of timelessness, class beaches, superb seafood and creature comforts. The island vibe was intact, for now. We did see a lot of signs tom-toming the rise of impending mega-structures and massive hotel developments. It was pretty sad and a bit scary. The Vietnamese have a real treasure here and we hope it stays relatively untouched for as long as possible. Getting the locals to be a part of the impending tourism surge will be crucial to maintaining the feel of this island wonder.
Saying bye-bye with a sense of calm and heavy hearts, we boarded our JetStar flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. What a trip, what an island!