PHU QUOC

Fringed with white-sand beaches and with large tracts still covered in dense, tropical jungle, Phu Quoc has been quickly morphing from a sleepy backwater to a favored beach escape of Western expats and sun-seeking tourists. Beyond the chain of resorts lining Long Beach, it’s still largely undeveloped – and unlike Phuket, to which it aspires, you won’t find a lot to do here after dark. Opt instead for daytime adventures by diving the reefs, kayaking in the bays or exploring the back roads on a motorbike – or live the life of a lotus eater by lounging on the beach, indulging in a massage and dining on fresh seafood. The tear-shaped island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, 45km west of Ha Tien and 15km south of the coast of Cambodia. At 48km long (with an area of 1320 sq km), Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and one of its most politically contentious: Phu Quoc is claimed by Cambodia who call it Koh Tral and this explains why the Vietnamese have built a substantial military base covering much of the northern end of the island. It was only granted to Vietnam by the French in 1949, as part of the formal annexation of the Mekong Delta. Phu Quoc is not really part of the Mekong Delta and doesn’t share the delta’s extraordinary ability to produce rice. The most valuable crop is black pepper, but the islanders here have traditionally earned their living from the sea. Phu Quoc is also famous in Vietnam for its production of high-quality fish sauce (nuoc mam). The island has some unusual hunting dogs, which have ridgebacks, curly tails and blue tongues and are said to be able to pick up their masters’ scent from over one kilometer away (the nuoc mam their masters eat probably helps). Unfortunately, the dogs have decimated much of the island’s wildlife. Despite impending development (a new international airport, a golf course and a casino), much of this island is still protected since becoming a national park in 2001. Phu Quoc National Park covers close to 70% of the island, an area of 31,422 hectares. Phu Quoc’s rainy season is from July to November. The peak season for tourism is midwinter, when the sky is blue and the sea is calm, but it can get pretty damn hot around April and May. At the time of research, several major road projects seemed to be stalled – leaving a confusing hodgepodge of incomplete roads and diversions crisscrossing the island. Until such time as they’re completed, our maps (and everyone else’s) will be slightly off. Expect a bit of confusion while you’re scooting around the island – but rest assured you’re unlikely to get lost for long. It’s a relatively small island, after all.

 

Phu Quoc Island served as a base for the French missionary Pigneau de Behaine during the 1760s and 1780s. Prince Nguyen Anh, who later became Emperor Gia Long, was sheltered here by Behaine when he was being hunted by the Tay Son rebels. Being a relatively remote and forested island (and an economically marginal area of Vietnam), Phu Quoc was useful to the French colonial administration as a prison. The prison’s harsh conditions are well remembered in HCMC’s War Remnants Museum, with displays and re-creations. The Americans took over where the French left offend housed about 40,000 VC prisoners here. The island’s main penal colony, which is still in use today, was known as the Coconut Tree Prison (Nha Lao Cay Dua) and is near An Thoi town. Though it’s considered an historic site, plans to open a museum here have stalled.

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