Just down from Vinpearl Land is Grand World. It’s just extravagant signage at the moment and an enormous plot of semi-cleared land, but from the look of it this latest development is set to be competition to the Disneyesque theme park set up by the Vin Group next door.
That the Vin Group has taken over large swathes of land on Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s one piece of tropical paradise in the Gulf of Thailand, says much about how this island is being viewed in the circles of power. The largest ‘entertainment complex’ developer in the country and a key business component of that circle, their present expansion of operations goes hand in hand with the latest developments. One such hub of development is Phu Quoc.
Add to this visa-free entry courtesy of the international airport, and an exponential growth of tourists — both domestic and international — and this once sleepy backwater famed for its seafood, fish sauce, pepper and ridgeback hunting dogs is turning into a getaway matching the delights of Koh Samui, Langkawi and even Boracay. At least, that’s the idea. No surprise then that the ongoing theme of this island is change.
One resort built a decade ago — a small bungalow-on-the-beach type of place costing a pittance to set up — just changed hands for over a million dollars. Local landowners (aka fishermen) are selling up their land left, right and something close to centre. Even the navy has shed its hands of a beach area, Bai Khem, in favour of a soon-to-be-completed five-star resort. And of course, with so much money changing hands — almost every plot of seafront land has been bought up — development is everywhere. So much so that it seems to be the one theme that everyone based on the island is talking about. It’s inescapable.
“I’ve only been here a year and a half, but I’ve already seen so much change,” says Virginia, the restaurant manager at rustic resort Mango Bay. Adds the property’s general manager, Ronan Le Bihan: “Where we are used to be described as being in the north. Now with the new road, we’re a suburb of Duong Dong, the main town.”
Duong, one half of the Australian-Vietnamese partnership behind Buddy’s Cafe, puts it in a more metaphorical way. With the push to develop Phu Quoc, stories abound of entrepreneurs from Hanoi arriving with backpacks full of cash, searching out land and opportunities. For Duong, a Phu Quoc local, the gold rush “is like ants coming to a jar of sugar.”
As she says that she shakes her head. Raised on the island she’s not sure what Phu Quoc will become, but she certainly knows it will never be the same.
Adds her husband, Rohan Barker: “They want to make this a golf destination. And for the safari that Vinpearl have built, they’re flying in animals from Australia.” A recent Tuoi Tre report suggests more than just Australia — India and Africa, too. How these ‘safari’ animals will survive in this alien environment, despite it supposedly remaining almost untouched, is another matter.
From what Rohan has heard, it will go further. Due to Phu Quoc being a duty-free island, Vinpearl is going to build a casino. And now that flights from Singapore and Siem Reap have all been cancelled, “they’re targeting the Chinese market, and are going to run chartered flights from China.”
I’ve been to Phu Quoc five times now, the first in March 2000. A Chinese-Vietnamese guy took me under his wing and introduced me to his friends. On 8am on the first morning I ended up in a corrugated iron roof shack in Duong Dong eating raw anchovies rolled up with fresh herbs, banana buds and pickled vegetables in rice paper. Served up with large doses of rice wine, I later learnt the dish was called goi ca trich, a Phu Quoc speciality. By 10am everyone was asleep, me on the hammock, everyone else on mats.
That evening after a dose of on-stage karaoke in front of a 500-strong audience we went for dinner at a fisherman’s hut on the beach. Barbecued squid freshly caught that morning served up with Bia Sai Gon. Using my Vietnamese phrase book I asked where the toilet was and everyone laughed. They eventually pointed to the sand dunes beyond the hut.
I also remember the untouched white-sand Bai Khem as it was in 2000 — still the best beach I’ve ever seen in Vietnam. With not a café or restaurant in sight, the water was so clear that you could even see the jellyfish three, four or five metres before you made contact. I remember going snorkeling on fishing boats, with an on-board fish barbecue for lunch. And I remember riding on motorbikes without helmets along red-earth roads with bumps and ridges and not a inkling of tarmac in sight.
That Phu Quoc of untouched beaches and time-left-behind culture is long gone.
Although the on-stage karaoke is still there, as I pay my VND500,000 to get into Vinpearl’s answer to Disneyland, I find the memories flooding back. The place is incongruous, with its Disney-like castle, train rides, aquarium, rollercoaster and water park. This isn’t the Phu Quoc I once knew.
Yet it would be a mistake to see modern-day Phu Quoc simply in terms of the yet-to-be-completely widened beach road running south of Duong Dong (a mess) or the Disney-style castle and plastic excuse for a theme park created by Vinpearl (the water park and aquarium are excellent, by the way.) This is purely an island in transition from one style to a completely different one and unsurprisingly, nothing is quite as it should be.
There are well over 100 expats living permanently on the island, and thanks to Rohan Barker, on my first night I end up drinking with some of them. We’re in Buddy’s, the beer is flowing when we get distracted by a commotion across the road. Three of us run out of the café, drunk, to encounter a parrot, a stunningly beautiful parrot, standing all on its own on the pavement opposite. I’m in journalism mode and as I lie belly down on the pavement with my camera to shoot this stunning creature, it reacts, comes towards my camera and bites at my lens.
I don’t know why I’m taking photos of this bird, and none of us know why we’re there. What we do know is that Mick has picked the creature up, put it on his shoulder and that a crowd has appeared.
“It’s domesticated,” says Rohan. He’s confused, too. “How did it get here? Who does it belong to?”
Then with questions being asked, the owner appears. It becomes clear he’s deliberately let the bird go to see what will happen. He’s showing it off — this is quite a bird.
This is one of those odd things that seems to happen in Vietnam, and every time I’ve been to Phu Quoc, I’ve had such experiences. I remember the Viet Kieu wedding we got an impromptu invitation to in early 2000. We didn’t take up the offer — it felt like we would be intruders — but the Canadian guy who did found himself on a wedding celebration boat sailing dangerously close to the Cambodian border. I remember the boat trip from Phu Quoc to Ba Hon near Ha Tien on the mainland. Eight hours of larger-than-life waves and seasickness on a tiny fishing boat. I remember bumping into friends at Saigon-Phu Quoc resort, the first hotel of any substance on the island, and how we partied into the early hours. And I remember not once but twice the intimacy of staying in Mango Bay, the rustic wooden huts, the amazing seafood, the sunrises and sunsets.
This island the size of Singapore may be changing at breakneck speed. But something about it retains that magic of the past. No wonder people are flocking here like, as Duong says, “ants coming to a jar of sugar”.
Things to Do
For the ultimate guide to Phu Quoc check out the Phu Quoc Visitors Guide (visitphuquoc.info). It comes hand in hand with a map, which you can pick up all around the island. But for a quick summary, there’s diving, watersports, the pepper farms, the fish sauce factories, the Phu Quoc Dog breeding centres, the many beaches, the night market in the main town and of course all the sites owned by the Vin Group. Oh, and the seafood on Phu Quoc is phenomenal.
Places to Stay
There are well over a hundred resorts and holiday complexes on the island, but for a bit of luxury, the place to go is Salinda (salindaresort.com). For a non-affiliated five-star — this place is self-owned, self-managed — what they’ve achieved is exceptional. You’re going to pay for it, though. High-season rack rates start at around US$400 a night. Other top-end options include La Veranda (laverandaresorts.com), the Mercure Phu Quoc (mercure.com) and Chensea (chensea-resort.com).
To be part of the action, two areas offer up both bars and resorts. The Long Beach area just south of the main town, Duong Dong — check out the sunset at Rory’s Bar or any of the resorts along the beach including Mai Spa (maispa.com.vn). Ong Lang Beach, 15 minutes to the north, also has a growing collection of resorts including BO (boresort-phuquoc.com), Mango Bay (mangobayphuquoc.com) and Freedomland (freedomlandphuquoc.com). Mango Bay’s seafront restaurant and bar are popular eating and drinking spots for both residents and non-residents of the resort.
And in town, besides the Night Market, the place to go for coffee, Wifi, ice-cream and beer is Buddy Café (6 Bach Dang, Duong Dong). And if you what many believe to be the best restaurant in Phu Quoc, then head to Itaca (itacalounge.com).
Photos by Nick Ross / January 2016