Phu Quoc Island

1.Orientation information

Teardrop-shaped Phu Quoc has its capital at the town of Duong Dong, midway down the west coast of the island. The airport is right by Duong Dong and the vast majority of lodgings are within a 5- to thirty-minute motorcycle ride of there. In the past, ferries from the mainland arrived in An Thoi, on the far southern tip of the island. They now land in Ham Ninh, on the east coast. This doesn't change much, though -- it's still too inconvenient to walk so you'll have to catch a lift to get to any of the beaches.

Duong Dong has a few basic internet cafes. The one facing the market is probably the most convenient, though out on the road to the airport there are a couple of larger, cleaner and more comfortable places. Most are used primarily by local kids, so expect to read your emails to the soundtrack of machine guns.

Most major resorts along Long Beach have ATMs. The Saigon Phu Quoc Resort is particularly useful as it not only has an ATM, but it can also exchange travellers' cheques. Several banks in town, including a Vietcombank, have ATMs and exchange services.

There are very basic medical facilities at both Ham Ninh and An Thoi, with the latter being the better, but for anything more serious than a hangover or a paper cut -- head to Saigon.

When to go

Phu Quoc and the surrounding area enjoy a distinct wet and dry season. The best time to go if you're seeking clear skies and warm weather is between eary November and late April. At this time of the year the waters on the west coast of Phu Quoc are often blisfully calm.

The wet season, from May to late October gets moderate to heavy rain throughout -- expect to see at least some rain, most days. However, as with monsoon seasons across the region, rainfall is characterised mostly by a couple of hours of heavy rain rather than all day drizzle. During a previous visit in the height of wet season, we had four days of uninterupted glorious sunshine and not a drop of rain till the last day.

The wet season also sees rougher seas, with Long Beach catching the brunt of it, but the east coast beaches, like Bai Sao are crystal clear and calm. These rougher seas can play havoc with the ferry timetable as the boats don't run in rough weather. One day of very bad weather can see the boats not running for three or four days afterwards, so if you're travelling to Phu Quoc in wet season, consider flying there from Rach Gia or Saigon.

How long in the region

Well, how long have you got?

Given Phu Quoc is a bit out of the way -- it is a full day of travel from Saigon to the port town of Rach Gia -- this isn't the type of destination that is worth visiting for just a night or two. We'd say at an absolute minimum give it three nights.

But if you've got the time, don't hesitate to give Phu Quoc a far larger amount of your time. Dedicated beach lovers -- especially those who can confidently ride a motorbike -- will have loads of beaches to choose from for daily exploratory trips. Then there are the An Thoi islands off the southern tip of Phu Quoc that are popular for snorkelling and diving trips. In the interior there's a waterfall, national parkland (albeit mostly off limits) and interesting fishing villages dotted all around the island's coast.

And don't forget, if you start to run out of time on your Vietnamese visa, Sihanoukville in Cambodia is the closest Vietnamese consulate -- it's a full day of travel from Phu Quoc to get there, but they can issue a new visa for Vietnam in one day -- meaning you could be back on the beach, for another month, in just three days.

Sitting back in a hammock, looking out over the quiet surf, you may wonder why more people don't know about Phu Quoc Island. It gets almost none of the press of those islands over in Thailand -- and yet with its rugged jungle, squeaking white sands and sparkling cobalt waters, it can more than match them. And though an unbroken beach stretches for almost the entire length of the island's west coast, only a small path of it has been developed.

We've seen many an island in Southeast Asia, and we've never stumbled across somewhere quite like here. The mix of isolated and deserted beaches, and a few thriving yet unadulterated Vietnamese towns, make Phu Quoc a rare find indeed.

Given its ease of access (a 21-minute flight from Rach Gia or an hour's flight from Saigon) it's amazing the island isn't far more developed, and while the Vietnamese government has huge plans they remain totally unrealised, and hopefully will remain just on paper for the forseeable future.

The island has something for everyone -- really! Ringed by over a dozen bays and beaches, some yellow sand, others brilliant strips of white, with an archipelago of islets off its south coast, a jungle-covered interior and a handful of fishing villages, there is enough to do for a longer stay than you may be planning.

2.Sights & attractions

Get out to sea
Several tour operators on Phu Quoc offer the chance to get off the island and into the sparkling turquoise water that surrounds it. The most popular option is a full day of either snorkelling or diving -- expect to pay around $17 for snorkelling, $30 and up for diving. Other tours will take you on a circle around the island to a few off-the-track beaches, to the deserted islands to the south, or on a night time squid hunt. The last option seems to be particularly popular -- once you've caught a squid, the onboard chefs will prepare it in several different ways. Most guesthouses have brochures from a few different companies, and can arrange the tours for you.

Phu Quoc general activities
Aside from its beaches, Phu Quoc is known for two things -- its fish sauce factories dotted through Duong Dong town and Suoi Tranh waterfall, located 10km southeast of Duong Dong in the centre of the island, though it's more of a river over rocks than a waterfall. Neither are worth losing sleep over if you're not going to have time to see them, but if you're on the island for more than a week, what the hell -- live a little.

Another minor attraction is the Pearl Farm, which sits about a third of the way down the length of Long Beach. Again a bit of a filler for a very slow or rainy day, the farm includes a small educational display about pearls along with the opportunity to spend a motza on a few sets of earrings. We heard that the pearls sold in the stalls in Ham Ninh were a fraction of the price yet of equal quality -- albeit perhaps not farmed in a sustainable manner -- serious pearl buyers should scoot through both Ham Ninh and the Pearl Farm before making an informed purchase.

Phu Quoc's beaches
Bai Truong Beach
Phu Quoc's longest beach is Bai Truong (far better known as Long Beach). In excess of 20km, north to south, Long Beach runs down Phu Quoc's west coast and its grainy yellow sands, aside from the very occasional fishing hamlet, are utterly deserted. Utterly deserted that is except for the 20-plus resorts and guesthouses that are plugged into the northern end of the beach.

The downside of the beach being deserted is that the vast majority of it is covered in refuse -- not garbage so much (except for plastic water bottles) as flotsam -- coconut husks, driftwood and so on. In high season the resorts mostly clean the beach in front of their plot, but most of the beach is left as it is. It's not a huge deal, but does take away from the attractiveness of the beach.

The Vietnamese government has huge plans for the beach, including all manner of mega-hotels, resorts and whatnot. Thankfully the only evidence of any of these plans are a bunch of billboards declaring their existence -- don't hold your breath.

Bai Truong is lined for almost its entire length by a grassy stretch and coconut palms, meaning it's easy to ride down as far as you want, pull over and go for a swim. It has great potential for picnics.

Bai Sao Beach
Over on the east coast, towards the southern tip of Phu Quoc, sits stunning Bai Sao Beach. Glistening, squeaky white sand, turquoise water and a semi-abandoned feel make this one of the top spots on Phu Quoc. A couple of basic places to stay lie towards the centre of the beach along with two seafood eateries, but the best part of the beach is towards its southern tip, near the boulders, around which you can clamber to an even better beach, Bai Khem.

Bai Khem Beach
Just over the boulders from Bai Sao Beach, Bai Khem is breathtaking in its beauty -- but there's a catch -- it's a military zone, and tourists (that's you) are not permitted. If you try and reach it from the road you can expect the military checkpoint to turn you away. By climbing over the rocks from Bai Sao you can get a glimpse of the beach and depending on how cheeky you're feeling, have a swim, but bear in mind you are breaking the law and if you're caught, you will be in trouble.

Ong Lang Beach
Set to the north of Duong Dong, Ong Lang is home to three spots to stay and has a similar grainy sand to that of Long Beach. It feels even more deserted than Long Beach -- if you're after a bit of serenity, you could do far worse than here.

Bai Vong Beach
Just to the south of Ham Ninh, Bai Vong is a broad and very shallow beach, with a fine pale sand. Ideal for picnics and paddling, the waters aren't great for snorkelling, but with a bit of shade and a handful of very basic places to eat at, it's a fine option for a couple of hours.

Other beaches
Phu Quoc is ringed by beaches and for those with the time, there are plenty of other strips of sand worth exploring -- Bai Thom on the northeast and Bai Dai on the northwest are both rather fine. A few other beaches near An Thoi may also be worth exploring, though we didn't get to them ourselves.
Ride around the island

Phu Quoc is very well suited to motorcycle trips. Three simple loops can be done across three days. Be warned that the roads are very infrequently shaded, so wear a hat and drink a lot of water to keep sunstroke at bay.

Southern loop
Head south from Duong Dong till you reach the junction with the road to Ham Ninh -- take the left turn and ride onwards to Suoi Tranh waterfall. The waterfall isn't sign posted, but just keep an eye out for the massive concrete gates on your left -- that's the entrance. There's a small charge for leaving your motorbike. The falls are more of a river running over rocks than anything else, but it's nevertheless a pleasant and cool environment. Once you're done there, continue on the road towards Ham Ninh, but when you reach a main right, take it, heading south to Bai Sao Beach. Along the way you'll come to a sealed left which runs down to Bai Vong Beach, so if you want to see Bai Vong as well, take that. Otherwise, continue southwards to Bai Sao. The turnoff isn't clearly marked, but it's at the top of a rise and there's a bunch of beer and cafe signs -- that's where you want to go. Follow the sometimes bumpy dirt road down to Bai Sao Beach and decamp for lunch and a good deal of frolicking. Once done, get back onto the main road and head south till you reach a sealed road running off to the right -- take the right -- if you continue straight ahead you'll end up in An Thoi. Follow the road around to the right and you'll end up running up the length of Long Beach till you hit Duong Dong. Stop as many times as possible for a swim and don't forget to swing by the pearl farm.

Western loop
This is one of the prettiest loops. Head north from Duong Dong -- it's a little confusing as the signposting isn't great, but keep bearing left and following the signs to Mango Bay -- eventually you'll end up on the right road. Following this road takes you to the turnoffs to Mango Bay, Thang Loi Resort and Bo Resort -- all of which are worth dropping by for a coffee or snack, accompanied by a swim. Continue north, along Vung Bau Beach and at the northern point you'll reach a great viewpoint looking back over the beach and down the coast. Continue north and you'll reach a seafood restaurant with good views across to Cambodia -- the frontier is a mere 5km from here. After lunch continue eastwards till you reach a T-junction and take the right. This road takes you back to Duong Dong through some pleasing stretches of forest.

Eastern loop
Head south from Duong Dong and take the turn east as per the Southern loop, but instead of turning south after the waterfall, continue east till you reach Ham Ninh. Ham Ninh is a small fishing village with a couple of excellent seafood restaurants. The food is outstanding -- just be sure to confirm the prices before eating anything. Once you're well fed, head north along the coastal road. Lots of deserted scenery up here till you reach a bunch of rather scenic islets just off the coast. After that the road tends southwestward and eventually hooks up with the main road back to Duong Dong.

3. Getting there and away

Vietnam Airlines has multiple flights a day from Phu Quoc to Saigon and at least one flight a day to Rach Gia. For flights on weekends and in high season, book as far in advance as possible as the planes are small and fill up fast. In general, flights from Saigon cost around 800,000D. Flights from Rach Gia cost around 500,000D.

Weather permitting, speedboats depart at least once a day from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc and in the reverse. Most people use the catchily-named 'Superdong', but there are other boat operators -- shop around to compare price. Departure is around 08:00 from each end, and in high season there are often several more departures staggered through the day and early afternoon. ln the midst of the rainy season, when the weather is rough, boats can be cancelled for days on end -- you're better off to fly. The boat fare is around 200,000 VND.

At peak season, Green Line offers hydrofoils between Hon Chong and Phu Quoc. It's not a bad option, as Hon Chong is closer to Phu Quoc than Rach Gia. Check with your hotel to book tickets.

Many moto drivers and tour operators in Hon Chong and Ha Tien will offer you boat service to Phu Quoc, but don't take them up on the offer -- they're talking about passage on traditional wooden boats, which are extremely unsafe and not recommended. Take the hydrofoil, or fly instead.

Getting Around
Phu Quoc has a reasonable network of roads -- a few sealed, most not -- which make it easy to circumnavigate the island. While distances are not too high, going can be slow -- especially in wet season when the quality of the unsealed roads declines considerably. The easiest way to get around is by hiring a motorbike on a daily basis. None of the roads are all that challenging, so even novice riders should be okay -- just take it easy, wear a helmet and don't drink and ride. Motorbikes can be hired from most guesthouses and resorts. 4WDs can also be hired, though you need to hire them with a driver -- foreigners are not permitted to self-drive a hired 4WD on Phu Quoc Island.

Sample distance include:
Duong Dong - Ham Ninh: 14km
Duong Dong - At Thoi: 27km
Duong Dong - Bai Thom: 27km
Duong Dong - Suoi Tranh (waterfall): 10km