AN IS­LAND IN FULL

NOW HOME TO ONE OF THE MOST IMAG­I­NA­TIVE NEW FIVE-STAR RESORTS IN THE RE­GION, PHU QUOC SEEMS ONE STEP CLOSER TO EMERG­ING AS VIET­NAM’S PRE­MIER BEACH DES­TI­NA­TION (SORRY, NHA TRANG). FOR THE TIME BE­ING, THOUGH, ITS MEL­LOW CHARMS EN­DURE, AS DOES A LO­CAL SPIRIT

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Jonathan Hopfner

Now home to one of the most imag­i­na­tive new five-star resorts in the re­gion, Phu Quoc seems one step closer to emerg­ing as Viet­nam’s top beach des­ti­na­tion. Yet its mel­low charms en­dure, as does a lo­cal spirit as dis­tinct as the is­land’s famed fish sauce.

IS­LAND PARADISES

tend to go through dif­fer­ent stages of tourist dis­cov­ery, start­ing out as rus­tic re­treats for in­trepid surfers or back­pack­ers be­fore be­ing flocked to by fam­i­lies or mor­ph­ing into pri­vate, palm-fringed re­treats for the jet set. And at no one stage is ev­ery­one con­tent; con­cerns can quickly shift from a lack of fa­cil­i­ties or op­por­tu­ni­ties for locals, to over­crowded beaches, con­do­minium-choked shore­lines, or spec­u­la­tors en­croach­ing on lo­cal land and tra­di­tions.

Whis­per it, but the Viet­namese is­land of Phu Quoc may be one of the clos­est things South­east Asia cur­rently has to a happy medium. An in­verted teardrop sus­pended in the Gulf of Thai­land just 15 kilo­me­ters off the Cam­bo­dian coast, it’s roughly the same size as Phuket but far less of a house­hold name, de­spite its abun­dance of fine white­sand beaches and prox­im­ity to Ho Chi Minh City, an hour’s flight east. Un­less, of course, the house­holds in ques­tion are Viet­namese, as Phu Quoc is a renowned source of two sta­ples of the lo­cal kitchen:

nuoc mam (fish sauce) and black pep­per. It’s also known for its seafood, pearls, and a del­i­cate pink wine made from the fruit of the rose myr­tle tree—a bounty that partly ex­plains why the Viet­namese and Cam­bo­di­ans were tus­sling over Phu Quoc even in French colo­nial times. A few na­tion­al­ist politi­cians con­tinue to as­sert Cam­bo­dia’s claim on the is­land (which they call Koh Tral) to this day.

Tourism, then, is a rel­a­tive new­comer, and even within the con­fines of Phu Quoc’s newish in­ter­na­tional air­port—it opened in late 2012—ads for shiny new beach­front ho­tels seem eclipsed by those tout­ing fish sauce and other elixirs. On the roads, too, though stretches of sand and emer­ald ocean some­times come into view, my eyes are more of­ten drawn to the col­or­ful trawlers that dot ev­ery cove, and the im­promptu mar­kets that seem to pop up at ev­ery in­ter­sec­tion, where the backs of trucks burst with mounds of ripe fruit and racks of squid dry in the sun. Hol­i­day­mak­ers are all well and good, the mes­sage seems to be, but Phu Quoc has plenty of other busi­ness to at­tend to.

That said, the March de­but of the JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay is as sure a sign as any that tourism is set to play a big­ger role here. State­ments don’t come much more grandiose than this. Oc­cu­py­ing pride of place on Khem Beach on the is­land’s south­east coast, the re­sort is ac­cessed via a freshly black­topped road that passes through an im­pos­ing gate flanked by mas­sive Art Deco–ish dog stat­ues. These are both a nod to lo­cal cul­ture—there’s a breed of ridge­back dog in­dige­nous to Phu Quoc—and a taste of what lies within: one of the most elab­o­rate mytholo­gies ever con­structed around a va­ca­tion prop­erty.

The dogs, it turns out, are the “mas­cots” of what Bangkok-based ar­chi­tect and de­signer Bill Bens­ley has styled as a vast colo­nial-era univer­sity, com­plete with its own in­vented his­tory. Which goes some­thing like this: In 1880, a wealthy trader started a col­lege on the is­land to en­sure lo­cal boys would have ac­cess to a world-class ed­u­ca­tion. The in­sti­tu­tion was dedicated to Jean-Bap­tiste La­marck, an early French pro­po­nent of evo­lu­tion whose the­o­ries (and for­tunes) were soon eclipsed by those of Charles Dar­win. While La­marck Univer­sity even­tu­ally fell into dis­use, the JW Mar­riott is built out of the rem­nants of its mag­nif­i­cent cam­pus.

It’s a con­vinc­ing enough tale for many guests, es­pe­cially when they’re con­fronted with the de­gree of de­tail Bens­ley has brought to

the ta­ble to lend it ve­rac­ity. In the lobby, dis­play cases full of scuffed tro­phies and weath­ered stu­dent records—all gen­uine Euro­pean an­tiques and ar­ti­facts sourced by Bens­ley’s team—stretch nearly to the lofty ceil­ings. Walls are cov­ered in fad­ing por­traits of glow­er­ing pro­fes­sors and ruddy-cheeked stu­dents on sports teams. Out­side, there’s a reg­u­la­tion-size run­ning track, com­plete with home-an­d­away score­board. The re­sort’s pretty Euro­pean-style build­ings, ren­dered slightly fan­tas­ti­cal by bright pas­tel hues and cas­tle-like flour­ishes, are di­vided into var­i­ous “fac­ul­ties,” such as zo­ol­ogy or con­chol­ogy (the study of shells, for those not in the know), that in­form the de­signs of the bright, airy rooms within.

It’s slightly af­fected, yes, but also im­pec­ca­bly ex­e­cuted, so much so that—as one staff mem­ber con­fides—many guests take the back­story at face value. Given the ef­fort in­volved, I find this some­how com­fort­ing; at least peo­ple aren’t breez­ing obliv­i­ously past the dis­tinc­tive sur­round­ings and head­ing di­rectly for the beach. (Though one might un­der­stand if they did: Khem Beach is gor­geous.)

Once guests tire of the wa­ter and ac­tiv­i­ties like kayak­ing and surf yoga, there’s the equiv­a­lent of a small town to ex­plore. The re­sort’s main av­enue, Rue La­marck, takes its inspiration from the his­toric town of Hoi An, lined with shop­houses oc­cu­pied by bou­tiques and “class­rooms” for lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties such as lantern-mak­ing. There’s a fungi-themed spa with pri­vate suites plucked straight out of Alice in

Wonderland; an au­di­to­rium big enough to host a con­cert in; and a bar called Mixol­ogy (a.k.a. the Depart­ment of Chem­istry), where the drinks are mixed in beakers against a back­drop of pe­ri­odic tables. “It’s hard to ex­plain to peo­ple how unique [the re­sort] is,” general man­ager Ty Collins ad­mits to me. “When they ar­rive they’re a bit over­whelmed.”

For an is­land that a decade or so ago was vir­tu­ally off the radar to all but back­pack­ers, the JW Mar­riott is an au­da­cious project. It’s not alone, of course. Phu Quoc has been ear­marked for devel­op­ment as Viet­nam’s pre­mier beach des­ti­na­tion since 2004, and a raft of other up­mar­ket re­sort prop­er­ties— La Ve­randa, now part of Ac­cor’s MGallery by Sof­i­tel col­lec­tion; the el­e­gant Salinda on Long Beach; out­posts from Novo­tel and Cen­tara and Meliá—have opened in the in­ter­ven­ing years. Tourist num­bers have fol­lowed suit, grow­ing from a mere 20,000 at the turn of the mil­len­nium to 1.5 mil­lion in 2015, driven mainly by do­mes­tic vis­i­tors. More in­ter­na­tional flights from ma­jor cities like Bangkok are said to be in the off­ing, and the gov­ern­ment is scram­bling to ex­pand the air­port to cope with a surge in new ar­rivals. For now, though, the is­land’s laid-back charms have yet to be erased, and Collins is con­fi­dent Phu Quoc is on a dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory than other re­sort des­ti­na­tions.

“I can see the devel­op­ment hap­pen­ing fast, which is con­cern­ing of course, but at the same time I can see [busi­ness] own­ers and the gov­ern­ment work­ing on put­ting sus­tain­able in­fra­struc­ture in place so that it de­vel­ops in the right way, which is en­cour­ag­ing,” he says, adding that the JW Mar­riott is try­ing to set an ex­am­ple through ac­tiv­i­ties like beach cleanups and co­op­er­at­ing with lo­cal busi­ness groups. “Be­cause it’s a small com­mu­nity, there’s a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion to de­velop the is­land sus­tain­ably.” As beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted a fan­tasy as the JW Mar­riott is, even­tu­ally one has to re­turn to re­al­ity, and it turns out there’s a good dose of that just a short bike ride down the road in the form of Phu Quoc Prison. Now an open-air mu­seum, the his­toric site is a tes­ta­ment to a darker side of the is­land’s past that seems all the more in­con­gru­ous in its idyl­lic sur­rounds. Orig­i­nally built by the French colo­nial gov­ern­ment, it was used to house Com­mu­nist pris­on­ers dur­ing the Viet­nam War; at its peak, it con­tained up to 40,000 in­mates. The barbed-wire perime­ter and omi­nous guard tow­ers are still largely in­tact. The only cur­rent denizens of the rust­ing “tiger cages,” claus­tro­pho­bic tun­nels, and chicken coop-like hold­ing pens are man­nequins, con­torted into tor­tur­ous po­si­tions. But it’s easy enough to imag­ine in the mid­day heat how in­fer­nal con­di­tions here must have been, even amid the hordes of selfie-tak­ing day-trip­pers who swarm the venue at peak hours.

The next day I de­cide to get a lit­eral taste of what may still be— for now—Phu Quoc’s main in­dus­try. There are nu­mer­ous fish-sauce fac­to­ries on the is­land, but few have the pedi­gree of Red Boat, which is the cul­mi­na­tion of a dream for Viet­namese-Amer­i­can émi­gré Cuong Pham. Trou­bled by the way Thai man­u­fac­tur­ers had taken over the in­dus­try with mass-pro­duced, ad­di­tive-laden sauces, he came to Phu Quoc de­ter­mined to res­ur­rect the kind of fish sauce he re­mem­bered an un­cle pro­duc­ing here in his child­hood. “It was good enough to bring tears to my mother’s eyes,” he tells me.

Lo­cated deep in the coun­try­side, Red Boat boasts a pretty river­side set­ting, with a lit­tle brick house and boats pulling up to a makeshift dock to un­load buck­ets of freshly caught an­chovies. These are

trans­ferred swiftly to a cou­ple of large ware­houses and dumped into tow­er­ing 13-ton vats, where they’re mixed with raw sea salt and left to fer­ment into a liq­uid that’s drawn from the bar­rels like fine whisky. As Cuong walks me through the pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties, I’m im­mersed in a pun­gent, earthy, but not en­tirely unpleasant aroma. Taken di­rectly from the bar­rel, the fin­ished prod­uct is a sur­prise; a lovely am­ber liq­uid that’s salty and tastes only slightly of the sea, with a sweet un­der­cur­rent that lingers on the tongue like honey. Like liquor, the taste de­pends heav­ily on the vin­tage; “rawer” va­ri­eties have a slightly skunky kick, while ver­sions that are fil­tered and fer­mented for up to a year im­part a more del­i­cate fla­vor. “No two bar­rels are alike,” Cuong says proudly.

Fur­ther ex­plo­ration of ru­ral Phu Quoc re­in­forces just how beau­ti­ful the is­land is beyond its beaches. Dom­i­nated by a ridge of thickly forested moun­tains that re­sem­bles the backs of its na­tive dogs, the is­land is more than half cov­ered by pro­tected na­tional park and dot­ted with la­goons, wa­ter­falls, and walk­ing trails. There are also a large num­ber of work­ing farms, many all too happy to re­ceive vis­i­tors. One is the Phu Quoc Bee Farm, sit­u­ated at the end of a bumpy red-dirt road that winds its way through plan­ta­tions of tall, spindly pep­per trees. A net­work of paths takes me past clus­ters of boxy bee­hives in and out of which the in­sects lazily drift—though the worker who’s taken it upon her­self to show me around, Lin, is quick to warn me that “the bees get ag­gres­sive when they feel it’s too hot.” Most of the bees I see are Ital­ian im­ports as the lo­cal species is en­dan­gered, but there are sep­a­rate “shel­ters” set up for them too, from which no honey is taken. Af­ter a long walk I cool down with an icy mix of co­conut wa­ter and honey at the farm’s open-air café. It’s a pity the bees can’t do the same.

Not far away is Phu Quoc Coun­try­side, a farm that’s been op­er­ated by the same fam­ily for 20 years but has re­cently trans­formed into some­thing of a show­case for lo­cal pro­duce. It’s moved on from grow­ing pep­per to or­ganic veg­eta­bles, tinc­tures made from lo­cal herbs, and dan­ger­ously drink­able craft beers. Guests are free to wan­der the grounds, play with an ever-ex­pand­ing res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of pup­pies, even stay in one of a half-dozen bun­ga­lows set deep in the sur­round­ing for­est. A young, en­thu­si­as­tic group of vol­un­teers of­fers guided tours and cook­ing classes with in­gre­di­ents har­vested straight from the fields. It’s def­i­nitely a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise, but, like the bee farm, there seems to be a gen­uine pas­sion for ar­ti­san­ship and cre­at­ing the kind of prod­ucts that sus­tained Phu Quoc well be­fore the first ho­tel brick was ever laid.

If Phu Quoc can be said

to have a com­mer­cial cen­ter, it is Duong Dong. Set halfway up the west coast, the is­land’s ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal has none of the som­no­lence of your typ­i­cal beach town; in­stead, Duong Dong is a buzzing kalei­do­scope of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, with traf­fic sig­nals strug­gling to bring a sem­blance of or­der to mo­tor­cy­cle-crammed in­ter­sec­tions and an abun­dance of phone shops and bike me­chan­ics. Pic­turesque it’s not—ex­cept, per­haps, from the van­tage point of the out­door ter­race at Chuon Chuon, a “bistro and sky bar” perched on a hill above town with panoramic views of green moun­tains and glim­mer­ing ocean. As dusk ap­proaches, well-heeled lo­cal youths de­scend on the tables to drink ex­cel­lent cof­fee or ice-cold beer and watch the sun­set, with only the oc­ca­sional honk or put­ter of an out­board mo­tor float­ing up from be­low to break the peace.

Duong Dong is also home to some of the best seafood on the is­land, if not all of Viet­nam. Bup, for one, is a justifiably renowned restau­rant that makes up for its lack of frills with culi­nary artistry. Owner Pham Anh Thuan is a for­mer ho­tel man­ager and main­land trans­plant who came to the is­land and, as he puts it, “fell in love,” learn­ing to cook the kind of dishes that would sa­ti­ate his wife’s seafood cravings. His rec­om­men­da­tions come quick and fast: creamy sea urchin with herbs and crushed peanuts and a spicy co­conut gar­nish; a pot­pourri of tofu, wild mushrooms, and plump oc­to­pus in a soy-based sauce; grilled lo­cal mack­erel that flakes off the bone, served with a mound of fresh herbs and sheets of translu­cent rice pa­per to wrap it all in.

Not far from Duong Dong is Long Beach, where most of the is­land’s ho­tels and guest­houses are con­cen­trated. Af­ter a rather bu­colic af­ter­noon it seems like an as­sault on the senses, heav­ing with bud­get ho­tels and tapas bars, karaoke out­lets, and mud saunas. One of its new­est, and now its defin­ing, fea­tures is Long Beach Cen­ter, a boxy en­ter­tain­ment and shop­ping com­plex sheathed in shim­mer­ing LED lights, the big­gest (and cer­tainly most gar­ish) land­mark for miles in any di­rec­tion.

“New light­house,” my cab driver chuck­les rue­fully as we pass it on the way back to the re­sort, and I have vi­sions of con­fused fish­ing boats flock­ing to the shore beyond. For now, set against ev­ery­thing else I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced on the is­land, Long Beach Cen­ter seems out of place, and I find my­self hop­ing it doesn’t point the way for Phu Quoc to go.

Clock­wise from

right: A bee­hive at Phu Quoc Bee Farm; ho­tel staff on shop­house-lined Rue La­marck at the JW Mar­riott; the re­sort’s wall decor is any­thing but gar­den va­ri­ety; the same could be said about its lounge ar­eas.

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