Wednesday, May 31, 2017

hoa xong

Phu Quoc Islands: The jewel in Viet Nam’s crown

An untapped pearl in the Gulf of Thailand not 120km from Rach Gia, Phu Quoc Island is a mixing pot of flavours, history and beauty that has aesthetic potency sure to befuddle even the most travelled.

The plane gently tilts its wings just enough for us to catch a glimpse of workers scurrying like mice through an expansive limestone mine below. Strange.

The captain announces that we are descending into Phu Quoc airspace. Like magic, under the plane's wings an emerald island nearly the size of Singapore appears circled by a twinkling azure sea.

There are 99 mountains on the 22-island archipelago, all low and covered by a canopy of green that evokes a refreshing feeling as we plunge into the forest.

Phu Quoc, they say, is the "pearl of nature", and I'm a believer.

Though small, the airport is quite animated as everyday it receives six planes from HCM City and Rach Gia. Airfare is a bit steep, but it's worth it considering that 55 minutes after leaving the sooty, humid city, one can already be stretched out on the beach or swimming through the limpid waters a la Brooke Shields circa Blue Lagoon.

It's also worth just seeing the welcome party of well-dressed hotel employees, taxi drivers and guides that will mob you at the gate.

After some light inquiring, my friend and I hop on two motorbike-taxis to a hotel.

Room rates in Phu Quoc range from VND200,000 to 600,000 (US$13 to $40) per night for a double room. They're low buildings hugging the beaches and are convenient for tourists wanting a quick rest or dive in the ocean, and a trek around the island.

But, first things first. We have breakfast.

Forget the stringy-meat pho of Ha Noi, in Duong Dong, the largest town on the island, we have a gob-smacking, royal breakfast of champions – sizzling prawn and squid noodle soup.

The administrative hub of the island, Duong Dong has all the tell-tale signs of a budding urban tourist centre in the future, for better or worse.

Here you have a crowded market, a modest but accommodating post office – from which I manage to get out a phone call to Ha Noi quicker than in HCM City – a bank, a port, a medical centre and a school. The electricity pumps round the clock, and the TV reception catches all standard domestic channels.

Only once during my sojourn do I encounter a traffic cop – a reflection mostly of the excellent security. Vinh confirms this: Last year, he says, there was only one case of a stolen motorbike, and it was recuperated within two hours in the middle of the night. I don't see any drug addicts or gangsters hanging out curbside, either.

We begin our expedition by heading southwards on the paved road along the west side of the island. Not 2km from Duong Dong we come to the Viet Nam-Australia pearl and oyster farm, an underwater factory of sorts where ivory oysters weighing up to 1kg are raised and fished.

Pearls here will cost you VND200,000 and up. An exotic black pearl catches my eye, so does its $600 price tag. And I am told that some easily fetch thousands of dollars each.

We carry on south-bound, enjoying cool breezes under the stretches of coconut trees and cashew, mango and durian orchards. The odd sighting of a house or fisherman's hamlet helps allay the feelings of emptiness and worry that haunt our minds – as, I imagine, they do other tourists too.

Then we come to Cay Dua (Coconut Tree) Prison, the erstwhile detainment centre familiar to tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Built by the French just before the World War II, during the American war it became a notoriously vile detention camp spread over 40ha. Now it's a certified national historic relic complete with a magnificent commemorative monument built on a nearby hill.

After our time in the slammer, we hit the paved road again to An Thoi, a port and tourist hot spot overlooking the southern tip of the archipelago. Here the deep and crystal-clear sea has seduced scores of tourists partaking in a little fishing, sight-seeing, swimming and diving.

The largest fishing port in the archipelago, An Thoi houses hundreds of fishing and passenger boats from Rach Gia and Ha Tien. And its kaleidoscopic seafood market offers big and ruddy prawns, fish, crabs, squid and the island speciality, the renowned and savoury Phu Quoc fish-sauce is served up by charming and chatty young women.

Forget the pearls, limpid waters and historic war-time memorials.

Come to Phu Quoc and not check out its fish sauce workshops, and you might as well have stayed at home to watch the VTV documentary.

Vinh takes us to a fish-sauce workshop whose owner is a solid, pinky-white and well-dressed woman of about 40 years. Cordially receiving us, her hospitality heats up when she discovers we are reporters from Ha Noi. She takes us to her workshop and tells us that her family has worked in the trade for decades.

On the workshop floor stand about 30 huge basins. Measuring 3m in height and 4m in diameter, with a capacity to hold 12 tonnes of fish.

Like the unique flavour of the basins' wood, it is key that only fresh white herrings be used. No mixing allowed. A year of fermentation produces a first pressing of sauce with 40 per cent protein. Then there's a second and a third.

I am invited to taste the first sauce. The amber-coloured liquid gives off a sweet and mildly fragrant smell, gently numbing the tip of my tongue. The packaging doesn't lie, it's a special and unique product indeed.

We leave An Thoi before noon and have a lunch and rest at Sao Beach, one of the ten most beautiful beaches on the island. Two tourist company yachts seemingly seeped in languor and luxury sit anchored in the calm, waveless waters about 100m off shore.

One has equipment for night-fishing and visits around the island, the other for pulling parasailors 200m in the air.

One more day passes and we head back north. While in the southern part of the island there are plenty of orchards on both sides of the road, in the north we encounter only pepper farms. Pepper winds its way through hills and alleys, around the houses and close to Phu Quoc National Forest.

More info about Phu Quoc's forest:

Diversed fauna, flora Not often does one have the chance to ride 20km through a primitive forest lulled to a calm homeostasis by bird songs and come across old and precious trees, some so thick two people together could hardly wrap fully around them! Phu Quoc's forests, blanketing 70 per cent of the island, are criss-crossed by rivers and streams with plenty of fresh water. And unlike many other places in Viet Nam, in and around these forests you'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant dishing up wild and endangered animal meat. You could think of Phu Quoc National Forest as a Vietnamese forest museum, given its rich flora of thousands of tropical plants and a rich fauna of 150 kinds of wild animals. From the national forest we go to Bai Thom, Rach Tram and Gianh Dau, where we are just two among a gaggle of Vietnamese and foreign tourists. It's easy to see how the price of land here has skyrocketed, and all available space has been snatched to build hotels. Only a two-hour flight from almost any Southeast Asian metropolis, Phu Quoc has in recent years been dubbed the next big Vietnamese thing. And like places such as Sa Pa – the northwest ethnic minority hill town – where hotels will soon outnumber houses, you had better get there quick while you can.

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