Travel & Life - December 14, 2018 | 10:32 pm GMT+7

2 days or more on Phu Quoc, the pearl island

Here is all you need to know to visit this popular place in southern Vietnam.

Best time to visit 

The ideal time to travel to Phu Quoc, Vietnam's biggest island, is from November to April. 

This is the dry season in southern Vietnam, and the sea will be calm and the weather perfect for outdoor activities. It is the best time to unwind and relax on the beach or take a dip in the cool water.

Backpackers and those who want to go on an adventure should be mindful and bring enough water and sun-protection gear since things can get really hot.

From April to October is the rainy season. But it is also the peak season on Phu Quoc since it is the summer vacation. The island gets extremely crowded and all prices go up.

How to get there 

The best way to travel to Phu Quoc, from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, is by plane. Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air have daily direct flights.

Phu Quoc International Airport is around five kilometers from the downtown. You can take a shuttle bus from the airport or call a cab.

Visitors from HCMC have other options like getting here by motorbike, car or bus and then a ferry or speedboat.

From HCMC, drive or take a bus to either Rach Gia (6-hour drive) or Ha Tien (7.5-hour drive). The bus fare is VND150,000–230,000 ($6.43 – $9.86) depending on the operator.

At Rach Gia, take a speedboat to get to the island. The boats usually depart at 8:00 a.m, 8:45 a.m, or 1:00 p.m and tickets cost VND230,000-250,000 ($9.86–$10.72). The trip takes around an hour. The speedboats allow motorbikes on board though prior reservation is needed.

If you are the kind who gets seasick in a speedboat, you can take a ferry from Ha Tien at the Thanh Thoi Wharf to Da Chong Port (Bai Thom, Phu Quoc). The ferry takes nearly three hours and the ticket costs VND185,000 ($7.9). However, Da Chong Port is not too close to the town centre, and it could take up to 40 minutes to reach the resort area.

Where to stay

Since the island has become popular among both Vietnamese and international tourists, there are many choices of accomodation available.

Those who want to stay in the comfort of professional lodging can choose from a number of places scattered around the island, ranging from luxurious resorts to cheap hotels.

Homestay services are also worth consideration to get more in touch with the local lifestyles, and saving money at the same time.

8 must-try experiences

Phu Quoc is divided into four main tourism areas: the centre (Duong Dong town) and the southern, northern and eastern areas. Depending on the intinery, it will take at least 2 days to get the most out of your trip.

Take a dip in the ocean.

It might seems obvious but one of the things, if not the first, visitors should do is jump in and take a dip in the ocean. In Phu Quoc, there are many beautiful beaches with clear blue water, gentle waves and water that is shallow and safe to swim in such as Truong, Sao, Dai, Khem, and Ong Lam. Each has its own character, so try them and pick your favourite.

Snorkeling in the coral reefs

It would be a shame not to go snorkeling to see the dazzling colours of the coral reefs and their diverse marine life, especially since coral reefs are not very common in Vietnam. Scuba diving services are available. 

Hon Thom Island is the ideal place to explore the coral reef since the water is relatively clear and the reef remains somewhat wild. This is also one of the largest aquaculture and pearl farming areas in Phu Quoc.

Watching the sunset

Phu Quoc was named by the National Geographic as one of the best places in the world to watch the sun set. One of the best places on the island to behold this glorious moment is Mui Dinh Cau (Cape Dinh Cau). Here, visitors can get an unobstructed view of a sky painted with splashes of red, orange, purple, and blue as the sun slowly sets in the distant horizon.

Squid fishing at night

A squid fishing tour usually starts in the afternoon and ends at around 10:00 p.m. Visitors can either hire their own boat if in a large group, or join other small groups. The ticket is around VND330,000 ($14.20) per person. The price might vary, depending on the company and season. Freshly caught seafood will be cooked and served right on the boat.

Catch the sunrise

Waking up early and catching the first rays of the sun on the ocean is definitely a worthwhile experience. Not only will visitors get to see another beautiful display of colours and light, it is also an opportunity to see the fishing villages transform from peaceful little places into bustling markets.

Explore untouched islands

There are still many small, pristine islands around Phu Quoc. Visitors can hire boats to travel to some of these islands such as Hon Dam and Cape Ong Doi and explore their wilderness. However, visitors should only visit the smaller islands when the weather is good and the sea is calm and with a local guide on board. Do not go by yourself.

Take a walk in a national park

Located in the northeast of Phu Quoc, the Phu Quoc National Park is home to many unique species of flora and fauna, evergreen forests and mountains. Most parts of the park are protected though tourism activities such as camping, hiking, bird-watching, and photography are allowed at some places. Here is the 565-meter Mount Chua, the highest point on the island. From the top, visitors can get an amazing panoramic view of the whole island.

Visit Phu Quoc Prison

Take a step back and learn about the gruesome things that happened on the island during the war at Phu Quoc Prison. This notorious old prison was built by the French in the late 1940s. Now, much of the site comprises eerie dummies of Vietnamese soldiers reenacting the torture that was once routine here. There is also a war memorial to the south of the prison.

8 Must- try foods

Raw herring salad

This is a signature dish of Phu Quoc. It can be found in almost all the restaurants on the island, from high-end to budget. 

The salad is usually served with fresh vegetables and herbs, coconut and peanuts, wrapped in rice paper with fish sauce as a dipping sauce. The dish is a wonderful combination of flavours and textures. The natural sweetness and softness of the fresh fish, the sourness of the vinegar and lime juice, the minty taste of the herbs, the crunchiness of the vegetables, especially the coconut, and a hint of saltiness from the fish sauce, are what make this dish so savoury and popular.

Ham Ninh crab

The crabs here are not big but their meat is fresh, sweet and they are reasonably priced. Depending on the season, the price is VND200,000-500,000 ($8.6 – $21.5) per kilogram. Choose the female crab to enjoy the eggs, and choose the male crab for more meat.

Grilled pen shell

This is also a very popular dish among gastronomes. It can be grilled with many different things like scallions and oil garnish or salt and chillies. Unlike when boiled or fried, grilled pen shell retains its chewiness, and that’s what makes it a popular favorite.

Sea cucumber

This is another one of Phu Quoc’s specialties. It’s liked by many people for its high nutritional value. Sea cucumbers dishes are usually served stir-fried with bitter melon and capsicum or stewed with goat meat or pork. Some cook them in porridge. But sea cucumber is expensive at around VND1 million per kilogram ($43)

 Sea urchin

In Phu Quoc, sea urchins are mostly cut open and grilled on charcoal with scallion and garnish added on top. There are other delicious sea urchins dishes such as sea urchins sour salad, roasted sea urchins and sea urchins porridge.

Abalone

Phu Quoc’s abalone is famous for being very nutritious. It is also used in traditional eastern medicine.

Bitter bolete

This species of mushroom can often be found after the first rains of the season in the melaleuca forests. Although the mushroom can be a bit bitter, hence the name, it is believed to be a cure for tiredness, flu and headache and beneficial to internal organs. 

Thanks to the mangrove oil in the mushroom , it is also said to have detoxification properties, which is a great remedy for hangovers. The mushroom season only lasts for around a month, so it is not guaranteed to be available all year round.

Bun ken (Ken noodles)

This dish can also be found in Chau Doc and Can Tho, but bun ken in Phu Quoc has its own characteristics. The dish consists of fish cooked in tasty curry soup seasoned with lemongrass and coconut milk. 

However, while elsewhere they use striped snakehead, in Phu Quoc it is made with minced nhau or yellowtail scad, fishes that can be found in plenty in the sea around the island. 

A bowl of bun ken is served with a layer of fermented papaya salad on top and the fish soup and vegetables underneath the noodles. Not as common as the other foods in this list, bun ken is found only at two places on the island: at the Dinh Cau Night Market and Ut Luom's, a street stall known by all the locals.

Last Tips

Do not go to Phu Quoc during the storm season.

If you plan to visit during the peak season, you need to book rooms a month in advance due to the high demand.

There are a few areas in Phu Quoc where visitors are not allowed to enter. Be mindful and do not trespass.

Remember to check the schedule for the high-speed boat and ferry to Phu Quoc.

Story by Kim Cuong

Photo by Vy An, Thanh Luan, Goday, Vi Trieu, Ngoc Thanh