Phu Quoc feels growing pains as development booms

By Calvin Godfrey   October 22, 2016 | 02:36 pm PT
How gross economic pursuits are plundering one of Vietnam’s most precious resources.

Last month, visitors to the Mango Bay Resort on Phu Quoc Island lounged on a pristine beach dotted with tropical plants. Rivulets of fresh water carried the previous night’s rain into the sea from a lush hillside dotted with airy cabins built without televisions or air-conditioners.

In the waves below, rice sacks, plastic bags and crisp packets bobbed up and down while Mango Bay’s ground crew patrolled the sand.

An employee at the eco-resort attributed the detritus to recent storms, a new riverfront market and tour boats that periodically anchor off shore and dump their garbage overboard.

“All of the trash is from Vietnam,” he said, adding that on bad days, the entire staff drop what they’re doing to comb the shore. The resort cleans its beach a minimum of twice a day.

The effort, he said, pays off when tourists booked into other hotels turn up desperate for a clean spit of sand.

But trash isn't the only challenge at the high-end eco-resort.

A few months back, a 45-unit hotel opened on top of their shallow well.

Soon afterward, water stopped flowing. The well they’d relied upon for decades had presumably collapsed, forcing staff to dig deeper. They've since begun recycling wastewater using cisterns filled with aquatic plants.

“We’re doing everything we can to make whatever little water we have last,” the resort employee said.

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported that Huynh Thanh Ha, the head of the local division of the provincial water company KIWACO, had called on tourism companies to stop exploiting underground water resources. 

Mango Bay’s trash and water struggles offer but a microcosm of new stresses brought to the island by a tourism boom that seems to lack any oversight. Last month, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported that residents who once drew water from 5-10 meter wells now drill as deep as 60 meters.

When contacted by VnExpress International, Ha claimed that the newly-expanded Duong Dong Reservoir provides sufficient untreated water for residents of the island’s largest city, as well as those living in the southern town of An Thoi and the island of Bai Truong.

He declined to estimate, however, what proportion of those facilities illegally draw water from the island’s underground aquifers. He also declined to offer a picture of what those resources look like.

“We don’t have those statistics on hand,” he wrote in an email. “It would take a lot of time to inspect and gather that information.”

A plan created by the Japanese International Cooperation (JICA) envisions meeting the needs of massive resort and housing developments in the island’s North-East by building a 200-hectare (494-acre) reservoir in the national park. A consultant who oversaw preparation work for the project back in 2014 told VnExpress International he has no idea when it will be completed. The Cua Can project represents the largest of four planned reservoirs nominally slated to come into operation in as many years.

Early this year, the provincial chairman told the Saigon Times they would send a delegation to Macau (effectively a casino colony in an economic tailspin) to study their experience. He also claimed the government would simultaneously invest in wastewater treatment facilities while pushing businesses to treat their own waste.Over a decade ago, UNESCO declared Phu Quoc and over a hundred other islands in Kien Giang Province a World Biosphere Reserve -- a title that appears purely descriptive, if not confusing. At the moment, the province seems more preoccupied with pursuing an unprecedented and elusive “special economic zone” status.

To this day, Phu Quoc continues to lack a single wastewater treatment facility, so everything one flushes down the toilet ultimately ends up in the sea beyond.

Insiders say the projects have gone nowhere because the province’s sole water supplier, the Kien Giang Water Supply and Drainage Company (KIWACO), hasn't offered the right price.

Similar problems have hamstrung efforts to attract funds to process the island’s solid waste. Once buried or shipped off the island, trash now accumulates in festering mountains along the north-south corridor that runs along Phu Quoc’s eastern coast.

Developers refer to it as a “stockpile” for whatever facility does, eventually, come online.

In the meantime, you can expect it to grow.

Development underway in Phu Quocs northwest.

"Development" underway in Phu Quoc's northwest. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

According to figures compiled by Sao Khue, a consulting firm with fifteen years of experience on the island, 1.1 million tourists descended on Phu Quoc in 2015, when the permanent population measured just one tenth of that size. The existing master plan envisions resident numbers to double in the next four years.

Than Thanh Vu, Sao Khue's founder and director, says that even the rather loose precautions set forth in the ambitious 2030 master plan have largely been ignored in the island's hodgepodge construction boom.

It isn’t just bad for the environment, Vu says, it’s bad for business.

During a conference held in July, Vu presented figures that showed the annual growth in hotel supply is significantly outpacing demand.

“Average room occupancy is less than 40 percent,” Vu said at his office Ho Chi Minh City. To make money in the hotel business, you’ve got to have 62 percent occupancy to be profitable.”

There are reasons to believe him.

At the moment, the island’s three-year old $810 million international airport lacks a single direct international flight.

In September, workers toiled on the tarmac -- presumably on a $46 million expansion plan designed to increase the airport’s capacity to 4 million visitors per year.

Construction of this kind can be found literally everywhere on the island; except where it is supposedly needed.

Just a few kilometers north of Mango Bay, massive piles of trash lean heavily on a corrugated tin wall spray painted with the words “no dumping”. Families of scavengers have built tarp tents at the base of the garbage, which stinks in the midday heat.

Sources say government officials have yet to agree on a pricing plan that would attract investors to build a treatment plant on the Cua Can Dump. Instead, trash is being stockpiled in the open air. Families of scavengers have erected tents on the edge of the dump, which stinks so powerfully that commuters hold their noses as they pass.

Sources say government officials have yet to agree on a pricing plan that would attract investors to build a treatment plant on the Cua Can Dump. Instead, trash is being "stockpiled" in the open air. Families of scavengers have erected tents on the edge of the dump, which stinks so powerfully that commuters hold their noses as they pass. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

Aside from a smaller dump in An Thoi (and an empty lot in the eastern fishing village of Ham Ninh that's awaiting investors), this represents the sole destination for everything Phu Quoc's 112,000 permanent residents throw away.

Oh, and the residents of its 7,500 hotel rooms.

The garbage streaks northward and finally dissipates as you near a 500-hectare (1,235-acre) safari park populated by exotic animals and, finally, an amusement park and international hospital -- all owned by a local conglomerate.

The plastic monkeys that hang from the entrance to a massive safari park serve as a stark reminder of the 135 that disappeared shortly after the conglomerate had admitted that 100 other animals had died in its first two months of operation.

In February, a British blog published rumors that over a thousand animals had perished and 500 primates had disappeared into the island's massive national park.

The conglomerate countered that an unspecified breed of 200 gram monkeys had slipped through the bars of their enclosure, presumably to return to the habitat from which they were taken.

Peter Dickinson, the British blogger who broke the allegations balked at the explanation.

“So 135 monkeys (from Vietnam) escape into an area of forest where they have not previously occurred is going to have a disastrous effect on the local ecology,” he wrote in a March blog post. “If the species does occur locally then it is going to be pure hell for the social dynamics.”

Most of this action centers on the unassuming commune of Ganh Dau, which the 2030 master plan described merely as an “eco-tourism area.”

Three years from now, it should have another 1,000 hotel rooms and a controversial casino complex whose slick website ( implies it will open on Christmas Eve.

At the moment, the area serves as an outdoor mall for migrant workers looking to buy everything from pants to sandwiches. As dump trucks trundle toward construction sites, thin men in company shirts buy and throw away everything they need at the edge of what was once an unmolested jungle.Three years ago, the area was home to a long, clean beach dotted with palm shacks that sold some of the best seafood in the country.

Further up the road, just beyond the cape of Ganh Dau, a group of Ho Chi Minh City transplants put out plastic chairs at a modest restaurant built out onto a beach packed with smaller resorts.

Locals skim the water for fish in Styrofoam skiffs, while kids swim in their clothes.

The manager, who spoke some English, said he’d been on the island for six months and hoped to soon work at the Radisson Phu Quoc -- though he had no idea when it might open.

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