A Hard Look at Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

I first heard about Phu Quoc Island from an English Teacher I knew in Saigon, Vietnam. He was older than me and I knew he had been in the country for more than 20 years.

I had always wondered why.

We saw each other often in the Cafeteria for lunch or in the computer room during breaks.

He taught me a lot about Vietnam and the history of the country. He even helped me find my first house up in the Go Vap District of Saigon.

Then one Saturday night I ran into him in "Apocolypse now"; a bar in district #1 of Saigon. He was a different man than I knew at work.

He was quite drunk and sitting alone. It looked like like he wanted to be left alone but I went up to him and sat beside him.

"How are you?" I asked over the loud music.

"I can never go home." he replied bluntly. He was very drunk but his words were clear.

"Why is that?" I went along with it.

"I couldn't kill anyone. In the war. I just couldn't bring myself to it." The music kept beating away. We could only manage shot sentences. But my Friend was a different man. He wanted to tell me something.

"I can't imagine." I said.

Phu Quoc Island Palm Trees

"I left my post and deserted my Unit; the army...and as it turned out, everyone I ever knew."

He leaned toward me for each sentence.

"I can never go back to the U.S.....I got a warrant for my arrest for desertion during combat."

"The worst part is that I don't have a passport any more. If I get caught by Vietnamese authorities, they'll put me in jail on some illegal immigration charge."

I was in shock, listening to this man tell me his story. He took deep breaths of the smoke filled bar air and came back for more, leaning into me so I could hear him over the music.

"Everyday I wait for the Immigration Officers to come bursting through my door. I haven't had a visa or passport since 1969. Most everyone I've ever known thinks I'm dead."

Wow, Frank. What a story. Remember I said I had an important question for you? You know. I wouldn't leave you alone about it?"

Ya, I remember. Go ahead...ask."

I'm taking my wife to Phu Quoc Island. Fill me in."

He looked up at me and said one last thing.

"Watch the video below first and then I'll tell you why."

"Nice beach, huh? It's the greatest beach in Vietnam. But nobody goes there. They go up to Nha Trang, Hue City or Hoi An Instead.

"Where's the sense in that?" He asked me.

I tried to find a reason.

"It's a tough place to get to. It's an Island." I proclaimed.

"Oh, way to go Einstein. Yes, it's an Island. Have you heard of Boats and Airplanes?"

"Yes, of course I have."

"Then listen. You're the one going there. Tell me, how did you plan on getting there?

"I haven't worked that out yet.

"Then think, buttchuck." He raised his hand to my foreheard and flicked his finger against my earlobe. It hurt.

"Check out this map here":

Phu Quoc Map

He pointed two fat fingers on two dots on the map. "All you need to do is get down to Hai Tien City or Rach Gia City in the Very South of Vietnam. Ha Tien City is near Chau Doc, the border City where people cross by boat coming from Cambodia to Vietnam.

You can get a bus to either Ha Tien City or Saigon from Chau Doc. Chances are, if you take the boat from Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Chau Doc in Vietnam, you'll have to stay the night in Chau Doc.

It's an hour and a half bus ride from Chau Doc to Ha Tien and then another hour and a half on the boat to Phu Quoc Island. It's closer than going from Chau Doc to Saigon. And Saigon's a hole. Doesn't make sense to me."

Ya, I came across the border at Chau Doc," I said. "I should have headed to Phu Quoc before coming to Saigon".

Doesn't matter. A bus leaves every morning from Ho Chi Minh City for Chau Doc and drops you off in Ha Tien. You can get your bus ticket at any of the travel agents on Bui Vien Street in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City.

Just shop around, though. You can get some wildly varying prices but you shouldn't pay more that $6USD-$8USD for the bus to Ha Tien.

  • By Bus / Boat Combination

There are ferries to Phu Quoc from Rach Gia and Ha Tien, these cost around 70,000 Dong or $5USD. There are also fast boats from Rach Gia that take approximately 2.5 hours and leave in the morning or the afternoon. Tickets run as high as $15USD.

If you're arriving by ferry you'll find yourself at An Thoi at the southern tip of the island. This is very near lovely Bai Sao Beach. You can find accommodation at An Thoi as there will be many to choose from.

The last I checked, the ferry from Ha Tien to An Thoi on Phu Quoc Island ran every OTHER day. Check that you are booking a bus down to Ha Tien on a day the ferry runs.

"How do you know so much about Phu Quoc Island if so few people go there?" I asked him. He looked at me and I could see he was both haunted and pleased.

"Took each of my wives up there." He said with a sigh. Then he looked back into my eyes. "Each of my 3 babies was conceived on Pu Quoc Island. You wanna know how I know that?

"No, Frank. Please. No"

"You taking your wife?"

"Yes, I am."

"Lucky bugger. Do her a favor and fly her up. Vietnam Airlines fly their ATR72 turboprop from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc Island daily. They charged me $90USD return for a ticket to Phu Quoc this year 2007."

"And of course another $90USD for wife number 6." "Good thing we don't have to pay the departure fee at the airport for local flights. This love thing is breaking my bank." He looked back down to his beer and softened.

  • The Good Old Airplane

Vietnam Airlines fly to Phu Quoc Island from Ho Chi Minh City. daily. Flying is the most expensive way but also the fastest.

The flight takes an hour from Saigon.

Visas for Vietnam

You need a visa to go to Phu Quoc just like you do any other place in Vietnam. But if you are arriving at Phu Quoc by Cruise Ship, you will get a 15 day visa at point of entry. Make sure your passport has at least 45 days away from its expiry date.

"Where the hell am I going to stay?" I asked him. He looked up at me again but it was clear that he was annoyed.

"Why don't you do some of your own research?" He asked me.

That's what I'm doing right now. I actually write for the Travel-Budget-Asia.com website."

"Oh' Yeah," he nodded. "I know that website." He leaned over the table again, closer than ever before....piece of crap!" A little ball of spit came from his final word. I took it on the face and let it sit there.

"I'm still waiting", I said.

"Tropicana Hotel. That's where I stay. But its a little expensive for your budget website", he smiled.

"Most Backpackers aren't looking to impress someone of the opposite sex with a nice hotel room. They just want a cheap but descent place to sleep the night".

Phu Quoc Island Reefs

"Most of the budget Guesthouses are in and around the main town of Duong Dong. If you come by boat from Ha Tien City then you'll land at Ham Nihn Port. It's just 15 kilometers to Duong Dong Town from the Port and even less if you are landing at the airport".

He continued on.

"All of the best priced Guesthouses are within a few kilometers of Duong Dong town. But I think I already told you that. Every Guesthouse will send someone to pick you up, even if you never booked a room. The last thing you'll need to worry about is finding a room. They find you."

"How do you mean?" I asked.

"They'll be waiting for you at the Port where your Ferry will land and outside the arrivals gate at the airport. You'll have someone from every Guesthouse in town there. Just choose one."

I got up and bought Frank a beer at the bar. I watched him as I waited. He'd been in Vietnam since 1969. How could that ever happen?

He fascinated me and I wondered what kind of man could run his entire life, always uncertain if the following day would bring his discovery and capture.

I put the beer in front of him and he took it gladly.

"What is there to do on Phu Quoc Island?" It was my last question. Frank was a wealth of information about Vietnam but he got wound up easily and never stayed on topic for long.

Frank lifted his hand and pointed at his thumb with the other hand.

"First is the sunset. If you want to watch the sun set, then Phu Quoc Island is the only place in Vietnam to do that. It gets the hicks all crazy for ya. Phu Quoc Island is the only place in Vietnam where you can see the sun set. Drives the girls nuts.

"Second is scuba diving. The waters are very shallow and don't get deeper than 16-20M. Lots of fish and coral and the water is very clear. Saw a Bamboo shark once but it got scared when I swam after it." Frank chuckled and went on. I think he wanted to go home as well.

"Third, well. Phu Quoc is famous for producing the best Nuoc Mam or fermented fish sauce in the world. They'll have you sold on a tour of the fish sauce factory. Worst smell I've ever sucked into my lungs in all my life. Maybe you like rotten fish.

"Rent a motorbike. Seriously. This is an amazing Island and just exploring it on motorbike is a great adventure. Stay on the main road and you won't get lost. I drove for hours into the different beach areas. In the south are some really nice and quiet beaches. Best thing I did while I was there.

"Other than that I stick t my routine. I get up early and go for a swim in the ocean. Then I lie in the shade and do some reading. Then I eat lunch from one of the cafes near the beach.

"At night I go out to Eden Bar. The beer is cold and the food is great. Sometimes they bring me food while I'm o the beach for Lunchtime.

"Enough, Boy. See you at work tomorrow".

He headed off and left me writing as fast as I could so I wouldn't forget anything.

Phu Quoc hotels

FAQs:

  • Is there somewhere to get money or change Traveler's Cheques in Phu Quoc Island?

They are well equipped now. Most Hotels will accept travelers checks at a 2% service charge. There is an ATM and a Vietcom Bank in Duong Dong town nearby.

As a last resort, every jewelry shop is a bank in hiding. You can sell U.S. Dollars there and buy them and even get advances on credit cards. They will charge you the highest fees though so......

  • What if I get Sick Over there?

There are very basic medical facilities at both Ham Ninh and An Thoi. An Thoi is the better of the two. If it's serious then you should get on the next flight out to Saigon.

The worst problem for tourists is motorbike accidents. So, take it easy.

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