“Phu Quoc island in Vietnam offers chances to relax on the beach, explore fragrant countryside, marvel at wildlife – and enjoy sumptuous seafood. Just get there before mass tourism.” -Telegraph, September 12, 2009
“The island’s hopes rest with tourism: By 2020, Phu Quoc, population 90,000, is expected to attract three million visitors a year. The island, one hopes, won’t sacrifice its unexpected charms.” -The New York Times, Jan. 12, 2012
“Fringed with white-sand beaches and with large tracts still cloaked in dense tropical jungle, Phu Quoc rapidly morphed from a sleepy island backwater to a must-visit beach escape for Western expats and sun-seeking tourists.” -Lonely Planet, Current Description
A journalist, one day off the plane from Phu Quoc and sharing dinner with us in Saigon, described first Phu Quoc’s airport: “It’s massive and built in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle but with all these modern amenities. You’re not expecting it, and its size makes clear that the government was preparing for a major tourist influx.” She remained tight lipped about her opinions. Her other observations—condos overcrowding certain roads, land marked for luxury development—came with the even handedness of a journalist trained to subsume all judgment. Looking back, she perhaps was making a subtle argument against Phu Quoc. Instead of describing the sucrose beaches and picturesque island life vignettes that had empurpled the prose of online travel writers, this journalist discussed the airport and hospitals as if they were out place. Rich interlopers almost.
If Leonie and I were, in fact, aloof, it was partly because Phu Quoc’s minor presence in the online blogosphere is glowing and reputable. Look at the quotes that start this article. Phu Quoc was (is) stamped by some columns as the region’s next Phuket, pre-discovery. My thinking was that we’d visit a place that Condé Nast will make a glossy feature out of in ten years.
That was the expectation anyways.
I don’t feel particularly bamboozled that the reality differed remarkably. Travel articles are, at their core, sales pitches and are allowed to abide by a day-dreamy set of writing rules. Papers like The New York Times or The Washington Post, which are usually stringent in allowing superfluous description, edit travel articles with the reckless abandon of a grammar school teacher trying to promote adjective usage. Opening ledes in particular display the most egregious cliches: planes and rivers crawl, city roads are invariably clogged, going over a country road lets you zip. When you’re in a train, buildings and mountains flit by. Vistas are sweeping, water glimmers, markets bustle, towns are nestled. The typical travel article structure is: media res opening with the writer on a form of local transportation; three location facts; backstory and continuation of opening anecdote (inevitably one that shows the writer to be uncommonly intrepid and proficient at finding rare, not usually for tourist opportunities); adjectives; and then sales pitch. If the writer claims to have discovered a place, they toss in a line to the effect of, “Visit before all the tourists get here!” The article will appear in a magazine or newspaper with a readership of a few million. At the bottom, in bold, are recommended places to stay and restaurants.
Properly hooked and leded, Leonie and I departed mainland Vietnam for Phu Quoc on a ferry named Super Dong IV, which, unfortunately, does not sell t-shirts. We zipped across a glittering sea for two hours. Distant fishing boats and the tips of small islands flitted by. Harbor towns nestled into folds of land, and we peered out our windows at the grand, sweeping vista of sea until Phu Quoc grew from a sand pebble to an island in front of us.
Phu Quoc, you need to understand, is a narrative unwritten as much as it is a place. For a tourist visiting for pleasure it is an exploitation, a promise breathed and then sucked in, greedily shoved into developers’ pockets and improvised then impoverished. Phu Quoc is the concentration of capital and the disbursement of displaced. Shedding concrete buildings and potholed clay roads, jungle-knotted lots and refuse piled into mountains and tires burning. It’s a smell, of fermented fish and humid pepper, roasted coffee and fish scales flaked under wet sun. Its inhabitants are fishers, salesmen, construction men, whatever type of person it is that must hustle and scrape out of necessity, then that person resides in Phu Quoc. Pocketed throughout the island—little capitalist incisions into its poverty—are resorts. They have neat buildings and tended grounds and beaches combed free of trash. In the evening their air turns into cotton from smoke that drives mosquitos off. They are where the Phu Quoc of brochure finds its buffer from the Phu Quoc of truth.
The drive from the harbor to our lodging took forty minutes. Side roads off the main one are marked less by official street signs and more by bespoke wood placards nailed up by whatever business has use for them. The one our driver turned for had the calligraphed words, “Mango Bay.”
Mango Bay is a resort, and, based on subjective evidence, the one most frequently recommended by newspapers. One article mentioned that it’s possible to remain at the resort for the duration of your trip. How we ended up there was a stroke of off-season luck. We booked it for the grotesquely cheap price of $60USD a night, which confirmed my suspicion in coming to Vietnam that I’d end up spending more there than I did in New Zealand, a country where inhaling air has an exorbitant import tax. To make money last in NZ I instituted draconian frugality measures (with some exceptions)—I’m talking cut the toothpaste tube open and scrape the paste off to get a couple more brushes in level of frugality. And since the gap between budget accommodation and luxury is on par with the gap between America’s middle class and its top 1%, I gratefully forked the $30USD over for a dorm bed. But in Vietnam, having accustomed myself to New Zealand prices and traveling while my country’s dollar is as strong as our President’s hair gel, money filtered out of my wallet because the fire sale cheapness of everything made me feel fancy free. Beer is a buck? I’ll take 12. A massage is $2/hr? Clear my schedule. When inexpensive accommodation could be had for the change in my pocket, I wound up sales pitching myself whenever a slightly-out-of-budget luxury lodging with Snickers turndown service, pillow menu, auto-bidet, and on and on for $80USD showed up on search results.¹ I reasoned, “I would be an idiot to not take this deal.”
When our cab parked, I fought with the porter over who’d take my trekking bag. I lost. The porter took us to reception. A delightful hostess welcomed us with a beverage, platter of fruit, and cold towels and had us sit and stare at the water until we felt that we’d excised the aquatic stress of Super Dong.
I don’t think it’s accidental that this resort appealed mostly to couples. The one solo traveler I saw sat and read at dinner, and, at night, got gently inebriated while he chatted up the bar tenders. Everyone else was glad to be with their partner and take photos of their food entrees, either up close or with the sea as a backdrop. These couples talked on occasion, showing each other the photos they just took or ones they’d taken earlier or other peoples’ photos entirely. Mornings were the most lively for chatter as couples sorted through the resort activity options that were packaged as ideal for pairs but also suited for going it alone—massages, yoga, martial arts, snorkeling, and cycling. Couples debated with genuine fervency and, when decided, finished up their breakfasts and scattered. We saw these couples again each evening at four since that’s when tapas and drinks were half off. Leonie would get smashed on vodka with passionfruit juice, and I’d go through half a bottle of Martini Bianco on ice. And we’d just sit there, reenacting spousal affection by not touching each other and not saying much, just sipping our booze, spinning the ice in our glasses, and every now and again saying, “So what are you thinking?” or “I’m kind of buzzed.”
Leonie’s one professed goal was to rent a motorbike and explore. Her pluck is indomitable compared to mine, so when she invited me along I said, “Nope, have at it alone.” The next morning at breakfast I had chance to reconsider, but I watched a group of Americans I’d seen at breakfast the day before. At that breakfast, this group, two couples, all college kids, teeth aligned, broad shouldered, towering heights, were pulling their dining chairs without issue, ambling to the jam bar without limp, and presented to the world blemish free and cosmetic softened skin. That next morning though, it appeared as if they’d been on the losing side of a battle against asphalt. One girl in particular was on the verge of mummification. Arms, legs, and parts of her face were bandaged. The others had gauze taped to their thighs and forearms. The skin around their black and blue marks was the color of jaundice. Limps stilted their walks, and they rose from their chairs like acute hemorrhoid victims. “I’m definitely not going with you,” I told Leonie.
The mental fortitude to get out of the resort turned to be feeble once we’d accustomed ourselves to its tended charms. No doubt this effect is purposeful: overhead is bosky shade, at bungalow front is sea, between capillary footpaths are plugs of jungle. The resort’s system makes you feel tucked into your own privacy and invites a routine. After drinks and dinner Leonie and I would stand on the beach and watch fishing boats light up the horizon, accompanying the halo moon and reminding us that Phu Quoc is, at its soul, a fishing island. We would return to our open walled bungalow to see that lizards the length of pillows entered the room and suction footed themselves to the wall. They moved anxious inches once we entered but stayed like taxidermy decorations while we change into pajamas, brushed our teeth, and slept while breathing in the fragrant smoke from the mosquito fogging. This lethargic routine made the rest of the island different, it colored the entirety of our experience because, at the resort, everything was done under the umbra of our enjoyment. How could we not begin to think that each step beyond the property made the same promise?
The first time Leonie and I did manage to leave was on bicycle. We cycled to Duong Dong, Phu Quoc’s main town. Duong Dong is fish. The guts and scales and blood of the industry are soaked too deep into the atoms of the place to be scrubbed off. It permeates. But the ride was exhilarating: we drafted behind trucks and pumped hard to keep up with the children who sat on the back of motorbikes and extended their hands to touch us. We raced downhill, trying to keep their laughs close to earshot.
The second time we left separately. Leonie went off on her motorbike trip. I went on an escapade through the island’s main attractions: a green pepper farm with acreage the size of a tissue; a fish sauce factory; a former POW camp run with the training and tacit approval of U.S. Forces (I was the only American and very conscious of it); a park with waterfalls and ghoulish wood statues; and then to Phu Quoc’s magnet beach, Sao. Sao was a spectacularly underwhelming bight with flat surf, sands festooned with garbage, and an over abundance of lounging choices. Roofs protected lines of empty hammocks, and chairs with broken plastic straps were advertised for a few thousand Dong an hour. At beach center, I walked past an unattended aqua sports rental booth. The employee was in the water revving a jet ski and doing doughnuts. A few hotels at beach end sported British patrons incinerating their skin to boiled lobster red. The people splashing around in the water were Indian, Russian and Chinese. Vietnamese watched from shore or from the narrow motorboats that shuttled to and from fishing boats at anchor in deeper water. I stripped to my bathers, hid my wallet and clothes inside a rubber tire, and went swimming. I dried off, stayed for half an hour more, and left.
On the road home, I decided Phu Quoc’s most recognizable physical feature is not a beach but a massive road north of Duong Dong called Vo Van Kiet. It was an airplane runway, abandoned, and put to use as a road though to the east it leads no where and to the west it goes to a trash dump. When I first saw it I thought airplanes still landed and that all the cars, motorbikes, and wheeled street vendors simply split off as the aircraft approached. Silly? Sure.
When I returned to the resort I sat on the restaurant deck and ordered a coffee. I asked the waitress why so many employees were named “Trainee,” since she and at least five others had that on their name tags. When she didn’t understand she walked away and returned a few minutes later with the manager who, with crossed hands, said he heard I had a question and he’d be happy to answer it. I had to realize it was a pettily cruel joke to inflict on someone making a living in their own country while being made to learn another culture’s language. I said, “Never mind, cảm ơn,” and guilt ordered a cocktail with tip inclusion.
When Leonie returned she said, “I would be happy staying here for our remaining time.”
Phu Quoc’s airport was, as promised, supremely large and well outfitted for tourist inundation. On the morning we departed, the immensity belittled what were ample numbers of people checking in and going through security. The plane lifted off and circled the island. I looked below and it appeared that only a few roofs squatted under forest canopy.
The question I had leaving Phu Quoc is answerable by someone who has been there since when it was a sleepy island backwater: whether Phu Quoc pinned too much on the initial accolades and overbuilt itself and exploited its beauty because of the idea of profit. Squandered is a word that comes to mind. I ask this because high minded expectations will not find meeting place here. If Phu Quoc is laureled to be a prime tropical vacation get away then let me be unequivocal and say that it is not.² You can find enjoyment with the right set of calibrated presumptions, but if your expectation is a Thailand or Bali style retreat then Phu Quoc’s trash will subvert it. Its beaches are not destined for glossy pages any time soon unless it comes with an extensive photoshop touch up. My short term visitor’s eye tells me that Phu Quoc has been exploited, and to visit it is to glimpse how the hope of tourist dollars corrupts: jungle is overlaid by development, luxury is segregated from reality, and a promise is tarnished.
¹ A Vietnam travel tip—book boutique hotels either over the phone, in person, or through the hotel website. They offer unique deals not found on price aggregators. The deals range from 20% off to free late check out. Unless traveling during high season, the majority of hotels will have a few open rooms each night.