Monday, July 07, 2008

Vietnam Island is undiscovered -- for now

Margo Pfeiff
The Ottawa Citizen

CREDIT: MARGO PFEIFF
Canadian travel writer Margo Pfeiff tried - ultimately unsuccessfully - to succumb to the solitude and do absolutely nothing but relax on secluded Ong Lang Beach, on the quiet northwest corner of Phu Qu?c Island.
The fishing village of Duong Dong is where Vietnam's most famous fish sauce is made - and the air carries a light odour of fermenting fish. A vendor at Duong Dong market, in the centre of island's main town, sells meatballs. On this island, you can dine on world-class seafood for less than $10 a couple.
CREDIT: MARGO PFEIFF
The fishing village of Duong Dong is where Vietnam's most famous fish sauce is made - and the air carries a light odour of fermenting fish. A vendor at Duong Dong market, in the centre of island's main town, sells meatballs. On this island, you can dine on world-class seafood for less than $10 a couple.
The Mango Bay Resort where the writer stayed, the chef stands beside her lunch specials for that day.
CREDIT: MARGO PFEIFF
The Mango Bay Resort where the writer stayed, the chef stands beside her lunch specials for that day.
A map showing where the island is in Vietnam.
CREDIT: AP; ESRI THE OTTAWA CITIZEN
A map showing where the island is in Vietnam.

The plan was to do absolutely nothing on a beach for an entire week.

This may sound easy, but taking a real vacation is not easy for a travel writer, a fact that elicits absolutely no sympathy from my friends. But the line between work and play is easily blurred when you photograph and write about cycling trips in Ireland or cruising to Antarctica for a living.

I vowed to hide my notebook, pen and cameras under a bed in some bungalow on some tropical beach. It was to be my reward for spending most of a too-short Montreal summer on assignments in the Canadian Arctic: November in steamy Vietnam to escape not only the sleet, but the equally chilling reality of turning 50.

With a champagne bottle under his arm, my longtime buddy, journalist Jim Hutchison, who bases himself in Thailand four months of the year, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to meet me after I had finished a hectic schedule of filing stories in Hanoi. The next morning we boarded a plane to a place neither of us had heard of two days earlier, called Phu Quoc Island. On the spur of the moment, we allowed a single line in the October 2005 Conde Nast Traveler magazine's Word of Mouth tidbits section to decide our vacation destination: " ... an isle with immaculate beaches and tiny fishing villages an hour's flight from Ho Chi Minh City is among the country's most worthwhile excursions."

Phu Quoc is a teardrop-shaped island west of Ho Chi Minh City -- more commonly referred to by its old name, Saigon -- and just 20 kilometres off the coast of Cambodia. Roughly the size of Singapore, it's blanketed with the largest remaining swath of tropical rainforest in Vietnam. Only 75,000 people live there.

On our final approach I saw, through the plane window, the 25-kilometre-long uninterrupted strip of white sand that is Long Beach glittering in the sun. Funny, I thought, there's hardly anyone on the beach.

A battered taxi picked us up in the blast of tropical heat outside the airport building, which was practically in the centre of the main tiny fishing village of Duong Dong. Instead of staying on Long Beach, which is south of town, we had decided on secluded Ong Lang Beach, a spectacularly pot-holed seven kilometres north of town.

Finally we bumped through an old mango plantation to arrive at Mango Bay Resort, a string of bungalows amid palms and banyan trees. I was in heaven, supine on a deserted kilometre-long curve of beach before my luggage even reached our bungalow. I had no desire to see any sights, shop, learn about the island's culture, past, present or future -- that would be work. I wiggled my toes into the sand, opened a brand new book and sipped an icy Tiger Beer Jim had brought me.

When hunger forced me upright about noon, I was greeted at the open-air restaurant/bar with wafts of sauteed garlic and a blackboard menu announcing marinated and grilled black kingfish and green papaya salad with shrimp as specials. In all of Vietnam, food is morning-market fresh and simply cooked. Firm and white, the kingfish was barbecued and appeared with a tiny dish alongside that held small mounds of salt, pepper and a wedge of lime. Our cheery young waiter, Tin, demonstrated how to squeeze the lime into the salt and pepper, stir, and use the sauce as a fish dip.

"The pepper is not spicy," he explained and he was right. "Our Phu Quoc pepper is famous. Also fish sauce -- the most famous in Vietnam."

The travel writer in me involuntarily raised its head in curiosity, but I banished her by calling for another beer.

Mango Bay is a laid-back eco-resort run by two Saigon-based Brits and a mellow, bare-footed Aussie from Perth named Lawson Johnston, dressed only in well-worn aloha board shorts. Lawson was responsible for the "rammed earth bungalows" like ours, the first in Vietnam.

Rammed earth construction is a Western Australian invention. Wooden forms are filled 20 centimetres deep with a mixture of local soil and cement. The dirt is pounded with wooden rammers down to a thickness of just eight centimetres, then the process is repeated. It is hard as concrete, but more ecologically sound and cooler in the tropical heat.

Ours had a high-peaked thatch roof and a ceiling fan beneath which we slept under mosquito nets. The breeze blew through louvered windows and doors, which also let in the evening sound of cicadas. The bathroom and solar-heated shower were outside, where we had pet geckos on the bamboo wall that separated us from a grove of banana trees. Rustic but stylish, it was all white cotton, wicker and terra cotta.

We settled into a lazy routine. Up early for breakfast, I watched clouds of flitting dragonflies as the sun rose and fishermen sorted out their nets on the beach, then rowed their long, slim boats out to sea. Every morning, two sea eagles circled overhead. A few cute indigenous Phu Quoc Ridgeback puppies, once used by the French as hunting dogs, came looking for company.

Tucking into baguettes with jam -- a legacy of French colonialism -- I fueled my addiction to cafe sua da, slowly drip-dripping Vietnamese espresso through a little metal filter onto a dollop of super-sweetened condensed milk that is then stirred, poured over ice and injected into the neurological system via a straw. When the sun hit baking temperature, I headed for my spot on the beach beneath a thatch umbrella.

Most of the other visitors were European or Australian and we all kept mostly to ourselves. This was not a place for party animals. Just what we wanted.

The bliss of doing nothing wore off after three days and we rented a motorbike for the day to head to the minute rural metropolis of Duong Dong and onward to explore the scene at Long Beach.

"Not much of a 'scene' down there," Lawson mused from his perch at the bar.

He recommended a cafe for lunch and we were off, careening around elephant-sized potholes filled with mud, around mopeds piled ridiculously high with everything from mattresses to a trio of squealing basket-bound pigs. Everyone along the way shouted "hello" and waved.

Cashew and pepper plantations line the road, vines grow up stakes. Phu Quoc pepper is indeed famous throughout Vietnam, both white and black, and, in last year, the country became the world's largest exporter of pepper. When we reached the chaotic meeting place of fishing boats and vendors that is the town market, selling everything from live eels to custom made jeans, I picked up a kilo bag of fresh black pepper. It cost 80 cents.

Across a rickety bridge, Duong Dong is a typical no-frills Vietnamese country town with a government building, bank, restaurants, shops and cafes. It smells faintly, but not unpleasantly, of fish. Fermented fish sauce, to be exact, that other Phu Quoc specialty. In Vietnam everything from grilled shrimp to French Fries is sloshed with nuoc mam -- a pan-Asian condiment as popular as our ketchup and that's known in Thailand as nam pla.

Vietnam's best fish sauce is made in Duong Dong.

"It's the best because we use only long-jawed anchovies unlike our competitors who use a variety of fish," the woman who gave us an informal tour told us amid huge wooden vats where the mixture of fish and salt ferments and ages for an entire year before its first pressing.

"Our name, Phuoc Hong, is known to every chef in Vietnam," she said proudly.

The product is so sought-after that the government constantly chases down counterfeiters.

Long Beach begins just outside town and we bumped down a track towards the Tropicana resort, a cluster of bungalows, a pool and a sea-view cafe overlooking the palm-tree lined beach where a few sunbathers splayed on towels are being massaged by a clan of masseuses who stroll the strand. No tours, no crowds, just beachside cafes where you dine on world-class seafood for less than $10 a couple.

Besides one sizeable two-star resort called Saigon Phu Quoc that was clearly for the tour-bus set, we saw only about a dozen signs pointing down narrow lanes through tropical bush to guesthouses, cottages and bar/cafes on the beach. Then -- nothing.

No shops, gas stations, corner stores. Less than seven kilometres along the 25-kilometre-long beach, there was nothing but sun and sand.

How could one of the most beautiful beaches in Asia still exist so untouched within an hour's flight of a metropolis of seven million people? This is Thailand 25 years ago, I thought, before the over-development of once-deserted gems such as Phuket and Koh Samui.

I vowed I would never tell anyone about this place for fear of ruining it.

The next day, we again rented a moped to visit the very southern tip of the island. On a road that runs inland along the island's spine, we climbed into the hills, riding through miles of protected rainforest and swimming at the base of Da Ban waterfall. Deer, monkeys, gibbons, orchids, vanilla and cinnamon are in this lush forest. We passed a tacky theme park along the way with giant concrete monkeys and fake concrete trees, then the remains of the Coconut Prison. Built by the French, it was later used by the Americans as a POW camp and, after 1975, a re-education camp. At the very southern tip of the island is the fishing town of An Thoi, where charters leave for snorkelling and scuba diving that's reputed to be the best in Vietnam.

We arrived for lunch at lovely Bai Sao Beach on the island's east coast. The area has a few fishing villages, but nothing for tourists except for a small family restaurant called Ai Xiem where we sat in the shade of a thatch beach umbrella while our young waitress brought a tiny brazier to our table in the sand and grilled tiger prawns and fresh barracuda. Then we napped in hammocks.

It had been a perfect day except for the disturbingly frequent sight of billboards advertising planned subdivisions on a massive scale. When we turned back home along the west coast road, along the southern end of Long Beach, there were even more, so recently sprouted that clusters of locals on mopeds stopped to gaze at lavish plans for future resorts and shopping centres.

Lawson had told us that direct flights from Bangkok and Phnom Penh were in the works and that two five-star resorts are slated to open on Long Beach later this year. Other projects were also under construction.

The official Vietnamese government development website outlines a depressing list of planned attractions to come, including water parks and a miniature railway into the rainforest. Foreign capital, it boasted, is pouring in. The island, like the rest of Vietnam, is poor. The jobs would be welcome.

There are places you swear you'll never publicize by writing stories about them, for fear of destroying their perfection. There are places you only tell friends about when they ask where you, as a travel writer, would go on vacation. These places are generally one and the same -- places few have heard about.

Phu Quoc is one of them. But not for long.

The billboards are signposts to a future I've seen too many times in run-away commercial development of seaside gems around the world. Writing a story about this place at this point, I realized, would make little difference except to allow a few people to see untouched Asia before it disappears.

So, that evening, I pulled out my notebook and pen and wrote as I watched the brilliant red sun sink into the ocean -- the only place in Vietnam where you can see the sun set into the sea. Along the horizon appeared a string of diamond lights, lanterns that fisherman hang above their small wooden boats to attract the squid that tomorrow would be grilled on a brazier for lunch.

Margo Pfeiff has been a travel writer and photographer for 25 years and visited about 50 countries. When she's not travelling, she lives in Montreal.

IF YOU GO

Getting to Vietnam: Cathay Pacific has excellent daily connections to Ho Chi Minh City via Hong Kong from Toronto. Weekday, low-season economy class fares from Toronto start at $1,705 plus tax, with a free stopover in Hong Kong. Cathay also offers an excellent value All Asia Pass if you want to stay on and explore more of the region. The pass is valid for 21 days (there are some blackout periods) and offers 18 Asian cities for $1,599. All Asia Passes must be booked through a travel agent. See www.cathaypacific.com/ca

Getting to Phu Quoc Island: It's a 50-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam Airlines. There are several flights daily for $80 return.

Visa: At this time a visa is required for entry into Vietnam, but that is slated to change later this year. Contact the Vietnam Embassy in Ottawa for details: www.vietnamembassy-canada.ca/html/service.html or 236-1398.

When to go: The best time to visit is October through February.

Staying there:

- La Veranda Resort & Spa: A luxury resort on Long Beach slated to open mid-May. From $135 for a double bungalow. See http://www.laverandaresort.com/phuquoc.htm or call 011-84-8-8237-645.

- Mai House Resort: 14 bungalows in a tropical garden with sea views of Long Beach; $45 including buffet breakfast and airport transfer. E-mail bezardin@hcm.vnn.vn or call 011-84-77-847-003.

- Mango Bay Resort: $45 U.S. for a rammed earth bungalow and $30 U.S. for a fisherman's cottage, all with continental breakfast included. www.mangobayphuquoc.com or 011-0903-382-207.

Where to eat:

Casual dining -- generally seafood --within sight of a beach is the rule.

- Bo Resort, seven kilometres north of Duong Dong, is a small, rustic resort run by a French and Vietnamese couple. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Excellent seafood. www.boresort.com

- The Tropicana on Long Beach has very good food. http://www.northvalleyroads.com/tropicana/

- Seafood at Mai House Resort (above) on Long Beach is also excellent.

- On Bai Sao Beach, Ai Xiem is a family run seafood cafe right on the beach sand. Open for lunch and dinner.

- Excellent Vietnamese coffee in Duong Dong town is available at Cung Cafe, 51 Ba Muoi Thang Tu St.

More:

www.phuquoc.info

http://www.vietnam-tourism.com/vietnam_gov/e_pages/Dulich/home_dulich.htm is the official government tourism website

www.vngold.com/pq for some good panoramic views

www.virtourist.com/asia/vietnam/phu-quoc/index.html -- Phu Quoc photos

www.divevietnam.com for scuba diving