How (not) to enjoy Phu Quoc

“Fringed with white-sand beaches”, “a must-visit beach escape for Western expats and sun-seeking tourists”, “idyllic beaches, romantic sunsets, evergreen forests, and a serene atmosphere, making it an ideal holiday destination” – that’s how the internet swears by Phu Quoc (further referred to as PQ). As you can see, superlatives follow one another. Well, my first piece of advice here will be a very firm – don’t fall for it! I have to join a handful of like-minded individuals, who claim in reviews what I am going to describe here in more detail. That is, that all the above boasts are blatant lies. I have to burst this bubble and tell you what PQ really is about. Don’t take me wrong, it’s a nice place with its charm. In fact, there are many lovely aspects to this island. However, pristine beaches and paradise-like atmosphere are not it.

Beautiful colours and photogenic people everywhere you look – that’s PQ for me.

Getting there

Some people also seem to claim, beyond unrealistic fairy tales of this island’s magic beauty, that getting from the airport to main beach aka the area around the capital – Duong Dong – takes about 30 minutes. Well, I took a bus and was in the buzz of everything in a nice 7 minutes. What’s more, it was a super cheap private ride. There were no other passengers, except for another local lady with a baby. Hats off to the driver! Or maybe sometimes charm and broken English can go a long way. Broken English is certainly something you should try in Vietnam as fluent English will get you literally nowhere.

Driver ushering me into the bus for something that’s going to be very a pleasant ride. No waits, no delays, just VIP treatment. Loved it.

 

Sitting next to the driver is awesome for taking photos of the life outside.

The beaches

Take for example the busiest and most famous beach on the island – Long Beach. Without further ado let me just say it’s dirty. The sand, water and surroundings are all dirty and it has this weird sticky feel. I understand I might be spoilt but I seriously admired everyone who swam. Unsurprisingly it were mainly locals who seemed to enjoy the murky waters with pieces of rubbish floating around the most.

Brave swimmers.

 

People going out and about is mostly what the beach is great for.

Trust me, most beaches along that shore are not any better. Even if you held your nose and closed both of your eyes, you would still have to inevitably come to an understanding that testing such waters might be a hazard. What’s more, most photos online are heavily photo-shopped so forget those pictures to tally with reality and save yourself some disappointment.

 

Unlike the beaches, life on the river in Duong Dong is picturesque any time of the day.

In a nutshell

Overall PQ is full of building sites, dumping sites, unfinished or abandoned sites and in general simply few pleasant sites. If you travel around the island, you will deal with bad roads which rain regularly transforms into a mud fight as there is no way you can come clean out of this. Literally. Infrastructure along the main road is non-existent, except for a couple of rudimentary tea shops. While I mostly like rudimentary a lot, here it felt weird.

Sunsets around the beach are wonderful and make for pleasant strolls.

During my wandering around, I didn’t come across a single place or corner where I’d say to myself ‘Oh, that’s quaint’. I know we all perceive beauty differently but to me PQ is an island with no beach vibe whatsoever and if you are like me, think twice before booking a holiday here. There are better locations within Vietnam itself, such as Hoi An and An Bang. But frankly, if you want beach, I’d say give PQ (or Vietnam for that matter) a wide berth. There is a reason why they say Vietnam is not a beach location and I would sign this statement without the slightest hesitation. And if PQ wasn’t an island, I would even dare lie and say it’s landlocked to save you from the misery of a vitamin sea junkie falling for this trap.

These locals were smiling at me that is until I pointed my camera at them. Many don’t want to be photographed.

 

Sellers around the beach area.

Chinese influence

Exploring the island, you will ride past ugly, monumental, tasteless and scary looking projects. Huge construction sites, most propelled by Chinese investors, dot the main road. These ridiculous à la Disneyland buildings can’t nothing but remind you of bad, totalitarian regime the intentions of which are to wipe out any signs of local culture and architecture and replace them with hideous, wannabe modern concepts that could possibly only attract a blind person or a person with no taste whatsoever.

This is only a tiny fraction of what’s being built behind – an unbelievable freak show.

What pains me more is the fact Vietnam is not the only country which partly succumbed to the infamous Chinese greed and bribery. Yes, it’s true – money talks loud, indeed. And that’s why all these projects you will see talk even louder. Their ugliness is hard to describe for a person who would love to chill on a beach, enjoying watching sunset with a bottle of beer in hand.

There might come a time when we will have to look back and appreciate what we destroyed.

Unfortunately, I don’t have so many photos. Partly, because I was so exhausted by the time I reached this apocalyptic spot, and partly also because the guards were constantly after me. They even chased me on the bicycle shouting “No photos allowed.” Doesn’t this remind you of something? Oh yeah, Chinese style. Writing these lines amidst the corona virus outbreak and lock-down, trust me, I have a very bitter feeling in my stomach, wishing some storm wiped out all that shit (I mean the ugly buildings obviously) and allowed this part of the island to go back to it’s natural feel. Well, maybe the corona virus outbreak will now stop this bloody development, which would be a silver lining, definitely.

Explore, experience, enjoy – a slogan accompanying the ugliness for the rich and blind.

The worst

If I said that the hunt for the allegedly only pristine beach was strenuous, it would be an understatement. I rented a bicycle and it was one of the worst things I could have done. There were moments I seriously thought I’d collapse on the road at best or have a heart attack at worst. I kid you not. It was such a messed-up trip that has left me with strong impressions to this day and therefore I will devote another post to this, presenting you this part of the short stay in PQ as a story. Stay tuned:)

Phu Quoc waking up. Nature creates beautiful and dramatic colours indeed. Can you spot the cat?

This trip was so unthinkable that it left me with no energy whatsoever to explore other places. To be fair, I had also very little time, but one thing is for sure. I did 70 kilometres around the island (back and forth) so I guess that’s enough to make such harsh claims. The only corner that might be indeed worth is the northern part but please, don’t be silly like me and rent a motorbike. This is probably the part where beaches might be dotted with palms and hidden in lush rain forests. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it there. But it might be the only worth spot for beach holiday seekers.

First early risers.

The good

As I said above, if you are a photographer, hobbyist or professional regardless, you should probably love it. PQ, as many other parts of Vietnam, does justice to this typical buzz you can find on markets, streets, and squares. People start roaming as early as 3 am and this provides a perfect opportunity for some unique blue-hour shots.

Famous Bahn Mi sandwich is sold everywhere in Vietnam 24/7.

What is more, PQ offers a decent variety of quaint cafés (my go-to place for coffee and smoothies was Ca Phe Sua Da) and bars, traditional restaurants, markets – wet or dry – and simply wandering around was always inspiring. I spent my days there literally out on streets. Luckily, I spent there two nights only, as trust me, more would really be not advisable for a spoilt beach addict like me. Yet, during those a little less than 3 days I barely slept as I didn’t want to miss a single opportunity to shoot. Early morning, late at night, I was there. And my buddy Fuji xa3, God bless him, couldn’t believe the pace at which I was clicking. The inspiration was endless, and my hunger for memories in the form of photos was insatiable.

My favorite avocado smoothie. Hmm, sooo yummy. This is definitely a Vietnamese know-how – food, coffee and tasty drinks.

 

Tasting craft beer at one of the cosy bars near the bridge and the café mentioned above.. The owner was so nice to even drop me by a stall for dinner near my hotel. This bar is in the Le Loi street (Duong Dong), next to another bar called House 1. It’s the only bar with craft beer so you can’t miss it.

Markets

Compared to other wet markets I have been to in Vietnam, PQ was definitely the most hardcore. In a good way though. People were swarming in this typical style, with no system whatsoever, yet impeccably organised, among stalls with all kinds of goods. However, meat, my dear friends, meat was the real hardcore. Blood from dead animals was just everywhere you looked and the air smelled iron way too much. Walking required careful treading as stepping into a puddle of blood would be incredibly easy. Beauty and mess in its rawest form. Holy mishmash!

A pig’s head anyone?

 

A man about to lift a piece of meat for sale.

People

People were incredibly friendly and if we could understand each other somehow, which I will address in a paragraph below, it would be even ‘awesomer’. As a woman, though, I got a lot of attention from men and it felt great. When they saw me with my camera, some of them were literally thirsty to appear in a photo and would happily pose.

A couple enjoying dinner.

 

A group of men greeting me and posing for me.

Egg coffee

Whenever I’m in Vietnam I always have at least a few cups of egg coffee. My first encounter with this amazing beverage dates back to 2018 when I was in Hanoi. I fell in love immediately. In PQ you can sip it while watching sunset. I love Phu Quoc is the place where you need to be.

My addiction. I could drink multiple cups of this every day and still not have enough.

It’s supposed to be the best restaurant in the PQ. Well, it’s not. The food I ordered was cold, since they brought the starter, main course and dessert all at once. Holy mishmash. The communication in English was even worse than the food, but the view and coffee were to die for, so I forgave them.

Expensive cold meal but it’s okay. I am forgiving.

English challenge

I will allow myself one last remark. I’ve been to four different places in Vietnam, all of them more or less tourist spots or major cities. And I can’t help but wonder how come most Vietnamese still suck so incredibly at English. Leaving Hanoi aside, where things were easy, in Phu Quoc even in restaurants and hotels the communication in English was challenging to say the least. Employing body language or using phone with pictures didn’t work either.

Female clan checking out the buzz outside.

I know that travelling is about accepting other cultures and as a teacher I should be more forgiving, after all it’s my bread, so no offence to anyone, but I guess I have become slightly critical after multiple exposures to irritating blank stares and answering yes to everything, even open-ended questions. Comparing with say Cambodia or Myanmar where even the simplest parts of the commercial chain such as boatmen, beach sellers, cleaners, guards, etc. could hold a simple conversation and give advice where necessary, Vietnam falls way behind. I know the circumstances under which they were exposed to languages were not always ideal, but this extremely prevalent foreign ‘language-proofness’ is just nothing short of spectacular. And yet, penning this post in the time of partial lock-down, I would give anything to be there now. So nothing sinister indeed, just an observation.

I interrupted this lady during lunch, so hence her look. No communication in English involved.

Thanks if you read till here. A story about my Phu Quoc bicycle trip is coming up with a (hopefully) bonus feature.

18 thoughts on “How (not) to enjoy Phu Quoc

    1. Now I know why they say Vietnam is not a beach destination. Though I do want to visit Danang and Hoian but this would be so helpful to me while I plan my Vietnam trip. Thank you 🙂

  1. I’ve not had a chance to visit Vietnam but would love to go! Thank you for sharing such an honest and informative review of this particular place.

  2. Wow that’s a really in depth post! I really enjoyed your honest review of PQ.

    Honestly I’m not much of a world traveler and haven’t been anywhere near Asia. That’s why I think it’s so cool that travelers like you share your adventures with us homebodies lol!

    Sorry the trip wasn’t as you’d hoped but it sounds like at the very least, you’ve got a great story to tell!!

    1. Thank you for this great comment and appreciation of my review. And yes, as you say, sometimes not so great experiences make for awesome stories.

  3. Wonderful post ! wow, I will have to keep this and share with my friends who are travellers ! These are great tips to know ! Thanks for sharing !

  4. I have a “soft spot” for Vietnam and her people. I lived there on and off over a ten year a period and learned to speak the language. Vietnam is full of beauty, and as you describe honestly – the not so beautiful. Because of this I learned much about being flexible and moving with the flow. Vietnam was a great teacher for me.

    I have dear friends there and your photographs brought back memories. I never did make it to PQ so you’ve taken me there from my lockdown armchair :).

    I’m interested to know if you connected with any locals? Also what time of the year you went? Even in places like An Bang the beaches aren’t so nice in the wet season. Go in the right season, and it’s like you’re in paradise.

    I understand there are things about Vietnam that are extremely confronting and traveling there can be overwhelming at times. That being said Vietnam is part of my history now. The Vietnamese people have been through much hardship over hundreds of years and I deeply respect them for coming through strong and having a heart of forgiveness toward visitors.

    I long to visit again (but will likely avoid PQ :))

    1. Thank you so much for this in-depth comment.
      I hope my post didn’t come across as I don’t like Vietnam or Vietnamese.
      I do and have had some amazing times whenever I was there.
      The only ‘problem’ is that unfortunately sometimes certain locations are presented as paradise, while they are not.
      At least not for the reason for which they are touted.

      Vietnam is an amazing country and actually, I would even very much like to live and work there.

      I didn’t have a chance to connect with many locals though, as my visits were always short, but I did meet some nice people and have fond memories of the country.

      I long to visit too actually.

      You could go to PQ but don’t expect nice and clean beaches, indeed.

      Thanks again for this amazing comment! Totally made my day.

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