By Pamela Roth, guest columnist
When I first read about Phu Quoc Island in a guidebook, it stirred up images of a wild tropical landscape virtually untouched by tourism.
I pictured rustic beach huts scattered along miles of deserted white, sandy beaches swamped with palm trees. The warm turquoise water is calm and clear, providing endless hours of snorkeling adventures.
Phu Quoc Island was the final stop of a three-week backpacking adventure through Vietnam with my best friend Lex. After constantly being on the move, it seemed like the perfect place to unwind before we made the long journey back to Canada.
Located in the Gulf of Thailand 15 km south of the coast of Cambodia, Phu Quoc is Vietnam¹s largest island and less than an hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City.
The majority of the land is dedicated to a national park and protected marine environment, so the island is relatively undeveloped, providing a good place for those who want to get away from it all and connect with the local people.
But it won’t be this way much longer.
The Vietnamese government has visions of turning Phu Quoc into the Phuket of Vietnam, and has formed a master plan to develop the island into an eco-tourism destination.
A new international airport recently opened in December, but the island still needs to overcome infrastructure problems such as paved roads, limited accommodation and a better power system in order to attract more international tourists. Aside from a string of restaurants and hotels along Long Beach, there is little when it comes to tourist services, which is both good and bad.
When I arrived on the island, I was pleased to see it had nearly everything I had imagined. Lex and I wasted no time renting a scooter to explore the 1320 square kilometres that are home to approximately 90,000 people.
Sitting on the back of the scooter, we headed south, determined to find the pristine and secluded Sau Beach that was recommended by the locals at our resort.
It was smooth sailing until the paved road ended within minutes of us leaving the hotel strip. We were forced to take on the “unsealed” road, which was basically red dirt and sand, combined with stretches of gravel, giant potholes, and large, sharp rocks.
The stretches of road that were “sealed” meant one lane of pavement. So when a large truck came along — and there were a few of them — it took up the entire road, leaving a sliver of room for a scooter to pass by.
The road followed the shoreline for much of the way, showcasing stretches of deserted beaches, fields of palm trees and decrepit homes put together with sheets of metal.
I held on tight as we dodged the massive holes and slid across patches of sand. It was a nail-biter of a ride at times, making it difficult to relax and enjoy the scenery. Thankfully, there was little traffic to contend with.
It took about 45 minutes to find the beach and I was relieved to see it was well worth the journey. The white sand felt like silk on my feet. The turquoise water was warm and clear with plenty of palm trees offering an escape from the scorching sun.
The next day we were back on the scooter, this time heading north to Vung Bau Beach, where the roads were slightly better.
On this part of the island, pepper farms dot the landscape and there’s the odd place to get fish sauce (pearls, pepper and fish sauce are what the island is known for).
My trusty map led us astray at times, and there are few signs along the road, so I had no choice but to stop and ask the friendly locals lounging in their hammocks for directions. This was always entertaining given the language barrier.
We stopped in one of the handful of fishing villages to ask a couple of tourists for directions. They were standing outside a lively wedding reception where merry locals were dressed up and singing karaoke, a favourite past time in Vietnam.
As I approached the noisy festivities, still wearing my giant yellow helmet, a couple of cheerful men handed me a beer, inviting me inside.
“Today is the happiest day,” said one of the men with a permanent grin plastered on his face.
You never know what you¹ll find around the next turn.
Pamela Roth is a crime reporter and travel writer for the Edmonton Sun in Alberta, Canada.