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Phu Quoc highlights and travel guide

Phu Quoc Overview

Phu Quoc Island is an idyllic vision of sandy beaches, thick jungle, and clear blue waters. It has undergone many transformations from an undisturbed island with a population of fewer than 1000 people to a topic of contention and fighting between countries and now a quintessential Vietnamese holiday destination.

Phu Quoc island overview
Phu Quoc island overview

Phu Quoc is the largest island in Vietnam and stretches 50 km from north to south and is 25 km at its widest part. A large mountain range runs along the length of the island, reaching 603 meters at its highest point.

It sits just South of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand and has two seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season runs from around June to November and the dry season from December to March. The hottest time of the year is between April and March when temperatures can reach a roasting 35 degrees celsius, however, Phu Quoc is warm throughout the year with temperatures mostly remaining above 22-23 degrees celsius. To catch Phu Quoc in its prime it's best to travel during the dry season when the sun is out, the humidity is low, and the skies are clear.

Phu Quoc hasn't always been the blissful paradise retreat that exists today. Up until the 1750s, the island was relatively undisturbed with a small population of local people who made their living mostly from the sea. During this time the island was known for its harvest of sea cucumbers.

Attention was brought to the island in the 1760s through to the 1780s when French missionary Pierre Pigneau de Behaine harboured Prince Nguyen Anh who was fleeing the Tay Son.

In 1869, more change was brought upon the island when the French occupied Phu Quoc and established the rubber and coconut plantations. The island was later returned to Vietnam in 1949.

During the America-Vietnam War, the US troops expanded Coconut Tree Prison which had been used in the First Indochina War and used it to house tens of thousands of prisoners. This prison still remains a part of the island and has become a tourist attraction which depicts the harrowing conditions that prisoners once faced.

The island faced more uncertainty as it became the cause of contention between Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took control on Phu Quoc only to be defeated again by Vietnam during the Vietnam-Cambodia War.

Today, however, Phu Quoc is a tranquil retreat which is growing in popularity each year and has great plans for its future.

Currently, Phu Quoc National Park covers over 50% of the island. It is a fantastic place to indulge your inner explorer with a ion of rough tracks to choose from. The park is surrounded by white sandy beaches that stretch lazily along the shore and into the clear, warm ocean. The coral ecosystems that can be found just off the shore are home to some amazing sea wildlife and offer fantastic scuba diving opportunities. As well as the immense beauty of the island's natural landscape, there are other forms of entertainment on offer and more development planned for the future.

Phu Quoc is already the ideal place to escape the stresses of everyday life and immerse yourself in island living.  

See and Do

The main attractions of Phu Quoc are the sandy beaches which fringe the island. They are the perfect place to kick back and relax, bask in the sun and soak up the laid back ambience. Although some of the beaches have been lost to impending construction, there are still plenty of beautiful beaches to enjoy.

Long Beach, Ong Lang Beach, Vai Bung Beach. Phu Quoc island
Long Beach, Ong Lang Beach, Vai Bung Beach. Phu Quoc island

One of the biggest and most popular beaches on Phu Quoc is Bai Troung or Long Beach, aptly named as the beach stretches 20km along the coastline. Located on the west coast of the island, this area is the main hub of tourism with the beach backing onto a ion of resorts, restaurants, and cafes. This beach is the epitome of a relaxing island getaway. It has everything you could possibly desire right at your fingertips, soft white sand, clear blue waters, delicious seafood, fresh fruit, and much more. Although some areas of the beach, especially the northern end, have become quite developed and can get a little crowded at peak times, because of the beach's size, there is still enough space for everyone to have their own piece of paradise.

Slightly quieter than Long Beach, Ong Lang Beach and Vai Bung Beach are just a short journey northwards from Long Beach. They both offer the same calm blue water and sandy beaches but with less of a crowd. Each has a handful of resorts and food shacks dotted along the edge their beaches.

For those who prefer an even more secluded, undisturbed patch there are plenty of other beaches to choose from, some of which may need a little local knowledge to find them.

The sunsets on Phu Quoc are truly unmissable, and the beach is the perfect place to take in this daily wonder. As the hot, round sun glides effortlessly down the clear sky, its brilliant light cloaks the island in a golden glow. The glass like ocean reflects the light like a final parting call to the sun before it descends behind the still horizon. This is the perfect way to top off any day on Phu Quoc and adds a hint of island magic to any holiday.

Scuba diving, jet skis, wind sails. Phu Quoc island
Scuba diving, jet skis, wind sails. Phu Quoc island

Scuba diving is another of Phu Quoc's biggest draws. The main areas to North and South of the Island offer divers the chance to see the many incredible species living in the coral reef. The top spot for scuba diving is in the An Thoi Archipelago off the south coast of the island. Here the amazing coral reef stretches up to 25 meters below the surface and is home to stingrays, manta rays, bamboo sharks and the occasional turtle as well as a host other creatures. To the north of Phu Quoc are Turtle Island and Fingertip Island both of which are surrounded by coral of up to 10 meters in depth. These are great places to spot some of the smaller species of wildlife living in the area.

As well as scuba diving, there are more and more watersports being introduced to Phu Quoc each year. Snorkelling can be a great way of getting a peek at the coral and some of its inhabitants. Some resort are now offering jet skis, kayaks and windsails which can be hired and used to explore the stunning coastline, taking in the beauty of the island from the sea.

After discovering the coastline, visitors also have the chance to explore the jungle of the national park which covers much of the island. The park's varied ecosystems, including mangrove forests, palm bushlands and forests. Hidden within this green and luscious environment are communities of interesting animals and insects with a total of 208 species within the national park. Some of these species are rare, such as the long-tailed macaque, silver langurs and lorises which can all be found in Phu Quoc National Park. The best ways to see all of this remarkable nature is either on food or by motorbike but the paths can be a little trickly to navigate.

Phu Quoc National Park, Tranh Waterfall, Coconut Tree Prison. Phu Quoc island
Phu Quoc National Park, Tranh Waterfall, Coconut Tree Prison. Phu Quoc island
Also scattered across the island, are winding streams and tumbling waterfalls which offer a great place to cool off in the heat. Tranh Waterfall is just 10 minutes from Duong Dong and has a dreamy atmosphere to it. The surrounding forest shelters the waterfall, framing it with lush greenery. The water cascades over the rocks and into the pool below which is home to small freshwater shrimps and fish. As well as taking in the beautiful waterfalls, visitors can discover the fauna and flora of surrounding forest.

The island's history as a prison island can be discovered at Coconut Tree Prison and the war memorial. Until relatively recently, the complex had been used as an operating prison. Now a heritage site, the displays at the museum graphically depict the harrowing conditions using models to recreate the horrific scenes of torture endured by the captured Viet Cong. The prison was used first by the French and then by the Americans to hold prisoners in torturous conditions that preyed on their physical and mental well-being. Opposite the prison is the War Memorial which is made up of three blue waves. The centre wave has the silhouette of a human cut out of it and a small shrine in front of the space. This sculpture along with the prison is a reminder of the perils of war.  

Culture and Arts

Phu Quoc has an interesting range of temples where you can take time out to reflect or discover more about the local culture. Perhaps one of the most famous it Dinh Cau Temple which sits on a rocky outcropping attached to Dinh Cau Beach, at the mouth of the Duong Dong River. The temple appears to be tangled in the rocks and trees growing around it and looks particularly beautiful at sunset. The temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Thien Hau who, along with the lighthouse that also perches on the rocks, provides protection to those at sea.

Phu Quoc also played a crucial role in the Cao Dai religion which is believed to have originated there. The main premise of Caodaism is that all religions are united in worshipping the same God. The temple is unique in its decoration with colourful religious paraphernalia filling the rooms. Another attraction of this temple is the stunning views from the top of the tower. It is the perfect place to take in the views of Duong Dong Town, the river, and the ocean. It also makes for a great photo opportunity.

Dinh Cau Temple, Nuoc Mam, Phu Quoc’s night market. Phu Quoc island
Dinh Cau Temple, Nuoc Mam, Phu Quoc’s night market. Phu Quoc island

To get a feel for the local way of life on Phu Quoc, you can discover some of the work that goes into the island's main harvests. Phu Quoc is famed for its production of Nuoc Mam, fish sauce, which is made from a special type of anchovy found in the nearby waters. In the town of Duong Dong, there are a number of factories which welcome visitors to come and discover the process of making the staple Vietnamese sauce. Another of the island's main exports is pepper which is grown on the pepper plantations. It is interesting to see how the everyday seasoning grows and it's a great opportunity to pick up some of the finest pepper to take home.

Phu Quoc’s night market is another place to experience some local culture. Although the main area has become mostly aimed at tourists, it is still a great chance to meet local people and sample the delicious food or pick up some souvenirs. The fronts of the restaurants display their freshly caught seafood for customers to choose from but not before a bit of friendly bartering to ensure a good deal.  

Food and Drink

Unsurprisingly, Phu Quoc's diet is based largely around seafood, taking advantage of the surrounding ocean. The majority of restaurants and food shacks that line the beach are constantly cooking up some from of tasty seafood treat from simple barbequed fish and squid to more elaborate dishes.

Phu Quoc has long been known for its harvest of sea cucumbers, and some of the local dishes make use of this unusual seabed dwelling creature. The most famous dish is sea cucumber soup, but sea cucumbers are also served in many other forms such as salads, savoury porridge, or simply baked. Due to the increased demand from China and the highly regarded medicinal and health benefits of sea cucumbers, it can be a little tricky to find a restaurant serving them and the prices tend to be higher than most other dishes.

Goi Ca Mai (herring salad), Cau Gai (grilled sea urchin), Ghe (flower crabs). Phu Quoc food and drink
Goi Ca Mai (herring salad), Cau Gai (grilled sea urchin), Ghe (flower crabs). Phu Quoc food and drink

Competing with the sea cucumber for most unusual appearance is the local delicacy of grilled sea urchin. After the spines are removed, and the urchin is cleaned, it is topped with spring onion and grilled on the barbeque. The insides of the small spiky cups are then scooped out and enjoyed with the classic combination of salt, pepper, and lime juice.

Another unusual dish is Goi Ca Mai, or herring salad. What makes this dish so unusual is that the herrings are served raw, a bit like sushi. Because of the freshness of the fish, there is no need to cook them. They are simply sliced into fillets and marinated in a flavoursome sauce of lime juice, chillies, onions and coconut and served with fresh herbs, vegetables and rice paper.

Shellfish are also popular on the island, especially the flower crabs which can be found in many restaurants. It is up to the customer to their own crab which is then boiled. The rich meat is paired with a simple yet flavoursome sauce of lime juice, salt and black pepper.

Phu Quoc also has its own distinctive take on the traditional Vietnamese rice wine, Sim wine. Fruit from the rose myrtle trees, known as sim fruit, is juiced and then mixed with rice wine to give the drink a pleasant taste. There are even suggestions among locals that this wine has healing qualities.  

Festivals and Events

One of the biggest traditional festivals on Phu Quoc is Vu Lan Festival which translates as Amnesty of the Unquiet Spirits. It is held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month which is the month of spirits. It is believed that during this time, spirits return to their homes. In order to help lost spirits find their way, people make offerings of food or clothes or even release animals to attract them. This is also a time to celebrate maternal love and presents are given to parents to show gratitude. The festival always draws large crowds to island's beautiful temples.

The Dragon Boat Festival is another festival which draws large crowds. Held each year on Reunification day, April 30th, spectators flock to the beaches to watch the atmospheric race. The surrounding beaches and cafes provide a great spot to watch the action.

Vu Lan Festival, Epozide Festival. Phu Quoc island
Vu Lan Festival, Epozide Festival. Phu Quoc island

Phu Quoc is now also looking to compete on the music festival scene with the introduction of Epozide Festival, an electronic festival which had its debut in January 2017. Epizode is aiming to compete with the other big names in party destinations by bringing hoards of revellers to the island to join in the frivolity, bringing big business with them. This festival aims to combine well-known musicians with arts, culture, sports, and installations to keep the party going for a full two weeks. Stunning surroundings along with music and entertainment does sound like a winning combination. If done well, Epizode could well put Phu Quoc on the festival map.
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