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November 27, 2019

By Venus Wong - Read the full feature at:

The Telegraph Travel

 

"This is it – this is my paradise island". This cheesy (but nonetheless heartfelt) thought was what popped into my head as I gazed at the twinkling stilt restaurants and fishing boats scattered before my eyes. The sky was tie-dyed into a gradient of pink, burnt orange and periwinkle, throwing the silhouette of the mountains behind me into sharp relief as the North Star began to make an appearance. The Gulf of Thailand’s gentle lapping waves, contrasted with the rowdy fish mongers, formed the medley of background music.

 

This sunset scene alone – set in Ham Ninh, the easternmost fishing village of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island – was enough to make my jaw drop, but it was what I had in my hands that truly solidified my definition of 'heaven': the leg from a boiled Ham Ninh crab, which was so fresh that it could almost stand up and scuttle away. It was made even better by a touch of fish sauce and ground red pepper. The most amazing part? Everything I just mentioned was locally produced.

 

If you’re longing to visit an unspoilt paradise island that combines foodie delights with glorious nature, I have good news and some not-so-good news: Phu Quoc is still very much that place, but the secret is already out. You’re on borrowed time if you want to experience what makes this destination – a fishing island that barely had proper infrastructure a mere decade ago – so truly special.

 

Vietnam’s largest island is becoming more mainstream by the day: it surpassed three million visitors in 2017, according to figures provided by the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board. By 2020, a good 35 to 40 per cent of that number is expected to be international tourists. Being awarded the Special Economic Zone status was a big game changer, allowing a 30-day visa exemption policy for inbound tourists flying direct and only visiting the island (for Brits, this means taking the weekly, 12-hour TUI flight from Gatwick). A 15-day visa-free agreement for UK travellers was also launched this year for the rest of Vietnam, meaning that you can transfer from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, or hit up other parts of the country without getting a visa.

 

Tourists from the mainland are in on it, too. Phu Quoc is deemed by the Vietnamese to have the 'cleanest air in the country'. And while temperatures in Da Nang and Nha Trang –  Vietnam’s other well-known beach towns ­– dip to the mid-10s or low-20s in winter months, Phu Quoc offers consistently balmy weather in the high 20s (the sea hovers above a very agreeable 25°C).

 

Fringing the warm, turquoise waters are the island’s 20 gorgeous beaches. Long Beach on the west side is the most popular for its silky sands and unbelievable sunsets. My first Phu Quoc sunset took place at Salinda Resort, and it was really quite something: the sun, resembling a golden egg yolk, gradually slid below the skyline as sparse fishing boats drifted on the sparkling sea.

 

Spend any amount of time on the island and one will quickly notice the full-throttle development. It’s not uncommon to find imposing concrete structures (signalling upcoming hospitality projects) rising behind metal shacks and muddy tracks. Existing luxury players, such as JW Marriott and the InterContinental, are expected to be joined by new Pullman and Regent outposts in 2020.

 

However, that’s not to say that you’ll only get the chain-hotel experience staying on the island, as it’s home to a good number of boutique Vietnamese properties. My base in Phu Quoc was the aforementioned Salinda Resort, owned and operated by a tight-knit Vietnamese family with roots in the pharmaceutical business.

 

The hotel has the intimate, thoughtful touches that only a family-run property can provide: the hearty and delicious pho (beef noodle soup) served at breakfast uses a secret recipe from the mother, while the father hand-picked the type of trees that grow in the courtyard garden (mango, myrtle fruit, coconut and hummingbird). Their two daughters also play a major part in running the hotel, with the older sister overseeing business and the younger developing the cocktail menu - coconuts harvested on the grounds are heavily featured.

 

Unlike most cookie-cutter international resorts, you’re reminded of Vietnam’s heritage treasures everywhere: a pretty cluster of silk lanterns floating outside the main restaurant was commissioned in Hoi An; the signature massage in the tranquilising spa uses oils made from ground pearl powder (the island is famous for its pearl production); coconut shells are repurposed as headboards in the villas.

 

While it’s rather tempting for guests to do nothing but tan on the beach or by the infinity pool, the all-smiling staff – the majority of them local – do a fantastic job at encouraging you to venture out of the hotel. Tours can be arranged and customised based on your personal interests: shopping at a pearl farm, picking up condiments at pepper farms and fish sauce factories, excursions to the local night market (where you can sample grilled sea urchins fresh from the ocean) or Ham Ninh fishing village; even a day of island-hopping off the southern coast.

 

As I embarked on the cable car ride to Hon Thom (also called Pineapple Island), the longest sea cable car ride in the world, my interest was piqued by the rows of faux-Italian village residences – deliberately painted to look old and quaint – at the base of the station. My guide told me that these brand-new holiday homes are exact replicas of the colourful houses in Sorrento, and they’ve already all sold out.

 

Unlike most cookie-cutter international resorts, you’re reminded of Vietnam’s heritage treasures everywhere: a pretty cluster of silk lanterns floating outside the main restaurant was commissioned in Hoi An; the signature massage in the tranquilising spa uses oils made from ground pearl powder (the island is famous for its pearl production); coconut shells are repurposed as headboards in the villas.

 

While it’s rather tempting for guests to do nothing but tan on the beach or by the infinity pool, the all-smiling staff – the majority of them local – do a fantastic job at encouraging you to venture out of the hotel. Tours can be arranged and customised based on your personal interests: shopping at a pearl farm, picking up condiments at pepper farms and fish sauce factories, excursions to the local night market (where you can sample grilled sea urchins fresh from the ocean) or Ham Ninh fishing village; even a day of island-hopping off the southern coast.

 

As I embarked on the cable car ride to Hon Thom (also called Pineapple Island), the longest sea cable car ride in the world, my interest was piqued by the rows of faux-Italian village residences – deliberately painted to look old and quaint – at the base of the station. My guide told me that these brand-new holiday homes are exact replicas of the colourful houses in Sorrento, and they’ve already all sold out.

 

All the action left us sunburnt and famished, so we migrated over to Fingernail Island (Hon Mon Tay) for some homemade grub, consisting of freshly grilled clams, squid noodles, barbecued prawns and tra da – the nation's favourite thirst quencher, an iced tea made with local green herbs. The small handful of restaurants here caters to tourists stopping by on a day trip, but is never too busy (nobody lives on the island full time).

 

After the decadent feast, the only thing left on our agenda was to ‘chill’: go on a beach swing, nap in a hammock under the shade, or stroll along the beach alongside a Phu Quoc ridgeback (an adorable dog breed unique to the island, with shiny black fur and astonishing fish-catching abilities).

 

As I swayed on a hammock and drank from a roasted young coconut, I was in awe, once again, of Phu Quoc’s most enchanting 'paradise island' quality: it may no longer be truly under-the-radar, but you can still experience the slow island life in the most unprentious setting – and no amount of manufactured Italian villages or mega-luxury resorts will be able to change that.

 

Just yet.