Only a short hop from the big city, Phu Quoc Island seduces Grace Lewis with its charms. Photos by Fred Wissink.
Every time I take the 45-minute flight from HCM City to Phu Quoc Island, I’m amazed at what the tiny island has to offer. Amazed that I can so quickly be away from the city’s polluted madness to riding on dirt roads. It’s an island of bright blue fishing boats and fascinating village life. You can be an adventurer or a beach bum. These are a few of the things about this island that charm me and keep me coming back.
The first thing to do when you arrive in Phu Quoc is to rent a motorbike. It gives you the freedom to pull off and go for a swim when you see a patch of beach that entices you. It also makes it easy to sleep outside of town where the beaches are quiet, but still enjoy the food the night market has to offer.
I should warn you though, many of HCM City’s expats come to Phu Quoc thinking it’s a great place to learn to ride a bike—the roads are wide and the traffic is light—but my friends carry a lot of scars from driving in Phu Quoc. It’s not dangerous; just don’t underestimate the roads.
If you’re comfortable driving and need a challenge, the roads on the eastern side of the island are for experts only. We drove them on a dry February day, dodging ruts that could capture your tire and cruising through ravines on trails paved with hundreds of short sticks to provide traction. I can’t imagine what it would be like during rainy season.
After spending the morning lounging in the waves, we decide to go exploring. Two of the things Phu Quoc is known for are black pepper and fish sauce. Since my nose can’t handle a fish sauce factory, we opted for the pepper farm. The map indicated one on an inland road. At times these roads are so narrow you have to pull off to the side to let a truck pass, so I advise taking your time and driving slowly.
The farm is a fairly small plot compared to others we’ve seen, but you can still see how it works. A man stands behind a counter of goods for sale, but when he doesn’t say anything to us, we give ourselves a tour.
The pepper plants are trained to grow up square posts that are at least four metres tall. The posts are in even rows and far enough apart that even when they are covered in vines you can fit a small ladder in between them. The green peppercorns grow in little bundles similar to grapes. When they mature, they are collected and spread on the ground to dry. It’s common all around the island to see patches of the dried black peppercorns in front of the houses.
With our curiosity satisfied, we visit the man behind the counter. He is selling pepper as well as other local products. One is a local wine that we had tasted the night before. He takes us across the yard to a bush to show what kind of berries the wine was made from. Seeing our interest, he dips a toothpick into a jar of something black and tarry. It tastes like fish sauce with black pepper in it. We buy a couple jars hoping for a tasty marinade.
That night, we visit one of the many local restaurants near our bungalows. The restaurants are open to the street and have a table out front covered in fresh seafood. We usually just walk until we see something we want, point at it, and they grill it for us.
My husband is in love with Phu Quoc’s squid, eating it nearly every night, but I chose a clay pot with fish this time. I am pleasantly surprised to find it has green peppercorns in it. Biting into the little bundle I taste pepper in a new, vivid way. The flavour was so rich; I could barely even remember that bland black stuff that I had previously known to be pepper.
We spent part of the next day looking for a waterfall my brother had visited. It was a hot day and the thought of swimming in a cool stream was enticing. The park was empty except for us, and we eventually discovered why. The water was so low that as we hiked it eventually became easier to hop boulder to boulder up the riverbed. Based on the debris in the trees, it was obvious that the river did flow high and fast at some time, but obviously not during the dry season. We had to be content with a good nature hike, and a trip back to the beach to cool off.