Vietnam islands: Grand plans to pave paradise
An undeveloped corner of Vietnam could be in for big changes, writes Craig Tansley.
''You can buy villas here now ... very beautiful," says my guide, beaming proudly. A truck carrying a load of red earth bellows past, filling my lungs with fine dust. When the temporary tornado subsides, I see the sign by the roadside.
Sunset Sanato Resort & Luxury Homes, it announces. Under the name there is an artist's impression of three mini-skyscrapers, man-made canals and a tiny suburb of Western-style villas; I think immediately of Queensland's Gold Coast.
Right now, there is nothing here but herds of cows, dilapidated fishing boats, pepper plantations, coconut trees and a 17-kilometre-long beach with two or three ramshackle fishing villages.
But in a few years - maybe less - this strip of Phu Quoc's western coastline is likely to undergo radical development.
Just how much progress is coming to this under-rated Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand is the subject of intense debate.
Cows on occasion wander through its main metropolitan centre, Duong Dong; the island's power supply is notoriously unreliable and expensive; and fishermen in photogenic - but barely seaworthy - boats still rule the island's economy.
Its fish sauce - in such demand by mainland Vietnamese that they risk hefty fines by smuggling it out inside their suitcases - is still far more revered than any of its tourism attributes.
Yet Phu Quoc is just a 45-minute flight west from Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City.
The white-sand beaches on its remote eastern coast are recognised as Vietnam's best, it offers arguably Vietnam's best diving and snorkelling off its southern coast, and 90 per cent of the island's interior is still jungle.
How it has managed to stay off the tourist radar is something of a mystery. I first came here two years ago on the recommendation of a group of backpackers in Ho Chi Minh City. They told me of secret waterfalls in pristine jungles and of empty beaches and seafood restaurants where you could sit for hours on plastic chairs in the sand watching the sun set into the sea.
I booked a cheap flight for the very next morning. Phu Quoc was that rare treat on the inveterate traveller's circuit: the utopia every tourist comes looking for but one everyone somehow overlooked.
I spent four days circumnavigating the island by motorbike, barely negotiating impossibly bumpy tracks to far-flung beaches. Phu Quoc's locals - 80,000 residents reside on Vietnam's largest island - hardly bothered to tout their wares and their smiles were ready.
More than two years later, the first thing I notice is Phu Quoc's new airport. It has the biggest runway in all of Vietnam - 747s can land here now. But I find the same seat at my favourite restaurant on Long Beach - and it is still deserted. There are still few fancy tourist activities to try, unless you would like a free tour of the island's biggest fish sauce factory.
On a snorkelling and fishing trip off Phu Quoc's southern coast to the 15 islands that make up the pristine An Thoi archipelago, I ride aboard a fishing boat with a crew who show me how to prepare and eat sea urchin. We take off from one of Phu Quoc's best beaches, Bai Sao, noisily motoring our way past empty beaches protected by thick jungle and rocky escarpments. When we stop, local women come by our boat offering live seafood, such as giant sea snails and lobster.
Visitors must still hire motorbikes to find their own way to the best beaches. There are day tours with English-speaking guides, but if ever there was an island you should discover by yourself, it is Phu Quoc. At night, the only cinema on the island is a tiny wooden building in Duong Dong with an old TV for a screen, and its sleepy bars lack any late-night backpacker madness.
But there is a master plan in place for Phu Quoc, and it could change this simple life. The plan includes the construction of a huge commercial centre and many more international-standard resorts, hotels and restaurants. Five international golf resort sites have also been approved. But no one seems sure when this might happen. One afternoon in my hotel swimming pool, a sunburnt Swede, who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a decade and is a regular visitor to the island, tells me the master plan is nothing more than a pipedream. "They've been talking about all these investments for years," he says. "But where's the money? These changes - you won't see them for a decade."
A local businessman also doubts much will happen by 2015, the year tourism authorities consider will be a monumental one. "They say they'll have the roads all done by 2015," he says. "You've seen them, right? No way. They say they'll have electricity cables dug under the water from the mainland, there'll be international flights, too - all by 2015."
However, earlier this year, a contract was awarded to provide electricity to Phu Quoc using a sea cable from the mainland.
There are also plans for a casino on 135 hectares of prime land.
"Progress is coming, that's for sure," says Australian expatriate Rory Miles, who owns a bar on Long Beach. "I see it already around me. A lot of new buildings have gone up. Once that airport came, nothing was going to stop it."
On my last night in Phu Quoc, I sit at a family-run bar on Long Beach as a blood-red sun sets into the sea and ponder just what I will find next time I visit. I wonder if it would be so bad to share this slice of overlooked Asia with groups of golfers on holiday. Or with international visitors who would prefer their own resort's restaurants to local fare.
And then I stand and pay my bill - $6 for a meal of freshly cooked squid and local beer - and walk across a deserted moonlit beach, with just fishing boats and their twinkling lights on the horizon for company.
The writer travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.
Vietnam Airlines has a fare to Phu Quoc for about $960 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. Fly to Ho Chi Minh City (about 9hr), then to Phu Quoc (55min). See vietnamairlines.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
The French colonial-style La Veranda is metres from Long Beach, from $230 a night. See mgallery.com. Cheaper beach-view bungalows can be found nearby. Try Thanh Kieu Resort. See thanhkieuresort.com.