Paradise in Phu Quoc

After hiking through rice patties and the jungle, sleeping in stilt houses and on trains (admittedly, there were a couple of decent hotel stays in between), we were ready for a little luxury.  And in Vietnam that doesn’t have to cost too much.   We wanted a beach escape without being badgered.  And since we’d planned our itinerary fairly well, that left 3 days to get away from the crowds.

Our visit to Phong Nha National Park to spend the night in a cave, meant that the usual tourist trek from Hanoi to the ancient city of Hue to the beaches of Hoi An was out because of flight times (a reason to return).  The next logical stop on the junket is usually Nha Trang – a stretch of beach populated with one giant resort after the other – about the only place in the country that isn’t cheap.  At $300/night on average for a hotel room, we might as well have gone to the Caribbean.  And the way it was shaping up, the weather might not have been ideal, and the beaches could be under renovation from the December typhoon, like we found in Quang Binh.

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Houses on the water and view of the northeastern coast of Phu Quoc

Instead we opted for a quick flight from Saigon to Phu Quoc – a small island off the southwest coast of Vietnam that is geographically closer to Cambodia and known for its fish sauce (somehow I didn’t manage to find a bottle to buy).  The description seemed idyllic – typical “white sand” deserted beaches, few tourists, inexpensive hotels, diving and good food.  Sold.

But we had to make the connecting flight or else we’d be spending the night in Saigon.  With a half hour, we were cutting it close to say the least.  And we didn’t realize we’d have to go back through security at a large airport.  Fortunately, Vietnam Airlines managed to escort us from the plane, through security and all the way to the gate.  We left behind our bag of dirty clothes hoping it would still be there when we returned a few days later (it was!).  No complaints about that airline, except that only water is available on internal flights.

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That pile of gray is a ton of fish … presumably headed to the fish sauce factory

In under an hour, we touched down, managed to score free wifi at the airport and quickly booked a room at Arcadia, a moderately priced hotel ($47 last minute price) on the beach midway between the airport and the main town.  (Perfectly fine for the price, location and free breakfast, but spotty wifi.)  After a short cab ride, we checked in, finally got the a/c to work (and it was needed at about 80 degrees overnight) and relaxed for a bit before deciding on dinner options.  We quickly settled on fresh seafood at the Dinh Cau night market, a 5km cab ride away (or a longer stroll if we weren’t too exhausted and had a clue where things were located).

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Very obvious entrance to the night market

As you walk through the market, the bounty of the sea is laid before you – with creatures you might not have imagined.  Giant spiny lobsters, head-on shrimp, conch, scallops in the shell, squid, swimming fish and oysters.

IMG_1895Here the locals dine along with the tourists.  Choose a restaurant that’s busy, and you’ll be fine. I also recommend pointing at what you want, and then trying to order.  Our waiter brought us over 2 styles of noodles to confirm what we wanted – a nice touch.  We ordered some fruity, boozy drinks (those were a little messed up but tasty in the end).  A seafood noodle loaded with squid

IMG_1897and roasted shrimp in tamarind sauce.

IMG_1896We thought we asked for grilled oysters, but they looked more like cockles to me. We ended up enlisting the help of a Vietnamese guy from Cali who was on vacation with his girlfriend to confirm that the “oysters” we had to open ourselves were OK to eat.  Everything was delicious, and we spent under $40 with drinks- which are always the priciest part.  Probably better off sticking to beer.

The market also sells typical tourist trinkets, which we avoid.  But even here, which is the most touristy part of the island, they generally leave you alone.  Just outside the market, there are a lot of bar options.  We couldn’t resist Moe’s, a Simpsons-themed bar, where we were the only customers.

The beaches are lovely, and you can walk for miles.

IMG_1906 But you will have to avoid the trash (some hotels fish it out) and humongous jellyfish (bigger than my size 9.5 foot), if you want to take a swim in the Gulf of Thailand.  The water is about 80 degrees and just lovely and clear.  So you can usually manage to avoid the sea creatures.

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A smaller jellyfish on the beach at Arcadia- almost as big as my foot

We spent the next 2 nights at Saigon Phu Quoc, a great deal on Expedia and free upgrade to sea view suite.  Service was by far the best we had in Vietnam.  Wifi worked well.  Good shower.  And big bed, that only could have used some better sheets.  Breakfast there was good (decent pho).  For lunch, we had chicken wings in fish sauce and seafood noodles, which were quite good and decently priced for a hotel.  But generally, you’ll want to eat elsewhere.  And there are plenty of options in walking distance- that’s the case for any of the hotels along this strip.  And it’s safe to walk along the beach too.

We went diving with a local PADI certified outfit: Vietnam Explorers.  We decided to go with them over the Aussie one, Flipper, which had bigger groups.  Rainbow Divers, another popular company, had just closed for the season.  Explorers stays open year round, and we were 2 people to one guide (unlike Flipper that seemed to stop for about 10 minutes in each dive spot).  Our two dives were both over 50 minutes.  And while there aren’t a ton of fish in this unprotected area, it was still really lovely, and at $120 for the 2 of us, with lunch, a great way to get out on a boat and in the warm water.

A view of the harbor

A view of the harbor

So nice not to be cold! Also a good place to get certified, just watch out for the jellyfish and sea urchins, which the captain and his helpers were catching.

IMG_1918Since we were nearing the end of the trip, we considered renting a motorbike, but after we saw 2 people sporting serious bandages when we had drinks at Rory’s not far from Arcadia, we decided against injuring ourselves.  But it would be a good way to explore the island.

Phu Quoc was the first part of the trip where we felt like we were really on vacation.  And after lots of Vietnamese food, we were ready for something non-Asian.  A good old-fashioned burger.  And WInston’s didn’t disappoint.  Spotty service, no credit cards accepted and a crappy exchange rate aside, the burgers were gourmet (blue cheese & bourbon BBQ sauces), and the fries were good.

IMG_1910It was a nice break for us, and lots of similar options abound on this island, where most places seem to be run by ex-pats, largely Aussies with Vietnamese wives.  But I think Winston is American, and he certainly looks like one who has eaten a few too many of his own burgers.  There’s also a fair amount of French food around.  We let our burger be the one indulgence, since we were planning on having several Bahn Mi sandwiches in Saigon and can eat as many burgers and French fare as we want in NYC.

So the next night, we made a right off the main road heading toward the river instead of the market, and went in search of a local place for seafood that was on TripAdvisor.  And we didn’t find it.  But we did find this place:

IMG_1946Where we the ONLY tourists, and we dined like kings, ordering far too much food and loving all of it. Fried rice with lump crabmeat and more chicken wings with fish sauce,

IMG_1949Then grilled scallops

IMG_1950And a Thai seafood hot pot- typically this costs about $20 at most places, and we paid $5.  It was spicy and delicious – not to mention fun to try to cook.  The whole meal with 4 beers was about $20.

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Mastering the hot pot: my expertly cooked shrimp and squid over rice noodles.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the beaches on the Southeast side of the island.  But after reading a few reviews about even more trash there and no decent restaurants, we decided to enjoy the sunset at the hotel, which is why we ended up at dinner with the locals (they also had a monkey chained to the tree – which was a little disconcerting but funny).

IMG_1931The next and final morning, we simply relaxed on the beach and in the pool at our hotel before heading to the chaos of Saigon.

IMG_1954A truly great decision and the perfect way to end our brief stay in paradise.

Travel Tip Roundup
How to get there:  Vietnam Airlines has one daily flight from Hanoi and multiple from Saigon.  There’s also one daily flight on Jetstar Pacific and VietJet Air from Saigon.  Book online in advance for the best rates (less than $50/pp each way).  Or you can take a ferry if in Southern Vietnam/Cambodia.

Where to stay:  Saigon Phu Quoc Resort (4 star), Arcadia (3 star) NB: A lot of guidebooks/reviews recommend Mango Bay resort, but this is quite north of town, and you’ll be stuck there without a car/motorbike, which is likely why it’s restaurant is so highly rated and often reviewed.

Where to eat: Seafood at the Dinh Cau Night Market, burgers and fries at Winston’s, any local restaurant that’s got a crowd

Where to drink:  Rory’s on the beach next to La Veranda (takes credit cards!), Mo’s for Simpson kitsch, pool and reasonable drink prices near the Night Market

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