When you think of Vietnam, you probably think of moody landscapes, thick jungles, and the hectic nature of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Very rarely do people think of tropical islands when considering a trip to Vietnam.
There are actually quite a few islands that tend to be less touristy than the mainland, because, well, not that many people know about them. I finally had my own tropical Vietnamese island experience this year on Phú Quốc.
Actually Phú Quốc Island is part of a larger archipelago, made up of 28 small islands, perfect for diving and snorkeling around. It’s so far to the southwest of the country that it’s basically in Cambodia.
You can get there by an inexpensive 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City or the ferry that leaves from Ha Tien (1 hr 20 min) or Rach Gia (2 hr 20 min). I took a flight there and a ferry back to Rach Gia, so I experienced both.
The ferry will be the more inexpensive option, but for only US $30 for a one-way flight from Ho Chi Minh, it can be much more convenient to fly.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived on Phú Quốc, just that I was ready for a laid back island experience after a week in Ho Chi Minh City. Phú Quốc is a fairly large island (it’s the largest island in Vietnam), so it’s not as relaxing as some islands I’ve been to in Asia, but you can still find your own peace and quiet depending on where you go.
And since it was such a big island, I didn’t even scratch the surface with what you can do on Phú Quốc. I still managed to have a wonderful time for the few days that I was there. I met up with two couples who I had met in Ho Chi Minh the week before, and we spent most of those days together.
This is why I think Phú Quốc is worth a visit if you’re after a different kind of experience in Vietnam.
You can’t brag about an island and not talk about the beaches. I actually only spent one day at the beach, because most of my time was spent snorkeling and diving around the other islands.
I visited Long Beach for an afternoon since it was near the hostel I was staying at. Most of the beach chairs along the coast are reserved for private hotel customers, but we managed to snag a group of chairs for the whole afternoon.
No one came up to tell us to move. I think it’s quite relaxed, and the worst they can do is ask you to leave, so it doesn’t hurt to just act like you belong there and enjoy a comfy chair on the beach.
And swimming at sunset was the best, although the many jelly fish in the water that kept giving us little stings wasn’t so fun.
I heard that Bai Sao Beach, on the southeast of the island, was even more beautiful than Long Beach with bright white sand and perfect blue tropical water. Other beach stops could include Vung Bao, Ong Lang, Ganh Dau, Rach Tram and Rach Vem, Thom, Cua Can, and Vong Beach.
Clearly, you have a lot of beach hopping to get to if you make it to Phú Quốc!
Island Hopping & Snorkeling
The real magic to Phú Quốc lies in the water, however. The best snorkeling experience I’ve had, probably ever, was in Phú Quốc. I’ve never seen so many bright colors and different types of fish underwater, and I’ve been snorkeling and diving a lot.
We booked a snorkel trip from our hostel, it included a few different islands, three different snorkel spots, and fishing. It was the first time I had ever been fishing, and one of the guys in our group even caught a small fish. He was one of the only people on the whole boat to do so.
The snorkel tour went around the southern islands, including the stunning Fingernail Island. The water color was ridiculously clear and tropical throughout the trip.
I was excited to go diving in Vietnam because I’d never been diving in the country before. I had a pretty good Southeast Asia record thus far with diving in Cambodia and Thailand already, and I wanted to see what Vietnamese waters had in store for me.
Unfortunately, my dive trip with Rainbow Divers ended up being the worst dive experience I’ve had.
It was less about the company, although I didn’t find my British instructor to be the most helpful when I was having difficulties, than it was about the people who were in my dive group.
Almost every diver that I’ve dived with in the past has been super easy going and friendly, but this time was different.
I was put into a group of three Canadian friends who were cliquey from the beginning. They would look at me confused as to why I was talking to them anytime I said something.
I had three dives in total for my day out on the water and I struggled through most of them. The first dive I was having troubles with my buoyancy because my BCD kept inflating on its own, which the instructor and I didn’t realize until I got out of the water.
And after that first dive, my confidence in the water plummeted. I was hyper aware of being the least experienced diver in a group that already made me feel unwelcome.
There was one point where one of the Canadians came up behind me and shoved me out of her way, because she wanted to see what the instructor was pointing out. And there were two times that I lost the group when I was looking at something, because my “buddy” didn’t communicate with me and swam off with the rest of the group.
I had never come across divers like this before so I was pretty taken aback by their behavior. It’s not the best feeling when you turn around and you realize that you’re completely alone underwater, especially when it happens more than once.
Although it was hard to concentrate on the beauty that I was seeing with all of the other stuff going on, there was still a lot to see in terms of the many tropical fish and underwater wonders.
At one point we came across a puffer fish that was completely puffed up, because the instructor got too close to it when we were swimming around a corner. There were also colorful coral tunnels that we swam through, which were probably the highlight of the three dives. They were pretty magical.
I must say though, I think the snorkeling ended up being more impressive than any of the dives I did, even if I would’ve had a better dive group.
Vietnam War History
I learned about the Vietnam War history (or American War as they say in Vietnam) on Phú Quốc when I went to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
Namely, Phú Quốc was where the largest prisoner of war camp was in Vietnam at the time. The kind of torture they did there was inhumane and cruel, which seems to be a common thread at many POW camps, unfortunately.
The prison was built in 1949-1950 by French colonists to imprison those who they considered to be a threat to the colonist government. After the First Indochina War, it was where the captured Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were held.
The prison has since turned into a museum, which you can visit to learn more about the prison history on the island. Obviously, it’s a different kind of experience to have on the island, but I find these places important to visit all the same.
Fish Sauce & Black Pepper
One of the items that Phú Quốc is best known for is its potent fish sauce. I’m not a huge fan of fish sauce, but the island is famous for it. The name Phu Quoc Fish Sauce is even trademarked.
The reason why fish sauce is so famous here is because of the large anchovy population that feeds off the abundant seaweed and plankton. Phú Quốc produces 8 million liters per year of the stuff, so it must be good, right?
If you can get past the smell, there are four fish sauce factories that allow you to tour their facilities. They’re called Khai Hoan, Hung Thanh, Phung Hung, and Red Boat.
You can also visit a black pepper farm on Phú Quốc if you’re so inclined. Phú Quốc claims to have the best black pepper in Vietnam, so why not?
There are over 400 hectares of pepper plantations and farms found on the island. There are actually four kinds of pepper that are grown here: white, black, red, and green. And Vietnam is considered the largest pepper producer and exporter in the world.
There are three pepper plantations in Duong Dong that you can visit, where you can buy fresh peppercorn if you’re a pepper fan.
Phú Quốc National Park
If you’ve been laying on the beach for a couple of days already and you’re looking for something more active to do, there is also a national park on the island. It covers more than 50% of the island, and you can either enjoy the limited walking trails or zip through the northern part of the park on motorbike.
You can also choose to do a tour if you prefer a guide. Day tours will probably include the national park as one of many other stops around the island for a full day.
I didn’t get a chance to visit the park while I was on the island, but I would’ve loved to spend a couple of hours hiking through it if I had more time. I’ve heard there’s not a whole lot of signage in the park, so just keep that in mind before venturing too far into the forest.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at Canary Hostel & Bar and I would highly recommend it for a “flashpacker” budget accommodation on the island. It’s located right near Long Beach and just a short walk from Duong Dong Town. The hostel was clean, the WiFi was great for work, the staff was friendly and helpful, and there was a pool too!
I stayed in a six-bed mixed dorm and I don’t think I’ve found comfier beds in Asia. Beds start at around US $9 during low season and go up to US $14 during the high season.
And if you’re looking for a good bar near the hostel – Coco Bar has the most amazing homemade coconut rum.
Have you been to any islands in Vietnam? Are you more of an island or city person? Or both?
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