If there’s a symbol of the delicate equilibrium of Phu Quoc—of everything that’s so alluring about this island right now—this place has to be it: an open-sided beach shack just 10 yards from the surf, with a thatched roof, 12 tables, and red plastic chairs that sink into the sand. Decorated with cowrie shells and lamps made from coconut husks, it’s the kind of place that makes you almost sort of appreciate Jimmy Buffett.
Mom cooks, daughter takes your order, son makes the drinks. The family lives out back, with their babies and roosters, in a tenuous assemblage of canvas and corrugated metal. They’ve clearly put all their money into the restaurant, which they run with great pride. There’s no credit-card machine, no telephone, no music, no TV showing Premier League soccer games. They have tubs of ice and a blender, but they don’t have a refrigerator. Add a fridge and you introduce the possibility of spoilage. The Palm Tree serves everything the day it’s caught: squid, scallops, garrupa, kingfish. And the food is fabulous. We had fine meals at the resort next door, for 20 times the price. But we kept being drawn back to the Palm Tree—for banana-pancake breakfasts, that backpacker staple; dinners of smoky grilled eggplant and barbecued prawns; midday coconuts and midnight beers.
That a quiet, humble spot such as this could still exist in Southeast Asia in 2007 seems a minor miracle. In this part of the world, one is forever hearing about some bygone golden age. From Ko Chang to Ko Lanta, Lombok to Luang Prabang, the refrain’s the same: Should have been here 10 years ago. Well, in Phu Quoc, at this moment, it is 10 years ago.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) when I first heard the murmurings about a remote, beach-rimmed isle off southwestern Vietnam. This was in 2003. Prices were dirt cheap, my informants said, the reef diving fantastic, the sands pristine and nearly empty.
Among Vietnamese, Phu Quoc had long been a household name for producing the country’s finest nuoc mam, the pungent fish sauce that is a foundation of Vietnamese cooking. Among international travelers, however, the island was largely unknown. That was just fine with early pioneers, such as Phuong Anh Nguyen, owner of HCMC’s famous Q Bar. “The beaches are lovely, and it’s incredibly peaceful,” she told me back then. “When there are better hotels and more regular flights, it will be amazing.” Now, four years later, there are more regular flights and better hotels—and, yes, Phu Quoc is pretty amazing. But for how long?
The largest island in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc is actually closer to Cambodia—just 9 miles away—than to mainland Vietnam. Cambodia lays a competing claim to the island, which is why the Vietnamese keep a substantial military presence there. (Much of Phu Quoc, in fact, is off-limits to the public.) Stretching 30 miles, north to south, it is roughly the size of Singapore, but it has only 85,000 residents to Singapore’s 4.5 million. In 2001, nearly one-third of the island—including 35,000 acres of primeval forest—was designated a national park. From the air, Phu Quoc registers as a bright-green paint drop, ringed by flecks of ivory, splashed on a turquoise canvas. People compare its shape to a conch shell. Others see a kingfish twisting its tail. Still others will say that Phu Quoc looks like a fat green wad of money. For if all goes according to the official plan, this quiet backwater could become the next Phuket.
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