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Vietnam's Phu Quoc

Martin Westlake Phu Quoc

Photo: Martin Westlake

In October 2004, Vietnam’s prime minister ratified a proposal—Decision No. 178/2004/QD-TTg—to develop Phu Quoc into “an international and modern center of tourism.” It was a tall order. The island now draws about 150,000 visitors a year. By 2020, the government expects to boost the figure to 3 million. (To put that in perspective, Vietnam as a whole had only 3.4 million visitors in 2006.)

Announcement of the plan set off a flood of investment applications. Foreign corporations have already pledged more than $6 billion toward luxury resorts, cruise-ship terminals, and other tourist facilities on the island. Authorities have promised millions more dollars’ worth of infrastructure improvements. A new international airport is also in the works. Two decades after the government embarked on Doi Moi, its fitful liberalization program, Vietnam’s economy is finally expanding at a rapid clip, helped by the country’s recent accession to the WTO. And tourism is the golden goose. Vietnam currently ranks sixth in the world for tourism growth. But in order to make its mark as an Asian vacationland, it needs more than a handful of second-tier beach resorts—Nha Trang, Mui Ne, and Vung Tau. It needs a young, bankable star. And so Phu Quoc—like a wide-eyed kid blinking in the footlights—is being groomed for a splashy debut.

The word “sleepy” doesn’t begin to describe Phu Quoc. Most of the island’s roads are rough tracks of Martian-red clay, pocked by craters and layered with dust. Only a few motorbikes occupy the main highways, and hardly any four-wheeled vehicles besides tractors, oxcarts, and the occasional hotel minivan. The island’s unofficial capital, Duong Dong, has the tumbledown aspect of a frontier town. In the villages along the coast, the only time the collective pulse quickens is during one of the all-too-frequent blackouts, when the sputtering of generators breaks the pervasive calm.

For now, tourism is just a trickle. Phu Quoc’s tiny airport can accommodate nothing larger than an ATR turboprop; four to five daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City bring in a maximum of 335 passengers. The remaining visitors—backpackers, mostly—arrive from the mainland by ferry.

The first place everyone heads for is Long Beach (Bai Truong), a 12-mile sweep of hourglass-fine sand on the east coast, where most of Phu Quoc’s hotels and guesthouses are clustered. Development has so far been confined to the northern end of the beach, a pleasantly dizzy mile of thatched-roof palapas, concrete bungalows, seaside cafés strung up with twinkly lights, and volleyball courts.

The volleyball courts were empty for all eight days I spent on Phu Quoc, accompanied by my wife and two friends. Each morning we would stroll up the beach, bare feet squeaking in the sand. Clusters of Vietnamese women in indigo smocks and conical hats proffered pineapples, mangoes, and back rubs. Vendors outnumbered vendees. We watched one portly German flop down in the sand to receive, from an especially bored group, a 12-handed massage. Nearby, three bone-skinny cows grazed in the shade of a coconut palm, lowing in accompaniment to the German’s grunts and groans. Soon a young girl appeared, brandishing a switch of bamboo. At her coaxing the cows began a slow march down the beach, the surf splashing at their hooves.

Into this rustic scene has entered a surprisingly well-heeled guest. The $4.2 million Grand Mercure La Veranda Resort & Spa, which opened on Long Beach last August, is Phu Quoc’s most imposing property yet and no doubt the vanguard of what’s to come. This is no sprawling, soaring mega-resort—just 43 rooms on 2½ acres. But among the beach shacks and guest cottages that flank it (the Palm Tree is just next door), La Veranda sticks out like a triple-tiered wedding cake in a breadbasket.

The look is cheery French colonial: yellow walls, terra-cotta tiles, whitewashed louvers, paddle fans stirring the air. And the setting, in contrast to the rough, dusty road beyond, is pure tropical bliss. Each time we drove in we were struck by the fragrance of jasmine and frangipani, the shock of manicured lawns, heliconia, bougainvillea, and birds-of-paradise along the brick paths.

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