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Vietnam's Phu Quoc

Martin Westlake Phu Quoc

Photo: Martin Westlake

The better guest rooms are set, three abreast, in single-story villas on a gently graded hillside above the beach; the remainder are in a two-story hotel building near the back of the property. Villas are the clear choice here, for both their ocean views and their generous size. Our front-row suite had 14-foot cathedral ceilings, a teak canopy bed with mosquito netting, and a jarringly big, echoey bathroom with twin sinks, a stall shower, and a massive tub.

Most of the other guests were middle-aged Germans. They lingered long over the breakfast buffet and sang boisterous songs by the pool. In the afternoons they booked up all six treatment rooms at the spa; at sundown they gathered on the wraparound porch for cocktails and the slow descent into dinnertime.

How much you enjoy the resort depends on how much you insist on being taken care of. Those expecting minimal attention will do fine. But if you require one-hour laundry service or half-caf soy-milk lattes, La Veranda isn’t for you. Though the resort has a two-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, the point is moot when 90 percent of the staff speaks only Vietnamese. Resort employees answer “yes” to every inquiry, even when they don’t understand the question. But then, how could one expect otherwise? Ten months ago many of them were farmers or fishermen.

“Finding and training the staff has been a challenge,” the resort’s owner, Jean-Pierre Gerbet, admits. “It is an island, after all.” Gerbet is the scion of a French family that has been in Asia since the 19th century. “My maternal great-grandmother was Vietnamese and was actually born on Phu Quoc,” he says, with hypercorrect pronunciation: “foo wok.” Twelve years ago, he moved from Hong Kong to Vietnam and was an original investor in Ana Mandara, the country’s first luxury beach resort, which opened in 1997 in Nha Trang. Gerbet first visited Phu Quoc a decade ago and immediately recognized its potential. “I was in Phuket in 1985 for the opening of Club Med, which back then was the only luxury resort on that island,” he recalls. “I can still picture it so clearly—the mountains, the jungle, the wonderful beaches, all of it relatively unspoiled. The feeling’s much the same now in Phu Quoc.”

When I ask him about the government plans, Gerbet is reflective. “I know they intend to develop the island,” he says. “It’s just a question of when. When will the infrastructure go up? When will all this money actually get here?”

Our fellow guests were content never to stray beyond the beach, the spa, and the omelette station, but we were determined to see the rest of the island. This came as a surprise to the staff. “Yeeeess,” they said, though their expressions said, “Why would you want to do that?” Eventually they relented, and each afternoon we’d pile into a 1973 open-top Jeep with our teenage driver and bump down the road in search of kicks. First stop: a fish-sauce factory.

What Tuscany is to olive oil, Phu Quoc is to nuoc mam. In Asian supermarkets you'll find plenty of counterfeits trading on the island’s name. The genuine article is made only from ca com anchovies (literally “rice fish,” a reference to their pale-white flesh) that flourish in the waters around Phu Quoc. The island’s hundred-odd distilleries produce 2.6 million gallons of nuoc mam per year. When we stopped in at the Khai Hoan factory, workers were unloading heaps of anchovies from a disheveled wooden boat onto a rickety pier. Inside a warehouse were rows of 3,000-gallon vats made from go sao, a Phu Quoc native hardwood that lends its own distinct flavor to the sauce. Inside the vats, anchovies and sea salt ferment for a year or longer, then the resulting liquid is drained through a tap. The first pressing—a glowing amber brew known as nuoc mam nhi—is the most coveted, but even subsequent pressings have an impressive clarity and consistency. The noxious stench belies the taste: bright, rich, and delightfully tangy. Khai Hoan sells bottles at its gift shop, but you can’t actually carry them home. Because of the risk of spillage, Vietnam Airlines won’t allow nuoc mam on its planes. One local guesthouse bans “toxic, explosive, and inflammable substances, weapons, pets, and fish sauce” from guest rooms.

We’d heard raves about the beauty of Bai Sao, the most talked-about beach on the southeast coast, so we went there expecting a scene. But when we arrived at the end of a long rutted track through the woods and emerged onto a glittering ivory crescent of beach, we found only a dozen fellow travelers—Australians, Thais, a trio of Brits—reading, dozing on blankets, floating on their backs in the calm cerulean water. For all an uninformed visitor could tell, they’d been shipwrecked here or dropped like leaflets from a low-flying plane. For a half-mile there were no lifeguards, no vendors—almost nothing man-made except a small café and a few rustic bungalows. The silence was almost eerie.

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