At the daily market in Duong Dong town we encountered our only traffic jam: half the island’s population packed into six chaotic blocks, where hundreds of vendors sold suckling pigs, fish just off the boat, and local fruits and vegetables. Three seamstresses, shielded from the sun by pink parasols, worked foot-cranked sewing machines. Nearby, a young girl was unraveling skeins of off-white yarn, or so we thought: a closer look showed them to be rice noodles.
Considering how few restaurants Phu Quoc has, we ate extraordinarily well. Bowls of robust and aromatic pho noodle soup convinced us to return three times to the convivial Le Giang café in Duong Dong. At a nearby street cart tended by a friendly grandmother in a lavender pantsuit, we lucked upon a great banh mi sandwich: a plush baguette with barbecued pork, pâté, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, and cucumber.
Up north, at the beachside joint Gio Bien (“Sea Breeze”)—with hammocks and tables under casuarina trees—we found what was easily the finest squid I’ve ever tasted. Our waiter, who looked about 14, set a brazier full of smoldering charcoal on the table, then returned bearing a platter of raw squid—mottled, eight-inch beauties, their rigid beaks still intact, swimming in chili oil and sea salt. Nervously at first, we placed them on the grill to sizzle for a few minutes. They came out perfectly tender, with a buttery taste backed by a hint of brine.
Locals told us that the squid around Phu Quoc eat a diet of ca com, the same anchovy used in nuoc mam, which gives them their rich flavor. We ordered grilled squid twice a day for a week and never tired of it. Nor was there any shortage of the stuff: of the 2,000 fishing boats registered on Phu Quoc, at least half ply the squid trade. Fishermen work after dark, using flashlights and lanterns to attract their catch. Every night, we would gaze out at a fleet of squid boats, a makeshift city twinkling on an inky black sea.
In May 2006, a conference was held in Ho Chi Minh City to promote investment in Phu Quoc. The keynote address, by Truong Quoc Tuan—a member of the Communist Party and chairman of the People’s Council—could be summed up by its title: “Building and Developing Phu Quoc Island into an International-Class Marine Eco-Tourism Center of High Quality.” A few hundred prospectors listened as Truong and other officials outlined their bold agenda.
The speeches showed a typical socialist exuberance over public works: the most spirited passages concerned sewage treatment plants and power grids, those glorious symbols of revolution. But conservation was also key. Chairman Truong affirmed that “Phu Quoc’s natural landscape must be conserved” and development “must ensure stability and sustainability.” Everyone seemed to appreciate how precious an island Phu Quoc really is.
But their ears really perked up at the long list of development incentives. Compared with mainland Vietnam, Phu Quoc is a veritable free market. Foreign direct investment is actively encouraged. Generous tax breaks are given to local and foreign developers. For non-Vietnamese, leasing property on Phu Quoc is far easier than on the mainland. And entry requirements have been relaxed, so tourists don’t need visas for short-term visits. All this amounts to a radical departure for Vietnam’s notoriously insular government.
One of scores of investors so far is John Goodyear, an Australian expat who is building a 26-acre resort, Cape Da Bac, on Phu Quoc’s east coast. (Goodyear also co-owns the Islington, a chic boutique hotel in Hobart, Tasmania.) When it is finished in 2009, the resort will comprise about 20 guest rooms and several private villas on a hillside dotted with mango trees and cut by a mountain stream.