But Cape Da Bac will be a mere blip among the mammoth developments under way elsewhere on Phu Quoc. A Zurich-based consortium called Trustee Suisse is creating a $2.6 billion “luxury ecotourism complex,” dubbed the Pearl of Asia, on an isolated shoreline up north. And an American firm, Rockingham Asset Management, has broken ground on a $1.2 billion, 2,500-acre development near Bai Sao. Set for completion in 2015, the project will have 2,000 hotel rooms, a 36-hole golf course, a Las Vegas-style casino, and an auto-racing track.
Wait a minute: auto racing? For all the lip service paid to sensible development, the bigger projects being proposed show little evidence of that bent. (When ecotourism and Las Vegas–style appear on the same prospectus, somebody’s obviously deluded.) Nor is Vietnam known for an enlightened conservation policy.
“I'm sure the government wants to do the right thing, but whether they have the education and the willingness to enforce is another matter,” Gerbet says. “They have to decide what an 'ecological’ development really is, and what the standards are.”
Still, there have been encouraging signs, not least the national park created in 2001. Last year unesco declared all of Kien Giang province (which includes Phu Quoc) a Biosphere Reserve. And plans are afoot to establish a 38-square-mile marine park in the An Thoi archipelago, just south of Phu Quoc—a prime habitat for dolphins and sea turtles. (Gerbet hopes eventually to create “a low-impact eco-resort” there himself, on an uninhabited islet he owns.)
Goodyear has worked in Vietnam for 16 years and is cautiously optimistic about Phu Quoc’s prospects. “The government’s got a damned impressive wish list and is absolutely serious about it,” he says. “Then again, I don’t know how you turn a totally undeveloped island into Ko Samui. How do you get there?”
Some places you see through the lens of the past. Walk around Teotihuacán, Le Marais, or the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and you imagine them in their long-ago heyday. In Phu Quoc it’s impossible not to flash-forward to the future. Everywhere we went, we found ourselves jolted by visions of things yet to exist, ghosts yet to be born. We’d pass a tin-roofed shack in a field and see in its place a towering waterslide. We’d come upon two chickens pecking at a compost heap, and instead see a KFC. Beside the coastal road, cows had grazed the grass down to the dirt; we saw a putting green. Every plot of land might as well have been posted WATCH THIS SPACE. (Some actually were: we spotted plenty of real-estate signs in barren fields.) Phu Quoc’s wilder corners felt like a football stadium in the hours before the crowds pour in for the game, the wind blowing the candy wrappers around the empty seats.
Whiling away one last languid afternoon at the Palm Tree, we couldn’t help thinking our beloved shack would be replaced by some sprawling 17-star resort, complete with a Kidz Klub and $12 daiquiris you can charge to your room. But from our perch, sinking into the sand on the Palm Tree’s crooked plastic chairs, that outcome seemed too harsh to consider. So we ordered a final round of coconuts and watched the sun fall into the Gulf of Thailand—somewhere over Ko Samui, from which we were separated by 275 miles, and maybe a decade or two.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.