Phu Quoc island

I remember Phu Quoc island.

I fell in love with this tropical island from the first moment I landed on its tiny airport by the sea years ago, breathed its sea breezes and a suggestive hint of sweet nuoc mam in the air for the first time, and let its ocean colors caress my eyes all the way back to the resort and for days and dreams to come.

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To me, Phu Quoc island is one of the greatest gifts Nature has to offer Vietnam.

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Even on cloudy days, Sao Beach still has its own calm mystique, and still inviting of a swim.

Sao beach is a glassy swimming pool – hundreds of feet out into the sea and you are still just chest deep in that crystal clear, pristine water. You look around, and it’s just you, the seas, and an occasional little fishing boat taking its time strolling back to shore.

Sadly, on one trip I saw some people go down to the beach just to sing Karaoke, fully dressed in slacks and collars but with straw hats on. If you go to Phu Quoc island and not feel compulsory to get as close to nakedness as possible and swim in its azure seas, something has gotta be wrong with you, and the world.

The famous sardines of Phu Quoc
The famous sardines of Phu Quoc

The sardines of Phu Quoc is its own specimen. It does not have any fishy smell. Its color a ruby red, translucent and promising of great taste. You have to try the “Gỏi Cá Phú Quốc” – I travel just to have it there.

I have also found myself waking up in the middle of the night, hands trembling like a crack fiend, texting random friends or relatives to go to Phu Quoc with me just to enjoy other gift from the sea, to be enjoyed exactly this way, in this exact location:

Uni
Fruits of the sea
Phu Quoc uni
Now $1 a pop. But I know a local fisherman who usually charge me bulk-rate. Plus he lets me dive for my own uni and take out his boat. After 2 trips I made a new friend.
Grilled uni
Locals also likes Uni grilled. For this version, I usually scoop the whole thing out for rice topping.
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I remember catching half of these with my brother after 1 hour diving
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Our catch. We ended up throwing back most of the shellfish, after tasting the small abalone that I caught. Now knowing how abalones are being over harvested, I no longer eat abalone in Phu Quoc or anywhere (I never liked them much anyway compared to conch or other shellfish).

The black uni of Phu Quoc – now being heavily abused by people who don’t know any better – has a deep nutty taste. Please, never take off the island, as it would go bad easily because locals still don’t know how to preserve them. Just enjoy all the uni you wish at Phu Quoc, especially when you come out to one of the many smaller islands to its northern tip for snorkeling, feet in the sand and the uni only been washed by that same pristine salt water it lived in just 5 minutes before – it’s an other worldly experience that makes me giggle like a teenager being asked out by the hottest girl in the school.

Sunset over Ham Tien fishing village
Sunset over Ham Tien fishing village

If you are into browsing seafood market like me, visit the Ham Tien fishing village. Walk out into the fishing pier – all the way. You might run into children who offer to sell you mantis shrimps. Don’t worry about being scammed, this is not Vung Tau. Have them lift the shrimps out of the ocean, take a quick look to make sure they are all alive, then buy them all. Don’t weigh them (they sell them by the bag full, no scale). Then take them back to the little eatery on land for boiled seafood & beer. They charge you $1 to boil the shrimp but I rarely have to pay this fee as I usually order tons of beer and keep the owner happy.

The Seafood tower of Phu Quoc island
The Seafood tower of Phu Quoc island

I always buy fish sauce – the untreated, salty kind – as gifts. The back label should say two ingredients: “anchovies, salt”, and nothing else.

(BTW, fuck you, Masan Group, for shamelessly advertising your chemical-laden fishy slush as fish sauce…)

This is a true story that speaks for the quality of Nam Ngu, the mass-produced crap that Masan Group labels as fish sauce: on one of my recent visits, I was given a tour by a local, 3rd-generation, fish sauce maker in Phu Quoc island. He showed me the first-press, a thick, caramel color, fatty sauce that is full of umami, and said “1st press, the best…use it for dipping sauce, drizzle on rice or boil pork”. The we walked down to a second vat, being dripped half full of a thinner version of nuoc mam, and he said “2nd press…use it for cooking, stewing, marinating, etc”…And so on down to the 4th batch – the industrial quantity sold to restaurants etc. Then he said “the 5th batch we normally don’t use, but recently sell it to Masan Group to flavor their fish sauce”.

What about the 6th press, I asked?

He responded, as a matter of factly, “there’s no 6th batch, it’s fertilizer after that”. Let me quote him, in Vietnamese, so you have the full effect: ” sau đó là bã cá làm phân bón cho tiêu thôi”.

I tried not to laugh. He did not mean it as a joke.

Anyhow, back to the happy post: another thing you should always buy to bring home is Phu Quoc black peppers. Don’t by the expensive white/acorn pepper, advertised as the best ones (they were, because supposedly the birds and squirrels eat only the best red peppers then farmers collect their droppings to collect the left-over white peppers…but now lots of the farmers just bleach the black peppers to have the same effect). Phu Quoc pepper is picked ripe red – so when you crush them, you will surely see a hint of red color. And the aroma makes you want to throw away all of your supermarket pepper down the drain…along with any memory of having ever tasted “black pepper”.

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I remember Phu Quoc island like I would remember an innocent, simpler time in life. Only one hour flight away from mainland, but it is so far removed from the daily hustles of HCMC. In the best sense of the phrase, you can lose your sense of place, and time. It has its own map, not the S-shape you would normally associate with Vietnam. Its day consists of morning swims, afternoon naps, evening drinks, happy seafood meals…randomized to no particular order except your own inner instincts. Its people charming and honest. The tourism developed just enough to balance out creature comfort and the blessings of natural elements.

Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc

On some selfish level, I hope Phu Quoc remains just as it is, or at least taking its sweet time with development, like a beautiful girl growing up but never loses her innocence, her charms discovered only if you take your time walking down her beaches, to appreciate her for who she is and always has been,  even if that means forgoing all the worldly standards in your life, the “stars” in your resorts, the cleanliness of your silverware – only if you deserve her.

Chợ cá Long Hải | Quick trip to Long Hai Fish Market

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See the sea snakes? It’s local delicacy. Men like to soak them in rice wine for some some of aphrodisiac drink. I have not tried either.

Dạo 1 vòng chợ Long Hải kiếm con ốc gai làm gỏi cho Vũ. Kiếm không ra ốc gai, nhưng đi chợ cá lúc nào cũng thú vị.

When I am in my home town for the weekends, I usually make quick trips to the fish market to stock up for the week. Long Hai is located just down the beach and the historic fishing village of Phước Tỉnh. The seafood there is fresh but you have to know what you want, because you can get lost in the variety – and you can’t ask many questions before the fish mongers get annoyed.

Anyhow, some pictures from the trip to look for a particular kind of conch for my little brother. I could not find it, but had a good time browsing anyhow.

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Happy playtime!
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Horseshoe crab. They say eating them the wrong way can kill you. I caught much larger ones fishing in the US. Never tried eating them, simply because I’d rather eat blue crabs or mud crabs.
Live green mussels are caught from local water – very tasty and and only $2 a kilo. The Sò Dương and Scallops are not local – they are transported in from Phan Thiet and no longer live.
Thau bên trái, gần cái cân là ngêu biển – khác ngêu cần giờ – đủ màu sắc và vị ngọt đậm hơn. Nấu khỏi nêm muối. Nếu hên thì gặp ngêu không ngậm cát, ăn tuyệt vời.

 

Where I buy my seafood in D1, HCMC

I am going to let you in on a little secret. There is a place in District 1, HCMC, where you can get pristine, often sashimi-fresh quality, seafood straight from Phan Thiet.

Between all that concrete and high rises, tucked away in a little  street, is the best small seafood market you can ever find around D1, if not HCMC. You just have to know the system a little – mostly the timing of when the fish come in, and be nice to the purveyors  – they are super sweet ladies, I would be surprised if anyone not get along with them.

The owner knows I am on the way. I always call her in advance, around 4pm, to see if the shipment from Phan Thiet has come in. “What’s fresh today”. The responses, almost code-like, come on the phones in quick successions because she’s usually very busy unpacking the box at the time: squid, sand goby, anj, markerel, shrimps…Just as quickly and cryptic, I tell her what I want and how I want them cleaned, if at all. The whole conversation usually takes 1 min.

I usually arrive around 7pm. Even though the stuff I ordered is already ready to pick up, I always park and come in for another look at the seafood. It’s always great to see what the sea offers for the day. Every time it’s different, but from Phan Thiet, the mackerels, cá đục, squids, wild-caught cobia, king mackerel (cá thu), and Tom Đất (especially around Winter) are consistently good.  Some days there would be great red snappers, too.

The seafood is arranged in a glass display case – like the one you’d see in a sushi shop, only bigger. Please treat the fish with respect – don’t throw them around or dig too roughly into the shrimp basket. Ask questions – the ladies would happily answer them for you, and even show you how to cook the fish.

One of the owner ladies handling a jumbo squid. Still alive after the 7-hour trip on ice. The suction cups would grab your arms - always a good sign when you buy squids.
One of the owner ladies handling a jumbo squid. Still alive after the 7-hour trip on ice. The suction cups would grab your arms – always a good sign when you buy squids.
Part of the day's shipment
Part of the day’s shipment

Bring some cash. They don’t take credit card. The price is quite reasonable, though – sometimes even cheaper than supermarket prices.

All the fish are fresh, never been treated or salted. I even buy them to bring back to the US for my family, because they miss some of the local fish only available in Vietnam.

This fish is super tasty but very rare. I will have to look up name for it.
This fish is super tasty but very rare. I will have to look up name for it.

The place is called Vuon Que. It’s 129 Nguyen Cong Tru, D1. They also sell vegetable – also organic, but nothing to brag about compared to the fish there.