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.