Located in the Gulf of Thailand, just off the coast of Cambodia, this lesser-known island is hot on our radar to visit now (before the crowds get there first). If Southeast Asia is up there on your bucket list, and you want to avoid the well-trodden Thailand tourist circuit, Phu Quoc and the southern region of Vietnam is the destination for you. What’s more? It’s affordable! A plate of noodles will cost you about R75, and scooter hire for a day is about R100.
Where To Stay
The island is small enough to explore from one location (you could drive from north to south within a day) so it’s best to pick one spot to stay at and make it your base for the week.
I highly recommend opting for a resort on Long Beach, the main stretch that connects Duong Dong (the island’s capital) and the airport. It’s here where you’ll find the majority of beach bars, restaurants and hotels. The bonus of being in a resort is the prime beachfront location and guaranteed relaxation, unlike many of the hotels in the town that can be noisy and filled with rowdy gap-year travellers.
I stayed at Salinda Resort, which placed fourth in the Best Luxury Hotels in Vietnam 2019 – TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. What really sets Salinda apart from the rest is its boutique feel. It’s Vietnamese-owned and run by a super-friendly and attentive team who greet you on a first-name basis and make you feel like you’re the only guest in the world.
It also claims the best stretch of beach, with private sun loungers reserved for guests only (you don’t get loungers on the public beach), and bar-to-beach cocktail service. I stayed in a garden villa, and each one has its own tropical garden with an outdoor couch. I particularly loved lazy afternoons spent here reading my book.
My highlights at Salinda included mornings spent drinking freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee on the palm-fringed breakfast terrace (you can also opt for bottomless bubbly); eating fresh spring rolls, prawn dim sum and banana smoothies by the infinity pool (while watching fishing boats jug in from a day out at sea), and the volcanic hot-stone massage with essential oils at the heavenly and utterly relaxing Thai spa.
This year I made a promise to myself to live a more sustainable and environmentally conscious life, and what I like about Salinda is that they care about ecotourism. All the outdoor architecture is made from Accoya wood, which uses renewable resources in its production; 85% of the resort uses LED lights, and the pool is chemical-free and salt-filtrated only. You can use the resort bicycles free of charge to explore the island and reduce your carbon footprint, and there’s a total ban on plastic straws (bamboo only). You can even join the staff on their morning beach clean-up missions!
Although a five-star resort often means steep prices, you can get really good deals via Agoda.com or Booking.com, with up to 70% off on room rates – at the time of going to print, a garden-view room for two, including breakfast, cost R2 389 per night on Agoda. It’s worth every rand.
- 121 rooms, suites and villas
- 100 kinds of plants
- 30m salt-filtered outdoor pool
- 3 restaurants & 2 bars
- A 7-minute drive from Phu Quoc International Airport
- A 10-minute drive from Duong Dong
Where To Play
If, like me, you’re a beach lover, hire a driver for a day (costs approximately R400) and head off to one of around 20 beaches that dot the 150-kilometre coastline of Phu Quoc. Among the most special are Khem Beach (southeast), which boasts a palm-tree swing and powdery-white sand for ’Gram-worthy shots, and Starfish Beach (northeast) where you’ll find clusters of red starfish bathing in shallow turquoise water.
With more than 20 islets in the archipelago, Phu Quoc’s surrounding ocean is an underworld mecca of colourful marine life. Many of the kiosks in the main town offer day snorkelling trips (about R650), where you’ll sail between different coral formations and, if you’re lucky, you might even spot a green turtle. If you prefer a bird’s-eye view, you can take a trip on the world’s longest over-sea cable car (verified by the Guinness World Book Of Records). At almost eight kilometres, it connects Phu Quoc to Pineapple Island, with an aerial view of An Thoi. The trip takes about half an hour, there and back, and costs about R300.
Top tip: Take a clip-on polarising lens for your phone so you can get shots that cut out reflections from the glass and water. If you like your feet firmly on the ground, venture inland where the landscape is predominantly wild rainforest and mountains. During the rainy season, the monsoon powers up Suối Tranh waterfall, and you can hike through the eco-park (for a small entrance fee) and see wild orchids and ginseng.
Something distinctly Vietnamese and well worth day tripping for are the fishing villages. I recommend Rach Vem (northeast, near Starfish Beach). This small, floating network has a handful of very rustic and unassuming seafood restaurants, balancing on wooden stilts far out at sea. You’ll walk along a long, slatted jetty to get there and expect basic plastic tables and chairs with rudimentary flooring. Beneath each house is a fish farm, and you can literally pick what you want to eat and watch the activity below while you enjoy grilled octopus or a seafood hotpot. As the sun sets, make sure you to head to Dinh Cau Night Market in the main town.
Open from 5 pm until midnight, you’ll find hundreds of stalls selling everything from pearl pendants to raffia bags, fish sauce and bottles of sweet-and-sour salt. Do eat at one of the harbour-side restaurants, and select your supper from the water tanks filled with sea snails, prawns and scallops. Afterwards, stop by one of the street food carts for an ice-cream roll or a fresh coconut.
Where To Eat
- Mango Bay Restaurant on Ong Lang Beach for the sunset tapas menu from 4 pm, which includes stuffed squid, chicken satay and ceviche.
- Crab House is a lively, all-American-style crustacean eatery. Try the soft-shell crab with green-peppercorn salsa.
- Cami, along the main road (Tran Hung Dao St), is cheap and cheerful and serves up an excellent bowl of pho (Vietnamese rice-noodle broth with bean sprouts, chilli, coriander, lemon and basil).
What and Where to Shop
- Mekong quilts (at Salinda Resort boutique)
- Jade Rollers (about R300 each at Luna Thai Spa)
- Raffia bags (about R200 each at Ben Thanh Market)
- Organic red-pepper and fish sauce (visit a pepper farm and fish farm – there are more than 85 on Phu Quoc!)
- Rice hats (at HCM Airport on your way home)
- Lotus tea (at Ben Thanh Market)
Where To Party
- The Sailing Club is a chic beach club that features DJs and day beds. It’s run by South Africans (the chef is from Stellenbosch!) and at night they have a fire-eating show.
- Rory’s Beach Bar, located on the east side of the island near Ham Ninh, is run by a chatty brother/sister Australian duo. There’s a rock pool for swimming and happy-hour drinks specials.
- Epizode Festival is an 11-day techno and electronic party held every year during December. It draws crowds from all over the world, including Italy, Russia, Japan and the UK, and it has the most incredibly positioned wooden-deck dance floor, perched right on the beach. With more than 140 international and regional DJs, you can expect a line-up that includes the likes of Peggy Gou, a Korean superstar who plays in silk Louis Vuitton pyjamas! For a truly memorable NYE, time your trip around this party.
Insta Hot Spots
- Starfish spotting in Rach Vem
- The elephant art installation at Epizode Festival
- Around the Palm fronds at Salinda Resort’s private beach
Spend a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) before or after your holiday in Phu Quoc. It’s a fantastic city, split in two by the mighty Saigon River. It has a strong French influence (being a French colony until 1954) with a lively coffee culture, high-rise living and lots of green, open spaces.
What To Do
- Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Túc
Book a half-day gourmet tour, and meet your chef at Ben Tham market at 8.45am to shop for ingredients for the recipes – lotus stems, Vietnamese coriander and vegetables such as okra – before heading back to the school to cook three dishes. I made sour soup with prawn, lotus-stem salad with prawns and pork, and chicken stew in a clay pot with ginger, basil and coconut juice. Book via Saigoncookingclass.com (you get to eat all three dishes you cook and take away recipe cards so you can make them at home).
- Mekong Delta Tour with Les Rives
See the vast network of waterways that make up the Mekong Delta on a day tour by speedboat. This is the best way to experience delta living, and you’ll visit the Cao Dai Temple, a Buddhist pagoda and a river market. You can also canoe through rural rice paddies, and drink fiery whisky at a family homestead, where you can see a frog farm and eat fried elephant-ear fish for lunch.
- Saigon After Dark with Vespa Adventures
Definitely explore the city by Vespa on a night-time street-food tour. You’ll get fetched from your hotel at about 6.30pm and join a small group for four hours, whizzing around the city on the back of a vintage scooter. You’ll stop at different cafés, bars and restaurants across all four districts of Ho Chi Minh City to get an authentic look at the local food scene. My favourite stop was a roadside eatery called Oc Phát Quán 4, for the tasty chilli clams.
- Spa day at La Maison de L’Apothiquaire Spa
Set in a lovingly restored French villa, this tranquil sanctuary is beautifully decorated with pink velvet ottomans, antique tapestries and dimly lit chandeliers. With a tropical garden and water fountain, it is the perfect spot for healing and relaxation. Book a half-day of relaxation, including a full-body and foot-pressure massage with a customised facial and lunch. They also offer a peach booty facial, Asia’s biggest beauty craze for a glowing, smooth backside. Do visit the boutique before leaving and smell the lemongrass essential oil.
- Eat at Quan Bui – they have four venues across Ho Chi Minh City and the food is absolutely divine. Expect only locally sourced, fresh ingredients and stylish Indochine interiors. I loved the house salad with seafood, lotus stems, coconut shoots and fish sauce, as well as the fried spring rolls with pork meat and taro. The watermelon and mint juice is refreshing too.
- Party at SOHY Sky Bar for an unrivalled 360-panoramic view of the city, especially magical at night with the twinkling skyline. Up 25 floors, the DJ here gets the crowd dancing, and on Tuesdays they run a Lunar ladies night – free cocktails between 9 and 11pm! Make sure to take a photo by the lifts, in front of the disco ball.
- Stay at the Park Hyatt Saigon, conveniently located in District 1, it’s close to the Diamond Plaza and Vincom shopping centres (Zara is incredible at Vincom and super-cheap!). The best thing about this hotel is the grand Parisian-chic lobby and the phenom breakfast buffet (there’s dragon fruit, jack fruit, apricot danishes, banana crepes and pastries galore). If you’re not staying at the hotel, you must visit for brunch – it’s about R250 for the all-you-can-eat buffet. One night’s stay costs about R4 000 for two people, including breakfast.
I flew with Emirates from Cape Town via Dubai to Ho Chi Minh City (total 16 hours flying) for approximately R13 000 return, and VietJet from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc (30 minute flight) for approximately R2 000 return.
South African residents can apply for a visa online at Vietnam-visa.com – it costs $21 for a visa-approval letter, then you’ll pay $25 on arrival at the airport for a single entry, 30-day visa. Make sure to print and show your letter to the customs officials.
When you arrive at Ho Chi Minh City Airport, draw cash from the Citibank ATM on your right-hand side as you exit customs, then get a SIM card at the blue Viettel kiosk on your left-hand side (approximately R200 for 10 gigs of data). Only use a Vinasun taxi, which you’ll find at the far left as you walk outside of the airport, by the ‘number 1’ sign – they use meters and are safe and reliable (it will cost your approximately R80 to get to District 1).
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