Sad News for Paradise

Despite my ever growing list of places that I’ve visited while travelling, Phu Quoc Island in the far south of Vietnam, just beside the Cambodian border, remains one the most idyllic and beautiful places I have been to. I went there in December 2013 and it was paradise.

Picture a long beach, yellow-white sand, green-blue sea, and palm trees. Behind the beach is a small track, running parallel to the beach for about 500 metres. This track, an unmade dirt road, is the road going north/south on the west coast of the island. There are no other people there, well, maybe a couple having a picnic, but they are enjoying the peace and beauty as much as you so they make no difference to you choosing a spot further up the beach from where you ‘parked’ the motorbike.

This was what we experienced. I was travelling with a girl who I’d originally met in Laos and met again by chance about half way down Vietnam whilst backpacking. We were heading the same direction and at the same speed too, so we stuck together. It was good fun travelling with someone, as I usually travel alone – you meet more people that way.

Phu Quoc island is a large island of 567km² with a relatively small population of 85,000. We arrived during the first week of December. I had a flight booked to Bangkok from Ho Chi Minh City, to spend a few days in Thailand before my flight home on the 15th. As soon as I heard about Phu Quoc I was fascinated, but I didn’t have time to see more of Thailand AND go to Phu Quoc.

I didn’t catch the flight to Thailand, and it was the best decision I made the whole year.

We took a seven hour night bus to Rach Gia, where we caught the boat: Superdong. The boat took two hours from there to the port near the south of Phu Quoc island.

Phu Quoc was exactly what dreams are made of. Small fishing villages, deserted beaches, waterfalls and rainforest. Although there were tourists, it wasn’t a case of fighting through crowds to get to the sand. There were lots of hotels in the main town, but few further out. A few remote resorts which were beautiful, and great spots for lunch.

My friend knew how to ride a bike, so we hired one from the hostel we moved to after the hotel where we spent our first night.

We had a map, and we had water. We didn’t need anything else so we headed out of town following the road as we had been directed. We stopped and got fuel and double checked we were on the right road. We were. We needed to turn off somewhere but the only turn off we could see was a steep uphill dirt track which didn’t look like it headed towards any kind of a beach.

We followed a brand new motorway through beautiful rainforest national park, to a roundabout where there was a small fishing village, and that was where the motorway ended. We had a paddle in the sea while eating a semi melted ice cream from some guys motorbike/ice cream van before heading back after some more directions to find another road which would take us west, and to the area of the island we wanted.

The road we took was not just a dirt track but also pretty scary. It was very dry and many times we struggled to keep the bike upright while driving through thick sandy patches. It was really remote and while following the track for over an hour we only passed one motorbike.

Finally we got to the right side of the island, in time for a swim, sunbathe and a late lunch. We didn’t want to be driving on those roads in the dark, so didn’t have as long as planned in the north.

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After even more directions from the people at a resort, we headed back towards the town, following signs this time (clearly on the right road). We came out somewhere we recognised – it was the steep track that didn’t look like it would go to the beach. Looks can be deceiving!

Other trips included finding the beach mentioned at the beginning of the post, which was just stunning, and one of the best days of my travels in 2013, and a trip to a beach on the south east coast of the island with a few from the hostel, where we had a stop at a beautiful waterfall on the way. We had a girl who worked at our hostel with us, so she knew nice places to go.

Things on Phu Quoc were almost perfect, but we could see it was changing fast. Why was there a motorway running through the national park to a small fishing village? Why were they clearing lots of trees along the coat? Why have they built an international airport in the rainforest? It was very sad, but it was changing in front of our eyes.

I was scrolling through my reader this morning and saw a very sad sad headline, which shows just how quickly Phu Quoc is going to be spoilt of it’s natural beauty. It’s in the midst of being turned into a massive tourist mecca, no doubt drawing in thousands of tourists, rather than the hundreds. The Vietnamese Prime Minister has agreed to build a casino on Phu Quoc. Of course, it’s not for the locals. It’s for the thousands of tourists about to swamp the island.

The tourist boom is coming to Phu Quoc. We could see/ hear/ smell it coming. I thought maybe in the next 5-10 years, not this soon.

These changes will be a mixed blessing for the locals of these small villages and towns on Phu Quoc. It will bring income to the island which, yes, it needs, but it will ruin what the place is really about. Small log bridges? Gone. Remote dirt tracks? Gone. Beautiful rainforest? Quiet beaches? Gone, gone, gone!

This will also effect the fishing in a negative way. Phu Quoc island is known for its amazing seafood. One evening we went to the night marktet and I had a fantastic tuna steak. The men at the market told us all about the squid, sea urchins, sea snails etc. It was very interesting. Their income will rise with the increase of tourists, but the seas will become over-fished eventually, leading to lack of jobs.

I am so so happy I went when I did. It ended my eight months in South East Asia on such a high. I had planned to go back this year, but I’m glad I’m not going to. I think going back now would tarnish the beautiful memories I have.

If you haven’t been yet, you are running out of time.

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