Phu Quoc, peaceful island life at its best

Special to The Times

MY plan was to do absolutely nothing on a beach for an entire week.

That may sound easy, but taking a real vacation is not easy for a travel writer, and I told myself I had to hide my notebook, pen and cameras under a bed in some bungalow on a beach.

This week in steamy Vietnam was to be my reward for spending most of last summer on assignment in the Canadian Arctic. It also gave me a chance to escape the equally chilling reality of turning 50.

So with a bottle of Champagne tucked under his arm, my longtime buddy Jim Hutchison met me one November day in Ho Chi Minh City. Two days earlier, we hadn't known Phu Quoc Island even existed. But spurred by an enticing line in a magazine, we decided to give it a try, and the next morning we flew west to the teardrop-shaped island just 15 miles off the coast of Cambodia.

The island is about the size of Singapore, but only 75,000 people live here. It is blanketed with the largest remaining swath of tropical rain forest in Vietnam.

But the beach was what lured me, and through the plane window, I saw a long uninterrupted strip of golden sand glittering in the sun. It was mostly empty. Funny, I thought, there's hardly anyone there.

In the blast of tropical heat, a battered taxi picked us up outside the airport building, which was practically in the center of the main fishing village of Duong Dong.

We bypassed Long Beach, which I had seen from the plane, and Duong Dong for the Mango Bay Resort on secluded Ong Lang Beach. After a five-mile, pot-holed drive north of town, we finally bumped through an old mango plantation and arrived at the resort, a string of bungalows amid palms and banyan trees.

I was supine on a deserted half-mile curve of beach before my luggage even reached our bungalow. I had no desire to see any sights, shop, learn about the island's culture, past, present or future -- that would be work. I wiggled my toes into the sand, opened a new book and sipped an icy Tiger Beer.

Hunger forced me upright around noon. At the resort's open-air restaurant and bar, I was greeted by the perfume of sauteed garlic. A blackboard menu announced the specials as marinated black kingfish and green papaya salad with shrimp.

Throughout Vietnam, food is morning-market fresh and simply cooked. Firm and white, the kingfish was barbecued and served alongside a tiny dish that held small mounds of salt, pepper and a wedge of lime.

Our cheery young waiter, Tin, demonstrated how to squeeze the lime into the salt and pepper, stir and use the sauce as a fish dip.

"The pepper is not spicy," he said, and he was right. "Our Phu Quoc pepper is famous. Also fish sauce -- the most famous in Vietnam."

The travel writer in me involuntarily raised her head in curiosity, but I banished the impulse and asked for another beer.

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Leisurely days at the beach

MANGO BAY is a laid-back eco-resort, run by a triad of two Saigon-based Brits and a mellow, bare-footed Australian from Perth named Lawson Johnston.

Johnston, who was dressed only in well-worn aloha board shorts, was responsible for the resort's "rammed-earth bungalows. In rammed-earth construction, wood molds are filled 8 inches deep with a mixture of local soil and 7% cement. The mixture is pounded with wooden rammers to a thickness of 3 inches, and the process is repeated. The resulting substance is as hard as concrete but more ecologically sound and cooler in the tropical heat.

Our bungalow had a high-peaked thatch roof and a ceiling fan. Breezes blew through unscreened louvered windows and doors, which also let in the sound of cicadas in the evenings. The bathroom and solar-heated shower were outside.

Geckos played on the bamboo wall that separated us from a grove of banana trees. The room was rustic but stylish, all white cotton, wicker and terra cotta.

We settled into a lazy routine. Up early for breakfast, I watched clouds of flitting dragonflies as the sun rose and fishermen sorted out their nets on the beach, then rowed their long, slim boats out to sea.

Every morning two sea eagles circled overhead. A few cute indigenous Phu Quoc ridgeback puppies, once used by the French colonists as hunting dogs, came looking for company.

My breakfasts of baguettes with jam were another legacy of French colonialism. In the mornings I also fueled my addiction to cafe sua da, Vietnamese espresso slowly dripped through a little metal filter onto a dollop of super-sweet condensed milk, which then is stirred and poured over ice.

When the sun hit toasting temperature -- about 90 degrees -- I headed for my spot on the beach beneath a thatch umbrella. Most of the other guests at the resort were Europeans or Australians, and we all kept to ourselves. This was not a place for party animals, and that's just what we wanted -- at first.

The bliss of doing nothing wore off after three days, so we rented a motorbike for a day and planned to explore the minute metropolis of Duong Dong and the scene at Long Beach.

"Not much of a 'scene' down there," Johnston mused from his perch at the bar before we left. But he recommended a cafe for lunch, and we took off, careening around elephant-size potholes and mopeds piled ridiculously high with such goods as mattresses or squealing basket-bound pigs. Everyone we passed shouted "hello" and waved.

Cashew and pepper plantations lined the road. Phu Quoc pepper, both white and black, is renowned throughout Vietnam, and in 2005 the country became the world's largest exporter of pepper.

Duong Dong market is a chaotic meeting place of fishing boats and vendors. Many things, including live eels and custom-made jeans, are sold there, and I picked up a 2.2-pound bag of fresh black pepper. It cost 80 cents.

Across a rickety bridge from the market was Duong Dong, a typical no-frills Vietnamese country town containing a government building, bank, restaurants, shops and cafes. It smelled faintly, but not unpleasantly, of fish. Fermented fish sauce, to be exact, which is the other Phu Quoc specialty.

In Vietnam, dishes as diverse as grilled shrimp and fries are sloshed with nuoc mam -- a condiment as popular in Southeast Asia as ketchup is in North America. Vietnam's finest fish sauce is made in Duong Dong.

"It's the best because we use only long-jawed anchovies, unlike our competitors, who use a variety of fish," said the woman who gave us an informal tour of the Phuoc Hong fish sauce factory. The mixture of fish and salt ferments and ages for a year in huge wooden vats before its first pressing.

Our next stop was Long Beach, which began just outside town. We bumped down an unpaved road toward the Tropicana resort, a cluster of bungalows, a pool and a cafe that overlooked the palm-lined beach and sea. A few sunbathers on towels were being rubbed by masseuses, who often stroll the strand looking for takers. But there are no crowds, just beachside cafes where you can dine on world-class seafood for less than $10 a couple.

Besides one sizable resort called Saigon Phu Quoc -- it was clearly for the tour-bus set -- we saw only about a dozen signs pointing down narrow lanes through tropical bush to guesthouses, cottages and bar/cafes on the beach.

Then there was nothing. No shops, gas stations, corner stores. Less than five miles beyond town along the 17-mile-long beach there was nothing.

Phu Quoc is like Thailand 25 years ago -- before the overdevelopment of such once-deserted gems as Phuket and Ko Samui.

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Into the rain forest

THE next day we again rented a moped to visit the southern tip of the island on a road that runs inland along its spine. Climbing into the hills we rode through miles of protected rain forest, which nurtured deer, monkeys and gibbons, and orchids and vanilla and cinnamon trees.

We passed a tacky theme park with giant concrete monkeys and fake concrete trees, and the remains of Coconut Prison. It was built by the French and was later used by the Americans as a prisoner-of-war camp and, after 1975, a Communist re-education camp.

At the southern tip of the island is the fishing town of An Thoi, from which snorkeling and scuba diving boats leave. The area is said to be one of the best for diving in Vietnam.

We arrived for lunch at Bai Sao Beach on the island's west coast, which has a few fishing villages and is largely undeveloped for tourism, except for a small family restaurant called Ai Xiem. We sat in the shade of a thatch beach umbrella while a young waitress brought a brazier to our table in the sand, and grilled tiger prawns and fresh barracuda. Afterward, we napped in hammocks.

It had been a wonderful day -- except for the frequent billboards advertising a massive planned subdivision. When we turned back for Mango Bay, more signs promised malls and shopping centers.

An official Vietnamese government website outlined the planned attractions, including water parks and a miniature railway into the rain forest. Foreign capital, it boasted, is pouring in. Lawson had told us that direct flights from Bangkok and Phnom Penh were in the works and that two luxury resorts are slated to open this year on Long Beach. The island, like much of Vietnam, is poor, and the jobs would be welcome.

There are places travel writers swear they'll never publicize for fear of destroying them. Phu Quoc Island is such a place, but not for long. The billboards point to the runaway commercial development of a seaside gem, and writing about this place, I realized, would allow a few people to see an untouched part of Asia before it disappears.

So, that evening, I pulled out my notebook and pen, and wrote as the brilliant red sun sank into the ocean -- one of the few places in Vietnam where you can see the sun set into the sea.

On the horizon appeared a string of diamond lights, lanterns that fisherman had hung above their small wooden boats to attract the squid that tomorrow would be grilled on a brazier for lunch.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Vietnam's secret isle

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Asiana, JAL, Korean, United, Air France, Thai, EVA, Philippine, Cathay Pacific, China and All Nippon have connecting service (change of plane) to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,020.

Phu Quoc Island is a 50-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam Airlines, www.vietnamairlines.com, which offers several flights daily for about $66 round trip.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 84 (country code for Vietnam) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Mango Bay Resort, Ong Lang Beach; 903-382-207, www.mangobayphuquoc.com. Bungalows are $35-$45. Continental breakfast included.

Mai House Resort, Long Beach; 77-847-003. Fourteen bungalows in a tropical garden with sea views of Long Beach. Doubles $45, including buffet breakfast and airport transfer.

WHERE TO EAT:

Bo Resort, five miles north of Duong Dong on Ong Lang Beach, 913-640-520, www.boresort.com. A rustic resort run by a French and Vietnamese couple. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Entrees $2-$4.

The Tropicana, Long Beach, Duong Dong Town; 77-847-127, www.northvalleyroads.com/tropicana. The resort's restaurant has a terrace overlooking the beach. Excellent Vietnamese -- try the warm fresh tuna salad -- and Western food. Entrees $3-$5.

Mai House Resort, on Long Beach; 77-847-003. The restaurant is open-air with a teak deck. Everything, the curries and seafood, even a burger, is excellent. Entrees $2-$4.

TO LEARN MORE:

Vietnam Embassy, (202) 861-2293, www.vietnamembassy-usa.org. Americans need a visa.

-- Margo Pfeiff

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