Sep 16, 2019
By Jennine Lee-St. John. Photographed by Charles Dharapak.
“Um, well, you see, the thing is,” this dive instructor was saying to me in a French accent, scratching his head as he tried to disappoint me nicely but definitively, “we are conservationists, so we don’t believe in taking things from the sea floor to eat.”
My friend and I looked at each other mystified. We were about to head off for a snorkel-and-sunset sail and hadn’t eaten since breakfast and were just asking to stop on the way from the hotel to the docks for some banh mi.
Then it dawned on me, the language barrier. “I didn’t say, uni. I said, banh mi,” I said a tinge more slowly than the first time. “Vietnamese sandwiches.”
Pause. Ah, sandwiches are okay. Laughter all round.
We were being scolded because I had indeed asked for uni—earlier. A colleague who had visited this island two years ago told me the highlight of her trip was an evening on a local boat; she had chilled with real squid fishermen, who cracked open fresh-plucked sea urchins for her to slurp in all their briny goodness. That sounded pretty great to me, and so I chatted with the general manager of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc, Ty Collins, about it.
He demurred. Two years somewhere like Phu Quoc is long enough for everything to change. Now, “squid fishing” is big business, with boats taking visitors out just for the Instagram of it. Collins overruled my request and sent us out instead with a dive instructor and a marine biologist from Flipper Diving Club, who pointed out parrotfish, skinny needlefish and lemony rabbitfish when we went snorkeling, told us about their conservation ideas for the area, and explained they didn’t want us to eat uni because they are grazers who keep reefs clean of algae.
We sailed southward under the world’s longest cable car, lumpy emerald isles in every direction, the sea shades of sapphire and cyan I never associated with Vietnam. In the end, we got the best version of a local experience I could have imagined: a secluded beach at sunset (okay, maybe that involved drinking champagne toted from JW Marriott), and eating fish and giant clams with scallion-and-garlic sauce at an empty, frond-roofed restaurant on the same island, the owners cajoling us with shots of moonshine, our captain laughing as we tottered back to the boat along the sticks that passed for a pier.
This was the carefree tropical life I was expecting when I touched back down on this visa-free idyll in the Gulf of Thailand. Four years ago, when this was still the beachy boondocks, it took me two planes to get here from Bangkok. Now it’s an hour and a half direct, landing in one of the easiest airports ever—new, compact, and zero immigration line—meaning the destination is prepped to make a play for tourism traffic from the Thai islands. There are also daily non-stop flights from Kuala Lumpur, and the number of Hong Kong flights is rising to six per week, and Seoul, 14. International hotels have moved in, with high-end Fairmont and Park Hyatt among those on the way, and au courant gastro-bars are springing up to feed the fancy folks who leave property.
But these days, we have an obligation to expect our luxury to come with a big dose of sustainability, and together those themes are also driving change on Phu Quoc—practically in direct competition with the mass tourism and planet-ruining. Divers once thrilled at bamboo sharks, turtles, dugongs and seahorses in these waters. Seahorses! Overfishing, irresponsible boat tours, pollution from farming, the staggering construction and even sunscreen, and the Chinese demand for rare species are just some of the things that have chased these aquatic populations away. But sundry stakeholders here, from WWF and other environmentalists to conscientious hoteliers, developers and independent proprietors, think they can turn the tide. One major goal is creating more marine sanctuaries. My sunglasses weren’t rose-colored, but it seems like the fish have cause for optimism.
WHEN A ONCE-SLEEPY fishing hamlet has a concept bar touted as the highest on the island, you know things have changed. Atop the new InterContinental Phu Quoc, a steel octopus spreads its tentacles over Ink 360, a sky bar made by prolific dystopian designer Ashley Sutton with a deck that becomes a hotspot come sunset. My favorite places on the property, though, are at ground level: the Harnn Heritage Spa is an edenic oasis hugging a lake; and Lava is the resort’s impressive grill-centered restaurant—order the sea snails and the duck breast.
Next door find Sailing Club, an outpost of a popular beach-bar brand elsewhere in Vietnam, where you can take your drinks by the melon-colored pool with a side of deep house. Not far up the road is Bittersweet, a cocktail bar without a menu, where the bartenders make bespoke drinks based on your tastes and what’s in season. If you prefer beer, the island’s largest range of drafts on tap— diverse, delicious Vietnamese craft brews, mostly—flows at The Bench, along with authentic Baja tacos, thanks to the Mexican cravings of owner Van Ngo, who moved here from California after running kitchens at Apple Inc. Rounding out the on-trend F&B I never would’ve imagined I’d find here is Saigonese Eatery, a kind of nose-to-tail, kind of organic-veggie, kind of Asian-fusion café with pulled-duck baos and roasted cauliflower plus a smartly curated small-batch-wine menu.
Still, the place that put Phu Quoc on the global map is the JW Marriott, which opened at the end of 2016, feels like Harry Potter’s Candyland, and has ambitions to coax out a similar vibrancy under the waves. It made sense that Collins took charge of my itinerary, for on this fantastical property that looks like a college campus from 1917, the general manager is known as the dean, and he strolls around, from the French-colonial rue that hosts a street-food market with real local vendors on Sunday night (find the couple with the banh bot loc—tapioca-flour shrimp dumplings) to the mini-stadium with a running track– encircled soccer pitch to the decks of the three beachfront pools, in a period waistcoat and with a twinkle in his eye.
That there was never any such place as Lamarck University, that designer Bill Bensley created the entire thing from his expansive and insanely detailed imagination in no way lessens the immersive effect of being on the grounds. There are antique trophies, old-timey cleats, oversized lanterns, painted travel billboards everywhere. It’s impossible to walk briskly when every three meters the view changes and you find another spot you need to pause to capture in your mental (or, let’s be honest, phone’s) memory bank. In the Department of Chemistry, I had a private bartending lesson with the ocean breeze at my back and, in my lap, an oyster po’boy custom-made for me by chef Pino. Next door, Pink Pearl, a villa pedigreed as the university’s (fictional) first dean’s (fictional) second wife’s grand salon, is a magenta fever-dream where your fine dining is served by flappers and to the tune of live opera music. Perhaps the trippiest location is The Spa Chanterelle, which brings Alice in Wonderland into the plot, for some reason.
Hotel rooms and villas are grouped into categories of learning (Department of Visual Arts; Department of Entomology) with design features to match, and the educational theme extends to the daily class schedule, jam-packed with things like surf yoga, sushi making, calligraphy and marine biology. That last, a priority for the hotel and its property developer Sun Group, is taught by the staff at Flipper, who started a coral nursery in the JW Marriott’s bay in May that currently houses more than 100 baby corals, some of which have already grown from one centimeter long to four. Government approval on a little-known, all-natural method of coral propagation created by Malaysia-based environmental group Ocean Quest Global is next, Xavier Forain, the uni-loving dive instructor who is one of Flipper’s managers, told me.
Rather than build artificial reefs, whose base materials can actually harm the sea, this method gathers so-called live rocks (substrates already covered by marine life) and positions them to account for waves and tides. Broken coral fragments that have been recovered from the ocean floor—no more than five kilometers from the nursery, and in comparable oceanic environments—are affixed to the live rocks and coated with a natural catalyst.
Sun Group, which owns a huge swath of the south of Phu Quoc, including that cable car that hops from islet to islet to a terminus holding theme parks and beach eateries, hopes approval of the coral propagation method at JW Marriott will be the go-ahead for more such nurseries. “Our chairman is a very low-key man,” owner rep Duong Nguyen Anh Thi told me, “but he doesn’t want us to cut any trees or hurt any animals.” Pushing marine sanctuaries is long-game thinking both ecologically and economically, something that can be tough to sell to a local population that has forever relied on seafood for sustenance. Sanctuaries can lead to an explosion of life, that doesn’t stay within the limits of the protected areas. This is good for tourism and good for fishermen.
AT THE OTHER END of the design spectrum and of the island from JW Marriott, on a peninsula jutting out from the northwest coast, Nam Nghi was originally conceived by its owners as sustainable luxury—dark timber buildings were placed based on the natural terrain and trees, none of which were cut for construction; none of the 49 private villas has a pool, instead harnessing good airflow through large hammock-bedecked porches, most of them over the ocean. From mine, I could see guests frolicking on the beach on the islet across the channel that is home to the hotel’s Rock Island Club. Over there (crossing via their super-comfy pontoon ferry rivals their glass-bottomed kayaks for fun), elevated above the waves crashing on the boulders below, surrounded by clear barriers, and clutching a mojito, you feel like you’re floating in the middle of the ocean. One evening, as the horizon in front of us turned from pink to violet, a rainbow appeared high in the sky behind us—someone declared, “It’s like a strawberry-jam sandwich,” and though that was a tad nonsensical it was right on target. Phu Quoc does sunsets like Langkawi and Bali: full-length and in Technicolor.
Hyatt took over management this year, adding the property to its boutique-minded Unbound Collection, and promptly set about going even greener with the place. Nam Nghi no longer serves any imported fish, just the catch of the day from their local partners. “It’s better for overfishing, for taste and for quality,” the director of culinary operations, Pankaj Bisht, told me. He has set up his own lobster traps in Nam Nghi’s waters, and scoured the country for responsible suppliers. Shrimp comes from Nha Trang, veggies from Dalat, and soon, eggs from cage-free chickens kept by a guy up the road… once he gets that commercial farming license he’s applied for.
Nam Nghi owns another private island a 20-minute speedboat ride north, Hon Bang, a little spit of land with a pier, where security guards keep away fishing and tourist boats. It’s a shallow, calm place to snorkel. All the more so, I realized, when we motored down to Turtle Island. It took me a while to recognize this as the same place I had visited four years prior, then an empty key I paid a fisherman to take me to in a wooden dinghy, and lend me his homemade snorkel mask, and hope the current wasn’t aggressive because I wasn’t sure he could swim and there was no one else to be seen. Now it was cordoned off with a buoyed rope, just beyond which bobbed several boats and a floating restaurant/dive shop. Because it’s a beautiful reef with high coral density, and a great shallow dive spot for beginners, it’s in danger of being trampled to death.
Reefs dot the west coast, actually. In a fit of lucky timing, the über-tranquil Fusion Resort Phu Quoc discovered its own house reef while I was staying there. Following up on aerial drone footage he took himself, general manager Peter Neto had called the guys at Flipper to come investigate some dark spots in the sea. Turned out there was a relatively healthy 100-by-300-meter reef, reachable by kayak. Because the equipment was already there, Forain took me out for a dive; it was so shallow that in many spots I could feel the sun shining through the water. We spotted juvenile barracuda, giant pufferfish, snapper, groupers and nudibranchs.
There’s something so gratifying about not having to take a boat to a dive site. Especially when you can shed your tank on the shore and head straight for a massage table. Fusion Resorts include all spa therapies in the nightly rate, and at this one the treatment rooms encircle a verdant black-pepper garden. Their breakfast anytime/anywhere policy is agreeable for late-sleepers (hello!), or those who just can’t bear to leave the sanctity of their villas (me again), all of which come with a private pool. My villa was tucked in a river bend, with landscaped hillocks on either side providing unobtrusive privacy. It’s the kind of place you could envision as a vacation home.
Neto, who has a long, wide shoreline to protect, is a key player organizing what they’re calling a “green cham” for lack of a better term—a chamber of commerce made up of the top-end hotels to develop and push environmentally friendly practices. They’re working with WWF, who has several projects on the island, including creating waste- management and fishing-quota systems in villages near blue-crab breeding areas; teaching schoolkids about the harms of single-use plastics and the money they can make recycling; and implementing discounts at businesses if you bring your own cup. “When I approached street vendors, they looked at me like I was an alien who’d dropped from the sky,” WWF junior project officer Hoang Minh Trang told me. “What? Get rid of single-use plastics?”
To be sure, educating the local population is a major hurdle. One morning heading out for a dive from An-Thoi Pier, I watched a tourist boat pull in and dump a garbage bag full of plastic bottles into the sea. The blatant act astonished me, but then I learned there are no trash bins at the marina, and no one designated to pick them up anyway. “There are so many different ways to kill coral,” Forain said. “If the Chinese liked to eat plastic, the world would be a
pristine place.” Then again, we could all use more educating. My friend, who I won’t name for reasons soon to be apparent, emerged from her first-ever dive triumphant. “I touched the coral!” she boasted to me. “Give me your hand,” Forain said. She did and he playfully swatted it. “Don’t ever do that again,” he said.
THERE’S ONE RESORT that saw all this coming, and without fanfare has been beyond-eco since inception in 2001, although that’s not their preferred descriptor. “The original vision was a low-density development, driven passion for the environment, intelligent use of materials and commitment to the island culture. We don’t call ourselves an ‘eco-resort,’ and are sensitive to the fact that in many areas we still face challenges,”
Dominic Scriven, who co-founded Mango Bay Resort and Vietnamese environmental group Wildlife at Risk, said. “Having said that, if you look round Phu Quoc there don’t seem to be many as seriously engaged in the mission.”
Mango Bay has built their own private waste-water filtration systems, channeling the gray water from their kitchens and laundries through four all-natural systems made up of cleansing plants and layers of gravel—the lush beds overflow with beach spider lilies, pandans and crimson canna flowers. I also saw the woodshop, where they refine timber for building, and make the furniture and accessories, down to wine bucket stands. The resort runs a kindergarten and pays the school fees for kids of staff; motorbike-accident insurance for the whole family is also covered. The straws here? They’re made of rice flour.
There’s nary a pool, but whatever. You’ve got two beaches and a coral reef 50 meters offshore, and gorgeous sunsets from two delicious restaurants. For years the whole place was air-con free, the thatched roof, acacia- walled, stilted bungalows designed to maximize natural airflow with the help of fans. But the addition of rammed earth villas (adobe lasts forever) brought low-energy air-conditioning units that will soon be in all the rooms.
While staying here, I noted at least four other guests carrying plastic out of the ocean. The point is not that the beach is dirty; it isn’t. But observing this made me wonder if the kind of people who stay at Mango Bay are the kind for whom grabbing a piece of trash from the sea is as natural as carrying around reusable tote bags. Or if a critical mass has realized pretending the occasional piece of floating litter isn’t there won’t make it go away.
The ink isn’t yet dry on the story of Phu Quoc. There’s been gangbusters development, yes: the first casino in Vietnam where citizens of the country may gamble, hotels with 1,000-room wings, traffic in the town center and overcrowding of outlying islands thanks to Chinese tour groups. An estimate put the number of hotels at 600 with 18,000 rooms. But this 575-square-kilometer isle is still 70 percent forest, and is coming of age during a time of shifting environmental awareness. “Vietnam has a bigger, better local movement than our neighbors,” WWF’s Trang said. “Public/private pushes swell from the ground.”
On one particularly successful dive, off North Pineapple Island, Forain and I saw juvenile barracuda, giant pufferfish, scorpionfish, a kaleidoscope of nudibrachs, a slew of pink skunk clownfish, and what seemed like a playgroup of spotted sweetlips tumbling all over each other. “It’s not too late to reverse the degradation of the ecosystem,” he told me later. “Here, there’s still something to save—compared with other places on earth.”
Travelers who’d normally require a visa to enter Vietnam don’t need one for Phu Quoc, so long as they stay on the island, making it a newly perfect long-weekend spot. Weather is best late-October through May.
There are daily non-stop flights from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com) and Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia (airasia.com); VietJet (vietjetair.com) is upping its weekly flights from Hong Kong to six and from Seoul to 14.
JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Three beachfront pools, a roster of activities, a fab spa and lots of rubbernecking will keep you busy at this resort, voted No. 1 in Southeast Asia by readers in T+L’s World’s Best Awards 2019. marriott.com; doubles from VND6,800,000.
Fusion Resort Phu Quoc All spa treatments are included in the cost of rooms—all of which are private-pool villas. A tranquil property whose photogenic central pool faces a wide beach and their house reef 300 meters out. You must eat their banh xeo. fusionresorts.com; doubles from US$329.
Nam Nghi Phu Quoc, in The Unbound Collection by Hyatt A little luxe haven off in its own verdant world, with two private islands, three boats, a fleet of clear kayaks, golden buggies and mindblowing sunsets. hyatt. com; doubles from US$218.
InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort In this 459-room family-friendly hotel, the main restaurant has a separate dining room for kids. Book an afternoon at Harnn Heritage Spa, then head to Ink 360 for sundowners and Lava for a romantic dinner. phuquoc.intercontinental.com; doubles from US$169.
Mango Bay Resort Probably the greenest resort you’ll find in the country. A team of green thumbs makes sure the mangroves are healthy and their untouched swath of forest stays that way. Every room has an outdoor shower and the food is really good. mangobayphuquoc.com; doubles from US$55.
La Veranda Resort Phu Quoc – M Gallery If the island had a grande dame, this French-colonial beauty with saltwater pool would be it. Book a sunny suite with handpainted-tile floors, a four-poster bed, gauzy curtains and French doors that open onto the gardens and beach beyond. laverandaresorts.com; doubles from US$117.
Chen Sea Resort & Spa A pretty, independent resort where the 36 villas come with Jacuzzis or private pools and the restaurant serves a killer gnocchi. To regenerate their semi-secluded bay, they installed an artificial reef last year that has already charted a boom in the fish population from 50 to 3,000. chensea-resort.com; doubles from US$124.
Salinda Resort Phu Quoc Island Friendly service and super green to boot. Examples: outdoor architecture is made of sustainable accoya wood, all windows and 85 percent of lights are made of recycled materials, the pool is saltwater, and they filter their wastewater for gardening. salindaresort.com; doubles from US$218.
Sailing Club Probably the closest you’ll get to a Bali-style beach club on the island—for now. sailingclubphuquoc.com.
Bittersweet Two locations that bring tell-me-what-you’re- craving mixology to Phu Quoc. fb.com/bittersweetcocktailbar.
The Bench A fun Mexican eatery with the most craft-beer taps on the island, plus a shuffleboard table. fb.com/thebench.phuquoc.
Saigonese Eatery Wholesome café where the vibe somehow makes you feel at once warm-and-fuzzy and above-the-fray. fb.com/saigoneseeatery.com.
Flipper Diving Club Snorkel, dive or get PADI certified with these environmentalist dive instructors and marine biologists. flipperdiving.com.
Hon Thom Cable Car Just take the scenic ride over the waves— or play at the nature, water and theme parks at the terminus. honthom.sungroup.vn. — J.L.S.J.