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Copyright © 1999-2014 Vietnam Venture Group, Inc. All rights reserved.   April 1997; Updated March 3, 2004

Return to.... peace.   Hurry to Phu Quoc Island
By Peter N. Sheridan


Hurry! 

Visit Phu Quoc Island....., but do not bring a large suitcase. 

Make plans soon to stay at least three days on this 50 km (31miles) long, beautiful land. It is the southern-most part of Vietnam, less than 18 km (11 miles) from the coast of Cambodia, and 78 km (49 miles) from mainland, Vietnam. The island is changing. If you delay, you may miss one of the world’s best treats. Stay three days to relax. Stay longer and you may never want to leave.

 Update January 2003 - There are new plans announced that may, if they go forward, transform for all time the beauty of this last lovely spot of the world.  Rather than spoil these lovely pages with such speculation, you can click here to read our current report.  See all updates following this article, below.

As of April 1997 the island has a total roadway network not as great as its over-all length. Perhaps 100 yards of the 30 mile network is paved.  Not all of the pavement is found in one place.

In  bits and pieces along the north-south road, the paved roadway seems to be remnants of another era. Most international travelers arrive by air. The only passenger transportation from the airport to one of the two existing hotels is by motorbike, or on foot. Do not over-fill your luggage.

The crowd of "taxi" drivers put their faces in the door and through the windows, lining-up long before the baggage arrives from the plane. Look for Tony. That is his "American" name.  The locals folks know him as Anh. He is difficult to miss.

 

"Hey, buddy, come along for the ride and have a blast. All right, come with me, I practically live at your hotel," is Tony’s opening line to every white or black-skinned international traveler. He carries a card from the two hotels in different pockets.  When you tell him your hotel, he pulls out the appropriate card to show you he is not lying.

If you give Tony, or any other driver, more than 5,000 dong (43 cents at current rates) for the ride to the hotel, you are feeding inflation. Hop on the back of the motorbike, squeeze your knees tightly around your host-driver, and with your hands, cling on to only as much luggage as you can carry.  If you are wise, pack everything for your stay in a back-pack. Keep your balance and do not drop your bag.

Certainly at my age and size I am no authority on back-packing.  But this does not appear to be back-packer country.   During our visit, it was the harried local business person from HCMC or Hanoi that made up the 50 or so tourists on the island. The occasional artist, back-packer and honeymoon couple also arrive, but the business traveler looking for rest is the most frequent visitor.

 

Do hurry, for developers are eyeing the place. I am one of them. The oldest hotel, Huang Bien, is barely three years new, has 10 existing rooms available for international travelers, but is completing a 40+ room addition. It is scheduled to be opened by September 1997. However, in a land of rubber-band time, the extension may not fully open until March, 1998.

The second hotel is the Kim Linh Hotel. Not much older, it is not currently involved in any expansion. However, the foreign-invested owners are engaged in a fierce battle to scare-off a domestic neighbor who is earning most of their restaurant and bar business.

The local map is a hand-drawn, many-generations-old photocopy of an even older photocopy. Sold only at the two hotels, it costs about 26 cents. There is little else to purchase by way of souvenirs. The map shows a few long-considered but never-built extensions of the island’s major road-way system.

The entire system, but for a few side streets in the both the southern village and the one city, consists of roads that are numbered on the map but no place else. The major road runs from the southern-most tip (a fishing village/army/navy installation), north, about half-way up the island. Its northern terminus is the only city, Phu Quoc, home to the civil airport and two hotels.

About 2 km north of town, just beyond the back entrance to the landing field (on which the locals gather to watch the daily plane – sometimes ATRs but usually an ancient Yak-40 -- hopefully land and take-off), the north-south road becomes a foot-path / bike-trail into the restricted northern mountains. Another road crosses the island east-to-west about 1/4 the distance of the island from the southern-most fishing village.

[Following the first publication of this article, another Air Vietnam Yak bit the dust, killing all but two on board. In early 1998, all the Yaks were retired from flight, and hopefully will stay in retirement.]

The only tourist information available claims 50,000 people live on the island. If that is accurate, 80 percent must be military and live far from the main roads. Major portions of the island are marked on the map with black-box warnings in Vietnamese to stay away.

The remaining population seems evenly divided between military and civilians. It is only on Phu Quoc Island that I have seen such an ever-presence of the military (army and navy) in Vietnam. Perhaps the nation is on the alert for an invasion from neighboring Cambodia. Before the French carved up what was known as Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) in the late 1800s, Phu Quoc had been part of Cambodia. But then, so had most of what is now the southern region of Vietnam.

Still, now that I have lived and worked in Vietnam for more than four years, it is surprising to see so many military personnel. They are for the most part not carrying weapons or wearing shoes. As with many male Vietnamese, they walk arm-in-arm with each other, and have an open, ever-ready smile for a smiling foreigner. But perhaps unique to most nation's border areas, there is a open and large military presence that is a bit startling to this veteran of the Vietnam war.

 

The Huang Bien Hotel is now working to complete the interior of its new palatial-appearing extension. The Kim Linh Hotel is further south along the main road. Most activity is on the western side of the island, and the two hotels are no exception. The rooms in both hotels are functionally adequate, but lounging at the Huang Bien is NOT a reason to visit Phu Quoc Island.

The Kim Linh Hotel consists of three concrete buildings, about 15 rooms total, five of which are air conditioned. Stay if you must at the new extension of the Huang Bien, but please, visit the area of the Kim Linh Hotel . However, I must swear you to secrecy: don’t tell anyone....

Mrs. Hieu's Small Restaurant, the competition for the Kim Line’s dining, puts the Kim Linh to shame. But then, she also puts most other restaurants in all of south-east Asia, if not the world, to shame.

Mrs. Hieu runs a small restaurant just south of the Kim Linh dining pavilion. The foreign invested, French-Vietnamese management of the Kim Linh are very unhappy about Mrs. Hieu, but they are in error to be unhappy. They should be devoting more time to following her example, or better, to merging their two operations.

The reasons to visit Phu Quoc Island do not start and stop at Mrs. Hieu’s Little Restaurant, but they center on her garden spot of the world.

The reason to visit quickly is that the developing nation of Vietnam, with its expanding economy (in spite of its current, near absence of inflation), may not realize how important it is to preserve small businesses such as that run by Mrs. Hieu.

Mrs. Hieu's restaurant may soon be put out of business!

The foreign invested owners are bringing political pressure to close down Mrs. Hieu.   They don't need her space.  They need her customers.  I hope big business here does not succeed. That will not only be a blow to a hard working family, but it will be a disaster for the island, and the nation.

Look at the Nation's Economy.   Inflation during 1986 was racing along at an annual rate of 774.7 percent. Today Vietnam is fighting stagnation with an annual inflation rate chasing 2 percent. Vietnam is the only nation of which I am aware, in the history of the world, that has peacefully made a transition from a central command-to-market, or market-to-central command economy.

OK, I left out an important word. Vietnam does not have a pure market economy. The nation calls it a "market-style" economy with a certain degree of socialism. But some people rightfully ask, what is the American economic system if not that?

What is important to understand is that Vietnam made the change on a purely pragmatic and voluntary basis. There has never before been an equivalent, peaceful transition. There were no strikes, purges, bloodshed or even imprisonment. Look at Eastern Europe for a study in contrast. Criticism of Vietnam may well be due in some sectors, but let us not fail to offer praise and give encouragement when that is due as well.

To be praised is the entrepreneurial nature of many Vietnamese, including Mrs. Hieu. With her small family, and an expanding list of international visitors, she devotes nearly all her time to her small business.

To find Mrs. Hieu’s Little Restaurant, do not look in any guide book, or ask locals for direction. Instead, seek out the Kim Linh Hotel. From the airport, take a motorbike and head west.

Go through the down town area.  It is not much to see, but it is picturesque in its poverty.  Go over a rickety wooden plank bridge. Make plans to return to stop at the market, look at the harbor, marvel at the freshly painted boats and the crowded stalls. Do not fail to notice there are absolutely no tourist items to purchase, outside the airport. And the tourist items sold in the airport are not made on the island.

The only industry besides fishing, is processing fish into either fish sauce (nuoc mam) or dried and highly spiced fish. The nuoc mam factories are worth a visit.

The managers will tell you Vietnam Airlines prohibits taking bottled fish sauce on board for the flight back to HCMC. There have been some broken bottles in the past. Deodorizing an aircraft puts is out of commission for more than one week. However, on my return flight, I seemed to be the only passenger who did NOT have a bottle of nuoc mam.

The other locally produced item is dried fish. I had ten small packages made, each with the distinctive Phu Quoc label, only to have my local friends back in HCMC, normally very polite, exclaim they hate the smelly stuff!

Back on the road, past the rickety bridge beyond the market, the street was being widened during my April visit. Small houses were being made smaller buy demolishing the front portions to accommodate the projected traffic. No doubt the bridge will be replaced to support bus traffic that will soon be making stops at the airport. No doubt, the roads will all- too-soon be paved, increasing traffic, pollution and congestion. The streets twist and turn for a few hundred meters, and the unmarked road to the Huang Bien Hotel is near by.

The road follows south along the coast, past many abandoned and desecrated graves on both sides of the road. About 2 km beyond the Huang Bien, look for a small red sign that proclaims "Minh O." Almost 100 meters beyond, up a small rise in the road, stands a small sign on a post. It is hand painted with red and green letters on a light blue background. It is lighted at night, when it is most easy to see: Kim Linh Hotel.

Turn right, go past some more graves that are not abandoned, a few grass huts, and then hold tight.

The foot-path drops to the sea, and narrows to almost a meter wide. Both sides of the path are lined in ancient, rusted but meanly- barbed wire. The path has sharp turns, so don’t lean to far out.

This is no time to be shy. Keep you knees tightly against the very narrow hips of your motorcycle driver. If your hands are free, wrap them about his waist. Don’t consider the appearance ridiculous. It is common practice and may be necessary to avoid another tetanus shot.

When the ride is over, you will better understand the literal translation of your driver’s profession, xe om (pronounced "say ohm"). It means motorcycle hugger.

The Kim Linh Hotel is, well, functional. With rooms from $10 to $21 per night (the owner will grab up to $40 a night for one of the few air conditioned rooms if you do not know better), what do you expect? Go past the two permanent structures on the left.

The air-conditioned rooms form a crescent shaped building on the right, and immediately across the path from the hotel’s restaurant pavilion. It is staffed by very nice, well-intentioned folks who try hard, but do not posses the charm found just 40 meters to their immediate left as you face the water. They also don't know how to cook very well.

Go in, take a look, but keep on walking to your left with the sea on your right.  Go right past the large red umbrellas.  Just beyond you will see a smaller place with a few hammocks slung from posts firmly planted in the sand.    It's easy to confuse the two places.  This is the beach-front room of Mrs. Hieu's, looking back down the way you will have just walked. Phuquoc2.jpg (28544 bytes)

 

Mrs. Hieu and her husband, Nguyen, have legally lived on their spot of beach for more than 15 years. Nguyen has been a fisherman all his 45 years of life. They have three delightful children. The eldest, Anh, is 19. The only son, he recently returned to finish school after taking a four-year break to help his dad on their small fishing boat. He is in the ninth grade and hopes to go to high school next year. Tho, the eldest daughter is 17, graduates high school this year and in September will go to HCMC to study English at the university of HCMC. The youngest daughter, Hai, is 15 and is hard at work at school, as well.

As you approach the place, you will see this, the entire house.  Mrs. Hieu's family of five lives in this three room hut where they sleep, study, and cook the finest tasting food in all of Vietnam.

No overstatement is intended or is possible. The presentation may be lacking some refinements, but the charm, freshness, love, quality, and taste of the complete service available at Mrs. Hieu’s Little Restaurant should be enshrined and copied the world over.

Before and after a meal, customers are able to lounge in a chair or hammock, swim, play football (soccer), sleep or talk. If you talk, please do so in hushed tones. One Frenchman ("killer-of-fish") and a Hanoi couple failed to observe this simple rule, and incurred the wrath of Mrs. Hieu. That meant they were treated with simple politeness, and not as a member of her family. "Killer-of-fish" arrived for snorkeling, complete with harpoon gun instead of the much more common camera. That won him my wrath.

Mrs. Hieu will not encourage you to linger. But in no manner will she encourage you to leave. If you are friendly, polite, smile, and simply want to sleep all day, she will provide you, without charge, fresh, sweet bananas, mango or peanut-molasses balls when you awaken. Arrive as early and stay as late as you wish.

I suspect the night could be spent on the beach, but that would be a violation of both national and local police rules that compel foreigners to stay at hotels. Guests staying the night must still be reported to the police each evening before 11:00 PM. It’s no different than in France or China.

Mrs. Hieu’s menu is extensive: more than 80 items. Each one is freshly prepared on the four charcoal-fired braziers. There is no electricity in Mrs. Hieu’s Little Restaurant. Beer, soda, and wine are kept chilled with fresh ice in a huge, Styrofoam cooler.

Her children go to the market each morning to replenish the supply of herbs and vegetables. Coconuts come from the local trees; fish and other sea food from her husband’s efforts, or the market on bad-fishing days. The bad-fishing days are becoming more frequent.

Not because of any local problems, but because Anh, their 19 year-old son,  is being encouraged by all to spend his time studying and not working the fishing boat at night with his father. Then too, his father, Nguyen, finds the growing band of tourists prefer to ride in his boat for a few hours; the more so if there are no fresh fish-smells about.

Try anything in Mrs. Hieu’s coconut sauce; or with lemon grass and chili; or fresh grilled; or with tomatoes. Fresh salad with a light vinaigrette dressing refreshes the mouth. Dinner for four will be under $18 and that includes beer or soft-drinks. We arrived on our second of five nights for cocktails with the Counsel General from a major European nation, and stayed the next three days.

During our stay, Mrs. Hieu had few customers, but enough for her needs.  She served as many as 12 people for dinner one night; fewer for lunch. We visited on a holiday week, and have no doubt it was her busiest of the year.

There are other things to see on the island. Take the north-south road to the southern village. It is about a one hour motorbike ride. There your xe om will hire a fishing boat for a day or half-day trip to the islands. Purchase fresh vegetables at the market, catch fresh fish and have them cooked for you on board. Careful; the fish may not be gutted and or scaled unless you order it, and closely supervise the process. We didn't supervise the cooking because we were too busy snorkeling. The total day’s expense, including motorbike transportation, boat, and lunch came to under US$50.

The completely unspoiled coral reefs begin 12 inches or less from the surface, and extend as deep as you are able to dive. Never before in a life-time of traveling have I seen such unspoiled and raw beauty. The fish caught appeared so uncommonly beautiful that I feared eating an endangered species. They were so delicious, scales and all, that I might have.  However, I have since been assured that even more beautiful and delicious fish are not in any danger due to the high breeding and good feeding grounds around the islands.

There is an old prison to visit, if that is what you like do.  There are hills and mountains to see, even if you cannot easily or lawfully explore them. And there is a picturesque beach on the eastern shore. But there is no spot in all of Phu Quoc Island, or perhaps in all of south east Asia, that can favorably compare to Mrs. Hieu’s Little Restaurant.

To get there, fly into Ho Chi Minh City and take the once daily Vietnam Airlines flight for 50 minutes. By hired car or public bus from HCMC, it is an 8 + hour drive into to Kien Giang Province.  Head towards Rach Gia or Ha Tien to get on a boat for the 4 to 8 hour further journey to the island.

But please hurry.  The island is changing fast. I can only hope that Mrs. Hieu's restaurant will be still there when you arrive.

Updates: 

June 1998.  In the past year there have been many changes. Tropical Storm Linda devastated the southern coast of Vietnam, sinking 800 of the Island's 1,900 boat fleet. On the positive (?) side, investors took our advice. See an updated article on the growth of Phu Quoc Island in the June 1998 issue of Vietnam Vignettes.

July 1999.  In the past year there have been some developments.

Sadly, we do not know if Mrs. Hieu's Little Restaurant is still open. Our correspondent, Dave from Oregon,  did not look for it.  The Tropicana is the much talked hotel mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide.  As Dave speaks of the Tropicana, he says the hotel, "is what in America would be called a ghost town. There are no visible guests in the beach houses or in the restaurant."

A fun place to visit is the Australian Pearl Farm, where he could watch oysters being "laid" with fine grains of sand to inspire the growth of these fine items of jewelry.

The roads are still being paved, but the work has not progressed far in the past two year.

In the southern fishing village, there is a requirement that all foreigners present and leave a passport with the immigration authorities.  This can be disconcerting as the Honda drivers usually act as the intermediary.  This is needed because Phu Quoc is merely a few miles from the Cambodian border the need to try to stem smuggling. Dave was told the procedure was due to concern to identify passengers lost at sea.  Neither explanation is very comforting, but the ride was enjoyable.  However, Dave goes on to explain that the boat had no floatation devices, so at least his passport was safe.

Dave stayed at the Kim Hoa Hotel.  He does not think it is the Kim Lien Hotel, but to this writer, they seem similar.  Dave reports, "it is a pleasant, reasonably priced place to stay, with some pleasant, service-oriented staff, and other staff quite ready to take quite unfair advantage of foreign visitors.   One housekeeper with a Honda Dream, shows up at each flight to persuade new arrivals to stay at the Kim Hoa.

"When my wife and I wanted to leave early, we were told we would have to stand by the airport, but for a price they would go to the airport to arrange seats, thus avoiding a long wait at the airfield. VND35,000 was taken and no services were rendered.  I arrived at the airfield in time for the flight only to find there were no seats.  Thus, we needed to spend another night at the hotel."  

January 2001 - Sadly, a visitor reported that Mrs. Hieu's Little Restaurant has gone missing.  It is possible that she relocated elsewhere on the island.  Please, if you find her, let us know so that we can post her new location on this page.

July 2001 - From Australian travel writer and photographer GS we received this wonderful news: "I was in Phu Quoc in early April 2001, and am delighted to report that Hieu's Little Restaurant is still there. Without any doubt, the meals were the best I ate in the whole of Vietnam." Thank you and to all you who have not yet gone, this is a must go!

November 2001 - As reported in mid October 2001, “Real Estate Prices Take Off.”  Using local Vietnamese partners as stand-ins to front for their acquisition of land use rights, foreign investors are  chasing-up land use rights on this idyllic island.

This rank and gross speculation has driven land use right fees up.   Of course this bubble too will break, as well as the hearts of the hard working locals whose spirits will only soon crash.  This is all based upon domestic and foreign greed that pushes the local market to go violently against the real property trend in the major urban and recreational localities in both Vietnam and the rest of the region.

All the more is the pity that land speculation has driven prices in Duong Dong, the only major city (and quite a minor and undeveloped one at that) beyond the reach of those with a true desire to maintain the island's beauty and charm with grace.  Land elsewhere is as well now selling for up to 450 million VND (US$30,000) per ha where last year the price for this same unused land went for 50 million VND or US$3,300.

Phu Quoc Island has all the conditions necessary to boost tourism claims the local authorities who fail to note there is absolutely no infrastructure: roads, sufficient electric power, fresh water or sanitation to support much if any real growth. 

Responding to this concern is a recent report that the Electricity Department in the southern province of Kien Giang has asked the Government for funds of around VND 66 billion (US$4.4 million) to upgrade and extend the electricity network on Phu Quoc Island. "The sum will be used to modernize the infrastructure of Phu Quoc’s major electricity plant, install electric generators and extend the grid to cover all of the communes and villages in the area.” 

We believe that its isolation is the main charm of Phu Quoc Island.  It is no Greek or Spanish island paradise that can support a heavy population, and if the planners think that will change with a $4.4 million boost in power...  Well, Phuket Island in Thailand has no short term concern about any real competition.  But this makes us wonder all the more about what the high-buyers really think they've got a hold of.

January 2003 - There are new plans announced that may, if they go forward, transform for all time the beauty of this last lovely spot of the world.  Rather than spoil these lovely pages with such speculation, you can click here to read Vignettes No. 63, our current report.  


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