Travel

Slice of island paradise at top Vietnam beach destination Phu Quoc

JW Marriott's resort on rustic Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc is luxe personified

Phu Quoc looks like a fishing village caught in a time warp.

The former penal colony is home to the main city of Duong Dong where you will find a sprawling night market and several hip restaurants.

There are also resorts dotting Vietnam's largest island, making it one of the country's top beach destinations.

In general, though, it is relatively quiet.

Nevertheless, there are luxurious digs (think the likes of InterContinental, Sofitel and JW Marriott) to be found, and more are sprouting up in this rustic locale.

There are currently no direct flights between Singapore and Phu Quoc.

Phu Quoc is only 15km away from the Cambodian coast.

From Singapore, you could fly to the island via a layover in Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

BACK TO NATURE

Nature lovers have lots to see.

The Phu Quoc National Park, which takes up half the island, is home to over 200 animal and 600 plant species.

At Sun World Hon Thom Nature Park, hop on to a cable car to get a bird's eye view of the iridescent coral reefs, verdant forests and small villages scattered on islets off the southern tip of Phu Quoc, which makes up the An Thoi archipelago.

Launched last February, the 8km ride from Phu Quoc to Pineapple Island is the longest three-rope cable car line in the world.

History lovers may want to visit the Phu Quoc Prison museum, one of 12 concentration camps used during the Vietnam War. But be prepared - this is no pleasure ride.

Slice of island paradise at top Vietnam beach destination Phu Quoc
The Lamarck University entrance at JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. PHOTO: JW MARRIOTT

At its peak, 40,000 prisoners were held here in deplorable conditions, most of them in cells famously known as "tiger cages". Made of barbed wire, they had enough space for only one person to crawl and squat inside them.

Today, mannequins are used to depict the torture prisoners had to suffer. These serve as reminders of the darkest days of Vietnam's history.

While rusticity abounds in Phu Quoc, you can still escape to a luxury resort - and one with a worthy beach.

JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay rests on Khem Beach, the finest stretch of sand in Phu Quoc. It is also called "cream beach" because of the texture and colour of the sand.

Bangkok-based American architect Bill Bensley has imagined the resort as a campus of a defunct academy, schooling children of French colonists.

So hotel guests stay in the "Lamarck University" (named after a French evolutionary biologist), with the hotel villas and rooms named after academic departments.

Cheesy as it sounds, the attention to detail - right down to the sepia-tinted photos of students and professors in the display cabinets in the lobby - keeps it from feeling too contrived.

There is a main road called Rue Lamarck, lined with shophouses and colourful Vietnamese lanterns.

Slice of island paradise at top Vietnam beach destination Phu Quoc
Inside the Pink Pearl restaurant. PHOTO: JW MARRIOTT

You will find a French bistro and shops selling local artisanal produce and souvenirs.

My favourite outlet here is Spa Chanterelle, slightly off the main road.

Inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, it has a charming fungi-themed decor and is manned by staff dressed like characters from the beloved book.

The JW Marriott hotel's Pink Pearl is one of its five food and beverage outlets - there is also an excellent bar called the Department of Chemistry - and is an homage to the lavish lifestyles of the rich during colonial times.

The theme is based on a fictional character named Pearl, the wife of a headmaster who lived on the campus in the late 19th century. The story goes that she was famous for her parties and French cooking.

In real life, award-winning chef de cuisine Amine Lakhdari incorporates local produce such as sea urchin into the elegant French menu.

When in Phu Quoc, foodies might want to keep a day to check out how fish sauce and peppercorn, the island's main exports, are made.

The fish sauce made here is supposedly the best in Vietnam.

Local tourists are known to smuggle boxes of the pungent sauce on their flights back to the mainland, despite airline rules saying otherwise.

There is a risk, you see, of the sealed bottles exploding in mid-air from the build-up of gases formed during the fermentation process.

Foreigners typically visit the Red Boat Fish Sauce factory - owned by a Vietnamese-American - where you can see how the cognac-coloured condiment is made.

But after you are done with exploring the charms of the land, you may want to head back to the sands of Khem Beach - the beach is what you are here for, after all.

Book a guided snorkelling or diving excursion (if you are certified), or simply dig your toes into the cashmere-like sand and bliss out in this paradise.

TOURISM & TRAVEL