Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

I worry about Phu Quoc. A mere hour's flight from Saigon, it sits off the Southern coast of Vietnam, near Cambodia. You can take day trips to Kampot and eat crabs stir-fried in black pepper. But Phu Quoc itself, a large island, is in the grips of construction. The main roads are being paved at speed, and new developments are sprouting. These are no trifling hotels either; from the work going on, they are going to be gigantic. The beaches are incredibly beautiful, and much of the island is dense jungle that has is a national park.

To the north of the island, Vinpearl has opened a giant, glitzy amusement park, garish and bright. Soon, Phu Quoc won't be the island life paradise it used to be, or still has current signs of. Get it while you can, because it really is a beautiful place. The sand is fine, the sea is clear and the food is good eating. I can't speak for the German and Russian restaurant, or the pizza places, or the curry house but I can tell you about roadside noodle restaurants and the night market.

Hire a pushbike or a scooter and get out to down-town Phu Quoc. It's frenetic and busy, with the market stalls selling fish, vegetables and meat. There's a lot of beep-beeping of scooters, vendors calling out to customers, shading themselves from the 35 degree heat. Metal and glass carts selling noodles or rice dishes were at every corner. We swerved splashes of water and ice used to keep the fish fresh, and pedalled past children on their way to school, piled high on motorbikes, sometimes three to the bike.

After a long morning exploring on our bikes in the blazing sunshine, we ate bun rieu, our t-shirts dark with sweat, by the dusty side of a bridge. The little old lady assembling the dish that was round noodles, a crab paste and lots of chives brought us glasses of cold tea, packed to the brim with ice to cool us down. 

We breakfasted often at a small café on the main road into downtown Phu Quoc, characterised by flapping bed sheets pinned up to keep the sun off the customers. Other diners had big bowlfuls of what looked like tripe and other innards, but the cook, already looking at us a bit wide-eyed, selected only the premium slices of beef for our noodles. I can't say I wasn't relieved, given it was our first meal of the day. A huge pile of chillies were passed around the diners, for you to take the chillis out and mash them in a saucer with lime juice. Some people just munch on the chillis straight up.

The night market, on every night, has an abundance of seafood. It's hard to know where is best to go, as by and large the selection looks pretty similar. It can be a bit overwhelming with people trying to convince you that theirs is the best, but we traversed the length and decided based on the number of diners.

We pointed to the dish the two local men sitting next to us were eating - what looked like a pile of salad in rice paper rolls, and we were given a plate of raw marinated anchovies mingled amongst it. The dreaded fish leaf was present and needed to be picked out, but otherwise I loved this; it was an enormous portion, but each bit had a different assortment of herbs. I've never seen rice paper like it; usually as with making summer rolls you need to dip them in hot water, but these were perfectly pliable and delicate without and needed but filling. Our local buddies next to us were impressed and started taking photos with us and of us. We smiled politely and concentrated on our rolling.

Huge prawns were split in half and grilled to just-done with plenty of garlic, and a lime-salt and chilli dip. Snapper was smeared in a garlic, chilli and sugar paste, to be barbecued in foil until caramelised, and eaten with rice. It was a wonderfully light, simple and delicious dinner, which cost just a little more than peanuts. We were told that prices at the night market were around 10% higher than local restaurants. It still doesn't come anywhere near breaking the bank.

The night market continues on to dessert stalls selling 'ice cream rolls', shaved ice drinks and then to clothes and souvenirs.

Wandering around one night round the back of the night market, we came across Oc Noc Quan on Ly Tu Trong street. We were immediately drawn by the barbecue going outside, and that nearly every table was packed with Vietnamese people with the odd foreigner here or there. We wedged ourselves in, amongst groups of lads cheers'ing big glasses of beer, and couples cooking on their own hot pots. Fish tanks with folorn-looking fish lined the back wall.

We ended up eating here twice out of our 4 nights, it was so good. Crispy noodles with seafood and vegetables were flavoured with a lot of black pepper, and the fried rice version was just as good. I think the dish cost £2. 

Clams with holy basil were sweet and delicious, cooked in a thick-ish sweet and tangy sauce. Lotus stem salad was an enormous portion and the building fiery heat made us gasp for water (beer). The couple next to us were carefully extracting whelks from their shells.

We asked for a barbecued fish, and our server pointed out one in the tank to us and the poor bugger was swept out of its prison. It reappeared 20 minutes later. I gave it a poke and was slightly disturbed to find it was still in its entirety. I flagged down our nice waiter and gave him a pleading look, and he deftly peeled back the charred and burnt skin, exposing the perfectly cooked flesh and avoiding any guts. We went from being aghast with our Western ways firmly in our heads, to admiring the ingenuity. This was served with that same rice paper, herbs and cucumber, and vermicelli to wrap it all up in, alongside a nuoc cham sauce to dip it into. One of my favourite ways to eat.

It wasn't all plain sailing; crab claws were obviously from frozen and had a mushy texture to them and were left largely untouched. Corn stir-fried with shrimp was tough and strangely dry, lacking in sweetness. But for a couple of duffs, we had some really great eating.

With a bloody great hangover, we ventured to the north of the island, to find an untouched beach mostly to ourselves, amongst fishing boats. It was perfect for my state of mind; I didn't want to be anywhere near anyone. Solitude was bliss.

I'd recommend doing this if you have a scooter, as it's a bit of a way in a taxi, without many to take you home again. We spent a very enjoyable day all on our own, with a quick break for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean. 

The restaurant was full of Vietnamese families surrounding hot pots, each dipping their ingredients into the pot. Their meals went on into the afternoon, grazing as they went. We pointed to one of the hot pots blindly, putting everything in the hands of our waiter. 

It might seem crazy to be huddled cooking around a boiling pot when it's 34 degrees out, but once you're sweating you're arse off, you're sweating your arse off; a little hot soup doesn't make a difference. We got a huge basket of all manner of vegetables; chrysanthemum leaves, Chinese cabbage, morning glory and the like. A plate came with lots of different sliced fish, and a big bubbly thing we had no idea what was. We threw it in the pot and it turns out it was sea urchin, emerging from the pot looking rather like a deformed sponge. We poked at it, and feasted instead on delicately cooked fish and prawns, in a lemongrass-heavy broth, spooned over rice.

And so, after a few days of exploring, sitting on beaches and stuffing ourselves silly with seafood, it was on to Hoi An.

(I'd recommend staying at Phuong Binh House, where we stayed. Simple bungalows with decent A/C, and a good restaurant and beach location.)


harun said...

Nice pictures and list of dishes

Melissa said...

We recently visited Phu Quoc and loved it!! But like you I also have concerns about what the future holds for it. Seriously does it really need resorts that big???

The beaches are stunning on Phu Quoc - our favourites were Long Beach and On Lang Beach - although a visit to Bao Sai is also recommended.