Travel: Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Tony's got to die." John looked at me, beseeching. "Tony's got to die sometime, right? And then I'll get to be in The Book." It was 2005 and Vietnam was emerging as a hot tourist destination.

Phu Quoc Island, though, lying off the south-west coast of the mainland, still languished in semi-obscurity. It merited a scant quarter-page in Lonely Planet's Vietnam – "The Book," as my new Vietnamese tour guide friend, John, called it.

A short paragraph described the ageing Tony as the go-to tour guide; the man to show you round the outrageously beautiful tropical island while telling his stories about 'Nam. As the new kid on the block, with one tourist season under his belt, this irritated John no end. He felt Tony belonged to a bygone era and was well beyond retirement age.

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In November 2005, I had set off to Phu Quoc from Saigon, taking bus and boats rides down the Mekong Delta, stopping off at My Tho, Can Tho and the floating market nearby and eventually arriving at Ha Tien. There I managed to bag a place on a cargo ferry to Phu Quoc. There were flights from Saigon every two or three days but as a backpacker, passage by air didn't cross my mind.

Most of my fellow passengers were, in fact, pigs. They stood on the deck where they were regularly hosed down by the crew to stop them broiling in the blazing sun.

I was shown to the hold. The canny Vietnamese strung up hammocks, kicked back and snoozed. I sat on bags of vegetables and what appeared to be the island's monthly supply of toilet roll.

Two hours into the journey, something underneath me quacked. This was at the height of the bird flu outbreak. I wasn't happy. I was even less so when a cockroach scuttled from under me. I emerged, blinking, into the sunlight five hours later thinking: "This island had better be worth it, dammit."

Oh, but it was.

I landed at the port of An Thoi and got a motorbike taxi to Duong Dong, the main tourist haunt. The journey is a 27km drive up Long Beach. The road is red dirt, there is jungle on the right side, pristine white sand on the left and the odd shack dotted under palms fringing the beach.

I spent a week – far longer than intended – exploring the island by motor bike, watching the fishing fleet that brings back the anchovies to make the nuoc mam fish sauce the island is famous for, snorkelling and poking around Coconut Tree prison where Viet Cong prisoners were held during the war.

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I made friends with John, the tour guide, and was amazed by his entrepreneurial spirit, at 23, to build his business. Though I wasn't a fan of snorkelling, he even convinced me to go on one of his snorkel trips.

In March of this year, my journey back to Phu Quoc could not have been more different. I stayed at the Majestic Hotel in Saigon, overpriced and stuffy – one of the old war journalists' haunts. And this time, being cash rich and time poor, I flew; there are now as many as nine flights a day from Saigon.

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Phu Quoc is still a jewel. The name means Pearl Island. At Duong Dong, still the main tourist haunt, the cluster of beach huts had grown and many more "hotel resorts and spas" had sprouted up, but it was still low key.

Superseding the Tropicana, formerly the Island's plushest hotel, is Le Veranda, colonial in style and full of well-heeled Europeans. The restaurant is considered the best eating on the island. I didn't try the Vietnamese buffet, which got high praise in the conversations I eavesdropped on, and sampled the European a la carte which tried a bit too hard instead.

I booked into the "Family Hotel" beach bungalows and waited for John so we could catch up. He'd done well in the intervening five years by branching out from snorkelling trips, adding other tours and setting up an internet caf. With some of his profits he had built his parents a house and was looking to buy land on which to build a hotel. He's still only 27.

John took some time off and we daytripped round the island on his motorbike, riding up the west coast, which is still the place to go for seclusion. We stopped in for a coffee at the Bamboo Cottages. Of the 16 beach huts only one was taken, by an English couple. "It's just us and all of our staff," they joked. "We've been here for three days and have seen no one."

Off the west coast is the Cambodian mainland. Lying 14km away, it's much closer to Phu Quoc than Vietnam. Indeed, the island is still contested, with the Cambodians claiming it is theirs, which accounts for the large military presence on the island with large swathes out of bounds to civilians.

There are also other parts of the island controlled by the military where only Vietnamese are allowed. "Wanna see?" asked John, as he plunged off the road, past a checkpoint and up a dirt path into the jungle.

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Great. That's all I need. To escape the bombs and checkpoints of Kabul only to be detained by the Vietnamese military.

"It's too hot," John explained. "No one cares." He had a point. The scorching midday sun left everyone soporific.

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The powers that rule Phu Quoc have kept the best bits of the island for the Vietnamese. The beach and its waters were stunning and clear of everyone but a few Vietnamese children. John and I sat at one of the beach shacks and had goi ca chich for lunch – white fish marinated in lemon, herbs and salad with DIY wraps.

I went back to Coconut Tree prison, previously ramshackle with no one bothering where you wandered. It's been given a facelift, and a lot of the original torture devices replaced with replicas complete with agonised mannequins, but it is still pleasingly gruesome.

Phu Quoc remains unspoiled, but this is going to change. The dirt tracks are being asphalted and most of the land has been sold off to developers poised to build hotels once the international airport is finished in 2014. Now is the time to visit.

John, though, is pleased. The new airport will be good for business. And now he's in The Book, tourists know where to find him. Tony has had his day.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 17 October, 2010

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