A Bit of TLC Part 15 – Phu Quoc on the Block

Phu Quoc, Vietnam  February 2024

We had planned to explore Vietnam on our next trip, but having found ourselves so close to the border, it would have been rude not to “pop over”. Out taxi dropped us off at the crossing, and unlike our entry into Laos, there was no “friendship bridge” but a confusing strip of road lined with checkpoints and a couple of military-looking buildings.

Dragging our cases, we zig zagged around trucks laden with goods and scooters and were directed to a large building where the surly officers stamped us out of Cambodia – and to be honest, we weren’t too sad to leave.  A very cheery official with a very impressive hat, greeted us and welcomed us to Vietnam on the other side – what a difference!

One form of transport we hadn’t yet tried!

The taxi driver even accepted our (very slightly!) torn $50 note which had been refused in Siem Reap…things were looking up.  We didn’t see much of mainland Vietnam as we’d decided to take the ferry over to Vietnam’s largest island, famous for its pearl farms, Phu Quoc.  A brief and thankfully smooth crossing later, we arrived at the port and were met by our hotel’s driver.  The driving here was even worse than in Thailand and Cambodia and it felt a little like the wild west crossed with Las Vegas as we weaved in and out of the traffic down a long strip lined with hotels and bars.  Thankfully we turned off down a side lane and eventually we arrived at our accommodation, relieved to be away from the main road. 


The friendly staff greeted us warmly and led us to our room – it seemed perfect UNTIL…we looked up, and in the near distance was the shell of a huge high-rise hotel, which looked to be in the early stages of being demolished!  All we could hear from early morning to sunset was the sound of jack hammers pounding away and large chunks of the building falling to the ground, shaking the room. Even the pretty pool with its bar and loungers offered no peace and so we ended up spending quite a bit of time in the room which thankfully was fairly sound-proofed.  Not a great start to our week. 

Another empty half built hotel development

We had heard that there was quite a bit of development going on all over the island, and much like Kampot, we saw massive hotel and residential complexes which were either unfinished, or completely empty.  The Vietnamese government had sold off huge tracts of land to investors and there were hoardings advertising these gargantuan estates.  They were (before Covid and the recession) apparently looking to promote Phu Quoc as the country’s premier holiday destination and its first island urban city.  The unrealistic “if we build it, they will come” philosophy was again predominant here, and I dread what the island will look like in a few years when they are struggling to fill the hundreds of thousands of rooms being built.  I’m guessing the unfinished building next to our hotel had become unviable before it was even completed, which is why they are now pulling it down.  What a colossal waste of time, resources and money…

Sunset strip

Making the best of it, we eventually managed to cross the road (I remember how difficult this was in Ho Chi Mein when I visited 15 years ago!), and wandered down to the beach.  The long, narrow and quite steep strip of beach was quite crowded with loungers belonging to the bars and hotels and massage places.  I did stop to sit and watch the sunset one late afternoon, to get away from the noise at the hotel, but it was far too busy for my liking.  There are many quieter beaches on the island which remain undeveloped for now, but these were mainly only accessible by scooter and as we were only just getting used to crossing the roads, we definitely didn’t feel brave enough to risk driving on them.

There was a good supermarket where I bought a very decent bottle of Vietnamese wine and some nice baguettes and custard tarts, along with many restaurants serving Western food.  We found the obligatory Irish bar to watch the football, but in general, we found this part of the island way too commercialised.

Nice weather for a boat trip!

We took a boat trip to some neighbouring islands one morning and sailed under “the world’s longest non-stop cable car” connecting three offshore islands and ending up at one of the island’s two theme parks. The snorkelling off the islands was pleasant enough, and the trip well organised, but it still felt disappointingly exploitative with the final stop on the tour consisting of an hour’s internment on a very small and rocky beach with pricey bars and activities.

All those empty rooms and people still prefer to live on the water…

We were becoming increasingly disillusioned with this part of Asia and its rapid over-development and dependency on the tourist dollar, which I think they may regret.  Again, we had the feeling that we had “missed the boat” and should have visited these places some 15 years ago. We made the decision to return to Southern Thailand for our last few weeks, to one of our favourite areas, for a bit of familiarity.

Disneyland, Vietnamese style

However, for a final fling, we couldn’t resist the lure of Vietnam’s largest theme park, “Vin Wonders” set in the north of the island, for our annual roller-coaster fix! Keen to escape the drilling, we’d booked a homestay in the massive Grand World complex, which again appeared to be mostly devoid of guests.  At least it would be quiet!

Hello….Is anybody there??

We wandered through empty streets of identical pastel coloured “European style” buildings, which all had shopfronts but whether or not they had ever been open was a mystery.  It all felt very dystopian, like Disneyworld after a pandemic had wiped everyone out! The beach was gorgeous, but dominated most of the way along by a few expensive hotels, with their own “area” – but at least they kept it clean, I suppose.  The complex was built around a Venice-style canal, along with fake gondolas and a replica of the Bridge of Sighs, and the highlight of the evening was a light and sound show.  There was also a garden featuring some rather good art installations and rather bizarrely, a giant teddy bear museum.  These attracted a few more, mainly Asian clientele, out for the evening, catered for by a dozen or so oriental and seafood restaurants alongside the “canal”.

Just one cornetto…

Although they had shuttle vans circling the resort, we struggled to find one to take us to the theme park the next morning (they could learn some lessons from Disney!…).  Our kindly hosts offered to transport us on their scooters, and so we had our first white knuckle ride of the day!!  We realised that this week was “Tet” or the Vietnamese new year, so we were worried the park would be quite busy.  Accustomed to the parks in the UK or Florida, we arrived early to get to on rides as they opened.  Well, all I can say is that we were the only takers for many of the thrill rides, and we managed to complete a circuit of the park in a couple of hours.  We then moved onto the water park which was included in the ticket price.  I even got a senior discount, although some of the rides prohibited people over age 60 (I lied!).   The rides and attractions (including a wonderful aquarium) on the whole were excellent, and safety standards high – if it wasn’t for the lack of atmosphere (and people), this would have been in our top 5 theme parks.

The wonders of Vin Wonderland

Exhausted by our fun day out, we took it easy the following day, although finding somewhere vegetarian friendly (and actually open!) to eat was quite challenging, especially as this was “New Year’s Day” here.  We were, however, treated to VERY loud, VERY bad karaoke renditions by our host family, echoing up the floors of our virtually empty guesthouse.  Oh well, it was quiet for a while!

Marigolds everywhere – a traditional new year gift for “Tet”

We departed the next morning feeling incredibly disheartened by our visit to what we thought would be an interesting dip into Vietnam.  As one journalist perfectly sums it up:  “Let’s do an experiment: You have the most beautiful island 20 years’ ago, pristine beaches, secluded, beautiful tropical forests, and the list goes on. And then you turn the whole place into a corporate real estate overdeveloped Disney Land zombie place with empty and unsold ugly houses and fake Italian canals and Venetian lookalike villages, where people can come to take selfies. OK, done, selfies taken….. What is the incentive to go back?

For foreign tourists there are too many options to visit in Asia that have not been destroyed by corporate mismanagement, why experience the sad unfolding of Phu Quoc’s demise? The declining tourism figures are definitely not the result of the global economic situation or inflation. You have to manage your heritage and have some sense of pride.”

Johan Kruimer

Next Stop:  Familiar ground

More photos!…

A "mountain of soup"...now that I'd like to see!
I wouldn't like the job of reading these meters
The "fake" art deco entrance to the Marriott
Chinese new year preparations
The Phu Quoc rockers - a very good live band we caught one evening
Cash cows??
What the real Mallorca would look like without the Brits!
I don't think The Bellagio has anything to worry about!
Main Street at "rope drop"... we managed to beat the crowds
There's always one!
Love me tendrils
Who needs to go diving!
Splash dance
Facing up to the lack of tourists!
"Venice" beach
The new casino...not a name I'd put my money on
Not many takers for the "Lake of Love"

6 thoughts on “Bit of T L C (and V!) – Part 15 – Phu Quoc on the Block”

  1. Sounds disappointing, but all part of the adventure, I guess. Such a shame when places get so overdeveloped for tourism. Enjoy your last bit of r&r in southern Thailand. And looking forward to seeing you soon! xx

  2. What a pity that Vietnam was not as good as you expected but at least you were able to buy some decent wine, thank goodness! How strange, the lack of people around. There’s nothing like a good boat trip though! xx

  3. You both have certainly travelled around and taking home such wonderful experiences and memories. We’re looking forward to our hols in the Dominican Republic next week – won’t be as exciting as yours – but just want to enjoy the R & R, sunshine, music and, of course, the dancing too ! Safe travels and looking forward to seeing you soon. Love Noreen & Patsy x

  4. Overdevelopment…this “theme” is foreboding. If knowing history helps us not to repeat mistakes of old, WHY OH WHY is this happening? Humans have far to go in evolution. 😥

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