The last time I visited Ho Chi Minh City was probably 7 years ago. It was also an impromptu trip with a couple of my uni mates. I can still remember us staying in a cheap guesthouse (which is basically like the top floor of someone’s house), having pho at the famous restaurant that Bill Clinton visited, and shopping at the narrow lanes of Binh Tay Market, having to dodge the aggressive shopowner ladies who were reaching out to grab you to “please take a look”. After that, I decided that HCMC was just a city and there was not much to see.
Fast forward 7 years later, we are back in southern Vietnam because (again), flight tickets were cheap and we have a friend living in town. This time, we took a domestic flight to Phu Quoc (pronounced “foo kwok”), a destination marketed as an tropical island paradise with white sand beaches. We stayed in Phu Quoc for 2 days, did a bit of diving, chilling by the beach, riding around the island, before flying back to spend the weekend in rainy HCMC, slurping down bowls of hot pho.
How to get to Phu Quoc?
Our Jetstar flight arrived at HCMC airport at 8.15am and we took a 10.10am Vietjet Air to Phu Quoc. It was a short 1hr flight and we landed in a small airport, surrounded by greenery and trees. With the sun beating down on us, we were eager to hit the beaches. There are a few cab companies right outside the airport. Simply approach any one of the personnels in uniform and they will help you get a cab. We hopped on a green cab for 100,000vnd (about S$6) and headed for La Mer Resort near Long Beach.
Things to do in Phu Quoc
1. Chillax at Long Beach, or one of the beautiful beaches!
Long Beach is the most popular stretch of beach in Phu Quoc, conveniently located between the airport and the biggest town Duong Dong. From our resort, it was a 15 mins walk. We took a short cut through Rory’s Beach Bar (great vibes, by the way!) to get to the beachfront. The entire stretch is lined with bars, restaurants and hotels, with plenty to do for everyone – from sunbathing, to having a spin on a jetski, to getting a massage, or simply people watching!
2. Rent a bike and explore the island
Perhaps the most convenient way to get around the island would be to ride a motorbike (next best alternative: cab). We rented a bike for a day (100,000vnd excl petrol) from our resort and rode down to An Thoi Town in the southern tip of Phu Quoc. (Note: At the point of travel, the route parallel to and on the west of Route DT46 was under development. We almost flew into a mud ditch, but I’ll save that story for another day. Do take Route DT46 instead.) An Thoi is famous for the fishing port, the fish sauce factories and beautiful white sand beaches Sao Beach and Khem Beach. We arrived around dusk and had some time to walk around, check out the street peddlers sell the fresh catch of the day, and grab some dinner before making the 1 hour journey back north.
3. Go diving
We can’t miss the opportunity to check out the underwater scene! There are two main dive areas – Turtle island in the northwest, where the water is shallower and calmer, and An Thoi Archipelago in the south, where it’s deeper and said to have more marine life. We dove with Rainbow Divers at Turtle Island, which is only 30mins by boat from Duong Dong. As it was low tide, the sites were around 8m deep, with about 5m visibility. Not ideal, but the topography was pretty interesting, with lots of hard corals, barrel sponges and nudis.
4. Enjoy fresh seafood at Duong Dong
Duong Dong is the main town in Phu Quoc, with a day market, a night market, plenty of seafood restaurants, bars, cafes, and souvenir shops. In the day time, we took a walk around the market at Cho Duong Dong, where you can find anything all kinds of fresh seafood, live chickens and ducks, and the occasional roasted chicken, morbidly placed next to the live ones. We followed the Duong Dong River and arrived at Dinh Cau Temple at the river mouth. We grabbed some street food and enjoyed the sunset along the wharf, watching the locals fish. Evening time was spent at the night market, tasting different local snacks. While there were lots of seafood restaurants along the night market, they seemed more like tourist traps with their exorbitant prices. Instead, we had our seafood dinner at Sao Mai Restaurant (map) along Tran Hung Dao on the way back. Our meal of mini crabs, garlic clams, butter bamboo clams, tom yum soup, veg and beer came up to 410,000vnd. The clams were so fresh they were to. die. for.
The overall verdict – Phu Quoc as a “island paradise” seems a little over-rated. Long Beach was a tad too crowded and touristy for my liking but the local flavours are still retained in the streets and markets of Duong Dong and An Thoi. Seafood is absolutely fresh and goes best with some ice cold beer. With the government’s ambitious plans to transform Phu Quoc into a major tourism destination (think Phuket) and constructions of resorts and golf courses underway, it’s better to visit before it becomes disneyfied.
Pit Stop: Ho Chi Minh City
After Phu Quoc, we returned to Ho Chi Minh City, only to be greeted by non-stop pouring rain. As such, we devoted most of our time to drinking Vietnamnese iced coffee and eating street food whenever we have the chance. Of course, I also took the opportunity to stock up on the G7 coffee, lotus seeds and UA knock-offs from Saigon Centre. Also, I thought I’d share some of the really good stuff we had:
- Banh Mi @ Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (map) – For someone who doesn’t even like bread, this Banh Mi is really good. They are so generous with the fillings and the bread is super crispy and fresh. They’re not joking when they say this is the best Banh Mi in HCMC!
- Super creamy smoothies @ Five Boys Number One (map) – Located in a back alley along Pham Ngu Lao backpackers’ area, this nondescript smoothie stand sells the creamiest, thickest and freshest smoothies with real fruit bits! Best part is they have all the tropical fruits options including dragonfruit, mangosteen, guava.. and durian!
- Bun Rieu @ Bun Rieu Ganh (map) – This noodle stall right opposite Ben Thanh market serves the most flavourful crab noodle soup, served with pig’s blood, chilli, plum sauce and shrimp paste. It totally trumps my previous favourite Bun Bo Hue, spicy beef & pork noodle soup. Hands down.
- Hue cuisine @ Quan Nam Giao, a Hue restaurant (map) – Introduced by a local for the Hue cuisine. Try the Banh Beo, steamed rice cakes served in mini dishes topped with simple ingredients like dried shrimp, fried shallots and fish sauce.
Long weekend to Phu Quoc & Ho Chi Minh City
- 8:15am: Arrive in Ho Chi Minh International Airport
- 10:10am – 11:10am: Flight to Phu Quoc via Vietjet
- Kicking it back at Long Beach
- Biking to An Thoi town for the sunset.
- Diving at Rainbow Divers
- Visit day market at Duong Dong Cho (map)
- Sunset at Dinh Cau Temple (map), Duong Dong night market (map)
- Dinner at Sao Mai (map)
- Long Beach time~
- 2:10pm – 3:10pm: Flight to HCMC via Vietjet
- Eating at Pham Ngu Lao, HCMC backpackers area
- Sightseeing Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Post Office
- Shopping at Ben Thanh market and Saigon Centre
- Check out hipster area Station 3A for murals and local labels (map)
- More eating!
Day 5: Home Sweet Home!