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Destination: Vietnam

Phu Quoc, peaceful island life at its best

The patch of tropical rain forest and beach, a base for fishermen and divers, is undeveloped -- for now.

January 29, 2006|Margo Pfeiff | Special to The Times

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam — MY plan was to do absolutely nothing on a beach for an entire week.

That may sound easy, but taking a real vacation is not easy for a travel writer, and I told myself I had to hide my notebook, pen and cameras under a bed in some bungalow on a beach.

This week in steamy Vietnam was to be my reward for spending most of last summer on assignment in the Canadian Arctic. It also gave me a chance to escape the equally chilling reality of turning 50.

So with a bottle of Champagne tucked under his arm, my longtime buddy Jim Hutchison met me one November day in Ho Chi Minh City. Two days earlier, we hadn't known Phu Quoc Island even existed. But spurred by an enticing line in a magazine, we decided to give it a try, and the next morning we flew west to the teardrop-shaped island just 15 miles off the coast of Cambodia.

The island is about the size of Singapore, but only 75,000 people live here. It is blanketed with the largest remaining swath of tropical rain forest in Vietnam.

But the beach was what lured me, and through the plane window, I saw a long uninterrupted strip of golden sand glittering in the sun. It was mostly empty. Funny, I thought, there's hardly anyone there.

In the blast of tropical heat, a battered taxi picked us up outside the airport building, which was practically in the center of the main fishing village of Duong Dong.

We bypassed Long Beach, which I had seen from the plane, and Duong Dong for the Mango Bay Resort on secluded Ong Lang Beach. After a five-mile, pot-holed drive north of town, we finally bumped through an old mango plantation and arrived at the resort, a string of bungalows amid palms and banyan trees.

I was supine on a deserted half-mile curve of beach before my luggage even reached our bungalow. I had no desire to see any sights, shop, learn about the island's culture, past, present or future -- that would be work. I wiggled my toes into the sand, opened a new book and sipped an icy Tiger Beer.

Hunger forced me upright around noon. At the resort's open-air restaurant and bar, I was greeted by the perfume of sauteed garlic. A blackboard menu announced the specials as marinated black kingfish and green papaya salad with shrimp.

Throughout Vietnam, food is morning-market fresh and simply cooked. Firm and white, the kingfish was barbecued and served alongside a tiny dish that held small mounds of salt, pepper and a wedge of lime.

Our cheery young waiter, Tin, demonstrated how to squeeze the lime into the salt and pepper, stir and use the sauce as a fish dip.

"The pepper is not spicy," he said, and he was right. "Our Phu Quoc pepper is famous. Also fish sauce -- the most famous in Vietnam."

The travel writer in me involuntarily raised her head in curiosity, but I banished the impulse and asked for another beer.


Leisurely days at the beach

MANGO BAY is a laid-back eco-resort, run by a triad of two Saigon-based Brits and a mellow, bare-footed Australian from Perth named Lawson Johnston.

Johnston, who was dressed only in well-worn aloha board shorts, was responsible for the resort's "rammed-earth bungalows. In rammed-earth construction, wood molds are filled 8 inches deep with a mixture of local soil and 7% cement. The mixture is pounded with wooden rammers to a thickness of 3 inches, and the process is repeated. The resulting substance is as hard as concrete but more ecologically sound and cooler in the tropical heat.

Our bungalow had a high-peaked thatch roof and a ceiling fan. Breezes blew through unscreened louvered windows and doors, which also let in the sound of cicadas in the evenings. The bathroom and solar-heated shower were outside.

Geckos played on the bamboo wall that separated us from a grove of banana trees. The room was rustic but stylish, all white cotton, wicker and terra cotta.

We settled into a lazy routine. Up early for breakfast, I watched clouds of flitting dragonflies as the sun rose and fishermen sorted out their nets on the beach, then rowed their long, slim boats out to sea.

Every morning two sea eagles circled overhead. A few cute indigenous Phu Quoc ridgeback puppies, once used by the French colonists as hunting dogs, came looking for company.

My breakfasts of baguettes with jam were another legacy of French colonialism. In the mornings I also fueled my addiction to cafe sua da, Vietnamese espresso slowly dripped through a little metal filter onto a dollop of super-sweet condensed milk, which then is stirred and poured over ice.

When the sun hit toasting temperature -- about 90 degrees -- I headed for my spot on the beach beneath a thatch umbrella. Most of the other guests at the resort were Europeans or Australians, and we all kept to ourselves. This was not a place for party animals, and that's just what we wanted -- at first.

The bliss of doing nothing wore off after three days, so we rented a motorbike for a day and planned to explore the minute metropolis of Duong Dong and the scene at Long Beach.

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