The Pham goes to ‘Nam

Phú Quốc is a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. Covering a total area of 222 square miles (or 574 square kilometres – got you, my Euro readers), Phú Quốc is known for white-sand beaches and resorts, and the dense jungle and hiking trails of Phú Quốc National Park, which covers more than half the island. Phú Quốc gets none of the love of the nearby Thai islands, but with its sparkling waters and white-sand beaches, coupled with its new international airport and cruise ship port, Phú Quốc is sure to be a Southeast Asian hotspot in no time.

We met up with Steph Krivitzky, of Syracuse and New York City friendship fame, and Steph’s boyfriend, longtime legend Brett Lusby, who have been traveling in Southeast Asia since December. Our flight from Singapore landed in Ho Chi Minh City, in the afternoon on Friday, February 1. The visa process at all Vietnam airports operates on absolutely no logic, lines as long as the eye can see, and a severely understaffed team at all times. Zé and I making our connecting flight stands against the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as one of the true miracles of this world. After an Olympic-level sprint to our gate, we met Steph and Brett, and off we all flew to the island of Phú Quốc!

We stayed at Camia Resort & Spa on Ong Lang Beach, a small, private resort with just 54 villas, all facing a nicely-designed garden and infinity pool overlooking the ocean. Our lodging was a two-bedroom villa, with a small living room and a beautiful patio in front, surrounded by lush garden greens. Between the space and the staff, I can’t recommend Camia enough if you’re planning to visit Phú Quốc.

It was a long day of travel, so after grabbing dinner at the resort restaurant (with a beautiful location right on the shore, but nothing to write home about on the food front), we headed to bed early. Saturday morning was an early start, where we sorted our mode of transport for the week first by renting motorbikes (and legally-required helmets of course, Mom). We hopped on the bikes before 10AM and began our island exploration, which unfortunately was a bit of a monkey chase around the island trying to find beaches that were both appealing and accessible to the public. Unfortunately, many of the beaches which were previously considered the island’s best are now owned and occupied by Vinpearl Resort, a behemoth 750-room hotel that defies all logic on this tiny island. The resort, which includes an amusement and water park, golf course, aquarium, and zoo safari (unclear on where they managed to find 200 rare animas to house in this place) devours what were once considered the prettiest beaches of the island. It’s really quite a shame, and I fear Phú Quốc will become the next Phuket in just a few years’ time.

Between the four of us, we were able to charm/sneak our way into the beach at the Radisson Blu, where we spent about two relaxing hours before our fear of being caught took over, and we headed back to Camia. What we should’ve done before our unsuccessful beach search was ask reception about the beach at Camia that was advertised on TripAdvisor, but we were so excited to explore the island by motorbike that I think the excitement got the best of us. Anyway, we found the beach we had been hoping to find all day once we landed on Ong Lang Beach, located at Camia: a long stretch of white sand wrapped in a hug by the surrounding dense jungle, with endless bright, diamond-shine water ahead of us. It was a welcome relief to see at the end of a fun but tiring (and slightly disappointing) search that day. Ong Lang Beach, unlike its neighboring beaches, is much less developed and far more sparse, with just a few beach shacks and some small vendors housed on its sandy shore. Luckily for us, one of those vendors was a woman with a simple but charming massage hut, offering 60-minute Vietnamese massages for just $12 USD. Anyone that has ever read even one anecdote of my time spent in Southeast Asia knows I’m a sucker for a cheap massage, and with a $20-for-two deal, she had Zé and I hooked (or more like, she had me hooked and Zé agreed to tag along). Steph and Brett headed back to the hotel to change and shower up not long after our massages started, so the beach was almost completely empty when we opened our eyes after the massage. Not only that, but the sun was minutes from dipping below the horizon. Talk about serendipitous timing! We grabbed two empty loungers, set them up near the shoreline facing the sun, and watched the day slowly flip into evening.

Following sunset, we joined Steph and Brett back at the hotel to put a plan in place for the rest of our night. Our epicurean travel partners, both armed with sharp eyes for delicious food spots, suggested we try a nearby restaurant called Bird of Paradise and let me tell you, it was one of the highlights of our trip. Bird of Paradise is a quant cafe and restaurant about 10 minutes from the beach, serving up various selections of authentic Vietnamese cuisine, with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options (though these days I am now happily eating chicken, it’s always nice to have options). We ordered so many dishes that our entire table was covered by the time they brought everything: a cornucopia of Vietnamese dishes including vegan and beef curries, pho, banh mi sandwiches, spring rolls, noodles, and rice dishes, along with cocktails and juices to wash it all down. The robust flavors in every dish had our jaws dropping, and the food plus the warm service and affordable prices had them hitting the floor. Long story, short: Bird of Paradise place is a must if you plan to visit Phú Quốc!

Along their travels, Steph and Brett had picked up a card game called Hands from some travelers they’d met. The game is called Hands, and without getting into the specifics, it’s a strategy and memory game that depends on how well a player can simultaneously manage the cards in her or his hand, and keep track of the cards other players are holding. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a fantastically fun game to play in a group. Super solid way to wrap up our first full day on the island. (Note: I wasn’t able to find the rules of the game online, so Steph and Brett: get ready for some reader follow-up as I’m sending those interested your way.)

After a quick workout the next morning, I rejoined the group in our hotel, showered up quickly and headed out with my compadres for our adventure of the day: island hopping! We hired a private boat for the day (costing us each a total of $50 USD) to cart us around the An Thoi Islands, an archipelago of 15 islands and islets off the southern coast of Phú Quốc. We made four stops that day to different islands, which included a first stop at a snorkeling spot about 30 minutes away from the island, as well as a stop for a fresh seafood lunch that included white fish, rice, squid, and shrimp (on what was, unfortunately, the most crowded island we visited). The beaches were beautiful but small, and nowhere near as lovely as the beaches in nearby Philippines or Indonesia. You’ve got your white sand, you’ve got your palm trees, but you haven’t got much space to lay out and relax, especially if there are other people who have the same idea you do. We weren’t amazed by the quality of the beaches, but had a fun day soaking up the sun anyway. And speaking of soaking up the sun, we did quite a lot of it that day. Too much, in fact. Between my shoulders, Zé’s back and Brett’s face, we were done for. That Vietnamese sun, it’ll get ya. We were in a bit of a pain that evening, but after a dip in and a swim around the Camia pool, we felt a bit better.

The sunsets in Southeast Asia do not mess around, and by that I mean they’re unequivocally the most beautiful on Planet Earth (don’t @ me). Vietnam is no different, with sunsets light up the sky with ruby red and warm tones of orange and blue. But, being one of the few beach destinations in Vietnam with a western coast, Phú Quốc is particularly special. This island gives you a masterpiece to watch each and every night, and we were lucky enough to be staying in a place with a front-row view. We headed down to the Camia restaurant, just steps from the crashing ocean waves, and ordered up some happy hour wine and cocktails. A round (or three) of Hands was played while the sun dipped below the horizon, and the evening left us with a feeling that was one of simply being high on life

Between the long day in the sun and time spent sipping cocktails, our plans to hit Bird of Paradise (or BOP, as loyalists like us prefer to call it) faltered pretty quickly. After laying down for a quick “nap,” I found myself awake only an hour later, and exactly 30 minutes after the four of us were meant to meet up in the living room so we could head out for our BOP dinner. Turns out the others had the same idea as I did: an early night of sleep was in order.

The next morning was another beautiful one, with a crisp blue sky above us and wind around us. It was the perfect time to be outside for my workout, so I laced up my Nikes and headed out for a beach run in that fresh, fresh air. After a short run of about 5km and a small sweat, I joined the squad back at Camia for another tasty breakfast: tropical fruit like papaya, dragonfruit, watermelon and passionfruit, omelets, and Vietnamese pancakes (a thin, crispy pancake filled to the brim with colorful veggies). After filling our bellies with all that we needed, we hopped back on our bikes for the next adventure: a trip to Sao Beach (a spot described as “postcard perfect” on the southeast shore on the island) with several stops along the way. Where to first, you ask? Ho Quoc Pagoda, the largest Buddhist temple on Phú Quốc Island. This spectacular temple is perched at the base of a lush mountain that faces the sea and the rising sun, so get ready for some stellar views when you view the photos below. One thing I love about visiting temples is they always give you the most ornate details and interesting stories that excite my eyes and my ears. This temple was no different, with several notable sites within the temple, like the main temple that was surrounded by singing wind chimes and a beautiful jade statue at the main entrance. The coolest site for me, however, was the Dragon Staircase. It leads up to the top of the temple and contains nine dragons on each side of the stairs, one representing each of the Han Dynasties. Let’s hear it for culture!

After spending an hour at the temple, walking around and taking it in, we headed to Sao Beach. “Postcard perfect” was what we were told, and “postcard perfect” was what we got. Powdery sand, turquoise clear water, swaying palm trees, a jungle backdrop—you get the idea. It’s the “buzzy” beach on Phú Quốc, so it’s quite active, with vendors selling jetski and parasailing rides, and lots of cafes and bars on the beach. It’s not the place to spend your time if you’re looking for a quiet day of R&R, but it’s fun and beautiful all the same. Our time there was a wonderful afternoon, spent between the sea and the beach chairs, with a seafood lunch mixed in between the two. We had plans for sunset that evening, though, so we headed out around 4PM to make sure we were seated with cocktails in hand by sundown at 6PM.

Our next stop was Sunset Sanato Beach Club, an interesting concept: it’s a private beach about 400 meters (1300 feet) long, with bars, dining sections and entertaining areas spread across. Most notably, and the main reason for us being there, is because Epizode, one of Southeast Asia’s largest arts and music festivals, happens there every December. Interesting and unique art instillations are set up by the festival committee and left there throughout the year, and this year we had the privilege of seeing several Dali-inspired beach decorations installed by the Epizode festival, like elephants “walking” on the ocean, and some sun hat decorations on the sand. Because it was Chinese New Year when we visited, many of the bars were closed or setting up for buffet dinners and not ready for our happy hour drink requests, so we set up shop at a small shack-like institution on the beach, with big sand chairs and enough coconut juice and beer to keep us happy while the sun went down below the ocean in front of us. Ahhhh.

We biked back after sundown, with a 20-minute ride ahead of us. As it was evening and just about dinner time, it also meant it was Bird of Paradise time. There were several dishes on the menu we didn’t have the chance to try on our first night, so after showering and getting glammed up (as much as one can or should on a low-key island like Phú Quốc), we headed out to our friendly neighborhood dinner jaunt and ordered up an absolute feast of Vietnamese deliciousness, with the dessert sampler included on this particular (also a must, even for someone like me that doesn’t love sweets. BOP can do no wrong). More Vietnamese food, more rounds of Hands. More laughing. More stories. More memories. The best.

Tuesday was our last full day, and what a fantastic last full day it was. We had read about a beach on the northwest side of the island called Starfish Beach, which sounded super touristy to me at first, albeit intriguing. Let me tell you, this was the most pleasant surprise of the trip. Starfish Beach is only found after a bumpy, sandy motorbike ride through the jungle that keeps it quite secluded, with the whitest sand we’d seen all week. Not only is it secluded and beautiful, it is chock full of red starfish. Seriously, they’re everywhere. We actually had to be careful and tiptoe around the ocean to avoid stepping on them (luckily the water is crystal clear so we could see them easily!). I mean, DAMN. Also, I am taking this opportunity to share some facts about starfish because learning is fun. Here are your #StarfishFacts, brought to you by myself and the great Internet:

  1. Starfish have no brain and no blood. They use filtered sea water to pump nutrients through their nervous system.
  2. Starfish can be really heavy: up to 11 pounds, or 5 kilos, or the amount I weighed when I was born, for reference.
  3. Starfish have lots of birthdays, with an average lifespan of 35 years.
  4. Starfish can’t survive in fresh water. All salt. All the time.
  5. Starfish eat inside out. Yes, that’s right. I needed to read this one twice. When starfish capture prey, they have tiny suction cups to grab ahold of their food. Then their stomach exits their mouth to digest the food, and reenters the body when they’re done eating.

In summary: Starfish are fascinating and I would consider coming back as one in my next life.

After spending the afternoon arranging starfish photoshoots for Instagram swimming and tanning and enjoying each other’s company, we headed back to Camia for some more relaxation time. This evening’s agenda: reading by the pool and massages for two. Steph and Brett went to the spa first, located at the edge of the ocean, while Zé and I made progress on our books by the pool, with the setting sun as our backdrop. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, we spontaneously threw our books in our bags and decided to take the hotel’s kayak out for a ride, until it was our turn to head down to the spa for some R&R. It was a wonderful evening, and a wonderful massage, set to the sound of crashing ocean waves, and left us feeling super relaxed. Unfortunately, after we were done I realized I didn’t have my sandals, and went back to the rocks near the kayaks, as well as the pool, to find them, with no luck. I was pretty bummed because Larissa bought them for me in Brazil, but luckily I can replace them.

Of course, since it was evening and dinnertime was approaching, you know what’s coming next. A meal at BOP, for our final dinner! Our massage wasn’t finished until 8PM, so we headed out for a late dinner at 9PM (let me preface this is late by American standards, because I can hear my European readers scoffing at this claim) by the time we’d showered, changed, primped, and arrived at our favorite little local place. The evening beforehand, we’d been lucky enough to meet the owner, a lovely and (obviously) talented woman named Nu. Steph, being the true chef she is, wanted to know her secrets, and asked her if she’d be so kind as to share her recipe for the beef curry she, Brett and Zé had been eating every night at dinner. When we arrived on Tuesday evening, Nu had the recipe written out in perfect handwriting for Steph. It was truly special, and now Steph will have the keepsake for the rest of time. Plus, she’ll be able to make us ballin’ dinners whenever we visit from now on. Win!

A touch of sadness hit me when I woke up on Wednesday: our last day in Phú Quốc! I woke up on the early side of the day with the intention to seize it. After a quick breakfast, I met Steph and Brett down by the pool, where Zé met us later that morning. I am knees deep into a great book called Shantaram (highly recommend it for readers that love adventure and travel), and I wanted to devour as much as I could beside the beautiful pool with a steaming hot cup of coffee, because that is my true definition of relaxation right there. After making great headway in my book, I headed back to our room with the crew around 12PM to pack and shower up, and we departed the resort at 1PM after settling our bill. A quick flight brought us back to Ho Chi Minh City, where we parted ways with our dear friends and spent our 4-hour layover chowing down on bahn mi at a small shop near the Notre Dame Cathedral in the center of town. From there, it was back onto a second plane, and on to Singapore.

I say this every time I have friends from home or elsewhere come to visit me in Asia, but I’m forever in awe of how special it feels to create new memories with old friends. For those that have known me for ages and have traveled to the Eastern Hemisphere to spend time with me means so much, and absolutely solidifies the role that person plays in my life. I feel incredibly grateful to have people like Steph and Brett in my life. The memories we created during our holiday in Vietnam bound us as forever friends, and I can’t wait to tell our kids and grandchildren about our trip. Until then!

Some photos from our trip to Phú Quốc: