There’s a moment of panic just hours before my departure for Phu Quoc when I find out – contrary to what I’d been told – that I need a visa to enter Vietnam. But I needn’t have worried. My destination, an island off the country’s Gulf of Thailand coast, is a recently designated special administrative region to which direct-flight visitors are granted 30 days of visa-free access.
It’s the last agitation I suffer for four blissful days as I unwind at the InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort on this idyllic island escape, until now a jealously kept secret among well-heeled Vietnamese.
At almost 600 square kilometres, Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island – although it’s closer to Cambodia than Vietnam. Shaped like a dagger, it’s almost the same size as Phuket, with the new resorts and commercial areas located towards its southern tip, and a UNESCO-listed national park occupying the “handle” in the north.
On arrival at the resort – a handy 15-minute drive from the airport – we’re greeted with warm Vietnamese hospitality and subtle signs of the country’s riverine and ocean-faring culture woven into the architecture, from the basket boats adorning the lobby to the lily-pond lagoon thatcarries the water motif across the residence wings stretching languidly to the hotel’s private beach.
I take in the salty air from the private garden balcony of my ocean-view suite, enjoying sweeping views of the 20-kilometre-long stretch of pristine white sand. Most of the hotel’s 459 rooms are oriented to face this defining feature of the island. Standard accommodations in the main wings start at a spacious 49 square metres, ample for couples or solo travellers, while families on longer stays may prefer one-, two- or three-bedroom suites in the Sky Tower, with separate kitchen and dining spaces. The duplex pool villas up the exclusiveness ante with airport-to-door check- in, private butler and chauffeur services, and even a dedicated chef and cocktail mixologist upon request.
Family-oriented facilities are located on one side of the resort and include a pool with a two-storey water slide that’s so much fun I have to be prised away. A full-size movie theatre and the Hideout activity room are other ways of getting relief from the midday heat, while for families with younger kids, the 250-square-metre Planet Trekker facility offers daily activities and complimentary day care under professional supervision.
Tucked away in a secluded corner is the award-winning Harnn Heritage Spa, a luxury retreat with curvilinear bamboo suites that seem to float atop the tranquil lotus lagoon. The extensive menu features traditional Asian medicine and naturopathy-inspired treatments that range from Oriental Acupressure Massage to the lesser known Bamboo Therapy, where bamboo sticks are used to release muscle tension.Waking up early the next morning, I venture out for an island-hopping cruise around the An Thoi Archipelago off the southern coast of Phu Quoc. Before I even hit the water, the drive to the catamaran provides a peek into local life through the vibrant street markets and the lively port, where I glimpse the fishing-community heritage of the island.
A thundery squall during the boat ride clears up as fast as it arrives, leaving behind bright sunshine and ideal conditions for snorkelling and coral viewing.
Looking to enjoy more sun and sand the following day, I spend several hours sea kayaking off the beach with Recreation Manager Jay Fontina, who shows me how to ride the surf and explains the hotel’s philosophy of offering complimentary outdoor activities such as beachfront yoga and aqua-aerobics. My visit coincides with the start of therainy season, which brings with it “class 2 waves, ideal for body boarding”, as Fontina explains. For more adventurous surfers and kite surfers, the island offers bigger waves on both the windward and leeward sides, depending on the season.
Tired but sated after hours in the sun and surf, I take some time to relax by the infinity pool and enjoy a light lunch in the inviting poolside cabana. Dining options are plentiful – six full-service restaurants and bars offering Vietnamese, Japanese, and Italian cuisine, as well as seafood, steak and a whole lot more. I start my days with a hearty bowl of made- to-order beef pho noodles and some freshly rolled steamed banh cuon from the buffet breakfast at Sora & Umi. For dinner, I sample both beachfront restaurants: casual dining at Sea Shack serving barbecue and comfort food, and the more upscale seafood and grill restaurant Lava for a romantic dinner-under-the-stars atmosphere. Fresh, locally sourced seafood dominates the menu, including whole grouper, periwinkle snails and even stingrays.I cap off the evenings with cocktails from INK360, an Ashley Sutton-designed, nautical-themed bar located atop the Sky Tower, the tallest building on the island. It’s here that, while enjoying unobstructed panoramic vistas of the ocean at sunset, I can’t help but notice the many projects under development nearby. In this vicinity alone, the InterCon group is building a Regent next door to my hotel and also has plans to add a Crown Plaza and an Indigo. This idyllic island won’t be a hidden gem for much longer, but with so much of the island yet to be explored I’ll certainly be back soon. Luckily, it’s just a three-hour flight away.