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Sweet surprise

An island in the sun offers a luscious taste and an unblemished view of a side of Vietnam

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob McKeown
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2003

PHU QUOC, Vietnam -- I first heard about Phu Quoc because of a dog named Ziggy. He's black, with short, thick hair, the cheery disposition of a Labrador, and a striking physical feature of the kind that might figure in a Haruki Murakami novel: Along the ridge of his back is a line of fur, raised several centimeters and running in the opposite direction to the rest, in the canine equivalent of a Mohawk.

''What breed is it," I had asked his owner, Phuonganh, a striking Vietnamese-American woman who lives in Ho Chi Minh City. ''Really rare," she said, her eyes widening with pride. ''From a stunning island that's a quick flight from here. Birds and mice don't have a chance against him in my backyard. They were bred for hunting and can scent over a kilometer away."

Phuonganh paused again and smiled at Ziggy, who was now in the courtyard of her colonial villa. ''He's a Phu Quoc dog."

In other words, not merely ruggedly beautiful, but intriguing, too. As it turns out, the same could be said for his island home.

The 800-square-mile Phu Quoc (''foo kwoock," as in ''book") is Vietnam's largest island, but it barely gets more than a mention in most guidebooks. Describing how to get there is like telling a riddle: It is 10 miles south of Cambodia, but in the Gulf of Thailand. It is 30 miles west of Ha Tien in Vietnam, but an eight-hour ferry ride in good seas. Cruises from Bangkok stop here, filled mostly with gambling Thais, but the quickest way is a 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City.

I booked a trip the day after meeting Ziggy, and two months later I was boarding a puddle jumper with Phu Quoc's greatest advantage in my favor: I had no clue what to expect.

Minutes after leaving the airport at Duong Dong, the island's chief town and port, my motorcycle taxi (there are four-wheel ones, too) was rolling past old colonial administration buildings, open-air cafes, and Chinese Buddhist temples, their pastel facades looking outlandish against a backdrop of jungle vegetation. Heading northwest along dirt roads, we began to see line upon line of neatly trimmed, pencil-thin trees that sprout an island specialty: the fruity yet assertive Phu Quoc peppercorn. My driver pointed proudly at the lush plantations, and I promised I would buy peppercorns to bring home. He smiled and geared down to climb one of a succession of hills.

Schoolchildren, wandering on the side of the red-brown road, jumped and waved as we drove past, wearing the type of smile I was used to seeing only on my little brother around the holidays. As we began to climb a forested mountain, my driver rolled down a window and I could hear the faint, lulling sound of waterfalls. ''Hot springs, too," he said. And, soon enough, with not a clue in sight as to where the villas my friend Phounganh described might be, we cut down the only occupied road we had seen since passing through the pepper plantations and stepped out of the car at a beach called Ong Lang. A set of cabin-like bungalows was strung out amid cashew nut, palm, and mango trees. The coast was rocky, the waves substantial.

While tourism is slowly, inevitably becoming a part of life here, Phu Quoc, unlike such spots as Thailand's Phuket, has yet to be dolled up with sprawling resorts or undone by brash beach bars. Fishing and agriculture remain the mainstays of the economy; Duong Dong and the southern port of An Thoi are working towns in the traditional sense. Red and blue fishing boats line their harbors, unloading glistening catches of tilapia, barracuda, and shrimp; structures are mostly wooden, with colonial touches, and their bright colors would be just as good a fit in Cuba.

Almost every other storefront seems to have a fish sauce (nuoc mam) factory on its ground floor. Walk inside, and you can see the island's most celebrated commodity in enormous wooden casks. Unlike most imported versions available in Asian markets in the United States, this truly artisanal product is so sweet you can taste it with a spoon, In the streets crme brle and pho are sold next to one another, while French colonial, communist, and deco-style architecture exist in a happy jumble.

Perhaps most charming, though, are the ways of the Phu Quoc people.

Historically, the island stood at a maritime crossroads between the influential Chinese and Indian cultures. Among the empires that wielded influence here were Angkor (in Cambodia) and Hue (in the center of Vietnam). The ships of the spice trade came through and and left behind the imprints of almost every culture in the region. These days, the greatest proof is the temperament of the locals, a far cry from the urban aggressiveness of Saigon. Like their facial features, Phu Quoc character is a disarming blend of Khmer detachment, Thai curiosity, and Vietnamese elegance that puts you immediately at ease. Even when lost in a remote corner of his island, my taxi driver shifted between broken English and French without a touch of stress until another local realized where he was trying to go, and they oh-ed and ah-ed in their own tongue. Minutes later he left in the same state he arrived: gently, surely smiling.

I spent the night at a place called Mai House on a gentle bluff above Bai Truong or ''Long Beach," a 12-mile stretch of sugary sand that runs down the west coast from Duong Dong almost to the island's southern tip. It is owned and operated by a Frenchman named Gerard Bezardin, so tanned and sprightly he could be a local moto driver, and Mai, his Vietnamese wife, who has the nuanced presence of a Parisian woman. The dozen-plus villas are moderate in size and hand-constructed with local woods. They have bamboo furniture, subtly sexy bathrooms with aquamarine-tiled showers, and beamed ceilings.

Though expanding, Mai House still feels as it should: a family home converted into a tropical retreat. Its rusticity feels remote and perfect for the beach, but it is offset by just the right touch of pampering. Lie uncomfortably on the sand, and Gerard and his squad of workers will ferry over handmade beach chairs. Ask for late-night tea to soothe a sore throat, and Mai will rush over with a whole porcelain set, and maybe even a market-fresh baguette.

Through Gerard, I came to meet Tu, a floppy-haired motorcycle guide with kind eyes and a quiet wit who came to Phu Quoc six years ago after leaving his job as a fisherman in Nha Trang. In that time, he learned to speak English and got to know every market vendor, boatman, and strip of sand on the island. What few guides there are, such as the famed Tony, become known on a first-name basis. Tu, who uses only the one name on his business card, was the next generation and seemed genuinely more concerned with showing us his adopted home (he recently married and helped his wife's family open a restaurant) than with making money. He offered to take me, along with a honeymooning set of Hong Kong lawyers, exploring for a day and, in the ones that followed, helped me find everything from taro ice cream to abandoned beaches with white, sugary sand.

My first day touring with Tu, he showed up just after dawn with a bevy of moto drivers, one for each of the five people in our group. We headed out down a long, coastal road, its surface surprisingly smooth thanks to the American forces who once occupied the place, and we were always within sight of the water.

Tu stopped to buy toasted baguettes and sticky-rice wrapped in banana leaves and gave a pair to each person. We nibbled them and waved at each other as we rode on, trailing crumbs. The drive took us past estuaries and floating fishing villages, trucks being loaded to go to port, and schoolchildren hovering over breakfasts of noodle soup. We also passed examples aplenty of something Phu Quoc shares with middle America or outback Australia: quirky roadside attractions. A prison they push hard as a tourist site. Pearl farms with rudimentary tours. And a cheap plaster monument shaped like a wave.

We were bound for An Thoi, a secondary port with salty air and a lively trading atmosphere, where for a few dollars a person we chartered a boat through the Phu Quoc archipelago. After ambling through a busy fresh market, where everything from dried fish to turmeric-yellow Vietnamese-style pancakes was for sale, we headed to sea.

For hours we floated past untouched islands (there are 16 in the chain) with abundant and Technicolor-green vegetation and swam, fished, and snorkeled in offshore reefs. While we were doing this, a Khmer sailor who worked on our boat, his eyes wider and darker than the others, heated a small charcoal grill and brazier and cooked our lunch: a clear fish soup soured with lime yet juicy-sweet with pineapple and tomato. He grilled squid and tiger prawns the size of his forearm and served them with a dipping sauce redolent of lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. For dessert he cut open several dragonfruit, its skin thick and hot pink with green horns butting out, and its taste like a mild cross between kiwi and apple.

By midday, the sun was so harsh that, if not swimming in waters crystalline enough to see our own feet, we hunkered in the shade of the boat. Thirsty, we stopped at a crude fishing village on Pineapple Island -- named, as they all were, for its shape -- and bought longan juice and young coconuts to drink. The beach was strung with canoe-thin boats. Squid were drying on screens in every direction. And the local children were clustered, in groups of 10 or 20, wherever we went. They spoke little English, but smiled unforgettably and playfully engaged in a call-and-response session of ''Hello" and ''America" and ''Vietnam."

That night I fell asleep by 8 p.m. and decided to spend the next day in the shade of a wooden lean-to known as the Hieu Family Restaurant, just down the bluff from Mai House and run by an extended Chinese-Vietnamese family. A pair of lanky and generous uncles scurried among tables to take orders, several children ran plates and cans of Coke, and a grandmother peeled garlic in back with the poise of a queen mother. The swimmer crabs, mussels, and shrimp were served with dipping sauces or in an aromatic coconut curry, and there were fabulous spring rolls with rice paper wrappers.

But my addiction was a house specialty translated as ''rare fish" on the menu. It was actually raw, a barracuda ceviche laced with chili, the sweet local nuoc mam, and with a pronounced and fruity whisper of Phu Quoc peppercorns. While eating my third portion of the day, I felt a nudge at my knee and looked down to see a swath of black fur. Glancing again, I realized this wasn't just any mutt but one of the famed Phu Quoc dogs, whose genetic isolation and possible connection to Thailand Ridgebacks has been the subject of scientific inquiry. He wasn't unlike Ziggy, if less manicured, but the hair on his back still stood perfectly on end -- running emphatically in the opposite direction of the rest.

When I ignored him, he patted his feet in the sand and waited patiently. I tossed him some fish. It seemed the least I could do.

Rob McKeown is the Asia correspondent for Gourmet magazine. He lives in Bangkok and can be reached at robmckeown@mac.com.

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