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Phu Quoc: is it worth it?

Photo By: Sonia Azad
Sitting in cold and rainy Hanoi, I craved warmth, sand and sunshine. With little planning, I booked a next day flight to Phu Quoc, an island off the southern tip of Vietnam. The island is known for its seafood, black pepper and fish sauce. (Side note: none of those were reasons that drew me to the island.) 
I first heard of Phu Quoc from my nail tech in Dallas who is a Vietnamese native. When I told him I was going to Vietnam and asked what’s one stop I couldn’t miss, he said Phu Quoc. 
It wasn’t really on my radar. I started the Vietnam leg of my trip in Ho Chi Minh City then headed north to DaNang and Hoi An, which I loved. I spent a half day wandering around Ba Na Hills — which was wildly amusing despite its whimsical touristy amusement park vibe. 
From there, I flew north to Hanoi for the weekend because I was meeting a local friend who had Saturday and Sunday off work, which meant she had time to show me around and spend quality time together. 
Then… the weather turned. 
My initial plan was to do a loop that many others have experienced: Ha Long Bay, (adding on Cat Ba & Lan Ha) then Ninh Binh & Sa Pa. 
The thing no one really tells you is that it’s quite complicated to get to each of these places. 
To save money, lots of backpackers will take overnight buses and trains from place to place— but, often, they have the luxury of time. 
The Americans usually tour the Bay via cruise — which just wasn't appealing to me — especially in 45 degree rainy weather.
After some internal debate and an unofficial Instagram poll, my friends and followers nudged me to fly south for the sun. 

I missed the first flight from Hanoi to Phu Quoc— which sort of sets the tone for the next 48 hours. 
I had to pay an extra $22 to change to a later flight… ok, no biggie. 
The original roundtrip flight was $225 ish… (Mistake #1: I should’ve booked a one-way.) 
The thing about flying OUT of Phu Quoc is that options are still limited. 
The island is experiencing faster growth than it can keep up with. 
So it was more affordable to do a round trip flight on VietJet which is what I ended up doing. 
After paying the extra fee, my new flight was delayed. Again, I had wifi at the airport in Hanoi so I got lunch and worked — no problem. 
Once we landed, my plan was to catch a Grab (Vietnam’s Uber) to my hotel, but the airport has no wifi and my apps won’t work without wifi. (My bad for not going the eSIM route.)
So, a taxi was the only option.
I negotiated a ride for 350,000 VND (about $14.50) and didn’t realize when I booked my bungalow that it was a 45 minute trip north from the airport! 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
By the time I arrived at my hotel, the sun was gone and I ate a subpar fried rice with egg and prawns, sipped down a lime juice and called it a night. 
The place I booked had really good reviews online — but a slightly lower rating for location. 
I don’t usually make decisions based off of reviews but I did during my stop in Hoi An and felt like I really lucked out. 

Here, on the other hand, the room wasn’t entirely what I expected. The pictures online gave me a chic bohemian jungle vibe when in reality it was … sort of that? It wasn’t bad, but definitely not worth $35/ night. (I know, to Americans this is absolutely nothing but for the same amount per night in Thailand or other parts of Vietnam and you can really score an amazing spot!) 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
There was no hot water, the room was sticky and muggy so I drew the mosquito net bedding around the very hard bed — (this is a thing in Vietnam, IYKYK) and dozed off. 
Knowing my time on this island was limited, I set my alarm for 6:35am to eat breakfast and see some beaches that I'd heard about through Instagram. 
Alert by 7 am, I enjoyed a beachfront meditation, had coffee and fresh fruit and asked the hotel to get me a taxi to Sao Beach. 
Sao, Khem and Long Beach are the spots I’d heard about and seen pictures of online. Jesse, the sweet young Vietnamese girl who quasi-managed the hotel recommended Sunset Town as the best place to watch the sunset. 
She’s local. Okay! Sold. 
She hired a taxi for me. The driver was great, although he spoke no English, so the 45-minute car ride to Sao Beach was silent. 
Once there, I walked into absolutely stunning scenery. Bright blue water, powdery soft sand… and a row of locally run beach huts and shops. I landed at Paradiso. It looked cute, had beach chairs and umbrellas (for rent) and I went with it because I would also have access to: a toilet, a shower and food. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
It was a great stop. I planted there for a few hours, got in the water, ate delicious fresh spring rolls and drank a delightful ginger lemongrass tea. 
It was all overpriced based on Vietnamese standards. 
To my American friends, it was still cheaper than Starbucks. But to my Vietnamese friends, it was a rip off. 
I sent a WhatsApp message to my driver asking him to take me to Khem Beach. 
We had a little back-and-forth because he was under the impression he would just be taking me back to the hotel after this stop. 
I reiterated what I had told Jesse and he agreed to take me to see the places that I wanted for “an extra charge” — which was double the price they had quoted me in the morning. 

Here’s the thing about solo travel for me: just say yes. 
This guy had a great car, was super reliable, kind, helpful, just pay him and don’t make a big deal out of it. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
So on we went to Khem Beach, about 8 mins away from Sao Beach by car. 
We drove through a huge JW Marriott grand entryway — like one you see along the roads in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. 
Big, bold, luxurious… and full of tourists. 
The beach was long but not deep. The water was warm and inviting and the bars, restaurants and clubs that lined the shore weren’t loud — or overcrowded but almost everyone there was from Europe, Russia, Australia, Korea or China. 
It quickly became clear that this is not an area that local Vietnamese afford or enjoy. 
I only spent about an hour and a half here— most of it alone and in the water, before texting my driver that I was ready to go. 

Twelve minutes later we rolled up through what looked like European town. A pristine Venice — with restaurants and shops along a waterway. It was clean and quiet and there was hardly anyone around. The Vietnamese SunGroup built what one writer rightly describes as a "Vegas-like over-the-top 'should feel like Italy but rather it feels like Disneyland' town."

Photo By: Sonia Azad
My driver waited in one spot while I walked around this very clean, fancy Ghost town.
(**I felt incredibly safe in Vietnam. For all the wildly chaotic sights and scenes that you may see or read about, the locals are of high integrity. They show up when they say they will, they will take you where you want to go, they will watch your stuff and make sure no one steals is; they feel like an honorable people and culture. They may try to make a few extra bucks off of you (can you blame them?) but this driver is a perfect illustration of just how sincerely good hearted, trustworthy and kind the Vietnamese people are from my perspective.)
I wandered through this fairytale land— where are all the people, I wondered?

There’s a gorgeous beach, a kissing bridge that just opened in 2023, an array of seaside restaurants with patios — and only a handful of humans in sight?! I was so confused. Then I saw a Starbucks. 
I would rather buy a $1.25 Vietnamese coffee from a small shack on the corner of a random intersection than go into a Starbucks — especially in a foreign country. 
But I needed a bathroom and an outlet to charge my phone, so what the hell. 
It was a quick and relatively uneventful experience. 
The scene was quite like a Starbucks you’d find anywhere else in the world. 
I found the people. They were all here. In air conditioning. (It wasn't that hot... but that's coming from me, a Texan.)
I ordered a Vietnamese “signature” coffee at Starbucks and surprisingly flavorful truffle covered cashews, and sat next to a Korean couple who watched my phone charge while I used the bathroom. 
I wandered back outside toward the beach to find my perfect sunset spot. I sat on a rock and got my Timelapse feature going… this is perfect! 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
It was… until a Korean family entered the frame and took an entire photoshoot directly in front of me. The dad yelling at the kids to salute in their photos. The wife making heart shapes and kissy lips with her husband. This all took place RIGHT in front of me. DIRECTLY blocking my sight of the setting sun. 
I was paralyzed by this peculiar cultural phenomenon, so I just sat and kept watching them. 
In America, we would acknowledge that someone is sitting and quietly watching the sunset by herself, we might take one photo and then say sorry or move on and leave them alone. This family just kept going. It reminded me of experiences I’ve had in China or India, where there is no concept of lines, people around you, or personal space. 
Don’t mistake me— I actually absolutely loved my time and experiences in India and China (minus the pollution). I’ll save that for another blog. 
But this concept is fascinating to me because I actually think we Americans are overly concerned and attached to what others around us are: doing, thinking, wearing, saying. These people did not give AF about me in that moment because they were involved in their own moment. They were doing exactly what they intended to do — and it would’ve been up to me to either move or ask them to move, neither of which happened. 
I come from a deferential and sort of passive-aggressive culture and family (which I will also save for another time) hence my historical inclination to suck it up rather than say-- or do-- what I really want.

Photo By: Sonia Azad
After the sun set, I began to walk back to meet the driver when I asked a young couple if they would mind taking a photo for me. They were from Malta. Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Malta. The beautiful girl took my photo and she and her boyfriend and I chatted about our travels, our impressions of this island, and some of our other overlapping travel stops. (They really encouraged me to visit Laos!)
The girl and I exchanged contact info and I was on my way back. 
This is one of the sweetest things about travel— these momentary interactions with people from everywhere! These two were such cool people and we didn’t push it to hang out or go for a drink or anything more than what it had been: a photo and exchanging shared experiences and a really genuine connection of kindness. 
The driver told me that he would stop at an ATM on our way back so I could pay him 900,000 VND-- or $45 USD (our new agreed upon price, which honestly at this point I was happy to pay him. This guy had driven me around all day, stopped everywhere I wanted to go and was so kind!)
He forgot to stop at an ATM. 
No problem, he typed on his translator app. Are you going anywhere tomorrow? 
Can you imagine a cab driver or an Uber driver in America saying don’t worry about paying me now. Want me to pick you up tomorrow and we can settle up then? 
If you’ve had that experience in America, please let me know! Maybe it’s just my narrow idea of what goes on in America… but this was totally new to me. 
I actually did have an idea for what I wanted to do the next day, so he said, go eat dinner and we can make a plan on WhatsApp later. 
And that’s exactly what we did. 
I ate a delicious spicy Green Seafood Curry and sipped down a perfectly paired lime juice before going to bed to wake up for the next day’s adventure. 
At dinner I realized I am actually glad to be staying up north and away from the more touristy areas. Despite my initial impressions, this place is calm, quiet, run by locals, raw and not overly manicured or manufactured. There were 6 Vietnamese guys draining our swimming pool and refilling it when I got back. It felt right. 
The next morning came fast and I checked out of my hotel by 8am. The driver was early to pick me up for an excursion to Starfish island. 
The road is rough in some parts— unpaved, and narrow -- but it ends at a fishing village where these villagers have discovered a system to make themselves a little money and put themselves on the map! 
I gave an old woman $20 USD to let me take a boat to the island … I didn’t have VND and she didn’t really fight me on the exchange. 
I left on a rocky 10-minute boat ride through crystal clear water that dropped me off in a sea of starfish. 
There are vendors set up so you can buy snacks. They have chairs you can rent (but I took my yoga mat so there was no need) and I spent a few hours on the island — meditating, wading in the water, walking along the shore to see the starfish and taking photos and video along the way. 
The first thing I did was meditate: I set an alarm for 15 minutes just to feel the energy of the day (Full moon!) and to give thanks for the gift of life and the helpful people along the way on this journey so far. 
During my meditation I heard the boat engine rev up and guy leave. I didn’t open my eyes. I didn’t worry. He would be back. Or someone else would be. 
That’s the other thing about Vietnamese people here: they are very aware. They don’t fuck up. He knew what time he needed to pick me up so I would be back at the dock in time to meet the driver who was taking me straight to the airport, in time for my flight… it’s all good. 
And it was. Like clockwork, these people took care of me without issue. 
I did finally make it to an ATM at the airport and paid the driver for two days of work (about $71). He had put all of my bags on a cart for me and smiled wide and said “Bye bye! Hope to see you again soon!” Such a sweet guy. 
I dragged my sandy water shoes through the airport to a bathroom to change out of my still wet swimsuit and into warmer attire for Hanoi. 
Changing in the bathroom, I got a good laugh. 
The Phu Quoc airport was the first time during my solo travels through Vietnam that I started to feel myself become annoyed. 
The VietJet counter charged me an extra fee for baggage weight (despite the fact that I didn’t have any more weight than 2 days prior) and then made me go back and forth between counters because my middle name wasn’t on my booking-- so, technically, it didn't match my passport.
Again, there was no issue on the way to Phu Quoc. 
I got randomly searched as did my bags during the security check, and the airport had less than desirable food choices— unlike Hanoi. 
I was seated in a middle chair on the flight, in an exit row. (Is it intentional or coincidental that everyone in the exit row was a foreigner?) I tried not to think about it. 
FYI, This airline doesn’t serve free food or water— you have to buy it. 
I put my backpack in the overhead compartment and wish I had grabbed masks from it beforehand. 
If I get COVID it’s because the Russian guy sitting next to me won’t stop coughing. In all, Phu Quoc did include some unique experiences, but Da Nang beaches would've been closer, cheaper and just as lovely.

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