A massive statue of a gladiator stands alongside Roman ruins. There’s a trattoria with a Vespa parked out the front, right next to that sign to Pompeii which is apparently mere metres from Siena. There’s just one problem: we’re not in Italy, not even in the same hemisphere. Visit Sunset Town on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc and it soon becomes clear there’s a surprise around every corner.
Phu Quoc is about an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City. It’s home to the Sunset Town along with one of the world’s longest cable car, new hotels and resorts. With such a mix of attractions it’s a wonder that Phu Quoc has yet to establish itself on many Australian holiday radars, particularly seeing it has all of those things that have long wooed us to Vietnam: incredible food; beaches, warm and friendly people, and a fascinating history.
Like in Rome
Everything you associate with Italy is here: the fountains, the mosaics, the pasta, pots of red geraniums, all presented in the best-looking Italian streets anywhere.
This 30-hectare part-folly, part private investment, part tourist attraction includes villas, big and small hotels, apartments and shophouses along a path leading to the new Kiss Bridge and will delight and confuse.
The cable car
One part of Sunset Town that is bustling is An Thoi Station where you can take a ride on the Phu Quoc cable car – the longest cable car of its type in the world. This striking landmark from the sea and the air, offers 360-degree views of the An Thoi archipelago. The ride itself is quite fast at 30 kilometres an hour, so brace Lyourself as you dip and glide over beaches and fishing villages for eight kilometres , eventually landing on Hon Thom – dubbed Pineapple Island, a much-loved Vietnamese nature and water park. Spot coral reefs and fishing boats hauling in catches as you bob overhead.
Famous fish sauce
Fish sauce has long been a staple of Vietnamese and Thai cooking. But Phu Quoc is home to the fish sauce, much sought after by lovers of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine across the world. Phu Quoc traditional fish sauce is made from anchovies that feed off particular types of local seaweed and plankton.
These high-protein anchovies are then salted, fermented and nurtured in huge wooden vats. Visit local makers in southern Phu Quoc for the chance to taste this famous sauce. In 2021, the sauce was named part of Vietnam’s national intangible cultural heritage by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Other fishy specialties
The trademark sauce is not the only gift from the sea that Phu Quoc, also known as Pearl Island, enjoys. The pearls that gave the island its second moniker are on show and available to buy at the Ngoc Hien Pearl Farm in the island’s south. Here, see how pearls are harvested or used to form sculptures and other artefacts.
Squid is another of the island’s fishy delicacies. Join one of the small squid boats dotted off the beaches at dusk to catch your own or taste this and other fruits of the sea in various incarnations at the Night Market in Phu Quoc’s biggest town, Duong Dong, followed by coconut ice-cream for dessert.
Lastly is the fishy phenomenon known as Starfish Beach. This white-sand beach in the southern hamlet of Bai Sao is transformed at certain times of the year when pinkish starfish flood the shallows and shores to, so the locals say ‘bathe in the light of the moon’.
From heavens to hell
The Coconut Tree Prison Camp, built by French colonialists in 1946, is located in this town. It is not an easy place to visit. Rows of dummys in stifling cells illustrate cruel and bizarre methods of torture carried out on inmates while crudely dug tunnels highlight the heroism and desperation of those incarcerated.
At one time this 400-hectare prison camp held up to 40,000 people. The exit through a gift shop may seem incongruous but is nothing compared with the incongruity behind the methods of torture devised here.
Wild at heart
Phu Quoc is gearing up for a tourist boom, boosted by an influx of new man-made developments. But nothing beats the allure of nature. Phu Quoc National Park in the island’s north-east includes more than 27,000 hectares of forest and 20,000 hectares of surrounding ocean area. It has white-sand beaches, mountains, jungle treks, waterfalls, the rare slow loris, monkeys and other wildlife for those in search of some nature nurturing. Some areas are accessible for jeep or motorbike tours, others for hiking with local guides.