Beauty and the Beast

Tourism development on Phu Quoc island may well destroy what it is that tourists wish to see.

By GRANT J. RILEY on May 09,2017 11:44 AM

Beauty and the Beast

Photos: GRANT J. RILEY

Our aeroplane touches down on the tropical island of Phu Quoc. It’s less than an hour’s flight from HCMC. The airport is new, the flight easy, and we step out into a pleasant climate and quickly take a cab into town.

Prior to this little sojourn I had spent just a few minutes looking at some photographs of Phu Quoc on the internet. White sands, hammocks, and palm trees were enough to tempt me into a visit. I book some flights and leave the rest of the details to my Vietnamese travelling companion, who had visited the island two years before. So, when we rolled into the relatively big town of Duong Dong I was a little taken aback. The hustle and bustle, no sign of the coast, and an abundance of neon-lit restaurants. Not a problem; just wasn’t expecting it. Our taxi takes us to the cheapest guest house on the island; simple but suitable.

Come sunset and we venture off in search of seafood. Down to the harbour and I get to see some ocean for the first time in a while. A jutting rock has a temple and a lighthouse emplaced on top. A great view over the Gulf of Thailand is to be had, the tiny lights of small fishing boats bob on the horizon. We go to walk on the beach, but the intensity of the plastic detritus deters us. A two-metre strip of rubbish washes in and out with the tide. It’s disgusting. We leave.

The next morning we take the new and very open road down south to Sao Beach. It’s a classic: white, light sands, a hilly, tropical forest backdrop, azure and jade coloured sea, perfect climate, and a bar. It really is a gem, not too developed, yet able to see to all of your needs. OK. The nearby jet skis are pretty annoying, and they run precariously close to the sea bathers. And the bar’s sound system plays Abba’s greatest hits through a big speaker from a barman’s phone, which rings a lot when he is not at his post. Lying on a tropical beach listening repeatedly to an amplified naff ringtone is not my idea of heaven, yet everything else is so tranquil I can grin to myself - ah Vietnam - and relax.

The following day’s visit is through the national park to the north of the island. The government upgraded the previous Natural Protection Area and Nature Reserve in 2001 to include an area of 31,422 ha: 8,603 ha of strictly protected area and 22,603 ha of biological restoration area. It’s a sizable chunk of the island’s habitat. A new, smooth dual carriageway fragments the forest and leads to the beaches of the north-east. The route that leads through the interior of the island is rather gritty and pragmatic; chinks in the forest have been slashed and burned, and either abandoned or upcoming developments are interspersed between black pepper and cashew nut farms. It looks like the island has big plans ahead. I personally find it all a bit alarming, as this is such a highly valuable and protected region. However, the drive through the forest leads to exquisite and lush open bays. The view across the sea is of Cambodia, just a short distance over the water.

Coastal life here is some of the most pristine and original I’ve yet to see in Vietnam. Untouched as yet by tourism, fisherman and shell-fish gatherers go about their day.

We eventually run out of new road in this isolated paradise. Our only company at times are those stormtroopers of development: the excavator, the cement mixer, and the steam roller. It’s as if we have got here just in time to see this tranquil haven. Seemingly, all is about to change. The new road ends and a red dusty trail leads off into the coastal forest. ‘Looks like there’s nothing there,’ my friend offers. ‘Great,’ I reply. ‘Let’s go see.’

Beauty and the Beast

Immediately there is an abundance of wildlife. The incredibly colourful bee-eater birds line our route. Sea eagles ride thermals above. Butterflies the size of bats zig-zag across our path. Intermittent locals forage for forest fruit. It’s truly beautiful.

Eventually we arrive at a sleepy hamlet, occupied solely by fishermen and their families. Here, life is not ruled by the watch and the clock but by the moon and her tides. The only big boss is the ocean itself. We stop for lunch and beers and I slowly meditate on my surroundings. This ancient life is about to abruptly change. A road is coming.

Development at any cost? It’s a saviour and a scourge I’ve witnessed throughout my life travelling the world. Never more so than in Vietnam. So often the natural beauty people come to see is rapidly denuded by the actual process of intense tourism. I’ve seen coastal areas in Vietnam like Mui Nai and Halong where the pristine view has been exploited and so heavily developed that the view of the original landscape has become blocked by concrete. I often ponder the irony of being in a communist country where so many of the beaches are now being privatised. Whole areas where you can only see the sea if you can afford to stay in a luxury hotel. The irony for me does not sit well. Here in this isolated corner of Phu Quoc I am sure the locals eagerly anticipate the arrival of tourists and their money. Yet, I fear these people’s undoubted hand-to-mouth existence will not be replaced by newly-found wealth but by probable displacement by the very mechanisms of development itself.

For now, we enjoy the peaceful idyll. Wander the coast as masses of seashells crunch underfoot. I breathe some of the freshest air I’ve had in a long while and enjoy the delights of the local cuisine. Huge cockles, sea urchins and lashings of coconut water. Perfect. It’s possibly one of the most pristine and tranquil coastlines in Vietnam - and this area is almost litter free.

Beauty and the Beast

On our last day, my friend suggests a visit to Khem Beach, a beauty spot she highly recommends from her previous visit. The sat-nav on my phone doesn’t seem to agree with the terrain that awaits us. A humongous roadside entrance suggests that things might have changed around here. I improvise and find an adjacent dirt track and proceed. We arrive at an enormous building site. Almost a whole new town is under construction. Access to Khem Beach is now gone. Further dirt tracks run parallel to the coast and we come across rather shanty dwellings and impromptu huts and small market stalls. I get the impression that these people have been recently exiled. We meet a very kind local woman who helps us find our way to a beach away from the new development. Again, it is a tropical paradise, yet the view just half a kilometre away is what I can only describe as a monstrosity. Future hotels and private apartments are all crammed into each other right up to the beach front. This once lush bay is now concreted. Their design is some kind of naff neo-Disney. I’m horrified. We leave.

Phu Quoc is home to the majestic marine mammal, the dugong, and the highly-protected sea turtle, and all are seriously under threat. A rich and unique biodiverse hotspot, protected for centuries by low-impacting residents, amounting to around 90,000 people, is now projected to swell to an anticipated 2-3 million visitors a year. Everyone deserves a slice of the economic boom’s pie, yet I fear the local people will not fare well, let alone the wildlife. It is already clear to see that sustainability is not on the minds of the money men, and even a small investment in litter collection is yet to be initiated. Who will want to come and see paradise trashed?

I have such mixed feelings about Phu Quoc Island, a heaven and hell. Such beauty, yet such thoughtless and greedy expansion. I wish the rare and stunning wildlife and the lovely local people all the best. I hope some sense will soon prevail. Vietnam can currently claim to be the 16th most biodiverse country in the world. What a privileged acclamation! Yet surely this is position is seriously threatened. Those that invest in development also have a weighty responsibility: they must pay to protect, to clean, and to effectively facilitate such sudden increases in human numbers.

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