From my research trip in late 2006… 

Someday — likely not in our lifetimes, but someday — the last secret beach will be found, peopled, developed — ruined. We probably won’t know when it happens — no fanfare or nostalgic speeches will great the historic occasion. No remembrances of the world’s wild beach-hunt’s passing. Just a wild rush to get there fast. A few years later — perhaps — it’ll sink in. It’s over: there are no more natural beaches to discover. They’ll have to be made.

For the time being, Vietnam’s latest hunt is in full force on Phu Quoc, the 30-mile-long tear-shaped island off the southern tip of the mainland — so close to Cambodia that Cambodia thinks it is Cambodia, and the Vietnamese military camps out on the northeastern tip, just in case. It’s a beautiful, mountainous place — famous for dogs that have a stripe of hair on their backs that grow the wrong way (it sometimes looks like ‘arrows’ pointing to their head, so you know where to pet) and Vietnam’s beloved fermented fish sauce, nuoc mam.

There are also beaches here, of course. ‘It’s the place the government forgot about,’ one local said. That’s changing. The local map of the island optimistically marks the potential location of SaigonTourist’s Casino-Golf Course (no where near being started), in an area reached by jeeps or motorbikes. If you go the direct way, you cross a wood-plank bridge only one motorbike can take at a time. The beaches to the north are lined with fishing villages of huts with rice-bag walls and orange-dirt roads that lead past totally untouched forest where bugs call out with unsettling choirs of single-note drones. Occasionally a motorbike passes you — but mostly you’re on your own.

Most of the action are the couple-dozen of guesthouses and beach resorts set up side by side on the Bai Truong (Long Beach) south of the main town, Duong Dong, mid-way on the west side of the island. A narrow stretch of golden sand greets calm, rather shallow water offshore. Eight-dollar bungalows with fans are neighbors to $150 resorts. It’s fine for a day. Most visitors take advantage of offshore reefs, best on the archipelago off the south tip of the island. Diving and snorkeling operators make rounds and pick-ups at all the Long Beach guesthouses. Trips cost about $25 including lunch and equipment.

Instead I rented a motorbike to circle the island on two loops on successive days to try to find the beaches that people were murmuring about — white-sand gems with turquoise waters. One guesthouse worker, perhaps jealous of Sao Beach on the east side, said, ‘Yes, but trash from the mainland gets washed ashore over there.’ (I saw no trash when I went.) Another was more encouraging, ‘Haven’t you been to Dai Beach in the north yet — it’s the most wonderful.’

I circled the island by Honda, found Sao beach, but enjoyed the beaches to the north the best, particularly that Dai Beach, where a lone family-run restaurant is set on a several-kilometer beach of golden sand. They string up hammocks for you after a meal of grilled fish their pals bring back. There’s a caged monkey to look at. I was alone there for hours. That’s likely to change when the road and casinos get made.

I paid tribute to the fish sauce the island is so famous for – apparently mainland fish-sauce makers are so smitten with Phu Quoc’s stuff that they slap ‘Phu Quoc’ on their bottles to add market value. There are dozens of factories in the main town Duong Dong. Most along a river canal – one place to ferment the fish, drain the sauce from giant barrels through clear tubes into plastic tubs, then bottle and label them in a shed by the boats, which take them to the mainland for export and sale. The staff, busy with the bottles, thought I was nuts to show interest. They let me wander freely, climbing ladders to peek into the giant numbered barrels filled fermented fish. The smell kept me off the stuff for a couple days, but I bought a 50-cent bottle anyway for a souvenir, not knowing the airlines won’t let you pack one or take one aboard. The smell is too damning to risk in the air.

Hopefully the wave of tourism won’t keep the fish sauce for losing its stink.