Phu Quoc Island: A Glimpse of Yesterday and Today

attractions - Phu Quoc: July 9, 2019

The rich and interesting story of Phu Quoc.

The reign of the infamous French emperor, Napoleon III and the success of the Vietnamese resistance against the US.

Some of Phu Quoc’s important development in recent years and the future.

One would hope that with the roughly triangular shape of the island, reminding us of a kind of prism, would be an entry point into understanding the complex and long history of Vietnam. However, much of what is written about Phu Quoc is related to what the island represents as Vietnam’s future, not its history. 

Before the 17th Century, there are few historical references and very little is known about Phu Quoc island, its inhabitants, and its history. However, historical consensus holds that the island has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years. Most of the archeological evidence—pottery, tombs, and tools that were unearthed in the northern part of the island — is located in Coi Nguon Museum near Dương Đông, the island’s town centre.

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Phu Quoc, Vietnam is also commonly known as the “Pearl Island” (“đảo ngọc”), due in large part to its thriving pearl farming industry. It is also known as “99 Mountain Island” (“99 núi”), due to its network of mountainous ridges that descend from the northern part of the island to the south. 

One of the main attractions of this 28-islet archipelago, nestled in the Gulf of Thailand, is its isolated nature as well as its famed 150km of coastline with more than 20 beaches. The island measures close to 600km² and 50 kilometres (31 miles) long from north to south as well as 25 kilometres (16 miles) from east to west in its widest area in the north. Phu Quoc island’s geology includes rocks that are mostly from the Cenozoic and Mesozoic ages as well as an array of quartz pebbles, limestone rock structures, riolt and feslit. 

Most Phu Quoc Island “things to do” are based around rest and relaxation especially since Phu Quoc weather is usually outdoor activity-friendly. To show how in-demand the island is becoming, recently an Indian billionaire couple chose Phu Quoc as the location for a massive wedding party that lasted a week, with more than 700 guests and over 150 performers. However, for those who love digging into a bit of history, here is some historical background to this mysterious destination. 

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An Important Jewel in the History of a Vietnamese Dynasty

The appropriately named Phu Quoc island, meaning “fertile” or “thriving land,” has a rich and interesting story. Around 1680, a Chinese merchant named Mac Thien Tu had an opportunity to develop a large part of the southern coast of Cambodia. As a major part of this process, he linked Phu Quoc island as one of seven trading centres that welcomed European commerce, especially from Portugal. During this time, Phu Quoc had considerable growth in several industries, especially the fishing industry. 

One of the most iconic moments in the island’s history was when French missionary Pigneau de Behaine used the island as a base to hide King Nguyễn Ánh, who was being hunted by Tay Son rebels. In 1782, King Nguyễn Ánh consolidated his power on the island and re-entered mainland Vietnam to defeat the Tay Son rebels. Twenty years later, in 1802, King Nguyễn Ánh became Emperor Gia Long, the first ruler of the Nguyễn Dynasty in Vietnam. 

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It was around this time that John Crawford, from the British East India Company, visited Phu Quoc island and documented an estimated population of about 5,000 inhabitants.

From Cochinchina to Kien Giang 

In 1862, during the reign of the infamous French emperor, Napoleon III, the French entered Phu Quoc as part of the Cochinchina Campaign. By 1867, French rule was formally established in the region. During this time, the Governor of Cochinchina established coconut, rubber, and pepper plantations. 

This is also when the famous Cay Dua Prison (Coconut Tree Prison) was established, which later became a centre of US military presence in Vietnam during the Vietnamese War in the 1960s-1970s. In fact, from 1953 to 1975, the island had the largest prisoner camp in southern Vietnam, which was documented at 40,000 in 1973.

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Following the success of the Vietnamese resistance against the US, the country was once again united. As a result of this, there was a resolution of Phu Quoc’s most important territorial dispute and finally the island officially became a part of Kien Giang province, Vietnam. After the end of the war, Cay Dua prison was closed and later reopened as a museum, preserving a small piece of the island’s recent history. 

Present and Future of Phu Quoc Island

Although Phu Quoc island’s economy has centred on fishing and agriculture, a thriving tourism sector has become central to the island’s economic growth as one of Vietnam’s most important tourist hubs.

Pearl farming began more than two decades ago when Japanese and Australian experts came to grow pearls and establish this industry. One Vietnamese pearl farm that was established during that time is called Quoc An. 

More recently, Phu Quoc National Park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2006, due to the ecological diversity of the island, and also made news for having the world’s longest oversea cable car route as well as the world’s second biggest wildlife safari, both recent additions to the island’s attractions.

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Furthermore, the CEO Group, which is one of Vietnam’s most successful real estate investors, established the Sonasea Villa & Resort complex in 2013, which covers close to 80 hectares in the southern west coast part of the island. This real estate development, which has paved the way for a growing group of large-scale commercial beach resorts, came just after the island’s government set up urban infrastructures that included roads and better internet access. And if you’re wondering how to get to Phu Quoc, there’s a growing number of international flights to the islands each year. 

Another important development occurred with Vinpearl’s Phu Quoc complex, which was created by Vingroup in the northern part of the island and contains a five-star hotel with villas, a modern amusement park, a golf course, among other attractions. One of the island’s most notable feats is bragging rights for the world’s longest cable car route over sea; connecting An Thới town and Hòn Thơm Islet. Measuring close to 8km (26,248 feet), the cable car was inaugurated by the Sun Group in February of 2018. 

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Today’s local population is roughly 103,000, with a thriving average GDP growth of 22%. The GDP per capita tripled from 2012 to 2017 while the per capita income is over 70,000,000VND. Finally, visitors to the island were over 2 million last year and authorities have scheduled upgrades in the airport so that up to 5 million visitors can arrive by 2020. 

From a shipping hub, to a remote island prison, to becoming one of Vietnam’s top resort destinations, Phu Quoc has weathered many changes. But it remains, as always, a tropical taste of paradise.

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