PHU QUOC — If you ever wondered what Thai islands were like in the 1980s, you might try checking out Phu Quoc in 2011.
Market sellers in conical hats hawk baguettes, ducks, flying lizards and other items rarely or never seen on the Thai side of the Gulf. Taxi drivers in ties ply red dirt roads to pearl farms and old-style fishing ports. Villagers, who water the roads and erect thatch walls to protect their homes from dust, gather up seaweed and hawl in squid nets by using pedal power on homemade winches. From the bustling morning markets to the teeming restaurants of the night market, the Vietnamese show an energy and industrious which has the economy – and prices – rising by levels around 10 percent per year.
With new resorts opening almost daily, boats filling up with divers, and government plans to expand the airport to international flights, Phu Quoc is taking off fast. Indeed, the government plans to boost annual tourist arrivals from 77,000 to 2 million by 2020, and many investors from Europe, Thailand, Malaysia and mainland Vietnam are getting in on the action by buying up land and opening restaurants and dive shops. Many veterans of Thailand are already comparing it to Koh Samui in the 1980s, or Koh Chang in the 1990s.
For now, Phu Quoc is fun in a raw form, still dominated by local families who rent out motorcycles for 5 dollars a day and bungalows for $20 per night, and enterprising companies such as Rainbow Divers who see Vietnam’s longterm potential. But can it really attract tourists accustomed to finding their temporary paradises in Thailand?