The history of Phu Quoc Island has been recounted before. And for most tourists visiting the island, all that matters is the relative merits of the island’s sandy shorelines – working out which is the best beach on Phu Quoc: Ba Keo or Bai Sao.
Or maybe it’s where to get the best seafood? Is it at the legendary local joint Ra Khoi Seafood Phu Quoc or at Crab House Phu Quoc with its cajun flavors, or somewhere more modern, like Nage Restaurant with its contemporary Australian accents, or to stay at your Phu Quoc Resort and eat in-house at The Spice House, at Cassia Cottage. Or maybe it’s where to get the best bowl of bun quay. Is it at Bun Quay Kien Xay in the heart of Duong Dong Town that has a claim to be the original, or Bun Quay Thanh Hung, that’s only a ten minute walk away.
But even a short trip can be enriched by understanding the history of Phu Quoc Island. Life at your Phu Quoc resort will undoubtedly be calming and sunkissed, but even the most ardent beach lover needs a break to go and explore Phu Quoc Island sometimes. Knowing some of the history of Phu Quoc Island will help you do that. To keep things fresh, we’re recounting the history of Phu Quoc Island here too, only in reverse.
There are many islands off the ‘s’-shaped 3,260 km coastline of Vietnam. In fact, there are 22 islands in the group of islands called Phu Quoc alone. And thanks to Phu Quoc’s attention grabbing beaches and lush interior it’s recently been gathering a number of awards. In 2022, for example, Phu Quoc was named ‘World’s Leading Nature Island Destination’ at the World Travel Awards. And it’s regularly name-checked by the world’s leading travel publications. Condé Nast Traveler said it is one of the ‘top ten most loved islands in Asia’ and in 2021, Time Magazine said it was one of the ‘top 100 best destinations’ to go that year.
An important part of that has been access to the island. Initiatives like closing Phu Quoc Airport, and replacing it with Phu Quoc International Airport in 2012 have helped put the island on international travelers bucket lists
Nationally, Vietnam’s islands vie for the attention of inbound tourists. There’s the escapism of Con Dao Island, some way off the Vung Tau coast. And there are up-and-coming Vietnamese islands like remote Pho Quy Island, that’s 120 km off the coast of Phan Thiet, and which only recently opened its doors to tourists.
But Phu Quoc is the biggest island in Vietnam at 567 square kilometers. It’s so large, and it has developed so quickly, that in March 2020, Vietnam’s National Assembly Standing Committee designated Phu Quoc as Vietnam’s first island city.
Already, by 2010, the international media were warming up to Phu Quoc Island. That year the Los Angeles Times decided that Phu Quoc: “is the hottest new tourist destination in Vietnam” and noted the island’s “mile after mile of wide, uncrowded beaches, dense jungle, virgin rainforests and a lazy, laid-back atmosphere.”
In the north of the island, far from many Phu Quoc Island resorts that can be found lining Long beach, is an area recognized as Phu Quoc National Park. In 2010, around the same time as that Los Angeles Times article, that area was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – a designation which helps protect the land, water and natural resources in and around Phu Quoc. In fact, besides covering the area of Phu Quoc’s National Park, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve covers 105 islands of which Phu Quoc is the largest.
Considering how tranquil Phu Quoc Island can feel today, its history may come as some surprise. It was only in 1999 that Cambodia fully accepted Vietnam’s sovereignty over the island, the resolution of two decades of recent dispute — and centuries of disagreement. But the ownership of Phu Quoc Island had been a source of tension. In 1939, Jules Brévié, who was the Governor General of French Indochina, had decided on the line demarcating the boundary between Cambodia and Cochinchina to include Phu Quoc on the side of the latter. And the dispute goes even further back than that.
In May 1975, Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldiers took Phu Quoc Island and although Vietnam reclaimed it shortly after, it was a precursor to escalating tensions and repeated incursions that led to the Cambodia-Vietnam War in 1979.
In 1993, Phu Quoc Prison was declared a historical monument – a particularly somber reminder of the island’s recent history.
That’s because, between 1953 and 1975, the island was most widely known not for its beaches, but for the prison – the largest in South Vietnam – which dated back to French Indochina. By 1973, there were 43,000 prisoners interned there, in what was a paradise island turned nightmarish prison camp for captives of the Southern Vietnamese government.
Ever contentious, by the mid 19th-century Cambodia, through appeals to Napoleon III, was offering Phu Quoc to the French in exchange for protection from the twin-perils posed by Siam and Vietnam.
The two countries eventually signed a treaty in 1863, then the French turned Saigon, and the region south including the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc into a French protectorate, eventually giving Cambodia parts of northern Thailand and Phu Quoc and the Mekong as they had long requested. It remained that way until 1954 when the Geneva Accords dealt with the dismantling of French Indochina, with Phu Quoc and the south of the country falling under State of Vietnam control headed by emperor Bao Dai.
Rewind a couple of hundred years, to the 18th century, and Phu Quoc is mentioned in the journals of French missionary Pigneau de Behaine as his temporary base and the hiding place of a 13-year-old Nguyen lord, named Nguyen Anh. The Nguyen clan were at war with the Trinhs. A peace that lasted hundred years had been broken by the Tay Son rebellion, and when they allied with the Trinh family, Nguyen Anh, with the help of the French Missionary and Catholic priest retreated to Phu Quoc between 1782 and 1786. By the early 1800s, Nguyen Anh had consolidated enough power to defeat the Tay Sons.
Inevitably fragmented and debated, the first records of Phu Quoc’s existence began to appear in the 17th century, in Cambodian royal documents, which referred to the island as Koh Trai. In 1680, supported by the King of Cambodia, an explorer and merchant called Mok Kul, or Mac Cuu, founded Ha Tien, a domain that included one village on Phu Quoc, and became its first king. Although brought to power by the King of Cambodia, he switched his allegiance in favor of Vietnam’s Nguyen Lords.
When Mok Kul, or Mac Cuu, passed away in 1736 his son, Mac Thien Tu, took power and weathered an early infraction from Cambodian forces to lead Ha Tien to what historians view as its golden age.
Such was Mac Thien Tu’s influence, that in 1758 he helped establish Outey II as a puppet king of Cambodia – the country his father had once sworn allegiance to – and Prince Chao Chui as the new sovereign of Siam, which he failed in, in dramatic fashion, fleeing to Can Tho until the Siamese troops withdrew in 1773, allowing him to retake Ha Tien.