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A foodie’s journey through Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island

A foodie’s journey through Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island

Monday, October 17, 2022, 09:27 GMT+7
A foodie’s journey through Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island
A staff member pours hot water into bowls of ‘bún quậy’ at Kien Xay restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

I first visited Phu Quoc in 2013 and vividly remember the pristine Ong Lang beach, watching locals gathering sea urchins from the ocean, driving on under-construction concrete roads through the jungle, and eating a delicious plate of gỏi cá trích (sardinella salad) made by my best friend’s mother-in-law.

I did not realize it would be nearly a decade until I would visit the island again. Since COVID-19 is put under control in Vietnam and my job allows me to work remotely a few days a week, looking for some short holiday or workation has always been an idea.

As my husband often travels back and forth between Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc for his job, I had got inspired to consider the island for an easy getaway.

Given Phu Quoc’s status as one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations, I did not expect to have a particularly unique experience on the island, but my recent trip turned out to be fantastic, and a major reason for that was the amazing food.

A 40-minute flight

I booked a deluxe ticket to Phu Quoc, administered by Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam, from a local budget carrier for just VND800,000 (US$33) and packed everything I needed for the trip within an hour at night. 

When I arrived at the airport, my 9:20 am flight was on time, but I was late. I ended up paying an extra VND400,000 ($17) to change my ticket to a later flight.

The flight was smooth and we were only in the air for about 30 minutes before the pilot declared that we were descending into Phu Quoc. 

The quick flight was an odd juxtaposition with the hour-long commute I had taken that morning to get to the airport from my home in District 12.

After I arrived, my husband – who had arrived on the island a few days earlier – picked me up at the airport and took me to a small resort on Tran Hung Dao Street.

It was not fancy, but the location was great and it cost just VND500,000 (US$21) per night for a room with a pool and garden view. 

I spent the next few days eating my way through the island.

Tourists’ favorite places

My first meal on Phu Quoc was lẩu mắm at a small restaurant called Nha Xua 68 on Ly Thuong Kiet Street.

Lẩu mắm is a traditional hotpot which is common throughout the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. It consists of a broth made from fermented fish and is served with a variety of pork, seafood, and vegetables.

A set of ‘lẩu mắm’ for two served at Nha Xua 68 restaurant in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

A set of ‘lẩu mắm’ for two served at Nha Xua 68 restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

A portion of lẩu mắm for two at Nha Xua 68 costs just around VND200,000 (US$8.3) and the unique taste and vintage vibes at the restaurant made me want to come back, and I did.

For my next visit to the place two days later, I had canh chua (sweet and sour soup), thịt luộc mắm tép (boiled pork served with sour fermented shrimp), and khổ qua xào trứng (bitter melon stir-fried with eggs).

The restaurant is decorated in vintage vibes. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

The restaurant is decorated in vintage style. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Another dish I tried during my stay on the island was bún quậy. It is one of the most famous dishes on Phu Quoc, and definitely a must-try for any tourist to the island.

A bowl of ‘bún quậy’ served at Kien Xay restaurant in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

A bowl of ‘bún quậy’ served at Kien Xay restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

The most famous bún quậy on Phu Quoc is sold by Kien Xay, a restaurant chain that claims to have invented the dish. 

Kien Xay has two locations on Phu Quoc, one in Kien Giang's Rach Gia City, and another in Ho Chi Minh City.

Bún quậy is a relatively simple dish that packs a lot of punch thanks to its stunning combination of noodles (bún) topped with fish cakes, ground shrimp, seafood, beef, and scallions.

In Vietnamese, quậy means 'to stir,' and that is exactly how this dish is cooked – by stirring fish cakes and ground shrimp in a bowl of hot water until everything is cooked through and goes well with freshly-made noodles.

Staff members are shown serving 'bún quậy' at Kien Xay restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Video: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

At Kien Xay, diners must also quậy their dipping sauce at a sauce counter by adding kumquat juice and their desired spices to a small bowl and mixing the two together.

Diners are making dipping sauce for their ‘bún quậy’ at Kien Xay restaurant in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

Diners make dipping sauce for their ‘bún quậy’ at Kien Xay restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

A bowl of bún quậy đặc biệt with full options of toppings sells for VND85,000 ($3.5) at Kien Xay.

Local treats

Because I was able to work from home, much of my days on Phu Quoc was spent on my laptop at a local coffee shop enjoying cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk), free Wi-Fi, and iced tea.

‘Cà phê sữa đá’ is served with free iced tea and Wifi at a local coffee shop in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

‘Cà phê sữa đá’ is served with free iced tea and Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

My work day, however, was broken up with a mini-foodie adventure to a local cơm bình dân stall called Cơm Nuna on Nguyen An Ninh Street where the owner serves up rice with typical dishes found in every daily Vietnamese home meal.

A lunch for two including rice, boiled vegetables, stewed fish, and sweet and sour soup at Cơm Nuna costs about VND200,000 ($8.3).

Vietnamese dishes are displayed on the food counter at Cơm Nuna shop in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Vietnamese dishes are displayed on the food counter at Cơm Nuna shop on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

When I was on Phu Quoc nine years ago, I tried cháo chả and it was so unforgettable that I had to try it again.

Cháo chả consists of porridge topped with fish cakes. It is still relatively unpopular compared to other meals on the island, so finding a stall that sells this delicious dish can be difficult.

We asked a local friend about cháo chả and he recommended a stall on 30/4 Street – one of the few places to try the dish on Phu Quoc.

A bowl of cháo chả includes two parts: cháo (porridge) and chả (fish cake). Pork leg or rib, boiled blood pudding, and soft bagel twists are also added.

A bowl of ‘cháo chả’ (porridge topped with fish cake) served at a local stall in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

A bowl of ‘cháo chả’ (porridge topped with fish cakes) served at a local stall on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

The no-name stall next to Khai Tri Elementary and Middle School opens from 2:00 pm to 9:00 pm every day, as it has for the past 20 years.

A bowl of porridge fetches around VND35,000 ($1.5).

The stall has served ‘cháo chả’ for nearly 20 years. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

The stall has served ‘cháo chả’ for nearly 20 years. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News

Another stop on my Phu Quoc foodie journey was Cau Sau Market in An Thoi Ward in the southern part of Phu Quoc City. 

One day, I had some time to visit my friend’s house, and my husband and I stopped by the market to find something for our dinner. 

Everyone at the market was busy buying and selling freshly caught seafood. Apparently, no fresh fish would be coming the following day due to an incoming storm.

We picked up two big fish at the market, two kilograms of oysters, and two kilograms of squid for VND340,000 ($14). We then took the seafood to our friend’s house and began preparing a meal in his garden cottage.

The garden cottage is ready to host our dinner. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

The garden cottage is ready to host our dinner. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

First we washed the fish, oysters, and squid. We then prepared them alongside the herbs we picked right from the garden. 

As it started to rain, we had a cozy dinner with friends thanks to the hot squid soup we had prepared, the fragrant cheese being grilled with our oysters, and the refreshing taste of a local beer.

A homemade dinner for five with fresh seafood bought from Cau Sau Market in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

A homemade dinner for five with fresh seafood bought from Cau Sau Market on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Uphill delight

One night, to get some fresh air after a big dinner, my husband and I visited a hidden bar and bistro called Chuồn Chuồn on Sao Mai Hill where we enjoyed a spectacular view of Phu Quoc from above.

With our stomachs full, we only ordered some side dishes, dessert, and a bottle of water. 

The xôi chiên (crispy rice cakes) at Chuồn Chuồn were a unique take on the common Vietnamese street dish, served up as cute finger food with a crispy outside and soft inside. 

It had the pleasant smell of fried rice with the bold flavor of beef, green onion, honey, soy sauce, and salted shredded pork.

A dish of ‘xôi chiên’ served at Chuon Chuon Bistro and Bar in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

A dish of ‘xôi chiên’ served at Chuon Chuon Bistro and Bar on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Midnight cơm tấm

Phu Quoc is a sleepless city, with food available to fill your stomach well into the night.

At one point during our trip, my husband and I drove to the Phu Quoc night market at midnight only to find out that it was closed. Fortunately, many nearby shops still had their lights on. 

We eventually stopped at a cơm tấm (broken rice) stall called Cô Hoa on Nguyen Trung Truc Street. We did not have high expectations, but then were blown away by the pile of grilled pork on the counter ready to serve.

 “We are open 24/7,” a staff member explained.

Pork is being grilled at midnight at Cô Hoa ‘cơm tấm’ stall in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Pork is grilled at midnight at Cô Hoa ‘cơm tấm’ stall on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Grilled pork and other toppings are ready to serve at midnight at Cô Hoa ‘cơm tấm’ stall in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Grilled pork and other toppings are ready to serve at midnight at Cô Hoa ‘cơm tấm’ stall on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

We ordered two dishes of cơm tấm with different toppings, and they did not disappoint.

Two dishes of ‘cơm tấm’ at Cô Hoa stall in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

Two dishes of ‘cơm tấm’ at Cô Hoa stall on Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

My trip eventually ended, but I made a note to try more dishes on my next trip to Phu Quoc, namely gỏi cá trích, bánh khéobún kèn, and more.

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Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

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