We imagine tropical islands to have most of the following boxes checked to create the sauce for a great getaway. Blue seas, swaying coconut trees, markets full of fresh seafood and vegetables, welcoming locals, good food and great options to spend a day or a week tuning off from the world we know. In South East Asia, the names roll off the tongue easily – Bali, Phuket, Koh Samui, Langkawi. Destinations that have built their names over decades of weary travelers checking most of those boxes as they seek their own piece of paradise. To that list I add Phu Quoc. Some of you with bases in this part of the world may regard it as old hat, but it is relatively new territory for most. Checks all the boxes and adds the unique Vietnamese touches of robust coffee, herbs and a judicious use of fish sauce.
The island even has a fish sauce factory, and is very proud of it as it is of the pepper that is widely grown on the island. But much as it magically elevates flavors in many a preparation, a fish sauce factory comes with a smell that makes it’s presence felt well before it can be seen. A tip for anyone making a trip is to choose their hotels/guesthouses well away from the olfactory circle of influence exerted by this institution. We chose the Chen Sea Resort. A wonderful, calming place right by the sea. Plenty to do if you wanted to, and equally full of options to do nothing. Nam and I chose mostly the latter, but did rouse ourselves in to action for the one thing we absolutely love – shopping for food and cooking it. The resort had an excellent option that lasts half a day and combines both.
A trip to a Vietnamese wet market throws up an array of fresh fish, squid, octopus, frogs, lots of freshly slaughtered pig (displayed heads mandatory), fruits, dried seafood, spices and two-wheeler accessories. Peppered with stalls that will serve you freshly prepared spring rolls, pho, coffee and grilled skewered meats as you rest between ticking off items on your shopping list.
It was into one of these markets that Nam and I dived in, led by Chef Hung from Chen Sea Resort. He ably guided us through the sights, sounds and the very real flow of humanity picking out fresh scallops, pointing out the local favorite – the blacking fish, and helping us with English names of fish that we commonly sight in the markets of Ho Chi Minh, but struggle to identify.
Back to base at the hotel and we served ourselves a real treat. Under his enthusiastic guidance, with a view of the beautiful blue sea from an open pavilion, we leant to cook grilled pork on skewers, fresh scallops with peanuts and spring onions, blacking fish in a caramelized fish sauce and king prawns with eggplant and okra in a curry sauce. All absolutely divine in a five hour culinary journey, from market to satisfied sigh.
So get to Phu Quoc. It certainly has the sauce.