Oh Phu Quoc, you could have been so many things. Your beaches are beautifully made, with long stretches of beach fringed by jungle greenery. Your island is mostly a national park, with the potential to be a quiet, serene escape from the rush and noise of the cities. Your weather is perfect for a beach vacation, with cool enough mornings and evenings to run or walk along the beach, yet with a midday sun that still inspires a refreshing dip into your ocean. However, this picture of island perfection is a facade, a pretty photo for a billboard show casing one of your many resort development projects. Once you look beyond the billboard, behind the strategically taken beach photos, you will see what Phu Quoc Island Guide will not tell you; Phu Quoc is covered in trash.
Rubbish piles line the streets, trash chokes the Duong Dong river that feeds directly into the tourist swimming beaches, plastic bags float thick in the water like a strange post-industrialization jellyfish bloom, and no one seems to care. When we arrived in Phu Quoc we had such high hopes, we were excited for a relaxing time at the beach after the crowds of Saigon, but our hopes were crushed when we saw the beach. It takes a little while to actually find the beach due to the mass construction that leaves only a few public access points to the beach, but when we did finally spot Long Beach we couldn’t look past the rubbish. Coming from California and Australia, both Kane and I have rather high standards for beach cleanliness, but even measured against other beaches in the developing world the beaches of Phu Quoc left much to be desired. They were simply the dirtiest beaches I have ever seen. The section of Long Beach we walked to was the worst due to the storm drains that dotted the beach every 50 m or so, but even when we walked further down, to the south section that was farther away from the town, we weren’t impressed.
In the end we never did swim in the ocean around Phu Quoc, because it just wasn’t worth the risk. With the level of rubbish that was constantly washing into the ocean from the streets and the fact that most of the new hotels haven’t bothered with septic systems, they just grind up their patrons waste and pump it out to sea, we didn’t feel like a quick dip was worth possibly contracting E. coli. An older couple we made friends with on the island did swim and they told us that just earlier they had been swimming 250 m from shore when they found themselves smack dab in the middle of ground up human waste. This was on the north end of the island and they have since moved their daily swims to the south end.
Needless to say we were disappointed by the pure disregard for the environment that we saw in Phu Quoc. I was impressed by the cleanliness of Saigon, but after some research we found out that this is because the big cities of Vietnam actually invest in garbage collection and the streets end up quite clean for it. However, the cost is not small, $134,490 USD a day is spent on waste management in Saigon, and it only exists in the big cities. This idea of garbage collection does not exist on the island and the only collection we saw was people collecting plastic bottles for the money. The most common way to deal with garbage on Phu Quoc is to ignore it or burn it, there simply isn’t an awareness of the problem. Walking down the main streets I saw empty garbage bins sitting next to giant trash piles, irony at its finest, and locals simply dropping whatever they didn’t need anymore, be it disposable dishes or plastic bags.
After further research, Kane and I found out that Vietnam’s trash problem is a well documented thing, with the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay being horribly polluted according to articles we read, but that some Vietnamese are trying to tackle it. The city governments of Hoi An and Da Nang are apparently working to clean up their land by implementing garbage collection services and so far it is making a difference. However, nothing will change in Vietnam until the federal government recognizes the trash problem as their problem. There needs to be a national trash collection system, recycling plants, and education programs to change the cultural outlook on the responsibility (or lack thereof) to protect the environment. I know that no country has done this perfectly and there is still a huge lack of commitment to environmental protection in the first world (Drumpf I’m looking at you), but at least we have figured out garbage collection. It’s a sad fact that the beaches of Phu Quoc are not safe to swim in, that its waters are so polluted and over fished that there is no large marine life left to see, and that most places that could have been beautiful are choked in trash.
Vietnam is working hard to make Phu Quoc the go to tourist destination in Vietnam. They are making travel to the island exempt from the expensive visa requirement, they are building luxury resort after luxury resort, and they are extensively marketing. However, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, over 90% of visitors to Vietnam are first time visitors and only 6% return. Compared to Thailand’s over 50% return tourism rate, you can see that Vietnam just isn’t getting people to come back, in part due to the fact that trash filled beaches just can’t compare to most Thai beaches. If the government was serious about increasing their repeat tourism they would put the money into cleaning up the country, but this just doesn’t seem to be happening. Part of me is very worried for how bad Phu Quoc will get in the coming years when all these high rise resorts are finished and they continue pumping all of their waste into the ocean. Either Vietnam will wake up to the problem and it will change its ways or it will become enough of a worldwide issue that neighboring countries get involved, after all, the oceans are all of ours and that pollution doesn’t stay put. As for now I will not be back to Phu Quoc, there are so many better, cleaner beaches in this world that there is no reason to spend my tourist dollars at those that dump my waste into the sea.