Asia, Destinations, General Advice, Travel Resources, Vietnam

Phu Quoc: Island Paradise or Rubbish Island?

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.

Our first view of Long Beach.

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.

Note the two visible plastic bags in the water, these are the only ones visible in the photo, but there are about 50 more under the surface.

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.

What is the purpose of this?

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.

The highly polluted Duong Dong River.

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.

Just one of the many new resorts being built on Phu Quoc.

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.

6 thoughts on “Phu Quoc: Island Paradise or Rubbish Island?

  1. Wow, I had no idea. That’s so sad! Like you mentioned in the last point, a strong tourism industry is dependent on many things, including cleanliness. Their trash problem might be expensive to clean up, but it’s definitely costing them in lost tourism revenue.

    1. Ya the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad the current conditions are and how if it continues like this it will only get far worse. As for the impact on tourism, I personally feel that it is a large part of the issue with limited repeat tourism, however, others have cited the large amount of scams/rip offs that occur in Vietnam as their main reasons for not returning. Kane and I haven’t personally experienced bad scamming so I didn’t talk about it, but there still is the latent idea of Westerners owing Vietnam something. Generally, the Western price is at least two times the local price and even though it still is a low price for us, getting ripped off everyday does begin to wear on you. Anyway, thanks for reading!

  2. Really interesting to read of this! Been traveling Vietnam for a month North to South and now in Phu Quoc. The pollution throughout the country is super disturbing. Watching households burn rubbish daily and traveling past massive steel factories pumping out black smoke non stop has been super upsetting and a real education.
    We stayed on Emerald cove and the sand is beautifully white and the water is crystal clear, but this is because the hotels are constantly cleaning the waste the poor ocean is suffocating on. A 5 min walk up our beach however I came across a fairly big piece of sharp glass in the ocean, pulled it out and put it in a bin as this rubbish is not only disgusting and smelly, but always dangerous.
    Out of interest we went to Sao beach and what a beach. Just such natural beauty, sand banks, palms with just local cafes, no resorts YET! But my god the trash, super upsetting and the beach is screaming for help.
    The government really need to ban single use plastic for a start and educate people quickly before it’s too late. What I am really confused about is the fact that Vietnam has some of the most stunning natural beauty in Asia along with so many UNESCO sites, why are the the international bodies offering some help and support? This experience has been extremely educational and through the trip, my partner and I have discussed many times, would we return?
    Sadly I am not sure, as although I am on one of the most beautiful beaches I been too, not wanting to swim in the crystal clear waters for fears of what lies beneath which is super sad.

    1. Hi Leonucy, thanks for your comment and I’m sorry that you had a similar experience, I had hoped that maybe the tourism pause of COVID would have given Vietnam time to clean up it’s act (similar to how Maya Bay in Thailand was closed and restored from it’s overuse, that’s a great success story if you need a pick me up), but alas it does not sound like it has as friends of mine who’ve recently been to Vietnam said pretty much the same thing you did. You are definitely right that governmental regulation and international support is needed, alas this is slow going; though in good news COP 15 (the international biodiversity conference that was held in Canada this past December) had some good break throughs in international cooperation to protect our global environment, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a heartening start (,global%20warming%20to%201.5%20degrees.). As for the question of whether to return to countries that do not protect the environment, well, personally I’d like to continue to vote with my dollar and support those at least trying to improve (like Thailand).

  3. We are in Phu Quoc now (2024!) and wondering how bad is the water so a Google search led me to your article.
    We were in Regent and there seemed to be a lot of particles suspended in the water around, also a lot of shiny short fine fiber things in the water, which looks like fibreglass to me? Would you happen to know what that might be?
    We then moved to Movenpick which is further up north, and the water also has more of what looks like fish poop to me. Overall water has all been slightly yellow-greyish color with all kinds of small particles, not crystal clear at all. I also had a rash on day 1.
    So sad to see Phu Quoc with all of its natural blessings are unfortunately still a long way in managing the waste and water issues.

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