Like Vietnam itself, Phu Quoc Island has a varied history with numerous nations occupying the island over the past couple of centuries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, France and America.
Phu Quoc Island forms part of Vietnam, and even though the island was an area of dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia as recently as the late 1980’s, Vietnam today is nurturing the island as the next big eco tourist destination.
Phu Quoc was first part of the Funan empire, then Chenia and eventually Khmer, which is probably why it was first the homeland of the Khmer people, who also occupied the Mekong Delta, before anybody else.
At that time, the now referred to as Peal Island or Phu Quoc was known as Koh Tral, which changed into Phu Quoc with the arrival of the Vietnamese in 1600; however, it took them 20 more years before they were allowed to settle. Nevertheless, even after a century, Phu Quoc was still a desolated region where Khmer, Chinese, and Vietnamese lived together.
The Tay Son Rebellion (1600s-early 1800s)
The House of Nguyen was the last imperial family in Vietnam and a family clan with substantial military power and political influence, as well as the lordship of the southern part of central Vietnam, in the 17th century. It was believed to have been one of the most affluent clans of Vietnam for a really long time while there are mentions about King Gia Long, the founder of the Dynasty, spending his days after big battles in Phu Quo, indulging in spa-like treatments; a luxury only a handful had back then.
But, the Nguyens seem to have always been at war with the Trinh family, leading the country to several civil wars. Unable to unite the country under one ruler, the 17th century war ended in an uneasy peace that lasted 100 years until a rebellion sparked by the Tay Son heated things up again in 1774.
After losing considerable manpower during a series of campaigns in Cambodia, the Nguyen clan could not maintain control, especially after the Trinh lords shook hands with the Tay Son rebels in 1775, and were eventually overthrown.
The Nguyen lord, 13-year-old Nguyen Anh, fled south and managed to escape Tay Son’s capture with the help of a Vietnamese Catholic priest and a French missionary, ending in the Tho Chu Islands in the Thailand Gulf. Between 1782 and 1786, Phu Quoc was the retreat Anh would turn to as the fights between the Nguyen and the Tay Son about Vietnam continued, until the early 1800s, when Anh finally defeated the Tay Son clan.
The France-Cambodia Treaty
In 1853, Cambodia’s king made a move to build relationships with France as a means to protect his kingdom against the Vietnamese and Siamese. So, he sent a letter to Napoleon III, which was never answered. The King made a second attempt to lure the French emperor by offering him Phu Quoc but was once more ignored. A third communication was initiated some years later when the King informed the French emperor of Cambodia’s claims on Phu Quoc and the lower Cochinchina region, asking the French not to annex any areas of these territories as, he claimed, had remained Cambodian despite the long Vietnamese occupation. A treaty between the two countries came a decade later, in 1863, when France annexed the region consisting of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, and Phu Quoc, and turned it into a French protectorate that was also referred to as Cochinchina.
Phu Quoc as a French Protectorate
The Vietnamese authorities in Phu Quoc pledged loyalty and commitment to the French troops that had annihilated Ha Tien already, in 1867. Two years later, they (the French) occupied the island and set up coconut and rubber plantations throughout Phu Quoc. At the same time, they requested for Chinese pepper farmers from the Hainan province to be brought here.
The French Protectorate placed Phu Quoc under the administration of France (through the administration of the Cochinchina Governor) in 1874, and under the inspection of the France-colonised Ha Tien district in 1875.
Some years later, Cambodia, with help from the French, regained the northern provinces of Siam and was awarded the Vietnamese claim on Phu Quoc and the Mekong Delta.
Phu Quoc remained under Cochinchina administration, though, when General and Governor of French Indochina placed the islands north of the Gulf of Thailand under the Cambodian protectorate, leaving the southern ones to be managed by the Cochinchina. However, this distinction was not addressing sovereignty rather than administrative and police tasks. Finally, Phu Quoc and the remaining areas of the Cochinchina territory were attached to Vietnam in 1949 with a French ruling, which also included some rights of the Khmer people that were living on the island and any Vietnamese territory.
The Coconut Prison
The island of Phu Quoc houses one of the largest prisoner camps during the Vietnam War built by the French colonialists to incarcerate Vietnamese people. Known as Coconut Tree Prison, it was rebuilt in 1967 into a prison for communist soldiers. In several periods, it held nearly 40,000 prisoners, both communist soldier and political prisoners alike.
With a guard-prisoner ratio of 1-2, Coconut prison was one of the strictest ones with profound guard force that remained in history as the place were extremely brutal crimes took place. Phu Quoc war prisoners suffered tortures and punishments that are hard to imagine could ever be generated from a human mind while thousands died in jail due to exhaustion, food deprivation, and after undergoing barbaric torments day after day, month after month. In the end, though, some of them managed to endure the suffering and not only divide the enemy ranks but also find ways to escape by digging tunnels and more.
In the meantime, Phu Quoc also suffered incursions and counter-incursions when the Khmer Krom (Phu Quoc included) was the object of desire for both the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) and Vietnam. In the 1970s, the first seized power in Cambodia and went on a mission to reclaim Phu Quoc and the Mekong Delta; one of these raids ended in the massacre of 500 Vietnamese civilians. All this fighting escalated the Cambodia-Vietnamese War.
In 1993, Phu Quoc prison was declared a historical monument and now serves as a war museum, occupying the main area of the former jail, and displaying original artifacts and other exhibits, including life-sized wax mannequins reproducing some of the agonizing moments and suffering prisoners lived back then.
Every year, Coconut Prison welcomes former prisoners, locals from all over the country, and tourists alike to its premises, showing them a piece of Vietnam’s history that will never be forgotten. Even today, Cambodia still claims Phu Quoc, Ho Chi Minh City, and the Mekong Delta.
Phu Quoc Today
After leaving behind the wars and killings of the past, Phu Quoc has started to unveil its real beauty, unrolling its true potential as a tourist destination. With much natural beauty distinguished by lush jungles, pristine beaches, and imposing mountains, Phu Quoc is beginning to enter the game of hospitality, with some areas hosting luxury resorts.
Tourism is becoming a source of income for an increasing number of residents, and Phu Quoc has its topographically varied, green land to thank for. Heart-stopping forested mountains, lowland, tropic evergreen forests, and flourishing river plains give way to sugary beaches and secluded coves, enticing all those that come or live here with the changing landscape. Even the underwater world allures with the great quality coral reefs in the northern and southern part of the island. Without losing its originality and authenticity, Phu Quoc is gradually moving towards modernisation and development.
Considering that for a significant part of its history Phu Quoc was primarily dominated by the military due to the political imbalance and sensitivity concerning the rights of the island, it feels that Phu Quoc is now reclaiming what it lost and what it was deprived of all these years. Until all the development planned takes place and transforms the area, we will have lots of overwhelming charm and appeal in forests turned into national parks, rainforest areas being well-protected under national conservation laws, tens of fish sauce-producing factories, a large number of top quality pepper farms, and so many more.
Interesting Facts About today’s Phu Quoc:
The island grows coconut, durian, jack-fruit, banana, rambutan, and mango.
It has a high-quality black pepper that it exports to the corners of the world (more than 400 tons every year).
The total area of pepper cultivation reaches 500 hectares, with each hectare having between 2,500-3,000 strings, which produce about 3,000kg of peppers per hectare.
It has about 100 fish sauce factories producing the best fish sauce repeatedly thanks to its rich anchovy catches from which the sauce is made (10 million litres of sauce annually).
Fish sauce was an idea of fishermen some hundreds of years ago, when there were no fridges or ice to preserve the fish they could not consume. Mixing fish with salt (to prolong fish life) turned into a sauce with a strong flavour after a period of time (around a year) from the fermented fish.
Phu Quoc’s popularity as a tourist destination for luxury travellers and adventure seekers is growing by the day, which is why one can find a broad spectrum of accommodation, from high-end hotels to hostels.
In a Nutshell
What appears to describe Phu Quoc’s history is a struggle to stand on its feet and stay alive from more aspects than one. Lacking the fertile soils of the Mekong Delta and experiencing relatively dry weather, you won’t find rice raddles on the island. Plus, given that Phu Quoc has served as a place of exile and refuge for a wide range of people, from revolutionaries and rebels to warlords for many centuries, it is no wonder that it has remained relatively underdeveloped.
That aside, Pearl Island sits right on top of the border that separates Chinese and Indian-influenced Asia; one of the country’s cultural fault lines. This means that Phu Quoc has clashing work ethics, cuisines, religions, and cultures that are battling to prevail over its people, who, for hundreds of years, were Vietnamese.