Secret Islands of Southeast Asia
Odysseus had his quest, Naomi Lindt had hers: to scout and explore the next great islands of Southeast Asia, from an untouched Cambodian hideaway to a foodie's paradise off the coast of Vietnam.
Phu Quoc, Vietnam
The foodie's paradise
Vietnam is, in the best possible way, a country of food snobs. There's a non-negotiable way to prepare and consume every dish, from noodle soups to spring rolls; each has to have just the right balance of sweet, hot, sour, and salty elements. So I found myself being schooled on how best to eat the prawns at Bien Hai Quan restaurant on Phu Quoc, a 350-square-mile island about 31 miles off the west coast of Vietnam (Ganh Dau, 011-84/77-384-5423, entrées from $3). My guide, Thang, was eating the shrimp whole, crunching on the shells and legs. "They lose the salty taste if you peel them," he told me, between loud smacks. After eating the first one my way and leaving most of the tamarind coating behind, I followed Thang's lead. The taste was incredible—an electric blend of flavors—and the shell was much softer than I'd expected.
Food advice is not to be ignored here. After all, Phu Quoc produces some of the country's best peppercorns (the main ingredient for a dipping sauce I couldn't get enough of), along with Vietnam's finest fish sauce—the equivalent of saying "Italy's top olive oil." On an all-day tour with Tony Travel, one of the longest-running operators on the island, I visited Buddhist temples and the 120-square-mile Phu Quoc National Park, and added stops at mom-and-pop pepper plantations and fish-sauce factories, where I surveyed gigantic vats of fermenting anchovies (100 Tran Hung Dao St., Duong Dong, 011-84/91-319-7334, tours from $15). The island's hotels cater to culinary tourists, too: At Cassia Cottage, where the 18 cheery rooms are decorated with lotus-printed bedspreads and white curtains, the owners get the ingredients for dishes like cinnamon-sprinkled okra from their own gardens and their vanilla and pepper plantations a few miles away (cassiacottage.com, doubles from $65).
Con Dao Islands, Vietnam
The second act
Talk about a reinvention. Known for decades only as the site of the country's most notorious prison, the 16 Con Dao Islands, clustered off the east coast of Vietnam, are angling to become the next Galápagos Islands. The 49,000-acre Con Dao National Park harbors a wealth of biodiversity. And of the more than 1,000 plant varieties, 1,300 marine species, and 160 different types of animals that flourish here, some, like the black squirrel, are unique to Con Dao.
I made my first stop at the park's headquarters in Con Son, one of the only places on the island where English is spoken. The park's staff set me up with a daylong guided trek through the jungle, which included a stop at a fruit plantation established by the French (where I fed bananas to monkeys), lunch with park rangers in the middle of the forest (after which we all curled up in hammocks for a quick nap), and a visit to a secluded beach. The following morning, I took a boat trip to the surrounding islands, including Bay Canh islet, which I'd heard has some of the best diving and snorkeling in Vietnam. Dolphins, sea turtles, and manatee-like dugongs make frequent appearances among the abundant coral reefs.
In the evenings, before turning in at the newly renovated Saigon Con Dao Resort on Con Son's main promenade (saigoncondao.com, doubles from $38, includes breakfast), I checked out the noodle stalls of Con Son Market and the Thu Ba Restaurant across the street. There, I did one last bit of animal-spotting, choosing my dinner-to-be from a prominently displayed tank: two live crabs, cooked to order (011-84/64-383-0255, entrées from $3).