Peppers and pearls at a market by the sea

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The Dinh Cau night market opens every evening just as the sun begins to set over the ocean. The reflection off the water casts a blanket of gentle orange light over the stalls as vendors unlock and unpack.

The market is practically on the beach and you can hear the rustle of the waves lapping up on the shore as you shop.

My friend and I found the place so charming that we visited every night for dinner on a recent visit.

Phu Quoc is famous for having the best fish sauce and peppers in Vietnam. The island's local seafood and pearl products are also renowned.

But searching through rows and rows of famous Phu Quoc products, I was all too tempted by the fragrance of fresh grilled seafood and grilled corn with spring onion and oil.

However, we decided we'd get at least a little shopping done before we ate.

Shelves and shelves of brightly-colored pepper jars at a small store to the right of the market entrance caught my eye.

An elderly woman shopkeeper was happy to show me what she had.

"This is pepper mixed with fried garlic, pepper mixed with salt and with vinegar," she said.

For only US$5 I bought three different jars of peppers for my friends.

Though we were still in the mood to shop more, the scent of grilled fish and fried seafood won out.

On a path leading through the market to the beach, dozens of food stalls beckon eaters with fires ablaze in open kitchens. All kinds of fresh and grilled fish, shrimp, and exotic sea animals are on display; you just chose and point.

We chose a small food stall that was packed with customers.

For two people, we ordered grilled squid, fish grilled in banana leaf, morning glory stir fried with garlic and two small bowls of steamed rice.

The seafood dishes were delicious, but the morning glory was too oily. The atmosphere was both relaxing and very lively with literally hundreds of diners surrounding us in nearby open restaurants. The beach breeze kept the air fresh, cool and salty.

As Phu Quoc is an island, the food is even more expensive than on the main land. It costs around US$12 per person for a light dinner.

But we did not spend too much time eating. The next day we would be back in Saigon so after a one-hour dinner, we started shopping again. My friend said she really liked Phu Quoc pearls and wanted to find some more gifts for friends at home.

Depending on your bargaining skills, Phu Quoc pearls can be reasonably priced.

Most of the pearl shops offer similar designs, but good quality pearls can be found at most. My friend bought three pairs of earrings for friends (each set cost only US$2.5), and two necklaces for US$15 each.

"These pearls were raised on a pearl farm so the price is cheaper," said the shopkeeper as she burned the pearls with a lighter to show us they were real and not plastic. Wild pearls are more expensive but back in Ho Chi Minh City, boutiques sell the same pearl products for three times the price.

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