The new Vi­et­glam

Sharon Fowler vis­its three re­sorts that have re­de­fined the no­tion of In­dochina chic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE rhythm of Ho Chi Minh City is per­va­sive. Mo­tor­cy­cles, cars, vans, trucks and bi­cy­cles buzz in an in­ces­sant swarm, horns sound­ing as they criss­cross, zigzag, dart in front of and be­hind each other like a loom come to manic life. It’s a city where the horn never sleeps. Af­ter a few hec­tic days of shop­ping, restau­rants and sight­see­ing, respite is called for.

For trav­ellers to old Saigon, the French hill sta­tion of Dalat was the orig­i­nal es­cape, sit­u­ated on a plateau sur­rounded by rolling hills in the cen­tral high­lands. Dis­cov­ered by Western­ers in the late 19th cen­tury, its pop­u­lar­ity as a travel des­ti­na­tion took off with the com­ple­tion of the Dalat Palace Ho­tel (then called the Lang­bian) in 1922.

To­day the Dalat Palace, now a Sof­i­tel, is still the epi­cen­tre of what was known as Le Petit Paris. Be­yond the ho­tel’s white colo­nial fa­cade and dark wooden re­cep­tion area, a grand stair­case frames the foyer’s leather lounges and carved fire­place. The whis­per-quiet staff mem­bers are ever-at­ten­tive, from the mo­ment we check in and are es­corted to our suite.

Paint­ings abound in the ho­tel, homages to more than 500 Euro­pean master­works by Viet­namese copy­cat artists. In our suite, (a faux) Berthe Morisot and sev­eral other French im­pres­sion­ists are in res­i­dence. There is mono­grammed bed­ding and a silk-cur­tained bed­head atop Sof­i­tel’s be­yond-bliss­ful MyBed.

We open the win­dows and push back the shut­ters to re­veal the land­scaped gar­dens be­low, Xuan Huong Lake, a golf course and the grassy hills that sur­round bustling Dalat. There’s no doubt the ho­tel is some­thing of a fan­tasy, but it’s fun to savour the Parisian em­bel­lish­ments and en­vis­age what it would have been like here in the 1920s af­ter the manda­tory three-week trek from Saigon by road.

Sof­i­tel Dalat Palace’s un­der­ground tav­ern, Larry’s Bar, fea­tures roughly hewn stone walls, dim lights and an as­sort­ment of lounges, arm­chairs and small ta­bles. Peanuts and a game of pool are dis­cre­tionary but a fine way to start the evening. The ho­tel’s restau­rant, Le Ra­belais, is a beau­ti­ful sanc­tu­ary of fine crys­tal and china, chan­de­liers, an enor­mous open fire­place, grand pi­ano, bro­cade-cov­ered chairs and heavy silk cur­tains.

It’s easy to lose one­self in the il­lu­sion of vin­tage Paris, with Dalat’s dis­tant traf­fic trans­formed into the twin­kling lights of the Seine. We sip on French rose wine and nib­ble fresh lo­cal veg­eta­bles in shot glasses with a range of spices and pep­pers. Dalat is known for its fine fruit, veg­eta­bles and flow­ers; 80 per cent of the ho­tel’s pro­duce is sourced in the vicin­ity.

Dalat’s cen­tral mar­ket is less than a 10-minute walk from the ho­tel; it’s a dou­ble-storey con­crete struc­ture where buck­ets and buck­ets of lo­cally grown blooms are sold. Visit in De­cem­ber and you may come across the an­nual flower fes­ti­val.

The town is now less a tran­quil back­wa­ter than a mixed bag of French, West­ern and Viet­namese in­flu­ences, but it’s still sur­rounded by nat­u­ral scenery and there are plenty of tour op­tions. We visit Bao Dai’s Sum­mer Palace, a 1930s villa from which the last em­peror of Viet­nam ruled for sev­eral years, and later we are dropped at Robin Hill, where a 2.5km cable car ride pro­vides over­ar­ch­ing views of the area, be­fore reach­ing a pagoda and lake.

Our driver sug­gests a visit to Datanla wa­ter­fall; from the drop-off point it’s a 15-minute walk through bush to the base of the cas­cad­ing falls. Last stop is the Eth­nic Mu­seum of Lam Dong prov­ince, an unin­spir­ing build­ing that houses a small but in­ter­est­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of jew­ellery, arte­facts, weav­ings and cos­tumes.

From heal­ing climes to to­day’s health spas, Life Re­sort’s Quy Nhon hideaway, north­east of Dalat, is one of four prop­er­ties the com­pany op­er­ates in Viet­nam with three more due by the end of 2009. It has been rain­ing as we drive from Quy Nhon air­port and low hazy clouds graze the tips of ad­ja­cent hills.

The re­sort is hemmed in by dense fo­liage and a lovely stretch of beach; the lemon­grass and ginger tea of­fered on ar­rival is a per­fect restora­tive from the hu­mid­ity. Life Re­sort’s cav­ernous re­cep­tion fea­tures leather lounges and arm­chairs be­neath tra­di­tional wo­ven and beamed ceil­ings. Trays of oils — re­lax­ing, re­fresh­ing, de­tox­i­fy­ing — re­in­force the health mes­sage.

There are con­certina glass-pan­elled doors through­out the com­plex that trans­form ev­ery room into an open-air space, with ocean breezes and views of the blue hori­zon. At ev­ery turn dur­ing our stay we are aware of the sound of break­ing waves.

Hands-on re­lax­ation: A thatched spa treat­ment bun­ga­low perched on a hill­side above the beach at Life Re­sort’s Quy Nhon

Our spa­cious neu­tral-toned bed­room has con­tem­po­rary decor and Asian touches such as fil­i­greed wooden room di­viders, ce­ramic side ta­bles and Cham sculp­ture. All rooms have ocean views, so the high­light here is the fresh-air op­tion: glass-pan­elled doors open from the room on to a huge bal­cony fac­ing the wa­ter and off­shore is­lands. There’s also a lovely glass-pan­elled shower over­look­ing the beach. (Shower cur­tains are pro­vided.)

First stop is a walk along the wide palm-fringed beach, which is pep­pered with un­usual rock for­ma­tions. The stretch of sand curves around the front of the re­sort, with hideaway spots at the far end, per­fect for a pic­nic. Back in the cen­tral area, the beach lounges have over­sized thatched um­brel­las fring­ing the view. The open-air Cham Bar, which sits along­side the cir­cu­lar hori­zon-edge pool, is an ideal set­ting for a pre-din­ner frozen pineap­ple mar­garita.

The other drink­ing spot, Senses Bar, is adorned with low-dimmed orange lanterns, a pool ta­ble and a small li­brary.

By din­ner, the re­lax­ing sur­round­ings are be­gin­ning to take ef­fect. There’s a good range of veg­e­tar­ian op­tions plus spe­cial­ties such as en­trees of pork mousse with lemon­grass or wrap-your-own ri­cepa­per rolls and mains of sea bass wrapped in ba­nana leaves or lime and chilli squid.

A hill­side bun­ga­low houses the re­sort’s spa where a wide se­lec­tion of treat­ments is avail­able, in­clud­ing fa­cials, body wraps and flower baths. Viet­namese, Thai, hot stone, aro­mather­apy and Swedish mas­sage op­tions can be booked as two, four or six-hand treat­ments.

The four-hand Viet­namese mas­sage, I dis­cover, is an ex­er­cise in ut­ter sym­me­try, with two prac­ti­tion­ers si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing ei­ther side of the body, from toe tips to tem­ples. There are open-air mas­sage huts here or bun­ga­low rooms; lovely views, soft mu­sic and dis­tant waves lull guests to bliss­ful re­lax­ation.

From the spa to the free ro­tat­ing daily classes in yoga, tai chi, med­i­ta­tion and Viet­namese lan­guage, the Life Re­sort is a des­ti­na­tion in it­self.

Next we fly north to the award-win­ning Nam Hai, just out­side the charm­ing river­side town of Hoi An over 35ha on the long strand best known as China Beach. With 60 one-bed­room vil­las and 40 one to fivebed­room pool vil­las, the Nam Hai is the epit­ome of con­tem­po­rary re­sort de­sign.

One of the first things we see af­ter check-in is the open cen­tral area step­ping down to­wards the beach, which fea­tures three enor­mous swim­ming pools and the Beach Restau­rant, a lovely breezy lunch spot.

Our one-bed­room bun­ga­low has long views of the South China Sea. There’s a cen­tral raised plat­form with a bed, large sunken mar­ble bath, day lounge and desk. In front of the plat­form is a wide, com­fort­able, cream lounge and, through the front glass doors, private chaise-longues and, be­yond, the fine sands of China Beach. At the other end of this spa­cious bun­ga­low is a leafy gar­den fit­ted with Cham stone sculp­ture and an ad­di­tional out­side shower.

A cof­fee ma­chine, iPods and flat-screen television are in­cluded and at night staff light can­dles and close the soft white cur­tains around the cen­tral plat­form, trans­form­ing this multi-lay­ered box into a cosy room within a room.

In the up­stairs bar and main restau­rant, there’s com­fort­able furniture, wa­ter fea­tures and dimmed light­ing. At the bar we snack on peanuts and lis­ten to live mu­sic be­fore head­ing down to sam­ple Aus­tralian chef Kath Townsend’s menu of Viet­namese and in­ter­na­tional treats. From the fresh Viet­namese spring rolls and tumeric chicken curry with lo­tus seeds to braised scal­lops with ginger, toma­toes and se­same seeds, the food is fresh and de­li­cious.

The Nam Hai em­ploys more than 500 staff mem­bers, all of whom are su­per at­ten­tive. When I in­ad­ver­tently rub my arm and mur­mur to my hus­band that it’s a lit­tle chilly, the waiter, ob­vi­ously pos­sessed of su­per­sonic hear­ing, re­turns in­stantly to my side with a wrap for my shoul­ders.

It’s not a com­plete Nam Hai ex­pe­ri­ence if you don’t visit the spa, fea­tur­ing eight vil­las built around an ar­ti­fi­cial la­goon. Each of th­ese vil­las com­prises two rooms; the sec­ond of each pair is open air and built on an over­wa­ter plat­form con­nected by a small bridge.

Ex­pect bath rit­u­als in flower-filled tubs and the sig­na­ture Nam Hai mas­sage, a fu­sion of shi­atsu, Thai, Swedish, Ba­li­nese and Hawai­ian lomi-lomi. Two at­ten­dants work si­mul­ta­ne­ously and the re­sult is pure re­ju­ve­na­tion.

Be­yond the spa, the re­sort also of­fers a li­brary stocked with lifestyle, de­sign and travel tomes, a bou­tique, gym and ten­nis, bad­minton and bas­ket­ball courts. For golf en­thu­si­asts, the first nine holes of a re­sort course is set to open in Septem­ber. It’s pos­si­ble to hire driv­ers to ven­ture out or there’s a free shut­tle bus to UNESCOre­stored Hoi An, with its ochre-tinted French and Viet­namese build­ings. Down its many laneways there are tem­ples, open-fronted restau­rants, shoe­mak­ers, shops sell­ing lac­quer­ware and teapots, and ab­so­lutely hun­dreds of tai­lors.

One morn­ing I cy­cle to the mar­kets at 8am with Mrs Tron, hav­ing signed up for her cook­ing class. De­spite be­ing a shaky cy­clist at best, there’s only one slight al­ter­ca­tion when I swerve to avoid a mo­tor­bike at my el­bow and plough straight into a parked scooter (with rider). Af­ter a hasty apol­ogy and exit, I’ve caught up with Mrs Tron and soon we’re se­lect­ing fresh fish, meat and veg­eta­bles from rows of chat­ter­ing stall­hold­ers.

Back at her Rice Paddy restau­rant on Cua Dai Street, we pre­pare mar­i­nated fish, pa­paya salad and Hoi An spring rolls.

The Nam Hai is a serene ad­di­tion to Viet­nam’s hos­pi­tal­ity scene, from the in­no­va­tive de­sign, spa and food to the small, thought­ful touches. There are bowls of white rose­buds at ev­ery turn and not a traf­fic horn to be heard.

Check­list

Viet­nam Air­lines of­fers twice-daily flights be­tween Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat and daily ser­vices to Hanoi. There are reg­u­lar flights be­tween Ho Chi Minh City and Quy Nhon; Hoi An is ac­cessed via Danang air­port, a 30-minute drive from town. More: www.viet­na­mair­lines.com.vn. The Nam Hai is a mem­ber of GHM Re­sorts. More: 1800 667 731. www.sof­i­tel.com www.life-re­sorts.com www.ghmho­tels.com

Com­fort zone: Viet­nam’s Nam Hai re­sort, over­look­ing the beach near Hoi An; the lux­u­ri­ous award-win­ning re­sort has 100 stylish guest vil­las and a spa built around an ar­ti­fi­cial la­goon

French fan­tasy: Sof­i­tel Dalat Palace

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