The new Vietglam
Sharon Fowler visits three resorts that have redefined the notion of Indochina chic
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.
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