HAPPY, MORE OR LESS
Nam Hai Resort is all about the good things in life, but Vietnam’s traditions aren’t forgotten
They say the water buffalo is the BMW of Vietnam, due to the greatly valued ploughing power it provides, but I’d say mine is more akin to a bumpy Land Rover as I ride him through a rice paddy near Cam Thanh village, a 15-minute drive from the town of Hoi An on the central Vietnam coast.
The name of my gentle giant is “Se” which means “car” in Vietnamese (geddit?), and like an automobile he is highly coveted. In Vietnam, water buffalo are a farmer’s most prized possession and are treated as a member of the family.
I discover a little more about this simple life when the rice farmer and his wife invite me into their thatched roof home to share a meal. As chickens scratch around in the dust and a languid dog thumps his tail on the floor, we cook rice and roast peanuts over a fire on an outdoor stove then enjoy sharing stories of farming life thanks to my translator from Jack Tran Tours (hands-down the best Vietnamese culture tour company in Hoi An, as I discover over two subsequent excursions).
As I make my way back to my digs at the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai in Hoi An I ponder the humbling experience of how you can be happy with less – OK, much less – than I’m used to in Australia. Of course any Four Seasons property is not about being happy with less; in fact they are generally about being happy with more of the best things in life. But what sets the Nam Hai resort apart is the genuine and respectful effort to engage with traditional Vietnamese culture, with everything from authentic architecture and a Vietnamese cooking academy to Buddhist-inspired day spa treatments.
The heartfelt introduction to Vietnam begins on my bedside table that night, where there is a copy of the book Love Letter to the Earth by Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes of the importance of reconnecting with nature and ourselves and advises to, “Smile, breathe and go slowly.”
I do exactly that when I wake up the next morning to an absolute oceanfront view of the platinum sands, swaying palm trees and endless ocean of Ha May beach, along which the resort runs for an entire kilometre.
The Nam Hai is a 15-minute drive from the UNESCO-listed village of Hoi An and within easy access to two other UNESCO sites, the Imperial City of Hue and the ancient My Son temple sanctuary, making it the perfect base from which to discover the Central Coast of Vietnam.
I start by boarding the resort shuttle for the short ride to Hoi An where there are plenty of wet markets, tailor shops, temples and ancient buildings to explore. The old sea port was once the centre of Vietnam’s spice trade and still retains many of its original waterfront features, including lantern-strewn streets, narrow canals filled with river boats and 16th-century Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture. It lives up to its reputation as one of Vietnam’s most atmospheric towns.
After a morning of snacking at streetside hawker stalls while shopping for silk, leather goods and exquisite hand-cut paper gifts, I return to my villa, which is designed and positioned according to ancient phong thuy (feng shui) principles with a raised platform bed shrouded in romantic filmy curtains, a spacious separate lounge area and a sinfully deep bath tub as well as an outdoor shower. I opt for the latter and then, refreshed and revived, head to the fishing village of Phuoc Hai in the afternoon for one of the most unusual and enjoyable experiences I’ve had in another country.
Thirty minutes after arriving I am bobbing about in a thung chai, a traditional Vietnamese basket boat, as my new fishing buddies do a synchronised basket boat performance to Psy’s Gangnam Style. It’s a rather quirky icebreaker, but after that it’s down to the serious business of learning to fish Vietnam style, which involves throwing traditional round nets from long narrow boats then pulling them in (the nets are surprisingly heavy) with their silvery treasures.
Exploring the tranquil coconutpalm flanked waterways of the Cua Dai River, we learn of the extreme conditions endured there by soldiers on both sides during the Vietnam War, when the Vietcong hid in the coconut groves using bamboo pipes to breathe underwater during high tide. Just three months earlier our guide took a family group and they pulled up a landmine in a fishing net.
Happily, the only thing we catch is fish, which are usually sold at the Hoi An market that I visit the next day under the stewardship of the Four Seasons Nam Hai chef, Sen, with whom I’m going to do a Vietnamese cooking class. We comb the bustling wet and dry riverside markets in search of the few ingredients that are not available in the resort’s sprawling herb garden, before returning to its stand-alone cooking school to whip up a four-course meal including crispy crab and vegetable rolls, fish with turmeric and dill, a vegetable hot pot, green mango salad and grilled pork with vermicelli.
I walk it off with a visit to My Son sanctuary, an hour’s drive from the resort and home to ancient temple ruins that are up to 1600 years old. My Son means beautiful mountain in Vietnamese, and the ruins in a dense jungle valley flanked by lush mountains more than live up to their name, although it is hot and humid.
Relief comes with a visit to Nam Hai’s Heart of the Earth Spa, which is based on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Every treatment begins with crystal singing bowls tuned to 432 Hz, supposedly the harmonic intonation of nature, before mine unfolds with a gentle feet washing ritual in a private villa set on a lotus pond filled with koi and waterlilies. A luxurious body and face massage then more crystal singing bowls follow, and I’m not sure if it’s their exquisite frequency or the fine fingers of my masseuse but I’m surprised to find a single tear rolling down my cheek as she finishes.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF FOUR SEASONS RESORT, THE NAM HAI, HOI AN
Is there a better location for a bar than Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An (above); the beautiful, ancient town of Hoi An is a 15-minute drive away, and the Nam Hai villas are designed according to feng shui principles, including raised platform beds.