HAPPY, MORE OR LESS

Nam Hai Re­sort is all about the good things in life, but Vietnam’s tra­di­tions aren’t for­got­ten

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION VIETNAM - GE­ORGINA SAFE

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

PIC­TURES: FOUR SEA­SONS HO­TELS AND RE­SORTS, ISTOCK

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.

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