The two-thousand-mile coastline of Vietnam is emerging as a major beach destination, and its fine resorts now provide ideal places in which to relax at the conclusion of a demanding tour of Asia. I already recommend properties near Da Nang and Nha Trang, as well as on the remote island of Con Dao. During my recent trip, I headed north from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) up the coastal highway by car to see a new Anantara beach hotel, as well as Amanoi, Vietnam’s first Amanresorts property.
Amanoi offers two spectacular infinity pools, plus a private Beach Club, with a restaurant set beside an expanse of white sand.
The countries of Southeast Asia are developing at breakneck speed, and Vietnam is clearly no exception. Arriving in Saigon late in the afternoon, I noticed immediately how much it had changed since my previous visit five years before. Back then, the streets at dusk were a river of people on bicycles, and many women still dressed in the national costume, the flowing áo dài, an elegant tunic worn over pants, plus gloves and cone-shaped hats to protect their skin from the sun. Nowadays, Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques have opened downtown, and most of the vendors who once sold soup and spring rolls from street stands have vanished.
On a sunny Sunday morning, we set out on a 140-mile drive to Mui Ne, a favorite beach destination for Saigon’s more affluent citizens. There, we were meeting my nephew and his wife. Busy East Coast professionals, they’d chosen Vietnam for their vacation because, as my nephew explained, “We’d see an exotic new country, plus have a beach holiday and some world-class kite-surfing all in one trip.”
The four-hour journey by chauffeured car — Vietnam is not a place to drive yourself — began with a view of Saigon’s port, teeming with activity even on a weekend. It continued with a succession of towns that were interesting if only because they afforded a glimpse of the booming industrial economy — Vietnam’s GDP grew by 6 percent last year as companies relocated from China to escape its rising labor costs. Eventually, the factories and workshops came to an end and were replaced by country towns, their roads lined with small restaurants lavishly decorated with banners and flowers for wedding banquets later that day. Then rural Vietnam began, with emerald rice paddies punctuated by white herons, and strange trees with long, fleshy limbs supported by concrete posts. Neither of us could imagine what they might be until we saw a truck piled high with crimson dragon fruit, a sweet tropical fruit extremely popular in Southeast Asia.
After passing through the bustling town of Phan Thiet, we arrived at the 89-room Anantara Mui Ne Resort & Spa, a beachfront property surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens. The hotel offers a variety of accommodations at different rates, including spacious and attractively decorated rooms, but we had chosen a Pool Villa, a comfortable bungalow with tropical wood floors and local furniture. It also came with a four-poster bed and an indoor-outdoor bath — the vanity was inside, while the shower and large terrazzo soaking tub were set in a private garden surrounded by a high fence. The villa also offered a high-ceilinged open-air living room, a garden pavilion and a plunge pool on an adjacent terrace.
Both Vietnamese and Western food — the Australian Wagyu steaks were superb — is served in the hotel’s two restaurants. L’Anmien Restaurant in the main hotel building overlooks a lagoon, while Thung is set on the beachfront. Custom menus are also served in The Wine Room. Other amenities include a small, well-run spa with five treatment rooms.
Ultimately, however, the hotel’s exceptional service impressed us the most. Under the direction of the charming general manager, Mark Eletr (who, I understand, has since moved to Anantara’s new resort in Doha), the young, mostly Vietnamese staff consistently went out of their way to be helpful. And thanks to the notably efficient guest-relations desk, we enjoyed a memorable and mildly adventurous day discovering the surrounding region. Having visited the busy fishing port in Mui Ne, source of the small, succulent scallops that feature frequently on the restaurants’ menus, we explored the coastline by dune buggy. Another time, Geoffrey Crabbe, the hotel’s amiable executive chef, took us to the lively food market in Mui Ne, followed by a visit to an odorific fish sauce factory. We then returned to the hotel and helped to cook a Vietnamese lunch, including spring rolls, barbecued betel leaves stuffed with beef, and fish steamed with herbs and spices.
Peaceful, relaxed and friendly, Anantara Mui Ne offers excellent value for the money compared with beachside resort hotels of a similar type elsewhere in Southeast Asia. I also much prefer Mui Ne to Nha Trang, the best-known resort town on the Vietnamese coastline.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exceptionally friendly and efficient service; attractive beach; location within walking distance of local shops and several good restaurants.
DISLIKE: The loud music in the main dining room at dinner was unnecessary and unwelcome.
GOOD TO KNOW: The best accommodations are the Beach Front Pool Villas.
Anantara Mui Ne Resort & Spa 93 Ocean Suite, $220; Beach Front Pool Villa, $405. Mui Ne Beach KM 10, Ham Tien Ward, Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province. Tel. (84) 62-374-1888.
From Mui Ne, it is a three-hour drive north to Amanoi, which opened last October. Happily, guest services at Anantara had booked us a comfortable four-wheel-drive vehicle with an experienced driver, since stretches of the highway are still under construction and the resort is located in the wild Nui Chua National Park north of the town of Phan Rang.
Amanoi’s setting is spectacularly beautiful: The rolling hills are thickly covered with bright-green vegetation, while craggy cliffs plunge into the cerulean sea. Designed by Malaysia-based Belgian architect Jean-Michel Gathy, who has worked on many other Aman properties, the hotel’s main pavilion is a high-ceilinged contemporary building with open walls and a gabled roof inspired by the local architecture. Set on a hilltop, it is reached by a long flight of covered granite stairs and houses the resort’s restaurant, library and bar. An open-air terrace commands magnificent views over the serene waters of Vinh Hy Bay. Having been offered tea and freshly baked pound cake, we were transferred to our private Pool Pavilion by electric golf cart, the standard means of transportation on this spread-out property.
Set in thick vegetation, which afforded complete privacy, our open-plan pavilion proved an ideal place to forget about the passage of time and the tribulations of the outside world. Built of teak, it was expansive and exquisitely decorated, with a cathedral ceiling, picture windows on all sides, granite and teak floors, and oak-framed furniture. Several large red silk lanterns on dimmer switches provided an exotic touch.
The extremely spacious bath could be shut off from the main room by sliding doors and came with an oversize soaking tub, two vanities in front of a picture-window wall, and a stone-lined shower. A door led directly from the bath to the deck and the large private pool on the side of the pavilion facing the sea.
The resort includes two spectacular infinity pools, plus a private Beach Club, with a restaurant set beside an expanse of white sand. An exhaustive menu of water sports is provided. In the sumptuous spa, many of the treatments use traditional Vietnamese ingredients such as aromatic herbs, rice and coffee. Complimentary yoga classes are offered daily, and Pilates and other guided workouts are also available.
Ultimately, Amanoi is a tranquil and deeply relaxing place in which to hide away from reality. It is not close to Vietnam’s major cultural sites, and although the local excursions are interesting, they are scarcely life-changing. Given this splendid isolation, it is fortunate that the Belgian chef is so talented. We ate extremely well from both the Vietnamese and Western menus, enjoying pho, the classic noodle and bouillon soup with fresh herbs, for breakfast each morning, and an excellent rack of New Zealand lamb for dinner one evening. The opening of Amanoi confirms Vietnam’s rapid emergence as a major destination for luxury travel. The many devotees of Amanresorts will now be able to construct an extraordinary tour of Southeast Asia with stays at Amanoi, Amanpuri in Thailand, Amantaka in Laos and Amansara in Cambodia.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The exceptionally attractive and comfortable pavilion accommodations; the magnificent site; the outstanding spa.
DISLIKE: Senior staff can be a bit chilly.
GOOD TO KNOW: The best weather is from January to August. Because of its isolation, the hotel is not a good base from which to tour. For local excursions, the Cham temples near Phan Rang are worth visiting, but go to Bau Truc pottery village only if you’re curious to see the potters at work, as the products themselves are very basic.
Amanoi 95 Ocean Pavilion, $1,100; Ocean Pool Pavilion, $1,400. Vinh Hy Village, Ninh Hai District, Ninh Hai District, Ninh Thuan Province. Tel. (84) 68-377-0666.