Vietnam's Nam Hai resort: The Hai Life
Author: JOHN LETHLEAN
Photography: dieu tan
"You know," drawled the Singapore-based, ex-pat American as we headed home along pot-holed Vietnamese side roads towards the Nam Hai following an afternoon seeing the sights in nearby historic Hoi An. "It kind of reminds me a bit of Arizona."
On the face of it, the reference from the back seat of the resort's shuttle bus seemed a little obscure. We're on the coast of central Vietnam, after all; it's sandy, hot, humid, yet made more palatable by the presence of a pleasant sea breeze. We are on the South China Sea, the famous China Beach.
The atmosphere is pure Vietnam: rice paddies are worked by buffalo, scooters transporting all manner of implausible combinations of families and objects scuttle past, the undeniably random nature of 'architecture' and construction in a developing nation that is the antithesis of ordered society.
It's difficult to imagine a less American kind of place. "Just a kind of palm tree oasis that's popped up in the middle of nowhere, without the golf courses," continues the American. "But one with an ocean beach at the front door." And at that, you could see his point.
The Nam Hai, built across 35 hectares of white, sandy beachfront land about five kilometres and a few rice paddies as the crow flies from the town of Hoi An, does just kind of pop out of the wilderness, a testament to the powers of two life forces - water and money.
To either side of the extensive and very private resort property, along the highway that leads south along the coast from the drab provincial capital of Da Nang, there is little. For now anyway.
There is much talk about the inevitable development of this seaside land. By the roadside, you'll see random strip settlements of modest houses - new, old and abandoned - seemingly bereft of any kind of planning regulation and style, typical of Vietnam. But essentially, the Nam Hai is a walled and planned-to-minute-detail island of pure indulgence at odds with its neighbouring built environment, yet architecturally at ease with its natural one. The buildings are a sympathetic blend of Asian and Western styles that sit very comfortably beneath those myriad palms.
If there is a way to enjoy two kinds of holiday - the wind-down, poolside, read a book, beer at 11 in the morning, want-for-nothing kind, and the frenetic, almost addictive hit of a totally foreign culture that can, at times, be just a little pressured and chaotic to the average suburban creature kind - this is quite possibly the answer.
A morning reading by the pool after a luxurious breakfast (following, perhaps, a hit of tennis or a work out in the gym, or a spa treatment and walk on the beach) followed by a siesta. And then a few hours soaking up the pleasures of the largely unspoilt Hoi An, maybe a drink along the canal, a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants before heading back… Local action. And luxury refuge.
In densely populated and, now, heavily motorised Vietnam, silence is a rare commodity. Yet, at the Nam Hai, there are times when all you can hear is the wind through those masses of newly planted coconut palms, the thud of gentle surf, perhaps the faraway chug of a fishing vessel's diesel as it trawls for mackerel and maybe the snip of a gardener's shears as he does the lawns. It is sublimely peaceful, a luxury only made possible by the sheer scale of the resort's grounds.
And in bustling South-East Asia, that's something holidaymakers are willing to pay for. The less-than-year-old Nam Hai has been conceived from the ground up as a sanctuary. Motorised vehicles get no further than the imposing, elegant front door; everything else across the estate is handled by virtually silent golf carts and much is done by hand. It's quieter that way.
And each of the resort's villas - be they the 'modest' one-bedroom villa that would typically constitute a holiday of great style for many of us, up to the three and even five-bedroom villas that provide respite to seriously affluent multi-generational families - is set well apart from the road, facing the beach, and each other.
It's quiet for an urban Australian; it must be almost eerie for the holiday makers of the major South-East Asian cities the Nam Hai will inevitably appeal to. Beyond the tranquillity, several overriding impressions stay with even a casual guest after a fleeting visit.
The first is of the resort's sheer style. Everything about the place looks and feels superb. Resort-watchers will identify with the fact that the Nam Hai is part of the group behind the various Chedi resorts and The Datai on Langkawi in Malaysia.
Clever planning, subtle architectural design, attention to detail with finishes, fabrics and accessories, and that extensive landscaping, make the place feel rather special, a cunning combination of traditional shapes with contemporary ideas.
Nam Hai's villas are all set around a series of horseshoe-shaped sandy 'coves' which means each has uninterrupted views from the front veranda (or the elevated bed) to the South China Sea.
Stone, dark timbers, white renders, terracotta-tiled roofs; each of the villas has a kind ofArchitectural Digest goes-to-the-tropics feel. A private garden sho-wer, a huge double bathroom, an open-plan area that includes a sunken bath, a lounge area looking out to sea and the veranda, a rather great spot to sit at dusk.
The second impression is, of course, of the food. Executive chef Stanley Cheong is one of those international Asians who has worked in many parts of the world outside his native Malaysia. He talks like a Chinese Anthony Bourdain (indeed he studied at the Culinary Institute of America).
The hotel runs two restaurants, one more formal than the other. Asian and European ideas are explored in varying degrees, the chef not making the mistake of trying to fuse or confuse the concepts. Cheong says he has no problem getting most of the ingredients he needs and, almost to prove it, sends us a dessert one evening of French black truffle ice-cream.
The less formal Beach Restaurant focuses more on snacks, the sort of thing you'd probably want for lunch after a hard morning of not doing a great deal.
And while there is no real parity between local Vietnamese prices and the $34 main courses of the Nam Hai restaurant proper, it's good to be able to say the food is excellent here. Particularly breakfast, a truly joyous occasion for the food lover, that could run from tropical fruits and juices to local specialties such as cao lau, a banana flower salad with cured beef, turmeric pancakes with shrimp, fresh rice paper rolls with spiced local tuna, ginger tea and, if you can't do without it, rather good espresso.
Another lingering memory of the place is of the impressiveness of the public spaces. Water and stone are the twin materials that give form to the vast areas for play: the restaurants and their courtyards, the endless-horizon pool that seems to spill into the sea and the walkways and amenities such as the spa and fitness areas (gym and courts).
Another is the amazing service only achievable in a country where wages are relatively low. There is an attendant, waiter, porter and cleaner for every occasion and more, and given the generally pleasant natures and friendliness of most Vietnamese, this seldom crosses over into any sense of being smothered.
But unless there is a more private agenda that keeps you hotel-bound, the Nam Hai is almost certainly the perfect sanctuary from the hot, sticky but engaging freneticism of nearby Hoi An. The need to sit down and take stock in air-conditioned comfort can sneak up on you in the tropics. The two are only 15 minutes, a $5 taxi ride and a whole world apart.
Where the hotel basks in the newly-designed and created perfection of just about everything that opens and closes, real Vietnamese life as played out in Hoi An is altogether more down to earth: a faded beauty that nevertheless radiates serious charm.
And as a lot of visitors to this delightful but rapidly developing country have discovered in recent years, Hoi An is very much worth visiting. A riverside town and one-time bustling port with a largely intact historic centre (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site) both the scale of the place and the concentrated insight to a calmer, gentler time are almost unique. Vietnam buffs describe Hoi An, in the Quang Nam province, as the most captivating spot on the coast; it's too difficult to counter.
It's not Swiss mountain village pristine, but there is the air of a postcard about it all. Indeed, a close viewing of the 2002 remake ofThe Quiet American, starring Michael Caine, shows the living 'set' used by Australian director Phillip Noyce.
So much of Vietnam seems to be faceless reunification-era architecture that the laneways/period feel of Hoi An has instant resonance. Core of the town is its no frills food market; not necessarily a pretty place, but a shortcut to the essence of local life. It's here local households and food traders buy their fish and meats, exotic fruits and beautiful vegetables. It's a cruisy town; Hoi An certainly enjoys a gentler pace to Ho Chi Minh City, inevitably part of most Vietnam itineraries.
The town, with its narrow streets lined with early 19th century (and earlier) buildings was one of South-East Asia's major international ports from the 15th to the 19th centuries, attracting Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese trading vessels.
A sense of that history has been retained, particularly architecturally; the town miraculously escaped the ravages of wartime bombing. And physically Hoi An is these days an amalgam of several cultures. Fading render or timber houses and shops line the curved streets, usually with wooden shutters and terracotta- tiled roofs. Amazingly for Vietnam, there is even a section of the old-town's main thoroughfare, Duong Tran Phu, where motorised vehicles are banned completely. Cars are banned from most of the old town.
Chinese trading houses and the very famous Japanese Bridge are on most people's must-see lists. These days, the houses are likely to be selling local art, jewellery or the ubiquitous skills of the tailor.
It's a tourist-friendly place, and you need to be prepared for legions of independent travellers, as well as European and even Vietnamese tour groups, plodding the streets with purpose or moving en masse in cyclos, the bicycle-driven rickshaws.
As the sun goes down on the town, another of its chief industries begins to shine, quite literally. Lantern-making is a major business in Hoi An and the town glows to thousands of reds, blues, greens, pinks and yellows reflecting on the still water of the river. And along the river, and the streets behind it, the café and street stalls fire up with curious tourists eating and drinking at prices that are still, by Western standards, very cheap. A bowl of the local speciality cao lau will set you back $1.10. A food tourist's paradise.
And the happiest will be the visitors knowing that, after an afternoon and evening on their feet in town, bartering, snacking, pursuing the historical sites or checking out the food market and other specialist traders, the pure white cotton of a bed at the Nam Hai, and seaside tranquillity, is just down the road.
A resort that pops out of the seaside tundra like, well, something you might find in Arizona.
THE LOCAL CUISINE
Hoi An is more or less on the coast and a quick walk through the central market will quickly tell you much about what you can expect to see on the menus of local cafés and restaurants. Three staples, however, fly the town's culinary flag and can be found on just about every menu.
The first and most important is cao lau, Hoi An's answer to the highly metropolitan pho (ubiquitous in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) although to call cao lau a noodle soup would be inaccurate; more a wet noodle salad, I think. The dish consists of a small nest of wide, doughy rice noodles that have an unusual, slightly coarse texture, achieved by adding ashed timber to the water used in the manufacturing process. Cao lau noodles can only come from Hoi An, because the water must be sourced from one particular well in the town. The noodles are served with grilled pork, bean sprouts, fresh chilli, mint, fish sauce and maybe shards of deep-fried rice paper and a sprinking of shallots. The composition, but never the actual noodles, changes from place to place.
The next staple is called white rose (banh bao, banh vac), a version of the steamed rice flour dumplings most often associated with the cuisine of nearby Hue. White rose are filled with ground shrimp and vegetables, garnished with fried shallots and served with a sweet-sour dipping sauce. This morsel, served about eight to the plate, is based on very traditional Vietnamese cuisine, and it's good.
Finally, reflecting the important historical and continuing role of the Chinese in Hoi An is the third of the specialities, hoanh thanh chien, or fried wontons filled with minced pork and vegetables and topped with crab meat and a sweet-sour sauce. Frankly, they're nothing to write home about - I'd go another bowl of cao lau instead.
THE FINE PRINT