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Ancient Indulgence

By: Ian Paynton Posted: January-22-2011 in
Photo Credit - Aaron Joel Santos
Ian Paynton

Ancient Indulgence
Ian Paynton looks for everything luxurious during a 24-hour pit-stop visit in Hoi An. Photos by Aaron Joel Santos

Forty-five minutes ago I was being hassled by hawkers in the centre of Hoi An. The sun was burning my scalp and sweat was dripping from my arms. I was frustrated, and could see visitors being rude to street vendors while not wanting to purchase yet another souvenir t-shirt. I began to question if this town — drawing in literally thousands of tourists every week — was the right place to stop for an indulgent 24 hours on my journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. That’s when I decided to hit Ha My Beach, 11km north of Hoi An.

And now, as I sip on a colourful cocktail and look out to the South China Sea over the stillness of the Nam Hai’s three infinity swimming pools, my doubts have vanished. All of a sudden Hoi An seems like the perfect place to sojourn. I don’t have a care in the world. But I guess this is what a five-star deluxe resort like The Nam Hai can do for you.

The Hai Life
The Nam Hai is regarded by many as Vietnam’s finest resort. And rightly so — it’s pure luxury. The ultra attentive service makes you feel like an A-Lister throughout your stay. Colin Farrell has experienced it, and the Top Gear crew came here when filming their Vietnam special. With three staff to every guest, you will assuredly receive great care.

Shortly after opening in 2008, The Nam Hai was voted “best hotel in the world” by Travel + Leisure in its Design Awards. And I can see why. French designer Reda Amalou has preserved the rich, architectural traditions of central Vietnam while bringing them into the 21st century with immense style — from the careful placement of the symbolic rice jars, to the width of the resort’s granite stairways that have a semblance to those found at Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb in Hue.

There are two on-site restaurants and the resort’s chefs, who come from Vietnam, India and Switzerland, serve up powerfully tasting, cooked-to-perfection dishes — from seared red snapper and prawn watercress salad at lunch, to lamb kebabs and grilled rib-eye steak at dinner.

In the name of sheer indulgence, I opt for an hour-long massage in one of the eight spa villas that sit on a goldfish-filled lotus pond. The fragrant chi oil — made from lemongrass and ginger — and the highly trained therapist applying it to my sun-damaged skin work together to make me feel energised. So much so that I feel ready to give central Hoi An one more chance — this time in the evening.
Quintessential Hoi An

It’s cooler now. The hawkers have simmered down, too, and there is near silence in the streets. Motorbikes are no longer allowed to drive through selected roads and the light from Hoi An’s iconic lanterns provide the sense of tranquility that I remember from my first visit here three years ago. On my way down to the romantic riverfront, I slip into White Marble Wine Bar at 98 Le Loi.

This two-storey venue offers a large selection of wines, 12 of which can be ordered by the glass. The atmosphere delights — soft jazz soothes your subconscious and the tables embedded with white marble from Danang give the rustic, mustard-yellow building a contemporary edge. While the wine list will suffice for those in need of something stronger than a bia hoi, the connoisseur in you may expect a touch more. Most of the bottles here are readily available in your local supermarket back at home.

Inside I meet a local restaurateur Duc Tran, whose Mango Rooms (11D Nguyen Thai Hoc) serves some of the best fusion food in town. “We’ve all tried selling the world’s finest wines in Hoi An,” he says. “But they never seem to sell and we end up having to drink them ourselves.” This explains the absence of premium tipples on White Marble’s menus.

Duc suggests that I try another local expat favourite, Casa Verde (99 Bach Dang). The riverside Asian and Mediterranean restaurant has only five tables and the décor is simple. I’m glad to have snapped up a much sought after seat but am disappointed by the Thai green curry, which tastes like it’s made with cream of mushroom instead of coconut milk. The fettuccine alfredo with chicken breast is far more impressive. But the real highlight here is the homemade hazelnut ice cream (VND25,000).

On my way back to the Nam Hai, I detour to find a 100m stretch of bars on An Bang Beach. I could have jumped on the shuttle bus from Before and Now Bar at 51 Le Loi and partied the night away at Zero Bar out on the beach, but I’m in the mood for something low key like Soul Bar — the last venue on the left side of An Bang. It’s not mentioned in the guidebooks and was an untitled venue until recently. The beach-hut bar and restaurant is super chilled out — you can choose to lie in a hammock, on one of the ocean-facing loungers, or flat out on the neatly maintained lawn to enjoy a beer or the chef’s specials of deep fried anchovies or tuna tartare.

Turn Down to the Details
“Good evening Mr Paynton,” says a staff member of the Nam Hai as I return to the hotel. “Can I get you a buggy to your room, sir?” he asks. The room is 50 metres away. I walk and enjoy the sound of croaking frogs and ambience of the carefully lit palm trees.

The resort’s 100 villas (40 of which come with a private infinity swimming pool) pay homage to typical Vietnamese living spaces, where everything — working, dining, socialising and sleeping — happens in one room. In a modern twist, each of the resort’s villas is multi-tiered. It feels like there are multiple rooms within the single space.

I open the door to my villa and am wowed by the “turn-down service”. The middle tier of the room is now separated by a draped mosquito net and the candles in each corner of the villa have been lit. Soft music from the in-room iPod emanates throughout the villa with Bose surround-sound system perfection. The room’s dimmer lights have been tinkered with to complete the peaceful ambience. I enjoy the best sleep I’ve had since leaving my mum’s house eight years ago.

From Hai End to Lau End
What checks in must check out. Regrettably my time here is over. But before I continue my journey south, I want to try the town’s famous cao lau noodles and banh mi.

A bowl of cao lau (VND20,000 from a street vendor on Bach Dang), is made up of both fresh and deep-fried regional noodles, typical Vietnamese herbs, nuoc mam and roasted pork shavings. The noodles are boiled in water from a nearby well, so while cau lau is available elsewhere in Vietnam, it will never taste the same as it does here.

“How different cam banh mi here actually be,” I wondered about the Anthony Bourdain-recommended Banh Mi Phuong on Hoang Dieu. It’s just a bread roll filled with cold cuts and pate, right? Wrong. This stand, swarming with locals, is home to ‘the best sandwich in Vietnam’. The owner, who says she sells at least 500 subs every day, could easily charge more than VND15,000 for these. I order another one for the road.

This time yesterday it felt like this could have been my last ever visit to the ancient town so popular with tourists and relentless street vendors. I was shocked by how it had changed in the last few years. But since then, I’ve indulged in the area’s best accommodation and cuisine. I leave with a far from bitter taste in my mouth.

Republished with the kind permission of The Word Hanoi


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