A recent influx of high-profile resorts has only refined the low-key appeal of Vietnam’s central coast.
The sharply cresting wave would not look so daunting if I were sitting in a boat. But I am not. Instead, I am shooting the surf of the very choppy East Sea, off the central coast of Vietnam, in nothing more than a bamboo basket. It is a wide—and, thankfully, tightly woven—basket, but it is still a basket, which for a subpar swimmer such as myself is as comforting as taking to the high seas in a top hat.
“Don’t worry,” says the fisherman who is holding steady at what might be considered the basket’s helm. “I learned to ride this when I was still a little boy.”
His confidence, however, cannot stop a massive wall of briny water from beating down on our miniature craft, launching us into an airborne spin. Unfazed, the fisherman rights the basket with a muscular heave of his wooden paddle and rows us toward the long sandy beach fronting Vietnam’s showiest new resort, the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula.
The breathtaking view of the InterContinental from my bobbing vessel is a jarring exercise in juxtaposition. Propped majestically above a pristine beach along the Son Tra Peninsula, the resort is Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley’s tour de force, a striking assemblage of templelike structures climbing a tropical hillside. Infinity-edge pools fronting traditional pavilions emerge from a thicket of rain forest in a glossy interpretation of a fishing village. As our basket settles gently on the shore, I catch glimpses of glowing lanterns and richly embroidered silks through guest-room windows, and fiery red fabrics and intricately carved latticework in pagodas that tower above the sea.
Bensley—the architect behind several Four Seasons, Oberoi, and other elite hotels in Asia—traveled extensively through Vietnam before designing the InterContinental. His black-and-white pavilions mirror the stark palette of northern Vietnam’s Buddhist temples. Stone statues lining the resort’s entrance depict the region’s rare red-shanked douc langur monkeys. Inside the rooms, deep-soaking bathtubs shaped like baskets are all-too-familiar tributes to a favored mode of transport on the East Sea.
Its many cultural cues aside, the InterContinental represents something new for Vietnam’s central coast. A welcome departure from the humming metropolises of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this region of fishing villages and centuries-old port towns is the country’s historic heartland. Here, in canal-seamed hamlets that are strung together like pearls along a winding strand of beach, silk lanterns hang in doorways and women don jewel-toned ao dai tunics.
Like the local pace of life, tourism development on the central coast has been slow and steady, favoring resorts that promote a sense of place over the big-box architecture that has blighted so many other Asian shores. The InterContinental, at 219 rooms and suites, is large by local standards, but the resort goes to
great lengths to maintain a close-to-the-ground travel experience. Guests enjoy traditional Vietnamese treatments—promising to restore inner balance and relieve tension—on warm massage tables carved from Da Nang marble. In the Citron restaurant’s lemon-yellow-and-lime-green dining room, the mélange of local dishes might include a sweet-and-spicy Quang noodle soup topped with a tangle of rice noodles and crushed peanuts. Day trips from the hotel range from visits to the central market in nearby Hoi An to treks into the Son Tra Nature Reserve in search of Bensley’s red-hued muses. The resort also offers various cultural classes, including lessons on how to make silk lanterns and, of course, basket boats for fishing on the East Sea.
My basket-ride-induced stomach pains threaten to return on the road to Vinh Hy Bay, an aspiring trail that devolves from time to time into a rocky rut. My guide, Lynn, and I have been driving for nearly two hours, making the pilgrimage from Cam Ranh International Airport to Amanresorts’ first Vietnamese outpost, Amanoi. “Some guests ask if they can fly right into the resort by helicopter,” Lynn says, as if reading my mind. “But the best places aren’t easy to get to. If you flew right in you would miss all this.”
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