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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Around us, the scenery unrolls like a scroll painting of rice paddies, wandering water buffaloes, and low-hanging palm trees framed by the occasional glint of sea. Crossing into the Nui Chua National Park—a 72,000-acre conservation area teeming with more than 160 bird and 60 mammal species—we arrive at Amanresorts’ elegant wilderness camp.
Opened last September, Amanoi is the latest and most impressive of the handful of new luxury resorts—including the Six Senses Ninh Van Bay and the Anantara Mui Ne Resort & Spa—along Vietnam’s southern-central coast. The 100-acre property features 36 pavilion guest rooms tucked into their own secluded pockets of jungle. Like the InterContinental’s, much of Amanoi’s architecture and design reflects its surroundings, with traditional high-pitched bamboo ceilings and pagoda-like roofs. Elsewhere, however, the resort presents a sharp contrast to the InterContinental’s showy style, featuring understated wood furnishings and minimal teak decks that extend toward the horizon.
Amanoi’s simplified approach amplifies the central coast’s off-the-radar appeal. Following a cooking class (where I create a dish that looks more like a cigar than a fresh shrimp roll) and a spa treatment (in which my cupping-massage therapist beats my body like a drum), a simple stroll on the resort’s beach is the highlight of the day. Stretched between two rocky bluffs resembling giant bookends, the horseshoe-shaped stretch of sand looks out onto a slowly passing parade of fishing boats painted the same deep blue as Vinh Hy Bay’s warm waters. Even the pebbles and shells beneath my feet appear carefully curated. When I stumble across a shiny round dot of burnt orange among the powdery granules, I mistake it for a button, perhaps torn off of some tourist’s Prada shirt. Upon closer inspection, I discover an exquisite shell left behind by an undoubtedly fashionable shellfish in search of more spacious accommodations. “We call it a moon shell,” a beach attendant tells me as he adjusts the umbrella shading my padded lounger.
The next day, I board a return flight to Da Nang, briefly mourning the end of Amanoi’s soothing spell. I am consoled, however, by the promise of one more new resort: the Banyan Tree Lang Co, which opened in April 2013 on a crescent bay some 40 miles north of the InterContinental.
The template is familiar by now. I turn off a freshly constructed road framed by giant boulders and arrive on the Banyan Tree’s exquisite stretch of beach, which is shaded by palm trees and backed by lush peaks. Sprouting from casuarina trees, 49 freestanding glass-walled pavilions simulate traditional Vietnamese garden houses, albeit with private swimming pools. Lotus-flower murals and handwoven textiles adorn the rooms, while lattice screens and bronze drums decorate the public areas. A snaking lagoon winds throughout, wrapping around a Vietnamese restaurant and a central pavilion with a library and a spa.
The Banyan Tree breaks with tradition at times—offering Thai and Mediterranean restaurants as well as a Nick Faldo–designed golf course, which it shares with its sister property, Angsana—but it retains the connection to Vietnamese culture I have come to expect. This connection is especially tasteful on my last night in Vietnam, when dozens of rows of silk lanterns swinging above the lagoon are suddenly illuminated, glowing against the inky night sky like candy-colored gems. Moored at the edge of the lagoon, a carved wooden boat fringed with red lanterns carries a floating feast of braised pork, banana blossoms tossed with prawns, coconut crème brûlée with ginger syrup, and other local dishes designed to satisfy my stomach.