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A RISING STAR - VIETNAM\'S EXOTIC TIME MACHINE
 
(2013 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: GEMMA PRICE



Anchored by the fast-developing city of Danang at its centre, and incorporating three UNESCO World Heritage-listed properties, Vietnam’s central coast—roughly halfway between Hanoi in the North and Ho Chi Minh City in the south—has been the seat of emperors, exalted imperial and colonial administrators and war heroes from both sides.

Now, it’s a must-see destination for well-heeled globetrotters keen to experience one of the world’s most culturally significant travel destinations that has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Vietnam War with a little help from some of the biggest names in luxury hospitality.

A Monumental Capital

To the north, ancient feudal capital Hue is the Vietnamese artist’s muse: a city of scenic beauty, seasonal extremes and distinctive landscapes and architecture, which have inspired poetry, songs and stories of forbidden love since Nguyen Phuc Anh, later Emperor Gia Long, first chose the valley as the setting for Vietnam’s ruling dynasty and its imperial citadel in 1802.

Lotus bloom-filled ponds encircle the citadel’s rambling stone ramparts; monks lead the call to prayer with locally-cast bronze bells at Mahayana pagodas; and at homespun restaurants such as Tha Om, local people open the gates of their tranquil garden houses—formerly home to royal court Mandarins—to dinner guests. Unfortunately, Vietnam’s tumultuous history has taken its toll: of the 1,200 monuments constructed during the dynasty, only 300 remained after the Vietnam War, but this UNESCO-listed complex of palaces, temples and tombs scattered throughout the valley provides fascinating glimpses into the world of the royal court.

At the tomb of Minh Mang, completed in 1843, the perfectly aligned symmetry of weather-worn red gateways and 40 ochre buildings is complemented by the rugged beauty of vast, mirror-like lakes and ranks of pine trees standing like silent sentinels on the banks. Khai Dinh’s tomb, completed in 1931, uses more modern materials and is located in an expanse of wilderness; an imperious grey necropolis accessible via 127 steep stone steps and guarded by an impassive protectorate of stone soldiers and feudal court mandarins that will remain at their posts for centuries to come.

Although the ancient architecture and culture of the feudal court is the most prominent attraction, on the opposite bank of the Perfume River, Hue’s cityscape has also been fashioned by the French. Rambling colonial mansions flank leafy boulevards. Truong Tien Bridge, constructed by the Paris-based Eiffel company, looks strangely reminiscent of something you might find in the French capital. Moped drivers grab toasted baguette sandwiches from street hawker stalls on the way home from work and ca phe is now as quintessentially Vietnamese as the conical hat.

But nowhere is the colons’ Gallic flair more evident than at La Residence Hotel & Spa. Built in 1930 as part of the French Governor’s official home, the 122-room hotel’s bowed façade, long horizontal lines and nautical porthole windows are straight out of the Streamline Moderne School of art deco architecture. High ceilings, hardwood terrazzo floors, and striking balconies are complemented by opulent, old-world touches such as louvered shutters, art deco light fixtures and furnishings, and reproductions of paintings by colonial-era French and Vietnamese artists. Its Le Parfum restaurant overlooks the gardens and Perfume River; tables are laid with pristine white tablecloths and sparkling silverware, and the wine list has been matched to a menu of local and international dishes with a French accent. From ca ri cuu, curried lamb seasoned with Vietnamese spices and served with steamed rice or a baguette, to cinnamon duck breast and chocolate fondant with basil ice cream, it’s a sensory journey that evokes the nostalgia of a bygone era.

Ancient Towns

Three hours to the south, the ancient town of Hoi An is another one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage List-inscribed sites and most celebrated destinations. Established as a port town and an important trading point in the 16th and 17th centuries, today intriguing museums, temples and tempting eateries occupy well-preserved houses built by European, Chinese, Indian and Japanese merchant families. In its heyday Hoi An was renowned, among other things, for its high-grade silks. While cheap tailoring has surpassed cultural heritage as the town’s main money spinner, local tradespeople still peddle their carvings, sculptures and silks from the well-preserved traditional shop houses flanking every lantern-lit street. The iconic covered Japanese Bridge, constructed by Japanese merchants at the end of the 16th century and the only known example to be attached to a Buddhist pagoda, is a great starting point for a stroll.

Around 70 kilometres southwest of present-day Danang City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site My Son, a collection of ruined, moss-covered Hindu temples constructed between the fourth and 14th centuries AD, testifies to another illustrious era: the ancientChampa Kingdom, established by Indonesian settlers in AD 192. Almost like a mini Angkor or Ayuthaya, the site was an important intellectual and religious centre and perhaps the longest Cham-inhabited site in Southeast Asia. Although American blanket bombing during the Vietnam War reduced many of the towers to rubble, restoration is underway and an hour or two spent wandering through the red-brick structures is time well spent.

A Treasured Coast

For many North Americans, Danang’s wartime connotations are inescapable, but Vietnam’s central coast has moved on in spectacular style since its R&R days. Forbes famously dubbed China Beach—as it was known to wartime GIs—one of the most beautiful in the world, and today this 900-metre stretch, now called My Khe, is no less spectacular and home to one of Vietnam’s most lauded new developments.

Built in 2006, the exclusive, GHM-managed all-villa Nam Hai combines ancient feudal architectural and cultural traditions with contemporary design. Architect Reda Amalou envisioned each accommodation at this property as an exquisite, modern interpretation of the traditional Vietnamese nha ruong, or “house of panels.” Villas are arranged in horseshoes so that every guest has an ocean view, and colonnaded, open-plan interiors support multi-layered terra cotta tiled roofs handcrafted by local artisans. A central platform inspired by the Vietnamese phan—a multipurpose stage where meals are eaten and the family sleeps—accommodates a desk, sunken eggshell lacquered bath, flat-screen TV and too-plush-to-be-true king-size bed. And at the heart of the resort are three limpid blue pools that draw the eye out to the South China Sea breaking on the beach below.

My Khe is just one part of a 30-kilometre swath of sand fringing the South China Sea from Danang’s hilly Son Tra peninsula to Hoi An and which is dotted by a multitude of newly launched luxury properties, such as the beach resort hotel Hyatt Regency Danang and all-inclusive spa resort Fusion Maia, both of which opened in 2011.

Sheltered by Monkey Mountain on its own private bay on the Son Tra peninsula, 30 minutes from Danang City centre, guests at the spectacular InterContinental Danang Sun Resort traverse the tiers of tropical mansions by a boat-shaped funicular lift.

And further up the coast towards Hue, the pioneering eco-luxe brand Banyan Tree launched its first Vietnam resort on a three-kilometre, rugged mountain-backed beach in Lang Co Bay in November last year.

Golfers will love the multi award-winning Montgomerie Links and Danang Golf Club and with at least five more clubs planned in the area in the next few years, Danang is emerging as a key regional golfing destination.

In fact, more luxury resorts, golf courses and entertainment complexes are being built on this stretch of shoreline than anywhere else in the country. Property moguls are already touting Vietnam’s central coast as the next Phuket or Bali, and the renaissance of a coastal travel trail with accommodation befitting the Nguyen kings has already attracted its fair share of the international spotlight. You’d better go now, before everyone else does.

Travel Planner

For more information on the central coast of Vietnam, visit centralcoastvietnam.com.

 
 
 
 
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