Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 Advertorial -- I named it the Wild Coast then. Wild it was too, that stretch of the coast south of Phan Thiet town that curves its way down to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province. There were only two boutique hotels in those days at a place under the towering dunes called Doi Su, in contrast to the already famous shoreline known as Mui Ne to the north.
Around seven years ago I stayed at one of these hostelries and cycled the seven kilometres or so down a deserted country lane. To my left was maquis-type vegetation with wild flowers blooming and empty beaches pounded by the waves of the East Sea. To my right was the ridge of the dunes with natural and cultivated vegetation creeping up to it.
My idle aim on that idyllic afternoon was to see the old French lighthouse at Ke Ga. I reached the rocky headland that looks out to the lighthouse perched on its islet. I recall seeing a hoarding that announced that a site had been acquired on which a luxury hotel was to be built. My thoughts at the time were that I had been lucky to know this beautiful wilderness before it had been ruined in the name of mass tourism, just as the Costa Brava in Spain had been, with its high-rise overdevelopment and environmental recklessness. Costa Brava in Spanish, by the way, means wild coast.
Fate has many twists and turns, and one of them came in the form of an invitation to sample the delights of that baby whose imminent birth had been advertised on the hoarding and who was now a bouncing three-year-old. Feeling as if were in a fairy tale one morning, a limousine with the words Princess D’Annam Resort and Spa emblazoned in gold on its side arrived at our door step to whisk my wife, our 12-year-old daughter and myself away.
It is a somewhat tiring four and one-half-hour drive, and for the first two hours or so, you pass through the endless industrial eyesores of the suburbs of HCM City and Bien Hoa city. The scenery does not rise beyond that of the back of a long-distance bus or haulage truck. It is only when you approach Binh Thuan Province itself that you are treated to green fields and low mountains. However, by the time you eventually visit, the situation may have eased, as a new highway cutting the journey time by half is slated to open in 2014. However, what lies at the end of the trip makes any slight discomfort well worth enduring.
Around 20 kilometres from the city of Phan Thiet, we turned off on a country lane, down which we drove for 15 minutes with fields of dragonfruit and undulating sandy hills in view to reach the shore. I was back in Wild Coast country. The last time I went down this road was in the back of a pick-up truck. Long stretches of it had yet to be metalled and covered in dust and red sand, and we were well in need of a shower when we got to the hotel.
The road now followed the shore I had once cycled along. There were changes here too, as at regular intervals red-brick and tiled hotels had sprung up. They looked like private villas transposed from southern Iberia. We sped past them with their romantic names, Apricot Resort, Peaceful Hotel, Eco Spa resort and Rockwater Bay Resort, before turning off onto a brand-new road flanked by paddy fields with egrets stalking in them and reaching the jewel in the crown, The Princess D’Annam.
At first sight the hotel seems to be designed from back to front, but that is for the good reason of protecting privacy. The arrival and departure area is where the road ends. The beachfront part of the resort has no road access, with the result that you may enjoy it without motorbikes whizzing by on the sands and honking at bathers to get out of the way, which has been my experience on similar beaches in Vietnam.
We were met and greeted by senior management and given a very original and refreshing welcome drink of chilled red karkady (a hibiscus-based beverage). The actual registration took place at a wide writing desk in our Princess Villa, to which we were graciously escorted.
The villa proved to be luxury down to the last detail. The writing desk was an imposing piece of furniture, and this, with a four-poster bed and a huge widescreen LCD television, were the features of the main living area. From here we stepped out to our secluded pool area with high walls all around. The pool itself was big enough to fit all the family, and when not actually soaking, there was a long divan on which to stretch out on and enjoy the plants and flowers. At the back was an open-air bathroom with a large tub and showering area. There was a huge cake of scented soap by the basin and all the toiletries imaginable. Even the beautiful wooden comb was an original.
We rested a while and then set out to explore and enjoy the grounds. Although it is only three years old, this hotel exudes old-world colonial charm. With its series of pools and jungle-type landscaping leading up to a colonnaded passageway, with the ocean shining like infinity at its end, it put me in mind of Angkor Wat.
One amazing feature is the Ginger Garden set up with the co-operation of the Singapore Botanical Gardens. It has 220 of the more than 1,300 species of the ginger family. Just listening to the names of some them displayed on aluminium plates and assembled from tropical Africa, South America and from around South East Asia should show what a wonderful place The Princess is to relax: Red-Hot Cat’s Trail, Song of India, Firecracker plant, Coral Plant, Torch Ginger, Angel Wing, Rain of Gold, Peacock plant and Pinewheel Ginger, to name but a few.
I sat down to afternoon coffee and a chat with M. Jean-Philippe Beghin, the general manager at the Terrace Restaurant, which overlooks the beach and the resort's largest swimming pool. I remarked on how beautiful the beach was, especially with the view of the lighthouse on its rocky islet.
‘Yes’ he says, ‘it is a shallow beach which means less wind.’ Although as he speaks, we are entertained by the para-gliders getting lifted above the waves. ‘If there is a problem here, it is too much sand. Every year or so, it builds up so much we have to bulldoze some away.”
Jean Philippe explains that although the resort is ideally placed next to an authentic fishing village and there is the opportunity to hire a bicycle or motorbike to explore the Vietnamese countryside on its doorstep, many guests are content to simply rest up in the resort and on the sands. The Princess, I learn, is at pains to be environmentally friendly with its B sewage treatment system that enables water to be recycled for the gardens. It also is concerned to be of benefit to the local community and recruits 50 per cent of its staff from the nearby village. They also actively make presentations to local school leavers.
Jean Philippe notices some interesting trends. A while ago the guests were mainly from abroad. Now, as the hotel begins to sell by its own bush, they have 40 per cent occupancy from locals and foreign residents in the country. ‘We expect the ratio to be 50 next year,’ he says. ‘Another interesting thing is that we are beginning to receive guests from abroad coming for a nine or 10-day beach holiday, as people do in Thailand or Malaysia.’
The Spa occupies a two-storey building to the side of the beachfront restaurant and concierge. There are separate sections for men and women, and it has all the facilities you can imagine. At ground level are the steambath and sauna, while upstairs are the rooms for a soothing body massage, with views of the lighthouse and the forest to ease the soul. We noticed flagons of olive-oil coloured lotions set by the tables and a large bathtub for water treatments.
Not only will your muscles and spirit be rejuvenated by the Princess, but with high-class gastonomy, she also caters for your stomach. We had a light lunch. My daughter and I feasted on two pizzas: one a hot and fiery Diavola and the other a Margherita with the colours of the Italian flag---cheese for white, tomato for green, and fresh basil for green. My wife had a traditional Vietnamese Mi Xao Hai San (stir-fried seafood noodles).
Mai’s eyebrows were raised by the bill, which came to over VND800,000 ($38.10). It was National Day, so most of the guests were Vietnamese, and she overheard others mumbling about the prices. In fairness we would have to say that these prices would actually seem cheap for someone coming here from England, given the luxury surroundings in which the meals are served. The main point is: the food is good.
For dinner I found a surprise Lebanese mezze. My daughter and I enjoyed the hummus, tahina, mattabal and tabbouleh exotica served with pitta bread. For me it brought back memories of the Middle East and would have gone down well with half a bottle of arrack, but a glass of Two Oceans white wine from South Africa did the trick just as well. Mai enjoyed the fish in clay pot (Ca Kho To) with white rice and vegetables.
I need not have worried that first day I discovered Ke Ga all those years ago. The appearance of a luxury resort hotel here has enhanced the splendour of the wild coast. Congratulations to both the provincial Binh Thuan government and the doughty foreign investors who have brought the Princess here. I was just being selfish. Now many more people can come enjoy this still unspoiled area and recharge their batteries. Of course, you can find accommodation here to suit all budgets, but if you can afford to pay a little more, the Princess is the perfect place for a totally uplifting physical and spiritual makeover. She provides a perfect antidote to the rigours of modern living.n
Princess D’Annam Resort & Spa
Hon Lan, Tan Thanh Commune, Ham Thuan Nam Dist., Binh Thuan Province
Tel: (062) 3682-222