(No.6, Vol.2, June 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)
Things had changed a lot since my last visit in 1999. Back then my hair was brown and the tourists were mostly young backpackers. Now they were mostly retirees and greyer even than I now am. This time being with a guide I had a greater appreciation of the former international port made famous by Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and other European trading nations only to be supplanted by nearby Danang. Demographics having changed, there is now less demand for partying in town and staying in small inns after a hard day's look at the museum city of Hoi An. The market has responded to this change and I should like to introduce you to an idyllic garden retreat resort with its own beach facing the Cham archipelago just seven kilometres to the north of the hustle and bustle. In spite of its location, this is a place which, with its artefacts and quaint paintings, never lets you forget you are in an area of great cultural and historic interest.
The moment you drive through the gates and see a multitude of coconut palms set among bright flowering bushes you realise this is a place of great beauty created by a landscape gardener of distinction. It is so large in fact that a shuttle buggy is needed to transport you to your room or villa. The moment you enter reception with its tropical hardwood pillars and beams, and which is in fact an ancient community hall transplanted from a village in the north of the country, you realise that Vietnamese heritage is a notable feature of this place. As I checked in front office manager Mr Nhan explained they had another of these historic buildings in which the library is housed. Visiting it later I discovered with its open sides it is an ideal place to sit, read and watch the kids in the play area in front of it. In addition there is a 200-year-old wooden church saved from an uncertain fate which now serves as the resort’s Vietnamese restaurant. A further cultural feature to be found both indoors and dotted around the gardens are the replica terra cotta statues of Cham gods and apsaras (dancing girls). I took the opportunity to enquire about the meaning of the resort's name. “‘A play on words’, said Mr Nhan, ‘bel ami’ is French for good friend while the beach here is called ‘Ha My’.”
Soon I was whisked off to my villa designed in traditional Vietnamese style with a red tiled roof and dark wooden interior with beams and high rafters. It was very similar to my sister-in-law’s in the Phan Thiet countryside except that this was kitted out with every creature comfort imaginable. There was a wide four poster bed, a wide screen TV, a beautiful curved bathtub and walk in shower as well as a well stocked mini fridge, coffee and tea making facility and on a side table a bowl of complimentary tropical fruit. On the walls there hang a series of prints of idyllic scenes from ancient Hoi An City. Outside in the high walled garden was quite a sizable swimming pool for my own private use. As if this was not enough one of the resort’s two large swimming pools was just outside the garden gate and a few steps beyond that the pristine hawker free beach.
After relaxing a while, chomping on the freshest pineapple and papaya and a quick dip in the pool I was taken on a tour of the villas by Mr Nhan. In addition to the Vietnamese design there are others of Japanese and Chinese architecture and interior design. The latter are arranged along a canal crossed by several arched bridges reminding one of the Grand Canal. Some are designed for couples. Others with an upstairs and downstairs could house a family or two couples. The largest villas with their own access to the beach can accommodate up to six adults.
I ate only French food although as I mentioned already Vietnamese fare is of course on offer too. It was so tasty that I asked to meet the chef to compliment him or her. I was a little surprised when I was introduced to a young Vietnamese woman in her mid 20s. For lunch I had tomato soup with bread rolls and butter for an entree. This was followed by seafood pasta with a mixed salad of black olives, tomato and lettuce on the same large platter. Last came a mouth watering tiramisu in a long glass, a layered dessert of ice cream with sifted cocoa powder on top and cake and biscuit. Delicious enough as it is, if I were making it I would take a tip from the English trifle recipe and add a dash of sherry to the cake layer.
At dinner there were more diners as guests had returned from sightseeing. I should tell you that the resort has a regular shuttle bus service into town. This time it was a mixed vegetable soup followed by a seafood rice dish close to a Spanish paella but with ordinary rather than saffron rice. It consisted of clams in their shells, chicken, pork and squid and was so filling that I only had room for the traditional Vietnamese fruit dessert.
I ate my meals in the company of the owners, Monsieur Georges Guignon and his wife Kim Vinh. Georges’ parents were French and Vietnamese. Georges and Kim designed the interiors of the Victoria Hotel chain in Vietnam notably in Phan Thiet, Sapa and Can Tho before creating Le Belhamy. Amazingly Georges says they did it all themselves – the architecture, the interiors and the gardens and pools. ‘Ah’ he sighed, ‘C'était le travail du Titan’, adding ‘but once I started I could not finish.’ Titanic work it may have been but luckily they did not run into any icebergs. We and some of the staff spoke mostly French that weekend giving me the chance to upgrade my rusty knowledge of that language.
There is a tennis court at the Le Belhamy and I would have liked to have shot a few aces across its netting but unfortunately my body is just not toned up for such activity, and I feared a sprained ankle or the agony of a pulled muscle. So I opted for the more appropriate alternative, namely a trip to the on site spa. I underwent the one hour Le Belhamy signature massage and came away feeling like a new man though not quite ready to take on Federer. This was a very methodical massage with 15 minutes spent on working on and around each limb. Apart from the massage parlour all the usual services of a ‘spa’ are on offer including steam bath and sauna.
The morning of departure came all too soon. After a large buffet breakfast of international and Vietnamese fare I found myself being driven in the hotel’s limousine to Danang Airport in the company of manager and tour guide French speaking Mr Son, who pointed out places of interest on the way, war graves, the old American air base Non Nước beach and the Marble Mountains. Mr Son spoke impeccable French and his youthful plans to study at the Sorbonne I was to learn had been thwarted only by the onset of war. I had had the best of all worlds at Le Belhamy, history, art and architecture, botanical gardens, beach pool and bodily rejuvenation. Now it was back to return to the rigours of a hard daily work routine in Saigon but at least with the comforting thought that I now know where to find Eden when I need her.
Le Belhamy Resort and Spa
Dien Duong Vilage near Hoi An ancient town
Tel: (0510) 3941-888
Published room rates inclusive of taxes from $101 (VND2,121,000) for two adults at Hoi An Garden Residence Villa to $305 (VND6,405,000) for up to six adults at Beach Front Pool Villa. Children six years and under free.
Pictures: Traditional houses at Le Belhamy Resort and Spa