Thomas Hyde travels to Vietnam
to find out why the Central Coast
has become thIS Southeast Asian
country’s new tourism star.
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with that. Someone suggested to me that Vietnam’s
Central Coast today is like Australia’s Gold Coast 50 years
ago. Maybe; I’m not old enough to know.
But the Central Coast is home to the famed China
Beach and a series of other user-friendly beaches. And
though legacies of the country’s war-torn past can still be
seen in places, today they’ve been pushed aside to make
way for a string of new resorts and organised activities
that give the region its modern identity.
Minutes after leaving the (new) international airport at
Da Nang, we were driving through the 6.3-kilometre Hai
Van Tunnel, the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia, which
opened in 2005. Soon after that, the South China Sea
came into view on one side of the highway, rice paddies
and residential districts on the other.
LAGUNA LANG CO
Before long, my driver turned off the main road and
steered us out to the coast, to Laguna Lang Co – thus far
the only fully integrated resort in the region and only a few
months old. By “fully integrated” I mean Laguna Lang Co is
a beach resort with two hotels, a collection of restaurants,
swimming pools, water sports, a spa, a Nick Faldo-designed
golf course, retail shops, art galleries, meeting rooms, a
library, bars, complimentary iPads and WiFi and other
trimmings, all on the same 280-hectare site.
Developed by a partnership of Angsana and Banyan
Tree hotels, the suites and villas here overlook the
beach and the sea. Their beautiful interiors express local
architectural themes and most have private pools just
outside the sliding doors. “Banyan Tree hotels were the
first to create the ‘pool villa’,” I was told. The main pool was
a family friendly waterway winding along the beachfront.
Angsana Lang Co is a 229-suite beach hotel that
stylistically merges traditional Vietnamese aesthetics
and materials like silk, lacquer, bamboo and rattan with
contemporary interiors designs and colour schemes
reflecting the seaside locale. In contrast, Banyan Tree
villas, farther along the beach, are best reached by a
complimentary shuttle boat that chugs along a man-made
canal, lit up at night with colourful lanterns.
Here, the 32 adults-only Lagoon Villas have pitched tiled
ith more direct flights to Da
Nang from Singapore, Hong
Kong and Bangkok opening this
year, Vietnam’s Central Coast
and its attractive beaches on the
South China Sea have become
much easier to reach. The added flights will save travellers
having to connect through Ho Chi Minh City, and while
the former Saigon may be of interest to some, the new
action is found in and around Da Nang.
I arrived there after three days in Ho Chi Minh City,
an urban maze of 10 million people and nearly as many
motorbikes. But the big city proved too frenetic for me so
I welcomed the escape to the quieter, breezier Da Nang,
under an hour away by air. A driver was waiting, as arranged
by Golf Coast Vietnam in partnership with Central Coast
Vietnam, two tourist associations whose very existence
speaks to the new efforts to promote travel to this region.
Vietnam attracted about 7 million international visitors
last year. That was an increase of about 15 per cent over
the previous year and the Central Coast has a lot to do
Central Coasttoday is
like Australia’s Gold
Coastwas 50years ago.”
World Magazine | 157156 | E x p e c t t h e e x c e p t i o n a l
socially, with direct access to the pool and the beach.”
Laguna Lang Co is about a 50-minute drive north of Da
Nang and somewhat off the beaten track, so I was curious:
how do they manage supplies? “We look at what is easy
to get and what is fresh, so seafood is good,” Reinhold
said. “We are very careful about chicken and pork; beef is
imported from New Zealand and Australia. Good fruit and
vegetables are here, but we rely on proven suppliers. We
have a hygiene lab and a hygiene manager on the property,
so with all local suppliers we check out their shops to see
that they are clean and meet our standards.”
Australian Tim Haddon, the general manager of the golf
course at Laguna Lang Co, was director of golf at the Blue
Canyon Country Club in Thailand when he was recruited by
Banyan Tree in 2000 as its director of instruction. He was
on the job here with Nick Faldo and his team from day one.
“Time was important,” he explained, “so from the day we
broke ground the course took only 18 months to complete.
“We settled on Faldo,” he explained, “because he had
a very good team and he brings the Faldo Series, a series
of national golf tournaments for young players, which are
popular in Asia. The Vietnam tournament will be held here
for at least the next three years.”
roofs, interior ceiling fans hanging from wooden rafters,
Vietnamese calligraphy, traditional sculpture and ceramics
and, perhaps most important of all, a walled garden for
ultimate privacy. The beach and another 18 Beach Villas are
reached via a private path about 100 metres away.
Guests of either of the two hotels can enjoy local
cuisine in their rooms or even on the beach, but
from what I observed most dined at one of the eight
restaurants, which range from the fine-dining Thai menu
at Saffron to Western style lunches and snacks all day
long at Thu Quan, on the beach. I met Reinhold Johann,
the resort’s German-born general manager, for lunch at
The Watercourt restaurant, where the ambience is casual
and the menu is “modern French Vietnamese”.
Reinhold is a trained chef who has worked in more
than a dozen countries. Over time, he moved into
management and in 2007 was recruited by Banyan Tree
to open a hotel in China. He opened another in Bali
before coming here. “The two hotels here,” he confirmed,
“attract a totally different market. “Angsana has many
different categories of rooms and is more family oriented.
Banyan Tree villas are all one bedroom and set up for
couples looking for privacy. Angsana is more vibrant
The coastal region
of Vietnam in
and around Da
Nang boasts fine
string of new
and resorts and
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Back in Da Nang, I checked into Fusion Maia, a new
wellness resort hotel on China Beach with an all-
inclusive spa. Fusion Maia, a member of Healing
Hotels of the World, includes two complimentary spa
treatments per guest per day – all treatments included
in the room rate.
Fusion Maia has 80 pool villas, four two-bedroom
spa villas and two three-bedroom beach villas. Its two
restaurants and bars are open all day and guests receive
a complimentary iPad, if required, for the free WiFi
throughout the property. If not on a day trip to Hoi
An or Hue, guests commonly relax on the beach or
around an Olympic-size pool. Once a week the hotel
features a sumptuous beach barbecue and, it may be my
imagination, but I swear I overheard one Aussie voice
shout with glee: “Hey, shrimp on the barbie!”
One morning, over a pot of herbal tea, I met Louk
Lennaerts, the resort’s founder and, according to his
business card, its “Chief Visionary Officer”. Born in
Holland and a former development officer for the
United Nations, Louk built Fusion Maia.
“About six years ago,” he recalled, “I met a Vietnamese
fellow who had this particular land through his family. He
wanted a five-star hotel. The land is about 100 metres
wide and 400 metres long and we couldn’t change that, so
I came up with the idea of small bungalows laid out in a
pattern similar to the Forbidden City in Hue.
“We couldn’t give everyone a sea view but we could
give them a private pool; and in Vietnam privacy is a
luxury. We are generally fully booked, but the result of
that means that when you walk around the grounds you
wonder, where are the people? It never feels crowded.
“But, most important, we didn’t want a spa just to have
a spa. We wanted our spa to be the reason people came.
So we built treatments into the room rate and we now
have 80 therapists working here treating each guest at
least two times a day if that’s what they want.”
The next morning I hopped on one of the hotel’s
complimentary shuttles to the ancient trading port of
ABOVE: The famous
China Beach is the
exotic setting for
the wellness resort
hotel Fusion Maia.
TOP LEFT: Bamboo
Maia; the resort
reflected in the
16th hole, Da Nang
Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s best known
today as a place to have clothes tailored cheaply. In fact,
some of the streets in Hoi An are little more than one
fabric shop after another.
After a brief walkabout, I chose a shop at random, was
efficiently measured up and after lunch at a nearby café
returned to collect my things. By then, time was short, so I
hailed a taxi and headed back up the highway for stops at
the Da Nang Golf Club and, next to it, Montgomerie Links
– two other new golf courses that, together with Laguna
Lang Co, form the region’s must-play trio.
These two golf courses, one designed by Greg
Norman and the other by Colin Montgomerie, are ranked
first and second in Vietnam. There are only 36 golf
courses altogether in Vietnam, with another 18 under
construction. But for now, three of the best are found
on the Central Coast. One tip for readers planning a golf
holiday here: the best time to play is from December
to April, when the temperature is cooler. Summer
remperatures commonly top 40C.
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I couldn’t fly to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam and
one of the country’s most attractive cities, because the
airport there was closed for renovations. Instead, I hired
a driver in Danang for the two-hour road trip. Paying a
driver NZ$140 for the return trip was a better option than
catching a crowded public bus or deciphering the train
schedule. And my driver turned up at Fusion Maia in an
air-conditioned Toyota with fruit and sandwiches in a
picnic basket and a bottle of cold water!
We sped north through villages and retail districts selling
everything under the sun: hardware, tyres, paint supplies,
machinery, marble sculptures, logs, carpets, auto parts,
flowers, American baseball caps, plastic tubing, cigarettes,
motorbikes, corrugated iron, Buddhist prayer boxes, children’s
toys, rattan furniture and LPG canisters. On every corner, it
seemed, men sat in grimy cafés playing board games.
Meanwhile, my driver displayed the home-grown skill
of tooting the horn as he weaved through traffic like a
slalom skier. Only in this case there were no road markings
or even lanes – just heat and dust and every vehicle for
itself. Later, I read that the annual reported road toll in
Vietnam was more than 5,000.
Hue, the ancient capital with a human history as old
as the land itself, is today a vibrant cultural centre of
350,000 souls known for its music, art and literature.
Unquestionably, the best hotel in town is La Residence,
a French Colonial heritage building found in a quiet, leafy
part of town someone described to me as “Old Hue”.
La Residence was originally a government mansion
built by the French in 1930 in the art deco style. After the
wars it was occupied by the Vietnamese Government
as a mere administrative block until the 1990s, when the
country began to open up to tourism.
Ironically, it was a French company, in partnership with
the Government, that refurbished the building and added
two new wings, transforming it into the charming, elegant
122-room hotel it is today. Its guests have included the
Prime Minister of France, the Queen of Denmark and the
actor Danny DeVito, who, the manager told me, was “a
very nice guy”.
La Residence is a member of MGallery Hotels, a
collection of unique hotels managed by Accor. The group
includes the St. Moritz in Queenstown and Harbour
Rocks in Sydney. When I arrived at La Residence the
thermometer was hitting 42C, so after checking in I went
straight to the hotel’s air-conditioned restaurant, La
Parfume, for a cold Saigon Red and a lunch of cool garden
spring rolls and, yes, another beer.
At sunset, I stood outside on a small balcony looking
across a park to the Perfume River, where a red-orange
sky provided a backdrop for more than 40 kites flying in
a cool evening breeze. An oversized Vietnamese flag, red
with a yellow star in the centre, fluttered from atop the
flag tower of the Imperial City. Before turning out the
light, I read some Vietnamese history in preparation for a
guided tour the next morning...
OPPOSITE: Built by
the French in 1930,
La Residence, sitting
beside the Perfume
River in the ancient
capital of Hue, is
today an elegant
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From the early 1800s until 1945, Vietnam was ruled by 14
emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. By 1945, the communist
guerrilla force formed to fight Japanese occupation during
World War II had also forced the abdication of Bao Dai,
the last of the Nguyen rulers. The communists took their
fight for control of the country to the French, the original
colonial rulers and, with the defeat of the French in 1954,
the Americans, who in the span of a few short years left
most of South Vietnam, including Hue, in ruins.
At the time, La Residence was the home of the
provincial governor, a brother of Vietnam’s corrupt
President, Ngo Dinh Diem, who, in the mindlessness of
the time, was eventually assassinated by the American
CIA. His brother, meanwhile, fled La Residence and was
eventually tracked down and shot by the communists,
who in turn took over control of the mansion.
My guide, Duong Chi Cam Van (or “Van”) worked for
the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre, an organisation
dedicated to rebuilding the city’s precious monuments
and temples. We walked from the hotel to the bank of
Perfume River, where we boarded a dragon boat – that is,
a long boat with a dragon head for a prow. We took seats
on plastic chairs set out on a linoleum-lined deck. The
boatman lived at the back with his wife and three young
children. We chugged up-river and soon pulled into the
opposite bank, where steps led up to the oldest Buddhist
pagoda in Hue.
Built in 1601, monks still live on each of the pagoda’s
seven storeys (seven being a lucky number in Vietnam).
The pagoda stands on a 2ha property with two more
temples, a graveyard, a residence for monks and a kitchen
where young interns were preparing lunch.
Outside again, a driver was waiting to take us back along
the river to the Citadel and what remains of the original
Imperial City. The layout of the Imperial City was copied
from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Scaffolding covers the
Citadel’s main gates – gates that arch high to allow the
progress of elephants that once passed through them.
Inside the Imperial City there was little activity apart
from small tour groups moving in and out of the tombs
and temples that survived the wars. “Plans are to rebuild
the entire city as it was before,” Van said. “But it takes
money we don’t have right now.”
We stopped at the tomb of Minh Mang, the second
Nguyen Emperor, who, Van said, had 500 wives, 78 sons and
64 daughters. Make of that what you will, but feel sorry for
the fourth Nguyen Emperor, who had 100 wives but had
mumps as a child and produced no children at all.
After a final restful night at La Residence, a driver took
me back to Da Nang for my return flight to Ho Chi Minh
City and the connecting flight on to Singapore and finally
Auckland. I was left with one final thought: hoping that it
would not be too long before I had the opportunity to
return. It’s only a hunch, but I suspect emergent Vietnam still
has hidden layers I had not even begun to appreciate.
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