““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Vietnam’s Central Coast
Historically, Vietnam’s scenic central coast has been the seat of kings, emperors, exalted colonial administrators and heroes from both sides of the country’s long war. Anchored by the fast-developing city of Da Nang at its center and incorporating the ancient feudal capital Hue to the north and Hoi An to the south, the region is fast becoming as famous for its sun, sand and sea as for its unique history, with a little help from the biggest brands in luxury hospitality.
Forbes dubbed the half-mile My Khe beach one of the most beautiful in the world, but My Khe—better known to Americans as China Beach, the name conferred by GIs on wartime R&R there—is just one section of a 19-mile sand-fringed shoreline stretching from Da Nang in the north to Cua Dai in Hoi An. Backed by the Marble Mountains, the Furama was the first major resort to open here (in 1999), but the development boom really began with the multi-award-winning, visually arresting Nam Hai resort in 2006.
Combining ancient architectural and cultural traditions with contemporary design, architect Reda Amalou envisioned each guest room at this all-villa property as an exquisite, modern interpretation of the traditional Vietnamese nha ruong, or “house of panels.” Colonnaded, open-plan interiors support multilayered terracotta tiled roofs handcrafted by local artisans. A central platform inspired by the Vietnamese phan—a multipurpose stage where visitors are greeted, meals are eaten and the family sleeps—accommodates a desk, sunken eggshell-lacquered bath, flat-screen TV and cushy king-size bed. Villas are arranged in horseshoes so that every guest has an ocean view, and the resort is centered by high-style communal buildings and three pools to which superlatives simply don’t do justice.
Other standout luxury properties followed soon after. Beach resort hotel Hyatt Regency Danang and all-inclusive spa resort Fusion Maia opened in 2011 (as did a few monstrous developments preemptively erected to house the hordes of gamblers expected to stream in from China and Hong Kong). The spectacular InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, situated on the Son Tra peninsula, 30 minutes from the center of Da Nang City, started welcoming guests last August. Sheltered by Monkey Mountain on its own private bay, this small township of contemporary tropical mansions offers visitors an opportunity to traverse the slope from the resort’s crest to the crescent of sand by boat-shaped funicular lift.
At Citron, the property’s flagship restaurant, diners sit in air-conditioned al-fresco booths perched about 325 feet above sea level. Michelin three-starred chef Michael Roux OBE of London’s Le Gavroche began his tenure at the resort’s French mansion-styled gourmet outlet La Maison 1888 last December.
Farther up the coast toward Hue, the pioneering eco-luxe brand Banyan Tree launched its first Vietnam resort on a two-mile, rugged mountain-backed beach in Lang Co Bay in November last year.
In fact, more luxury resorts, golf courses and entertainment complexes are being built on this stretch of shoreline than anywhere else in the country. When the first nine holes of the Montgomerie Links opened in 2008, the course attracted a steady stream of accolades within Vietnam and abroad. Danang Golf Club’s 18-hole Dunes Course followed in 2010 and, with at least five more clubs planned in the area in the next few years, Da Nang is emerging as a key regional destination for golfers.
But why Da Nang? From a developer’s point of view, the city is primed for growth. It’s at the center of the government-designated Central Economic Zone and has expanded rapidly in recent years to rank as Vietnam’s third-largest city. Trump cards include a well-thought-out infrastructure and pro-development administration, but for most visitors, the city itself has little to offer in the way of sights or entertainment. Da Nang’s appeal lies in its proximity to the beach, new golf courses and some of Vietnam’s oldest attractions.
This part of the central coast was the stronghold of the ancient Champa Kingdom, established by Indonesian settlers in A.D. 192. At its peak, the Chams controlled what is now central and southern Vietnam, but conflicts with their northern neighbors eventually led to their fall during the mid-15th century. Many of Vietnam’s Cham towers are still standing, and one of the most significant sites is UNESCO World Heritage Center My Son, about 40 miles southwest of Da Nang. Almost like a mini Angkor or Ayuthaya, this collection of ruined, moss-covered 4th to 14th century Hindu temples was an important intellectual and religious center and perhaps the longest-inhabited site in Southeast Asia.
Fifteen miles southeast of Da Nang, the UNESCO World Heritage list-inscribed Hoi An was established as a port town and an important trading point in the 16th and 17th centuries. In its heyday, Hoi An was renowned for, among other things, its high-grade silks, and today it seems that cheap tailoring has surpassed cultural heritage as the town’s main money spinner. Many visitors jump at the chance to get a bespoke suit or haute couture copy for a snip of a Western price tag, but the town’s charming museums, temples and eateries set within centuries-old European, Chinese, Indian and Japanese-built houses are the real reason to linger.
Hoi An’s iconic covered Japanese Bridge, constructed by Japanese merchants in the 16th century, marks one boundary of the old center. While the merchant ships have long since sailed, local tradespeople still peddle their carvings, sculptures and silks from well-preserved traditional shop houses, and every month the quaint cobbled streets come alive with light and color as strings of lanterns are lit to celebrate various festivals. The town’s litany of cozy bars and restaurants also do a brisk trade in tasty, unbelievably cheap fare—don’t miss Nguyen Duc’s Mango Rooms for its creative contemporary Asian fusion menu and a chance to meet the enigmatic Duc himself, and the silken cushion-strewn, opium-bed-endowed Q Bar for after-dinner cocktails.
Roughly 15 miles inland from Da Nang City on Vong Nguyet Mountain, overlooking Ba Na National Park to the north, former French-colonial-era hill station Ba Na was recently reinstated as a temperate vacation retreat with the addition of new hotels, restaurants and the world’s longest, fastest single-line cable car, which whisks visitors up more than 4,238 feet across three miles of unspoiled forests. And on the other side of Da Nang, two hours along the legendary 15th century Mandarin Road, you’ll find the old Imperial capital.
Hue City is a place of scenic beauty, seasonal extremes and landscapes and architecture that have inspired poetry, songs and stories of forbidden love since Nguyen Phuc Anh, later Emperor Gia Long, chose the valley as the new seat of Vietnam’s ruling dynasty in 1802. The Nguyen kings prized perfection in all things, attracting the nation’s top craftsmen, artists, religious figures and eminent scholars to the city during their 150-year reign. Construction began on the banks of the Perfume River when the Nguyen lords came into power in the early 1800s, and within the stone perimeter walls of the citadel Emperor Gia Long created his Forbidden Purple City to impress the new dynasty’s power upon both their enemies and subjects. Unfortunately, of the 1,200 monuments constructed during the dynasty, only 300 remained after the Vietnam War, but these palaces, temples and tombs scattered throughout the valley provide fascinating glimpses into the country’s feudal era.
Of the 13 emperors who ruled Vietnam from Hue, several were honored with opulent royal tombs. At the tomb of Minh Mang, the perfectly aligned symmetry of 40 ochre buildings and peeling red gateways are complemented by the rugged beauty of the vast, mirror-like lakes and the ranks of pine trees that stand like silent sentinels on the banks. Khai Dinh’s tomb uses more modern materials. Here, obelisks and minarets shaped like South Asian stupas symbolize dynastic stability and majesty.
Although the ancient architecture and culture of the feudal court is the most prominent attraction, Hue’s cityscape has also been fashioned by the French, and 60 years since they lost their clout in Vietnam their legacy remains evident. Rambling colonial mansions flank leafy boulevards. Moped drivers grab toasted baguette sandwiches from street hawkers on the way home from work. Truong Tien Bridge, constructed by the Paris-based Eiffel company, looks strangely reminiscent of something you might find in the French capital, and enjoying a drip filter ca phe is now as quintessentially Vietnamese as the conical hat. But nowhere is Gallic flair stronger than at La Residence Hotel & Spa. Built in 1930 as part of the governor’s official home, the 122-room hotel features a bowed façade, long horizontal lines and nautical porthole windows that are straight out of the Streamline Moderne School of art deco architecture.
After a 40-year hiatus, Vietnam’s star is ascendant once again and Da Nang is literally and figuratively at its apex. Both the gateway to some of Vietnam’s heritage sites and the country’s most eminent luxury travel destination, it is being touted as the next Phuket or Bali. Horwarth Hospitality Consulting calls it the “next great beach destination in Asia.”
You’d better go now, before everyone else does.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (A+): From regal beachfront bungalows inspired by royal residences to boutique hotels set within the former home of French colonial governors, the accommodations here are luxurious and thoroughly in keeping with the region’s history. You won’t want to leave.
CUISINE (B+): While you can find great restaurants along the central coast, they’re not particularly numerous. It’s best to ask your concierge for a list of recommendations and stick to it to avoid disappointment.
ACTIVITIES (A+): From mountains to marine parks, ancient relics to brand spanking new, fully integrated resorts and outstanding golfing, shopping and culinary experiences, you’ll never run out of things to see and do.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: Vietnam’s central coast is midway between northern capital Hanoi and southern commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City and roughly an hour’s flight from each. Anchored by Da Nang, the country’s fastest-growing city, the central coast is famous for its beach, golf courses, five-star resorts and UNESCO-listed sites.
CLIMATE: Da Nang has a monsoonal climate with a wet season from September through March and a dry season from April through August. Temperatures are typically high, with an annual average of 79 degrees F, a high between June and August of about 92 degrees F and a low between December and February of around 65 degrees F. Humidity averages 81 percent annually, and annual rainfall averages 99 inches.
CURRENCY: Vietnam dong, currently valued at 20,835 to the U.S. dollar.
GETTING THERE: Unlike many of Vietnam’s aesthetically stunning yet hard-to-reach beaches, Da Nang is easily accessible from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by air, rail and sea, and, in addition to these two cities, is the only international port of entry where you can get a prearranged visa on arrival.
The deep port supports not only cargo boats, but also cruise ships; and Da Nang’s new four-million-visitor-capacity downtown airport opened at the end of 2011 to serve domestic traffic, a handful of regional charters and flights from Singapore aboard SilkAir and Jetstar. TNT Charter Handler Company can make arrangements for private aircraft. You should submit paperwork at least five days before arrival. For more information and quotes for type of aircraft and length of stay, visit tnt-vietnam.com. If you opt to fly commercially, consider Korean Air, which recently launched flights from Seoul (four hours) and offers direct flights from Los Angeles and New York to Seoul aboard its new A380 aircraft. In March, Cathay Pacific began offering three direct weekly flights, for a six-month trial period, from Hong Kong to Da Nang as part of its Dragonair network.