Passion pays: Off the beaten path in south Vietnam

A peaceful and luxurious detour, far away from the country’s high-energy cities

“What is luxury?” is a question that keeps popping up in discussions and marketing forums across the world. The 2010s’ definition of luxury is far removed from the late 20th century version. Blame it on the millennials; the new quest for ‘real experiences’ has altered luxury from the definition in your father’s book. When I first made plans for Amanoi — the Aman’s only resort in Vietnam, the hotel’s team made just one request and I complied.

I arrived at the Cam Ranh airport after four action-packed days in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Time that I spent sampling street food, navigating busy local markets, amazed at the sheer volume of bikes and two-wheelers. Indians are no strangers to chaotic traffic but 45 million bikes in a country of 93 million people is a heck of a lot.

I enjoyed the raw energy of the country’s two largest cities and it’s only when I started leaving Cam Ranh Bay behind that I truly started to slow things down in Vietnam. The Amanoi team’s request that I save their resort for the last leg of the trip started to make eminent sense. I didn’t just savour the delights of this luxury abode but also discovered a corner of Vietnam away from tourist trails.

Stunning vistas

I could sense that the resort’s chauffeurs were used to making many photo stops towards the end of the 100-minute journey. The vistas of tropical mountains and cliffs that overlook the South China Sea have to rank among the most scenic drives in South East Asia. My chauffeur asked me to conserve my enthusiasm for the last photo stop that overlooks the Vinh Hy village. I’m glad I did.

Aman resorts take their name from the Sanskrit word for peace, and the Amanoi translates into peaceful place.

Simple pleasures

With just over 30 luxury villas spread over a massive footprint, Amanoi allows you to truly get away from it all. It’s a sea change from the buzz on Hanoi’s streets or from your daily routine in your home city. Luxury in the 2010s is about life’s small pleasures like taking tea in the afternoon or reading a book without being interrupted by emails from your overbearing boss. Many of the villas are replete with private pools and views of the South China Sea.

While it’s tempting to spend a whole day at your private pool deck, the resort has multiple distractions on site. The first, a choice of dining venues, including an ocean facing deck where local Vietnamese cuisine shines. My favourite dining experience was watching the staff craft a refreshing glass of ice-cold Vietnamese coffee. Coffee is brewed drip-style (akin to South Indian filter coffee), blended with condensed milk and then stirred with countless ice cubes.

Then there’s a spa which is a world in itself with its own water body. Yoga sessions are a frequent fixture but most guests would rather lounge in a private room. Not all activities involve doing nothing. I spent an afternoon sailing and then plunged into the ocean with my snorkelling gear.

The local experience

Years ago, most travellers saw the region or city around the resort (of your choice) through a sanitised lens heavily controlled by itineraries set in stone. They missed real local experiences curtailed by their own inhibitions that seldom allowed them to stray out of their comfort zones. The 2010s traveller is clearly more adventurous and is always seeking to embrace local experiences.

My first discovery an hour from the Amanoi was the Po Klong Garai Cham Towers, a 13th Century Hindu temple complex. This fascinating complex on a hillock is renowned for a dancing Shiva with six arms, one of the most notable sculptures of this temple. The area is a hub for the Cham people, one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities who follow both Hinduism and Islam. The temple complex also offers panoramic views of the Nin Thuan province.

Street food and Vietnam are inseparable. Phan Rang city near Amanoi is a paradise for foodies, especially those who are not shy to experiment. No fancy restaurants here, just tiny food stalls that serve authentic local delicacies. I enjoyed every minute of my three-hour food trail that included a stop at a local night market. The highlight — Bánh xèo, that translates into sizzling cake. This sizzling pancake is made with a rice flour batter and topped with squid or shrimp, slivers of sliced pork and spices. Scrumptious.

It’s local experiences such as these that blended seamlessly with my stay at the resort, allowing me to experience Southern Vietnam at its very best. Nin Thuan province is truly one of Vietnam’s most scenic pockets, far removed its high-energy cities and busy tourist hubs. And yes, the drive back to the Cam Ranh airport at sunrise was just as beautiful.

The writer, a consultant for a global brand services firm, writes on travel, food and technology.

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