One man escapes frenetic Saigon to find serenity on a remote resort in Nha Trang
Reclining in a speedboat looking back at the jetty I watch the two An Lam Villas Ninh Van Bay staff who greeted me at the mainland check-in facility waving to me. It’s as if they represent the real world saying goodbye as I am whisked across the bay to the isolated resort which will be home for two short days.
Some 15 minutes later, more immaculately groomed, smiling staff are standing at the end of another jetty. The resort is built amidst enormous granite boulders and natural fauna, on the shores of Ninh Van Bay. Inaccessible by road, it is serenely beautiful, silent, relaxing and safe – everything Ho Chi Minh City is not.
From the moment the shuttle turned off the north-south highway onto a short, narrow road to the waterside check-in 16km north of Nha Trang, the pampering experience begins: refreshing towels, a welcoming Champagne or freshly squeezed juice and the obligatory paperwork, including a checklist of any personal dietary requirements or preferences, hints at any recreational activities I might wish to indulge in and how discreet I prefer my butler service.
Unfamiliar as I am with butler etiquette, given my distinctly commoner upbringing, I tick “discreet.” Phu, who greets me at the pier and leads me to my first room, turns out to redefine the term.
The room is a Hill Rock Villa, with a peep of the bay. There’s a double bathroom opening onto a private pool, long enough for these old bones to manage three strokes per length. There are indoor and outdoor showers and a bath resting before a large window overlooking a private garden.
Up a short flight of stairs is a lounge with a fully stocked wine cooler, a mini-bar fridge, espresso machine and twin sofas – yet open on all four sides so one feels part of the wilderness. More stairs lead to the bedroom, the only room air-conditioned (and the only one that needs it), with an enormous bed veiled in a flowing white mosquito net and an expansive deck for an in-room breakfast, overlooking the pool and the bush. Here, there is a satellite-connected TV for diehard city folk. (There is also free WiFi and good mobile phone reception throughout the resort, despite its remoteness).
An Lam Villas Ninh Van Bay is no cookie cutter Asian beach resort. The whole concept is based on respecting the ecological hinterland, celebrating Vietnam’s food and culture, and service. There are 33 villas, their guests looked after by a 200-strong army of staff to ensure no one wants for anything after they set foot ashore.
Chief Operating Officer Antoine Sirot hopes guests experience Vietnam “in the architecture, our food and the music.” You can take a class in understanding the origins of Vietnamese coffee and how to make a great cafe sua da. There are cooking classes, yoga lessons and the personal butlers will happily share with guests the country’s culture and history.
The staff at An Lam are as memorable as the setting. Everywhere I went I was greeted genuinely by the team, no matter what their role. That, explains Sirot, is no accident. “Our staff are not trained like robots to do this and do that; they are guided. Their characters and personalities will shine through. We motivate the staff to make the guests happy, not make management happy.”
As I enjoy an astonishingly delicious five-course Italian set dinner on my first night, that character shines through. Phu appears, like a friendly apparition from nowhere – he tends to do this the entire trip; I never see him arrive or disappear. He asks about my meal and I quiz him about what it’s like working at the resort. Conversation comes freely and naturally.
The next morning while I soak in my private pool, I am acutely aware the only sounds are the chattering of geckos, invisible in the high ceilings, and tall bamboo trunks whispering in the breeze. I cannot hear or see any other guests. Butterflies of many colors dawdle by, skimming over the trembling water surface. I might as well be in the middle of paradise. Oh wait, I am.
Standing on its Own
Later, after an hour-long trek through the bush to an enormous granite boulder from which you can see for miles across the island-dusted bay, and a subsequent 45 minute neck and shoulder massage in the onsite spa – I am taken to my next room, a Lagoon Villa. This is a larger, single story bungalow, with all of the same facilities as the other, but with a gorgeous deep bath carved from an enormous rock.
The villas all range in size from 80sqm to more than 150sqm. They were built around and into the existing terrain: on the hillside, no two are the same due to the bold rock formations in the hills behind the resort.
The resort is as self-sufficient as possible: it pipes its own water from natural springs in the hills, generates its own electricity, grows many of its own vegetables (the rest are farmed organically in Dalat), and even has its own lobster farm.
On rare occasions, trekkers might spot an endangered monkey with a white face and tail tip – a species now so rare it can only be found on this peninsula. But they’re shy of humans and won’t come too close. One morning, a mischievous squirrel augmented an avian dawn chorus outside my villa one morning. There are also blue headed salamanders, lizards, wild deer and pigs. But generally, wildlife is a rare sight.
Guests here typically stay seven or eight days on average, but the record is a German couple who, for three years running, have escaped the northern hemisphere winter for three months.
After two glorious nights’ sleep, the largest, most filling dinners and breakfasts I can recall, endless smiles and fresh air I’ve not experienced in years, it’s sadly time to go. As I sit on the back of the boat looking back at An Lam Villas Ninh Van Bay’s jetty, eight staff stand and wave in unison, farewelling me back to the real world.