Going unplugged at An Lam Retreats Saigon River

One of the hottest trends in luxury hotels in recent years has been “digital detoxing”— encouraging guests to completely unplug from modern life with wellness in mind. To that end, resorts have used a combination of honey and vinegar—bribing guests into giving up their devices in return for discounts and providing a host of non-screen wellness activities or bringing down the hammer and physically locking up phones and creating no Wi-Fi zones.

While the luxe An Lam Retreats Saigon River (www.anlam.com) isn’t billed as a digital detox property, all the elements are there for a blissfully unplugged staycation.

Originally a posh private residence on the banks of the Saigon River, An Lam has expanded into 19 suites and villas set down a non-descript side street in Binh Duong, just north of Saigon. Most guests, however, arrive via a 25-minute complimentary shuttle boat ride from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, passing the restaurants and high rises of District 2 and quiet Thanh Da along the way, onto a stretch of the Saigon River barely known to even the city’s longtime residents. Not even half an hour from the city center and yet somehow a world away.

An Lam 2

We’re whisked to the riverside deck and choose a welcome drink from the extensive menu of wines, mocktails, cocktails and juices. There’s no reception area per se. Instead, An Lam uses a system of dedicated butlers, one person assigned to each room for the duration of the stay, thereby getting to know each guest. Our butler’s been in contact with us from even before our arrival, discreetly ascertaining our needs and wants and she now quickly takes care of formalities and shows us to our room, a gorgeous threeroom suite with its own plunge pool, study and designer bathroom. Throughout our stay, she’s our personal Siri, popping in and out to book spa appointments and shuttle boat rides and to suggest daily activities.

While Wi-Fi throughout the property is lightning fast, the quiet, natural surrounds of An Lam begin to take effect and we find ourselves going offline, the usually constant FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) replaced by simply reveling in the now. One afternoon, we meet with one of the chefs for a complimentary cooking class, the makings of spring rolls neatly laid out on a gigantic wooden table under the shade of a huge Chinese banyan tree. It feels good to focus on chopping and mixing, creating something tangible rather than digital. We learn the secret to making the perfect nuoc cham dipping sauce, starting with a base of 1:1 fish sauce and sugar, cooked over low heat to mellow out the flavors and making it wonderfully thick and glossy, then chilled for an hour to avoid cooking through the minced garlic and chilies. Later, we enjoy the crunchy spring rolls as an afternoon snack while watching the river flow on by. On another day, we join a walking tour of the beautiful gardens filled with dozens of species of ornamental plants and flowers, some resembling a string of bright red Chinese firecrackers, others showcasing dragon-like fronds, all dominated by towering banyans, their soft tendrils falling like curtains to create an aura of wild mystery. From fishing on the jetty to complimentary daily activities to lazing by the pretty pool, we find ourselves plugging
in to life instead.

 

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Savor The Moment

While the compact property is loaded with private little corners, gorgeous function rooms and even a scenic tree house, the one spot we find ourselves returning to again and again is the waterfront, the riverine heart of An Lam where we can almost feel our body rhythms recalibrating to the flow of the river. Our day starts there, with a leisurely breakfast where guests are encouraged to order as much as they like from a gourmet a la carte menu. We indulge in freshly baked breads, freshly squeezed juices and gorgeous meals of Eggs Florentine and homemade waffles with cinnamon. Our server prompts us to try a killer shrimp wonton soup and we happily oblige. Dinner at Tram’s Cookery, the resort’s main restaurant, is equally leisurely, with its exposed rafters, colorful lanterns and panoramic windows open to the elements. An Lam’s menu is well conceived with reliably good Vietnamese and Western classics.

However, the menu truly shines with its forays into fusion cuisine, and one evening we enjoy a standout fusion set menu dinner featuring a stunning starter platter highlighted by a shredded papaya and mango salad with big chunks of shrimp and seafood, its presentation a playful riot of colors, textures and heights incorporating various greens, pumpkin flowers and crispy shrimp crackers. It’s followed by a Sea cucumber and trio of mushroom soup, our nervousness about the sea cucumber’s unusual but not unpleasant mouthfeel soon giving way to serendipity as we see how it plays off the earthy sweetness of the mushrooms.

The main was a Duo of beef tenderloin, Rossini-style, with the tart sweetness of the tomato chutney and caramelized balsamic onions in a red wine jus providing the needed acidity to cut through the addictive richness of the seared foie gras. An Lam favors large plates for maximum presentation, but also to accommodate generous portions of finely prepared fare. Add an amuse-bouche and the mouthwatering basket of freshly baked breads and homemade dips, and dinners are a gloriously languid affair. In the moment, enjoying the river breezes and watching clumps of hyacinth and the odd barge roll slowly on by, we don’t even reach for our phones to document the meal. If it’s not Instagrammed, did it even happen? For once, we find ourselves not caring and choose to savor the moment, the meal, the now.

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On an overcast afternoon, our retreat to the senses continues at the newly renovated spa, set in a wooded corner of the property, tucked behind gorgeous pebbled walls and soothing water features. Somewhere between the long, firm strokes of a Balinese massage, methodically working out the kinks in each quadrant of my body, I feel my mind powering down. In the digital world, rebooting is usually a bad thing. It means something has gone wrong, followed by anxious, interminable seconds of wasted productivity. But here in the posh, plush spa with its buckwheat face pillows and scented face masks, it feels cathartic to completely shut down, the usual whirring of background noises in my mind silent for once. As the therapist moves on to my Oatmeal and Honey facial, working the delicious scents of shiso and sweet almond from the premium Thann products into my skin, time seems to slow and then stop. There are no thoughts of emails to answer or things to do. There is only the now.

Considering its proximity and boutique nature, An Lam Retreats Saigon River makes for the ideal Saigon staycation. Its high staff to guest ratio means each guest can expect truly personal service where even the smallest details are taken into consideration. The resort also partners with local operators to offer speedboat tours to Cu Chi and the Mekong Delta, as well as fascinating tailored tours of Binh Duong and Saigon. See our resort review of An Lam Retreats Ninh Van Bay, An Lam’s brand new sister property in Nha Trang, in last month’s issue.

Images Provided by An Lam Retreats Saigon River