At Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, the staff shines as brightly as the resort itself
Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An, Vietnam (www.fourseasons.com/hoian) is a place of unparalleled luxury, but the resorts seems to know its distinction lies elsewhere. In a catalogue of their locations around the world, a thick volume that includes pictures of all its global locations from Kuwait to Kyoto, the book leads with a word of praise for its staff. “Our greatest asset, and the key to our success, is our people,” reads the first page of the book. It’s this guiding principle that would lead the Four Seasons to find people like Chef Nguyen Thai Ngoc (more about our cooking class together shortly) and to create a place where hiring and retaining people is a part of an institutional practice rather than something exceptional.
To say Four Seasons is nice an understatement. The resort’s handsome villas would be hard to equal elsewhere. The living quarters are cleverly partitioned into a foyer, an office and a sitting room by changes in elevation, like a terraced hillside. Dark colors prevail within, accented neatly by pockets of color like the hidden, honey-colored floor lighting and the white of the bed curtains. The grounds are immaculate and rich in greenery. This is perhaps the most palm trees I’ve seen in one location. But Four Seasons makes full use of its close proximity to Hoi An’s charming Old Town and offers many opportunities to go visit the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The walls of Hoi An, in that audacious shade of yellow that characterizes the city, are always splendid. “This is where my father was born,” Chef Ngoc said walking down Phan Boi Chau street toward the city’s market. In the Hoi An Central Market, Ngoc is greeted by local residents who beckon him to visit them to see the day’s offerings: fresh herbs, live chickens, generous cuts of pork and fish as you’d see in any of the nation’s traditional wet markets. Pausing to identify the ingredients, he stops to solicit a sample and makes sure I can smell the freshly picked herbs. Fresh greens are of utmost importance in Vietnamese cuisine, Ngoc tells me while also imparting a Vietnamese idiom: “A meal without vegetables is like a funeral without music, no drum or horn.”
The inside of the market itself is a massive open floor plan with vendors at their own selling areas laid in a grid like city blocks. Ngoc took me to one vendor where he bought vinegar, and pointed to an adjacent spot explaining that this is where his mother and a younger version of himself used to sell their goods. We walked through the Hoi An Central Market stopping to identify the various ingredients: the chrysanthemum, the yellow curls of banana flower, the long green shoots of lemongrass like the ones Four Seasons uses in its spa treatments.
Ngoc took a blade of grass from the pile glowing green in the morning light and broke it open inviting me to smell it. The citrusy scent soothes and calms the pre-coffee mind at least long enough to carry one through the walking tour to our rest stop at the Hoi An Roastery. Waiting for a ca phe phin to drip to completion, Ngoc talks about the neighborhood, the market, the importance of good conversation when having coffee in Vietnam. We’re far outside of the manicured premises of Four Seasons itself, but the moment—the deep interest in and enjoyment of the immediate experience; the thoughtful, generous staffer that care for you as friends do—feels very much within the resort’s world.
The Nam Hai Cooking Academy seeing distance of reception. I learned that we would be making one of my favorite dishes, bun cha. My ineptitude at cooking seemed portended by my first step: to make the meat patties one needs to apply oil to their hands to minimize viscosity. “But not that much,” Ngoc said gently looking at my overly shiny hands. In the hour we cooked, even with my less than skillful work, we cooked a four-course meal. Surprisingly, like each of the meals I enjoyed at the Resort, it was a feast for all the senses: stunning color, great presentation and superb taste.
The exquisite meal was a small indication of the hotel’s broader high calibur guest experience. In terms of sheer luxury, Four Seasons is a Hoi An destination standout, from the back-to-back deliciousness of the Off the Skewer grilled meats theme night to the re-discovery of a childhood joy of swinging at the AntiGravity Yoga class. Personal attention characterized much of my stay. Staff greeted me by name and were always proactive about making sure I knew about each of their amenities, like when the the gym staff offered to ready the sauna for me as I was finishing my workout.
In a broader sense, travel is uniquely about people in a special way. People travel to see something new. They might read something or do some research online, but to understand a place as those who live at the destination do, they’d need to find someone there. They’d need to find someone who both knows and loves the area, and will also stop for a coffee and a chat. In other words, they’d need a Chef Ngoc. Through its philosophy, Four Seasons The Nam Hai has built a place for the Ngocs of the world, and home for those who want to meet them in a lovingly made destination.
Images Provided by Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai