CULTURE RICH AND POSTCARD PERFECT, A REGAL COUNTRY GETS NEW LIFE

REDISCOVERING VIETNAM
F
ran Lebowitz once said, 'You`re
only as good as your last hair-
cut .¨ I I t hat `s t he case, my
l i Ie`s br ight , shi ni ng moment
came cour tesy oI a man named
Vi nh on t he I ront porch oI hi s
house on Han Thuyen St reet i n
Hue, Viet nam, and it cost just
$2. 50. I`ve had pl ent y oI bad
haircuts in cities where language
barriers weren`t an issue and my
practitioner had more than scis-
sors and a st raight razor at his
disposal. St il l, when Vi nh dug
i nto my nearly shoulder-lengt h
hair without so much as wetting
it, I was Iull oI excitement instead
oI Iear. Why? Because this expe-
rience Ielt authentic.
My job has sent me t o many
oI the world`s most Iar-I lung hot
spot s, and I`ve been present ed
with plenty oI local customs and
r it ual s, i ndigenous del icacies,
and site-speciIic spa treatments
that too oIten Ieel like they were
ginned up Ior wide-eyed honey-
mooners. Even exotic destinations
like Thailand, Tahiti and Bali be-
gi n to lose thei r luster. Phrases
l i ke 't i me-honored t r adit ion¨
start to sound meaningless. But
throughout my Iew days in central
Vietnam, whether I was at a his-
toric landmark or contemporary
craIts Iair or roadside pho stand,
not a moment Ielt par t icularly
Iorced or hackneyed.
I was happy t o I i nd out t hat
Vietnam doesn`t subscribe to the
'why on Earth would you leave
the grounds oI the resort?¨ favor
“WHEN WE ARE
NOT SURE, WE
ARE ALIVE.”
—GRAHAM GREENE
Previous page: The Quang Trieu
(Cantonese) Assembly Hall, originally
built as a place for merchants to
gather, is now a must-visit attraction
for visitors to Hoi An. Left: Marble-
statue shops are prevalent in Da
Nang, located on Vietnam’s central
coast, south of the imperial city of
Hue. Below: A home in Hoi An
doubles as a porcelain showcase.
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WRITTEN BY BILL KEITH PHOTOGRAPHED BY DOUGLAS FRIEDMAN
Right: Buddhist monks wor-
ship in the citadel in Hue,
the former imperial capital
city of Vietnam previously re-
stricted to the ruling family.
Opposite page: A look at a
pagoda inside the grounds
of the once-forbidden city,
which is now undergoing an
extensive renovation.
oI vacationing. And eschewing the
more obvious excursions to Ha-
noi in the north and Saigon in the
south in Iavor oI the cent ral cit-
ies oI Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue
not only diminishes your chances
oI running into an ex-boss on the
beach or get ting st uck behind a
school group in an ancient grotto,
it also means you`re get ting the
best oI both regionswithout all
oI the congestion. 'Travelers pass
t hrough Hanoi and Saigon, but
vacationers come to central Viet-
nam,¨ says Phan Trong Minh, the
general manager oI La Residence
Hôtel and Spa in Hue. 'We have
t he dynamism oI Saigon i n Da
Nang, the proIound heritage oI Ha-
noi in Hue and Hoi An, plus all the
incredible leisure opportunities.¨
Ah yes, the leisure. While it`s
true I passed serious time in pago-
das, mingled with merchants and
hiked along the Ho Chi Minh trail,
I also clocked many
hours spa-hopping in
lagoon-side treatment
rooms and sunbat h-
ing along untouched
beaches. Once home
to 'China Beach,¨ the
well-known camp Ior
American GIs during
the Vietnam War, the
road I rom Da Nang
to Hue is no st rang-
er to R & R. Also, in
the past year, luxury
brands Aman and Banyan Tree
have opened their Iirst Vietnam-
ese proper ties to great success,
at t racting a sophisticated guest
who wants a singular experience.
'The people we`re getting now
aren`t real ly here Ior a t ast e oI
Vietnam; they`re here to indulge
in the central coast,¨ says Antho-
ny Gill, general manager oI the
Nam Hai resort in Hoi An, the ne
plus ult ra oI luxur y proper t ies,
which opened in 2006 and won a
!"#$%& ( )%*+,"% Design Award
Ior Best Resort and a -./01 2#+3
!"#$%&&%" Best Overseas Spa Hotel
distinction. 'They`re here to log
hours on the beach and the golI
course, and t hen when t hey`re
primed, they head out Ior a day`s
adventure among Hue`s renowned
palaces and tombs or out to see
what t he ancient Cham people
worked up i n st one at My Son,
t ravel up i nto t he Highlands or
explore the world-renowned cave
system at Phong Nha-Ke Bang Na-
tional Park.¨
What`s happeni ng i n cent ral
Vietnam isn`t comparable to any-
thing else. As Gill puts it: 'II what
you`re aIter is access to the ocean,
then comparisons to Phuket are
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But Ior me, Hue was the under-
stated showstopper. The political,
cult ural and rel igious cent er oI
the count ry Irom 1802
t o 1945, i t `s home t o
t he Nguyen dynast y`s
For bi dden Ci t y. Now
you can spend all day
getting lost among the
square cit adel`s st ri k-
ing gates, temples and
palacesbut then you`d
never make it to Emper-
or Tu Duc`s t omb, set
inside a pine Iorest dot-
ted with pagodas, pavil-
ions and ponds just Iive
miles outside the city. It
was there I caught sight
oI monks per Ior mi ng
their daily rit uals (be-
Iore working in a quick
game oI soccer).
Hiring a local guide
hereor anywhere i n
t hi s par t oI t he coun-
t r yi s a wor t hwhi l e
expendi t ur e, and t he
one r eg r et I have i s
not ar r angi ng a meal
at what`s called a Iam-
i l y r e s t a u r a n t . Fo r
about $40 per person,
a private cheI will not
onl y pr epar e a I east
Ior your gr oup, he`l l al so ex-
plain how and why he`s prepared
it and, more likely than not, give
apt. But we`re more than a beach,
the way Bali is more than a beach.
There`s tremendous cultural depth
here t hat resonates as deeply as
1,500 years. It`s this combination
oI culturally proIound and Iantas-
t ically I unI t hi nk we`re on to
something new here on the central
coast , somet hi ng t he rest oI t he
world is just waking up to now.¨
A journey typically begins in Da
Nang, thanks to daily direct Ilights
Irom Seoul and I lights Iour times
a week Irom Singapore and Hong
Kong. Singapore Airlines and Ca-
thay PaciIic oIIer Iantastic service
Irom the U.S. through Changi air-
port, where you can grab a short
Ilight on SilkAir, the regional wing
oI Singapore Airlines. Besides be-
ing the area`s commercial capital,
Da Nang is also home to the Marble
Mountains, a cluster oI Iive hills
that have provided the raw material
Ior many oI Vietnam`s celebrated
st one car vi ngs. Whi le you may
not need a liIe-size Jesus or a Iive-
Ioot-tall Buddha statue, a trip to the
500-year-old stonecutters` village
is worth a visit Ior sheer spectacle,
as is the 156-step climb atop one
oI the peaks, which takes you into
Huyen Khong, a jaw-dropping grot-
to that has served as both a place
oI worship and a hospital Ior the
Vietcong during the American War.
Just 18 miles down t he beach
I rom Da Nang l i es t he anci ent
cit y oI Hoi An, a merchant capi-
tal whose charm is as palpable as
t he 16t h-cent ur y-st yle car vi ngs
ador ni ng hundreds oI t wo- and
three-stor y, Chi nese-i nI luenced
structures that now do triple duty
as residences, museums and com-
mercial spaces. The cit y is also
home turI Ior Saigon-born, Texas-
t rained celebrit y cheI Duc Tran,
whose cuisine at MangoRooms will
Iorce you to reconsider the phrase
Asian Iusion.
Above: A marble sculpture
on the central coast near Da
Nang. Much of the marble
and limestone mining in the
nearby mountains has been
stopped, but it continues
elsewhere in the country.
Left: The Huyen Khong grotto, located in the Marble Moun-
tains, is illuminated through the ceiling by sunlight. Top: The
governor’s residence of Hue was renovated to become the bou-
tique hotel La Résidence. Above: Along China Beach lies the
Nam Hai resort, where guests dip into personal infinity pools.
Left: A view of the countryside at the Phong Nha-Ke
Bang National Park, where numerous grottoes and
caves, including the largest one in the world, helped
secure its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
in 2003.
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“WALK AS IF YOU ARE KISSING THE EARTH WITH YOUR FEET.”
—ZEN MASTER THICH NHAT HANH
you poi nt ers on where t o spend
the rest oI your evening.
'People Irom the center oI Viet-
nam are relat ively new t o i nt er-
national tourism,¨ says La Resi-
dence`s Phan Trong Mi nh. 'It`s
all Iresh to us, so we lack the jad-
edness that naturally comes Irom
l ong exposure t o i nt er nat ional
peoples. There is an ear nest ness
to the people who work at my ho-
tel. We Ieel this incredible respon-
sibilit y to tell this cit y`s story to
people who visit, and we know we
only have a short time to make a
deep impression.¨
And speaking oI deep impres-
sions, did I mention I`ve got a guy
who gives a mean haircut and Iace
massage Ior just $2.50? There were
no lot us pet als st rewn about his
porch and he didn`t oIIer me locally
sourced lemongrass tea, but he did
call me 007 when I leIt. And judg-
ing by the line oI local guys who
had gathered behind me to get the
same t reat ment, I`d say I got the
authenticity I was looking Ior.
Left: Outside of Hue, in the demilitarized zone of Vietnam,
a reunification monument stands on the edge of the Ben Hai
River, which once marked the border between north and south
Vietnam. Above: The Marble Mountains, located in Da Nang, are
named for the five elements: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth.
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