All posts by Mark Sullivan

A rare moment when the sun came out

Our stay in Quy Nhon — and indeed this whole trip to Vietnam — was all triggered by an article I saw in a travel magazine just about a year ago. I read about this cool train called Vietage that makes a six-hour journey through central Vietnam, linking the Anantara hotels in Hoi An and Quy Nhon. In fact, Vietage is a single luxurious train car, organized by Anantara, that is added onto a standard Vietnam Railways train for this particular 200-mile segment of its route. Its passengers pass the time in great style, enjoying lounges, cocktails, and fine dining.

I shared the article with Jim, and we both got excited about doing another trip to Vietnam, with this train journey as one highlight. I soon set about planning, finding flights, booking hotels, etc. I get very engrossed in this type of planning and focus on it intensely for a couple weeks until an itinerary is in place.

But I found the process for booking the train very confusing. I inexplicably could not choose the dates I wanted on the website. I eventually wrote to someone at Anantara for help. They wrote back that the train was out of commission for some kind of maintenance for the entire month of February. What a disappointment! Here I am planning a whole trip around this fictitious train!

I lost my enthusiasm and just quit my planning for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I had not yet made any non-refundable commitments. We eventually decided we were excited enough about Vietnam, fancy train or not, and I should finish my arrangements.

Exploring the village of Bai Xep for a lunch spot. This turned out to be a bust.

At least I didn’t much worry about Jim getting hit by a car because of low visibility in the gloomy weather

We ended up hiring a driver for the journey from Hoi An to Quy Nhoh, and that did actually go quite smoothly. We expected a 5-1/2 hour drive and it actually went an hour faster than that. But no cocktails.

So that is how we ended up at the Anantara resort in Quy Nhon, a place that is otherwise a bit off from the standard tourist route. The resort was nice enough, though the weather and other surroundings were less than entirely hospitable.

Quy Nhon is a beachside community that is a very popular retirement destination for well-to-do Vietnamese. But, according to our travel guide, “for most travellers its attractions are perhaps less compelling.” In fact, the resort was about 15 minutes south of Quy Nhon, a short walk from a village called Bai Xep, which the guide book suggested was more charming.

Now we love nothing more than escaping from a resort for a somewhat more authentic dining experience. So on our second day we walked up the road into Bai Xep to find a lunch spot. But boy, was this town bedraggled! There were some really downscale tourist establishments, but nothing that looked remotely pleasant to us. We made the 15-minute walk back to the hotel eager for another nice resort meal! We could have easily taken a taxi into Quy Nhon for lunch or dinner, but I could not find a single option that looked appealing there either.

So we spent 5 days cloistered at the comfortable resort, where the food was actually quite good. Unfortunately, the weather was not. At the beginning the forecast showed a couple cloudy days, followed by a couple partly sunny days. But every day the forecast shifted, and the clouds hardly ever lifted — until the morning we were leaving, when the sky was clear and the forecast finally showed sun all day. Oh well, that’s the way it is sometimes. Time to head further south and find the damn sun!

Every time the sun peeped out for just a second, we’d jump up and take a pic

The view across the lovely (if usually cloudy) bay

The restaurant at the resort had a gimmick of cooking the food on big slabs of salt, but it did all taste great

I had a beautiful seafood assortment on my salt slab

The view from the very uncrowded pool

Boats on the bay

Our room deal came with a free massage for each of us. Doesn’t Jim look relaxed leaving the spa?

The sun — capture it fast!

Hoi An explodes with color and character

Based on two previous visits, I consider Hoi An my favorite place in Vietnam. So we made Hoi An both the second and third stops on this year’s Vietnam itinerary. What the heck does that mean? In short, it means we booked stays at two different hotels — one at the beach 15 minutes from town, followed by a second stay right in town.

Just outside the town, on a beach along the South China Sea, is a very attractive Four Seasons resort. It’s considered one of the finest hotels in the country. I wanted to stay there for a few days and have a nice beach experience, but I didn’t want to compromise our stay in the town itself. So I booked four nights there, followed by another three nights at a place in town. It seemed kind of weird to book two hotels that are a 15-minute taxi ride apart, but what the heck.

It was a good call. After the urban chaos and excitement of Hanoi, we were ready to chill out on a beach already. So we caught a 90-minute flight to Danang in central Vietnam, followed by an easy 30-minute taxi ride to the Four Seasons. There we chilled out, never even going into town. We’d save that for a proper visit a few days later.

Soaking up some sun in a pool overlooking the beach

Our room came with bikes. I loved moving around by bike — from the room to breakfast, to the gym, to the pool — under a lovely canopy of frangipani trees.

My breakfast view

We often tire of food at fancy resorts and want to find something more down to earth. We were glad to discover such a lunch spot just down the beach.

The food at the resort was actually quite exceptional. Here Jim does a pho comparison — Hanoi-style side-by-side against Hoi An style. It’s a bitter rivalry.

As we prepared to move into town, we wondered if it would still hold its charm. Our blog post from Hoi An nine years ago was really loaded up with pictures and raves about how much we loved the town. Spoiler alert: Once again, there is a big pile of pictures below — because the town is so lovely, colorful, and bustling. And more so than ever this year because we arrived here for the height of Tet, the Lunar New Year, which is Vietnam’s biggest holiday.

The greatest thing about Hoi An is that it’s such a lively town, but it’s small enough that you can hop on a bike and within minutes be riding along lush gardens and peaceful rice fields. Our fondest memory from nine years ago involved biking out to a rustic little restaurant called Baby Mustard, which we then called “one of the best meals we’ve ever had.” We were delighted to return this time to find that it hadn’t changed a bit. They still go out into the garden after you order to pick lettuces and herbs for your meal. And the food was still excellent and crazy inexpensive.

But wonderful Baby Mustard got one-upped this time. Jim was out on a long walk outside of town and happened upon another charming restaurant called Field. He booked us a table, and we headed out on our bikes for lunch the next day. Field was a bit fancier than Baby Mustard, the kind of place with nice napkins, a wine list, and even after dinner espressos. And the setting among rice fields was so spectacular that you want to enjoy all that and linger as long as possible. Heaven!

At Baby Mustard Jim ordered thee same mackerel wrapped in banana leaf that he had nine years ago. Still as delicious!

Jim snapped this rice field scene out on a walk outside town

The next day Jim led the way by bike to Field

Blissful dining at Field

It really doesn’t get better than this

Biking back after lunch

We had to stop a lot for pictures

And here’s a selfie while we’re at it

A little shrine along the road

Hoi An was loaded up with flowers and decorations for the New Year celebration

Seems like every storefront had Tet flower arrangements

A dinner in town

Beautiful Hoi An

People celebrating everywhere

Our last dinner in Hoi An at a wonderful place called Morning Glory Signature

My view from Morning Glory of the celebration along the Thu Bon River

More riverside celebration

And a bit of commerce everywhere

Happy New Year!

Sunset in paradise

Palm trees in paradise

A cute little guy on our porch

From the volcano park we drove a few hours north and west to the sunny side of the Big Island for the final stop of our summer adventure in Polynesia. Kailua is the island’s second largest town. And it’s in a region called Kona. And apparently nobody can make up their mind about what to call the place, so it’s most frequently referred to as Kailua-Kona, as weird as that seems.

This is the stretch of the Big Island that is lined with beautiful beach resorts. And because it’s the Big Island, there’s a lot of volcano action, so the beautiful beach resorts are surrounded by lava fields. It’s an interesting and beautiful juxtaposition.

So we spent our last six days in Polynesia doing what we are very good at — enjoying a gorgeous beach and bunches of books and not much more. We had a rental car here, but it sat in the parking lot for six days because we weren’t motivated to leave the resort.

While we love nice beach resorts, we do tire a bit of fussy (and annoyingly expensive) resort restaurants. So we took a disproportionate share of our meals, sitting at the bar, at the restaurant that was more casual than the rest. And it turned out to be surprisingly homey, especially for Jim.

One great bartender turned out to be from Bemidji, Minnesota. Not only is she a member of the same Ojibwe tribe as Jim, but she is also the niece of Clyde Bellcourt, famed founder of the American Indian Movement. The other great bartender hailed from New Jersey, but his mother grew up in Billings Park, the same neighborhood in Superior, Wisconsin where Jim’s mom grew up. Weird connections at a fancy Hawaii resort!

And thus our adventure in Polynesia comes to a conclusion. As we await a long flight back to New York, I’ll just share the last pretty pics.

The beach in paradise

It’s not hard to spot Jim

A pretty relaxed lunch

From the beach we could see Maui in the distance, the beleaguered island that experienced so much tragedy while we were here

Frangipani blossoms always make me feel like I’m in a happy place

Palm trees and lava. That’s the Big Island.