Vietnam

Mark on our boat ride out to the resort

After all that time on the beach in Quy Nhon it was off to the beach! Next stop was a stunning Six Senses resort on Ninh Van Bay, just a little ways from the city of Nha Trang. The resort is on peninsula that juts out into the South China Sea, accessible only by boat, so it felt like you were on a remote island. It was a nearly perfect stay.

First, though, we had to get there. Google Maps said the drive would be about three-and-a-half hours, but since we had to catch a scheduled boat to the resort, we left four-and-a-half hours early. And as we sat in the car driving south we kept losing time, minute after minute. We were down to a cushion of only about 25 minutes when the driver turned off the main highway onto a detour of sorts. No explanation, but suddenly we lost another 16 minutes. And on top of that we had to find an ATM en route to pay the driver. We were starting to freak out about missing our boat!

Immediately upon arrival we sat down for lunch. In the sand, under the trees – it was an auspicious start.

Somehow, almost shockingly, we found an ATM right on the route and got to the pier about two minutes early. We don’t like to cut it that close!

Once we got there, though, it was heaven. The resort spans hundreds of acres and they provide you with bicycles to get around. The beach was perfect, the sun loungers were perfect, the weather was perfect … even the food was really good. One of the down sides of resort life is often that while the food may be prepared well the choices are just too limited looking at the same menu every day, in some cases the same menu for both lunch and dinner. Not so here: every night there were options for different locations, different menus, different cuisines.

And there were lots of activities to choose from. So the very first morning I got up early to grab breakfast and go on a scheduled hike. Alas, I mis-remembered the information and got to the starting point a half hour after they left. Not to worry: the resort offered me a discounted private hike the next day. So again up early and this time just me and my guide, Nhon.

The high point of our hike. Then it was down, down, down to that isolated beach you see on the shore.

The hike was nearly two hours, up and over two “mountains” (big hills, to be honest), and it might be the first hike I ever did where I felt old. 26-year-old Nhon would bound up the trail, hopping over logs and rocks, then stop and wait for me. Off he’d go again leaping from one rock to the next, then stop and wait for me. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Old or not, I made it to the second peak and then it was a relatively quick descent to a private beach where I really enjoyed a swim while we waited for the resort’s boat to take us back. For once a beach resort was about more than just reading, napping, swimming, and eating.

Since reading, napping, swimming, and eating was the large bulk of what we did, though, that’s about all there is to say. Except to note again that this was a nearly perfect resort.

Mark thinks I sometimes wear too much pink. He’s wrong.

The second umbrella from the left somehow just fit us perfectly

The view from breakfast

Another view of breakfast

Dinner our first night at Grandma’s Kitchen

Dinner one night was sitting at this little table on the beach with a little grill for squid, shrimp, steak … I don’t remember all of it, but it was all really good. As long as the staff took care of the cooking; we weren’t really very good at that.

Mark at dinner in the main restaurant where you sit at normal tables and order off a menu. Very fancy!

My intrepid guide Nhon, at the peak. He wasn’t quite as tired as I was.

We became very fond of these bikes as we roamed the massive grounds of the resort. The name tags were a nice touch.

The view from our upstairs loft, a lovely place to hang out in the afternoon and evening

The bay, looking across to the mainland

Reading a history of the Greeks. Notice those little bowls on the table beside me? The resort has a free ice cream station from maybe 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM. We resisted the first couple days but then decided it was too good to pass up. Turns out it *was* too good to pass up!

And finally, the boat back. Off to the next adventure!

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!