Vietnam’s vibrant flavour is alive in Hoi An
Cathy Wagstaff returns to Hoi An to check in to one of her favourite retreats in Asia – the Four Seasons Resort, The Nam Hai – sampling the vibrant flavours of Vietnam along the way.
We slow to a standstill, our road blocked by a herd of water buffalo. I’m riding pillion on a vintage Vespa, our group of six embarking on an evening Streets & Eats foodie tour. We are on the outskirts of the Vietnamese port city of Hoi An, surrounded by emerald fields. Our chariots whisk us through a culinary tapestry, weaving in and out of traffic on busy boulevards, up vibrant side streets and into the countryside along dirt roads flanked by paddy fields.
Our experience has us sipping cocktails at the beachfront Shore Club; sampling the city’s fabled white rose dumplings, prepared by three generations of the same family; and enjoying crisp bánh can pancakes. At dusk we board a wooden boat to release candle-lit lanterns, along with a silent wish, onto the Thu Bon River. And then we end the day in a lively dining room, feasting on yet more local delicacies.
The Four Seasons Resort, The Nam Hai, Hoi An
We’re staying at one of my most cherished places in Asia: the Four Seasons Resort, The Nam Hai, Hoi An. The beautiful property basks on the powdery shore of Ha My Beach, its 100 exquisite villas, 40 of which feature private pools, spread across 35 landscaped hectares.
From the moment you arrive, you know this place is special. The expansive view from the open-air lobby showcases the resort’s dramatic tiered pools cascading down to the beach, each side flanked by white umbrellas and a neat row of towering palm trees.
When I first visited this property – then known as The Nam Hai – in 2014, I was reluctant to leave my room, it was that plush. Thankfully, the cocoon-like accommodations have not changed much since the Four Seasons took over management in 2016. The beckoning four-poster bed is festooned with soft white curtains, its raised platform allowing views to the beach. Down a few steps is a sitting area with large candelabras casting a romantic glow at night. The spacious bathroom features his-and-hers wardrobes, showers inside and out, and a sunken tub that is irresistible.
We are staying in one of the lavish private pool complexes, ideal for two couples. We have two separate villas with a stylish living pavilion in between – the space opens out to a private pool, tropical gardens and the ocean. This is where we enjoy champagne and canapes, delivered to us each evening.
The Four Seasons ultimate upgrade
When Four Seasons took the reins of the 14-year-old property, they called upon the resort’s original architect Reda Amalou to complete the makeover and add a host of new features. There’s now a yoga pavilion offering AntiGravity classes, as well as a kids’ club and eight new villas that are perfect for families. Also freshly minted is the Cooking Academy.
Cooking like the locals
Early one morning, we join chef Hien on a trip to the market in Hoi An’s World Heritage-listed old town. Bursting with colour, the market’s tables groan under the weight of rambutan, dragon fruit and durian; the aroma of herbs and spices fills the air. We select ingredients to make popular local dishes: crispy pork spring rolls (cha giò), chicken salad (goi gà), Vietnamese-style crepes (bánh xèo) and Hoi An’s legendary pork noodles (cao lau).
These fragrant noodles are also on the morning menu in Cafe Nam Hai, which is the perfect perch to try silky Vietnamese coffee, introduced by the French and made with lashings of condensed milk. Beachside Lá Sen restaurant has a contemporary Vietnamese menu, and is a wonderful spot for long lunches or dinners. As graduates of the Cooking Academy, we savour our meals with an increased appreciation for local culinary traditions.
Perhaps the ultimate dining experience, however, is our private, toes-in-the-sand beach barbecue. The magnificent setting makes us all gasp: a luxurious daybed swathed in a canopy of sheer curtains beside a pop-up bar shimmering with blue LED lights. The space is set aglow with lanterns and tiki torches, and a bonfire lights up the night sky while waiters serve us cocktails from silver trays.
Wellness by the water
The three beach-facing pools (family, lap and Olympic) are legendary, and it’s essential to lounge beside them. Cold towels and chilled water appear as soon as I’m seated – to up the indulgence ante, I enjoy a foot massage while reclining by the water. For those that want something higher-octane, there are bikes to explore the resort, alongside tennis and basketball courts and a host of watersports: stand-up paddleboarding, windsurfing and motorised activities.
But I’m content continuing at my languid pace, and instead make a beeline for The Heart of the Earth Spa, where villas are stilted over a tranquil lotus pond. Wellness here means more than facials and body wraps – although these are available as well. The resort has adopted a holistic approach to health, based on the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (his book, Love Letter to the Earth, is placed in guest rooms). The philosophy includes activities that range from daily meditation and tai chi sessions to stability yoga, to help you re-connect with nature.
I book the Nam Hai Earth Song ritual, which begins with a cleansing session that sees the smoking of sustainable agarwood, and ends 150 minutes later with a body scrub using herbs from the garden, balancing bodywork incorporating gem-tipped tuning forks, and a full-octave ‘sound bath’ quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Before leaving, I participate in ‘A Goodnight Kiss to the Earth’: the retreat’s evening love letter to the world that sees the spa reception filled with the music of crystal ‘singing’ bowls. I’m encouraged to write my own love letter to the Earth, lighting it and letting it float away on the lotus pond.
Ancient Hoi An
In Hoi An, we wander along atmospheric streets brought alive by coloured lanterns, bougainvillea and potted flowers. We cross the 18th-century Japanese Bridge, admiring the elaborate wooden carvings, while gazing over colourful shophouses, gilded pagodas and temples.
Another day, we jump into a bamboo basket boat and paddle out to a traditional fishing boat that zips us into the UNESCO-listed Cu Lao Cham Biosphere Reserve, home to a fishing village where the daily haul from the Cua Dai Sea ranges from crabs and shrimp to all manner of fish. Unsurprisingly, our lunch here is fresh, fragrant and colourful. Like Vietnam in a mouthful, really.