For the past decade, visitors to Vietnam have sought gentle adventure, not luxury. The country's rich culture and scenery have attracted millions since the communist government began courting foreign tourists in the mid-1990s. Still, travelers going beyond Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City had to put up with musty state-run hotels and often fumbling service. Those looking for beachfront pampering were mostly out of luck or, more likely, already sunning themselves on Phuket.
Try telling that to the vacationers now relaxing in their villas at places like the Nam Hai resort in Danang or the Six Senses Hideaway in Nha Trang. If the government and big-name developers have their way, Vietnam may become a place for travelers seeking not only new experiences but opulence, too.
Attracted by double-digit growth in tourism (Vietnam welcomed 4.2 million tourists last year), brands like Raffles, Four Seasons and Banyan Tree are all planning resorts around Danang, the central coastal city that's home to My Khe a 41/2-mile (7 km) strip of white sand that American GIs dubbed "China Beach" and used for relaxation during the Vietnam War. It's also the location of Vietnam's first bona fide five-star resort, the Furama, which opened in 1997 and was, until recently, the sole option for any semblance of true resort luxury. Soon, though, the Furama will have plenty of company. Singapore-based Banyan Tree is planning a $270 million complex of seven resorts on 740 acres (300 hectares) just north of Danang. The project is named Laguna Vietnam a nod to Banyan Tree's flagship Laguna Phuket resort in Thailand. The latter helped establish Phuket's status as a luxury mecca, and Banyan Tree's vice president of business development, Paul Chong, says there's an analogy to be drawn. "I think Vietnam resembles Phuket in its early days," he says. "When we first went into Phuket, many people were also asking why we would do it. We were first movers there in that type of resort. We want to be first movers also in Vietnam."
For those who can't wait, already open south of Danang is the Nam Hai, situated on a stretch of shoreline (also, confusingly, called China Beach) between Danang and the port city of Hoi An. The Nam Hai offers 100 villas 40 of them with private pools. General manager John Laing says that central Vietnam has a buzz among travelers looking for something novel and attracted to cultural sites like Hoi An's centuries-old ancient quarter. "Vietnam offers things on many, many levels," Laing says. "It has culture, great food, fantastic people."
Further south, near the resort town of Nha Trang, the 58-villa Six Senses Hideaway is situated on a peninsula reachable only by speedboat. "People are exhausted and drained when they come here. I have to make sure they are pampered and revitalized," says assistant manager Harsh Malhotra.
Do Thi Hong Xoan, hotel director for Vietnam's Tourism Administration, acknowledges that Vietnam is still in its infancy as a luxury destination. For a start, "there's still a huge shortage of tourism staff and managers," he says. He also worries the country's infrastructure can't yet keep up. Nha Trang, for example, is reachable only by domestic flights.
Still, the government is generally enthusiastic about the resort boom and has been granting licenses to resorts planned for the southern islands of Phu Quoc and Con Dao. Hanoi is also promoting the country as a "safe" destination. "After the coup and instability in Thailand, we saw an increase in the number of high-end tourists to Vietnam," Xoan notes. Several Asian countries, of course, have vied to be "the next Thailand" in tourism terms but it looks like a proper contender could be emerging.
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