It says everything you need to know about Zannier Bai San Ho, and more you need to know about me, that I’m spending my first 24 hours at this five-star resort in the little-known province of Phu Yen on the south-central coast of Vietnam trying – and failing – to find something wrong.
Some call it pedantry; I call it perfectionism. My blissful other half and I are reclining on our pair of private lounge chairs, next to our private pool, overlooking a beach so deserted it too feels like it belongs to us, and ours alone. Perfection.
In the end, the worst offense I can find at Zannier Bai San Ho is that you only get three coffee pods in your room, which seems a bit stingy for such a classy blunder. But even then, who needs coffee pods when you can hang out at the hotel’s beach bar for a Vietnamese iced coffee: an extreme buzz of caffeine topped off with a cloud of condensed milk?
A villa with pool on the beach
Given the sky-high luxury levels of the hotel, our arrival was relatively low-key. Departing from the local Phu Cat airport after a two-hour internal flight from Hanoi, the drive was simple and serene: just a string of golden bays with the occasional fishing village. It became even more modest as we turned off the main street onto a narrow, winding road that took us through a fishing community. It definitely didn’t look like it could lead to anything five star, but that’s what’s so special. Call me pervert, but what I want from a luxury beach hotel is not just – to state the obvious – luxury, but the kind of environment that is totally untouched. It was clear that Phu Yen was the kind of unspoilt region I remember when I first backpacked in Asia three decades ago. Indeed, the area was pretty much only for backpackers until recently. I was just hoping my beach hut wouldn’t come with intermittent electricity and a toilet with holes in the floor this time around.
I didn’t need to worry. My beach hut – one of 73 spread over 240 acres – feels more like a beach palace and is perfectly styled between rustic and ultra-modern. (Nothing like the blingy, ersatz Versailles-style palaces that are built by the new rich in the cities.) Although it has traditional wood floors and a bamboo ceiling, it’s air-conditioned to the eyeballs and has, among other things, an infinity pool large enough to accommodate a chamber orchestra — Handel’s water musicmaybe – and a bed so big the players could all lay down on it after their performance.
I’m particularly enamored with the huge covered terrace, invaluable for allowing lily-skinned souls like me to spend the whole day outside without getting scratched by the fierce sun. And then there’s the towel corridor en route to the bathroom. I have never been near so many ways to dry myself. Which is fortunate, because I’ve never been near so many ways to get wet: a swimming pool, two showers (one inside, one outside), a bathtub, two basins and – oh yes – China du Crystalline South Sparkling sea a few meters on the sand.
Bai San Ho – the first Vietnamese venture of the French group Zannier Hotels – is so far the only five-star resort in this area, although there are rumors that other international operations will follow. It opened, with less than ideal timing, in December 2020. The Zannier brand – which has a property in Cambodia, a pair of establishments in Namibia and a chalet hotel in Megève in the French Alps – has become deservedly famous for its attention to local rather than generic variety detail.
Zannier Bai San Ho
True to form, Bai San Ho offers the highest standards of international luxury via an aesthetic that has a specific sense of place. The superb antiques in the public spaces are particularly noteworthy in a country where luxury too often rhymes with novelty, whether it’s the 1930s teak café furniture in the central courtyard or the barrel-shaped chairs with seating leather in the beach bar, which – I am at first alarmed to learn – started life as loos for the Vietnamese elite.
The various suites – some near the beach, others in the rice fields, others in the surrounding hills with stunning views of the coast – are inspired by various forms of indigenous architecture. Rice cultivation itself – since it was experimented with in Phum Baitang, outside of Siem Reap – has become a sort of secondary activity for the hotel group, which offers its harvest to the local community. “Except that, until now, the inhabitants say that our rice is only good to feed their pigs”, laughs Michael Wirz, the director of the complex. “We think it will take us a few more years to refine.”
One of the hotel rooms
In stark contrast, the food at the hotel is some of the best I’ve had in Vietnam, a country with high culinary standards even at the worst of times. Vietnamese people like their food so fresh that they usually shop at the local market twice a day. Freshness is a mantra here.
When we visit Bai San Ho only one of the three restaurants is operational, located around a courtyard in the spectacular main building set high on a cliff. I skip the international offerings and keep things deliciously local, developing a sort of addiction to an exotic of salads with ingredients such as banana blossoms and jicama (a root vegetable), and the superlative breakfast pastry. lunch which is one of the less problematic legacies of French colonial control. My foray into “eggs of the century” is misguided, however. How does an egg taste that has been stored in a salt-based mixture for weeks? As bad as it sounds, it’s like a boiled egg that has a green yolk – yes, green – and a translucent brown “white”.
Perfect beaches are mostly deserted
A bike ride to the local wharf market is also not for the fainted. It’s not that there’s anything fishy about this place; all is. Lobsters are taken out of bamboo traps. Crabs squirm in baskets of ice. Fish scales shimmer on the floor like discarded sequins. The air in the soup smells of the best bouillabaisse of the past.
We are greeted with smiles everywhere we go in the village and, in the case of our cycling guide Vu, a passionate confession of his loyalty to Manchester City. A couple working in their front yard shows us how they weave these lightning-fast bamboo lobster traps. Another man sits next to his highly customized version of a rock garden, his potted plants arranged in a miniature landscape of seashells and corals, and the empty box his cellphone arrived in taped to the honor, and a baseball cap with the Mercedes badge.
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Phu Yen is not an area that offers the kind of must-see sights found elsewhere in the country. It’s one of the reasons why foreigners are still relatively rare here, and why it’s such a nice place to visit. Don’t come for the pagodas or historic streets. Come for the lavish luxury of Bai San Ho, of course, but also for the real life, coastal Vietnamese style.
Here, the ultimate status symbol seems to be a collection of bonsai near your front door. Here, the café offers its customers two rows of hammocks, each suspended from one of the low bamboo frames made nearby. And here, people still use small, one-oared round coracles to fish and move around.
Beach huts have traditional wooden floors and a bamboo ceiling
Back at the hotel, I occasionally spot one of these tiny ships, like an upturned shell, ridiculously far out to sea, and am baffled as to where it could have come from and how the hell he will return there. At night, the larger blue and red wooden fishing boats moor on the beach in front of our villa and turn on the stadium lights to attract their catch. They look like a diamond necklace on a bed of midnight blue velvet. Or, perhaps, in honor of our new friend Vu, as a kick off party at the Etihad.
Anna Murphy was invited by Zannier Hotels, Inside Asia Tours and Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com). Zannier Bai San Ho offers double guest rooms from £323 (zannierhotels.com). Eight nights’ B&B, including four in Bai San Ho and two in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, from £1,950 pp including domestic flights, private guide and Vespa tour of Ho Chi Minh City City (insideasiatours.com). Fly into Ho Chi Minh and out of Hanoi, or vice versa
SEEN LONG/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES
Three other luxury hotels in Vietnam
1. Capella Hanoi
Designer Bill Bensley is the mastermind behind some of Southeast Asia’s most flamboyant hotels – including Hotel de la Coupole in Sapa, Vietnam, and Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia – so, inevitably, theatrical glam rules. in his latest project, Capella Hanoi. This roaring twenties-themed bolthole tells the story of opera singers, actors, composers and costume designers who have passed through Hanoi over the past 150 years. All of the public spaces and 47 guest rooms exude extravagance thanks to jazzy art deco knick-knacks, gold and crimson velvet tablecloths, and intriguing memorabilia from opera and theater. Does it work? Absolutely – this is an incredibly charming boutique hotel.
Details Double rooms only from £223 (capellahotels.com)
2. Regent Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc Island may well go the way of Thailand’s Koh Samui, but you can still find pockets of peace and hidden luxury. At the new Regent Phu Quoc, there is nothing more boring than a bedroom; instead, it has 126 effortlessly elegant villas and suites decorated in cream, marble, and teak. Add to that private infinity pools, your favorite home fragrance and a butler to attend to your every need. Hunger? Regent’s restaurants include its Ocean Club, located across from dazzling Long Beach, perfect for sunset dim sum, local lobster and juicy jumbo prawns.
Details B&B doubles from £275 (phuquoc.regenthotels.com)
3. Alma Resort, Cam Ranh
Don’t be put off by Alma’s rather plain and neutral design — it’s Vietnam’s newest five-star resort and offers limitless activities for families. On the emerging peninsula of Cam Ranh in Vietnam and facing Long Beach, its 384 suites and 196 pavilions all enjoy a dream view of the ocean. For kids, there are clubs (all age groups), water sports, a water park, and 12 pools cascading down to the beach. Not enough? There’s also a spa, cinema, art gallery, science museum, gym, and yoga room — even an 18-hole mini-golf course.
Details Double rooms only from £118 (alma-resort.com)
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