China Beach. A near forgotten TV series and once a 'Rest & Relaxation' area for American soldiers during the Vietnam war, it was attached to the giant Da Nang airbase. Now, over 40 years have passed since Da Nang was the busiest airport in the world during the war and how things have changed!
What passes now for 'China Beach' stretches for over 30 km's from Da Nang south to the Hoi An area with local names like My Khe Beach and Non Nuoc Beach. Clean white sand, garbage free and good surfing in the Fall after the 40 degree heat of summer and before the winter monsoon sets in.
Hoi An, the real subject of this piece, was long the major spice trading port for the mid coastal area of Vietnam until its river, the Thu Bon, silted up and the French colonials built up Da Nang instead as the much bigger port. As a result, Hoi An was left quietly to its own devices for the last 150 years. Even during the devastation all around it during the Vietnam War, there seems to have been some unspoken agreement to leave it alone as it was never seriously bombed or fought over. Now, it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique surviving architecture representing Viet, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and French influences over centuries.
Flying into Da Nang direct from Singapore is just over two hours. The airport is largely new but still retains over 100 concrete 'revetments'; the semi-circular enclosures for fighter planes and ammunition. Now crumbling after over 40 years, over 250 of these once protected planes and ammo from the almost constant rocket attacks that plagued the airbase throughout the war. Judging from a web search these were of limited success as most old images of Da Nang are of burning planes and exploding munitions. But today, the pristine beaches are only minutes away and quickly you discover the new Intercontinental, the Pullman, the Crowne Plaza, the Hyatt, etc. and farther south near Hoi An the gorgeous 5 star Nam Hai.
We have chosen the Fusion Maia for private villas with pools and a new spa concept where all your treatments are included in your rate. The Villas are cool and stylish, there is a big infinity pool fronting the beach and the spa, despite our assembly line fears, turns out to be excellent and we commence booking twice a day. And, as we have found all over Vietnam; the people are lovely. Friendly, happy and genuine they are a pleasure to be around.
The guests are a mixed bag but with a lot of Russians in the mix. Fortunately these are not the St. Tropez Russkies (i.e., Roman Abramovitch having his huge bill for 20 drunken pals torn up and told never to come back to Club 55 again) but nicer, quieter, families of Russians. Big, stocky Daddy's with beer keg stomachs and somehow always wearing a Speedo Budgie Smuggler, VERY pretty daughters and Mothers who, well let's be kind…. don't age well.
Tailors of Hoi An
The thing here is to get engaged with the tailors of Hoi An. Back in the seriously Communist days the area was rife with cheap garment factories. Once crappy Mao jackets and camo uniforms went out of fashion the enterprising locals did a smart pivot and opened 400 tailoring shops, brought in imported fabrics and created a new business where you order custom made or replicate favoUrites and it's done overnight. You go back for a fitting and then it's delivered to your hotel the next day. If you skip the fitting, it's 24 hour service. The shops are all pretty much in the old town and range from the very small to the very big. We chose big, a place called 'Yaly' with two stories of floor to ceiling bolts of cloth and about 20 talented Viet girls who measure you up and help find your fabrics. Ellen, who knows about these things, feels it is half the price of having things made in Shanghai and the materials are twice the quality. I jumped in and had three pairs of silk/linen pants made and three pairs of shorts. With one fitting and then delivered to our hotel, the price was just a bit over $200 US. Ellen had much more complicated things made, including a full length evening dress, and her tab was about $400 US (and that was for at least 8 separate pieces!).
Our frequent visits into Hoi An provided lots of opportunity to wander, including the old French building that houses the local market, to sip ice cold 'LaRue' local beers on sidewalk terraces and pick from dozens of great looking restaurants that line the streets. The UNESCO designation has made Old Town car free which makes strolling more relaxed but still a visual feast. Lots of expat tourists reclining on rickshaws, the ubiquitous family of 5 crowding an ancient motor scooter, ancient Grandmothers in pajamas and wearing the 'Non La' conical straw hat that everyone still wears in the fields and in town as well.
For dinner we take Fusion Maia's reco and try 'Ms Lys'. Small and rather plain it is known for its food created by Ms Ly's Mother. Pretty good; the usual fresh spring rolls in rice paper, fried crispy rolls, shrimp 'mousse' fried on bamboo sticks and the lovely 'Bun Ho'. One of the most common dishes, it is thin sliced grilled beef in fish sauce, lemongrass and garlic served over cold rice vermicelli mixed with a big pile of mint and Chinese parsley, bean spouts, cucumber and Chinese pickled vegetables. All is then sprinkled with crushed peanuts and the staple; 'Nuam Choc' (lime juice, sweet rice wine, peppers, fish sauce). Refreshing, delicious and so easy that I made it myself last night back in Singapore.
Day three and we are keen to have a look at the Four Seasons 'Nam Hai'. Of all the resorts on China Beach, this is the true 5 star. We reserve for lunch, cash in a $100 dollar bill to get 2,180,000 Dong and head off. It is simply gorgeous. From the back of the stunning lobby you look down on three tiered pools that run down to the beach. The grounds are immaculate, the staff cool and professional. Lunch by the beach is breezy and perfect as we try their own version of 'Bun Ho', spring rolls and ice cold Italian Pinot Grigio (yes, we will have a second bottle, thank you ). From there it's only a ten minute drive inland to Hoi An for another fitting at 'Yaly'.
The next night we try the highly recommended 'Morning Glory' in town for dinner. Number one on every ones list, it has a bit of a rep for being crowded but not tonight. And, oh the food! We have fresh rolls, crispy rolls, curried chicken, Bun Ho and more. The next night, when we find the Nam Hai is fully booked outside we have no problem heading right back to Morning Glory.
Before you know it, it's our last day. All of our purchases have been delivered to the hotel, one last massage for Ellen and a final lunch at the Fusion Maia's beach restaurant. Their version of 'Bun Ho' comes with grilled pork and a sort of onion finely carved into one long, thin curly piece. Love this dish and I have it every day. We say good bye to our favourite staff member Vien and she stretches to appear taller than Ellen when I take her picture. That was worth my unloading all my remaining Dong on her. Hmm, that sounds odd. Dong is their money lest you think otherwise.
Unlike Luang Prabang in Laos, big developer money has discovered China Beach. Along with all the hotels it now has Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman signature golf courses with fancy villa developments and more hotels coming. In a few more years it will be completely gentrified. But, at least the old town of Hoi An is protected now and , hopefully, will stay pretty much the same in years to come.
And then, there is always the gorgeous beach. 30 KM's long, cleaner than any beach we've seen in Asia and pretty much empty but for the occasional surfer. Worth a visit. Bring your favorite pants to copy and a good supply of Dong.
Update 2013: We are going back this Christmas. It really is a wonderful place and this time we have rented a villa at 'Ocean Villas'. Can't wait to have Bun Ho again and I'm bringing even more clothes to have copied. It will be low season in late December, temperatures in the low twenties daytime and perhaps a bit wet. but, low season mean't a great price on the villa and, with a Greg Norman golf course right on the property Christmas Day golf is on. Typhoon Nari hit the Hoi An area head on and did a lot of damage but the villas survived and welcomed their first post typhoon guests last week. Watch this space for a full report.