Tranquil Sophistication in Central Vietnam


by Philip Tetley Jones October 24, 2015

Overshadowed by vibrant Ho Chi Minh City in the south and politically dominant Hanoi in the north, central Vietnam has an appeal all of its own. The legacy of the ancient Cham people makes itself felt in the Hindu-influenced architecture, while the climate is neither as sultry as the south’s nor as chilly (during winter) as the north’s.

But central Vietnam is much more than a zone of transition. It’s the home of imperial Vietnamese culture, and the base for some appealing accommodation.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be deprived of more traditional tourist treats. There are beautiful beaches aplenty, including the famous golden sands of Da Nang, Cua Lo and Non Nuoc. If you want to relax on a sun lounger with a cocktail and a good book, you’ll find the perfect package on offer.

However, we were hunting something else. After catching the overnight sleeper from Hanoi, we were determined to get in touch with Vietnam’s pre-colonial past, in the city that served as the country’s capital until 1945 – imperial Hue.

The last dynasty of imperial Vietnam reigned here from 1802 to 1945. Influenced by Chinese culture, they created a Forbidden City of their own on the banks of the Perfume River. The Hue citadel still dominates the town, with the massive fortress outside the gates flying the red flag of modern Vietnam. 

Behind the hulking walls lay the domain of the Nguyen Emperors, their mandarins and their concubines. Once upon a time, access was strictly limited. Now a ticket grants you entry, and you can wander the spacious and near deserted grounds that once buzzed with the activities of the royal court.

Strongly influenced by Confucian thinking, the Emperors rarely left this self-contained citadel. Their main role was to intercede with heaven and preside over a respectful bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, a culture of connoisseurship and luxury came to the fore, especially during the latter years of the dynasty. This sybaritic influence lingers to the present day – Hue cuisine is still revered within Vietnam for its refinement and sophistication.

Having the bad luck to be situated in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that formed the border between north and south, the region was badly battered during the American War (as the Vietnam War is known in these parts). Hue in particular was
the scene of heavy fighting during the Tet offensive. But after the country was reunited in 1975, it didn’t take long for the region’s deeply-entrenched traditions of hospitality to
reassert themselves.

That’s why we were intrigued to learn of a resort that had grown from the vision of a local man, determined to resurrect the crafts of the region and create an up-to-date version of the region’s traditional luxury. 

I’d heard a lot about Pilgrimage Village and checked out the photos online. But as the taxi carried our party of three along a meandering country road and through a nondescript village, I was starting to wonder whether we were in the right place. 

We pulled into what appeared to be a modest lay-by facing a high stone wall. “This is it,” said our driver and we got out. Friendly smiles greeted us, our luggage was whisked away and a gateway was indicated. We passed through the gates, and our journey entered a whole new phase.

Inside, a pathway led through tropical vegetation towards a large wooden pavilion. Female hotel staff wearing the elegant Ao Dai costume of Vietnam – a flowing split dress over loose trousers – escorted us to some comfortable chairs. We were offered a cup of ginger tea while our passports were taken away to complete the check-in formalities. On the other side of the pavilion I glimpsed palm trees, brick pathways, carved
statues and elegant wooden buildings. The atmosphere
was deeply tranquil.

We had arrived. Pilgrimage Village is a resort with an atmosphere quite unlike the in-your-face opulence of so many modern resorts. It’s artistic, sophisticated and luxurious in the most unexpected ways.

Take the Traditional Vietnamese Pool House that was to be our home for the next few days. One of just three such accommodations, it’s discreetly located in an elevated garden setting that overlooks the Resort’s pool. The stand-alone villa is designed and built using the traditional techniques of central Vietnam, with jackfruit trunk pillars, exposed brickwork and hand-crafted statues in the wall niches. Honey coloured stone floors add a touch of opulence while the bed is a magnificent four-poster with views through the French doors to the loggia and private plunge pool.

The Resort’s village-style layout makes for a landscape of low-rise buildings in a garden studded with palms and jackfruit trees, many of which grew spontaneously from pips discarded by the previous generation of locals. A lotus-filled waterway bisects the property, with the cool modern lines of the Slope Bar on the far side – the ideal venue for a happy hour drink while an excellent pianist serenades you with excerpts from the classics. The main restaurant, Junrei, is located near the front of the property, alongside the reception pavilion. Like the pavilion, it’s built from local materials using wood hand-carved with scenes relating to the imperial Vietnamese court that once presided in nearby Hue city.

It all seems quite timeless but 25 years ago none of this existed. A local entrepreneur, working for the only hotel in Hue at the time, had the vision of creating opportunities for the region’s craftspeople while giving foreign visitors a taste of the real Vietnam. He designed and built an artisans’ showroom in a nearby village to promote the handicrafts of the region. Visitors loved the ambience and asked if there was anywhere they could stay. So he built the first stage of the Pilgrimage Village Hotel, and then gradually developed the adjoining site until he had created a 99-room property complete with spa, restaurants and all the facilities of a boutique resort. 

From the start, the vision encompassed body, mind and spirit. Pilgrimage Village devotes a sizeable part of its site to activities that restore health and promote well-being. The custom-designed yoga and meditation centre would be ideal for a retreat, with daily tai chi, meditation and yoga classes delivered by masters. And the amazing Vedana Spa is a resort within a resort, approached via stone-paved walkway over a mini lake where frogs croak at night. I enjoyed one of their bespoke treatments including a traditional Vietnamese massage and citrus body scrub. Three hours passed as if I was in a dream.

In keeping with the theme of promoting the best of the region, the Resort’s owners have recruited and trained staff from the local population. They embody the Pilgrimage Village spirit, combining grace and knowledge with a friendly demeanour. They’re well schooled in remembering your preferences and always ready to greet you by name. As the manager told us, “luxury for us is that the guest can experience what is real about Vietnam – not just the property, but the spirit.”

The owners have built on what they’ve created with their newer sister property, Vedana Lagoon Resort & Spa on the nearby coast. Just over an hour away, this provides an intriguing contrast with Pilgrimage Village. You could relax for a few days in one of their breathtaking overwater bungalows, and then venture inland to the tranquillity of the Village property with the opportunity to go sightseeing in historic Hue city. It’s a compelling proposition if you want to experience Vietnam in a little more depth.

Central Vietnam is a welcoming, hospitable region in a very welcoming and hospitable country. Deeply aware of history, the local people have sought to keep alive the best traditions of the past. A visit here refreshes the spirit as well as the mind and body. 


5 things you must try in central Vietnam

Dine

Hue’s cuisine draws on the refined traditions of the Vietnamese court. Try ‘Shrimp with Five Tastes’, which lives up to its name with a single plump prawn in a delicate consommé flavoured with kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chilli, ginger and shallot. And make sure you try the region’s specialty – Com Hen, a spicy clam and
rice concoction.

Marvel
The imperial citadel is unique – a walled, forbidden city in the heart of Hue, where the Emperor reigned in the midst of his officials
and concubines. Parts are in ruins but enough remains to remind the visitor of what once
stood proudly here.

Gaze
My Son is a cluster of abandoned Hindu temples built between the 4th and 14th Centuries by the kings of Champa. Building techniques and architectural motifs can still be seen in the region’s modern buildings – a reminder that this part of Vietnam was long influenced by Indian as well as Chinese and indigenous traditions.

Laze
You want beaches? Central Vietnam has some glorious ones. China Beach in Da Nang, where GIs stormed ashore in the 1960s, is the most famous one. But there are plenty more.

Stay
Chill out in a hideaway resort. The tranquil atmosphere is the perfect contrast to the buzz and bustle of urban Vietnam.




Philip Tetley Jones
Philip Tetley Jones

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