Far Eastern Fantasy: Why Vietnam Should be Your Next Superyacht Stop-off
by Caroline White
Far below the glittering heights of The Reverie Saigon hotel, the green-grey Saigon River snakes through the metropolis and away, deep into the lush, mysterious landscape beyond. From this vantage point in Ho Chi Minh City’s most opulent hotel, Vietnam’s potential for both adventurous yachting and ultra-luxury meet in one panorama.
Until recently, very few yachts ventured to Southeast Asia. But the blooming superyacht scene in Thailand, with a growing hub and vastly improved facilities in Phuket, have encouraged big boats to visit the region. It has also focused attention on Vietnam in particular – the new prize for those who really want to feel like they’re adventuring beyond the edges of Asia’s superyacht map. That comes with challenges: it’s not the easiest place in the world to visit by yacht – this is a communist country and regulators are still working out how to classify these floating symbols of individual wealth.
“Vietnam as a cruising destination used to fall in the 'too hard' basket,” says Lies Sol, charter broker for Northrop & Johnson in Southeast Asia. Visiting yachts, she says, used to sit in the same category as a small cruise ship, making it difficult (and sometimes a little absurd) for a yacht to jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops. “When other countries in the region such as Thailand and Malaysia, eased visa regulations, Vietnam lagged behind and didn't follow suit until much later. The e-visa project launched in 2017 proved a success and visitor numbers are climbing.” Bolstering that development is the nation’s first superyacht marina in Nha Trang, midway between Ho Chi Min City and Da Nang. Ana Marina, says Sol “has beautiful islands and beaches and the Long Son Pagoda, Po Nagar Tower, the Ba Ho Waterfalls, and Thap Ba hot spring mineral mud baths.” On a practical level, it has 270-berths for superyachts of up to 61 metres, as well as international-standard services such as chandlery, plus 24-hour security and CCTV.
As with any off-the-radar destination, Sol says that “A well-connected yacht agent will ease yacht clearance and facilitate logistics, provisioning etc. The beauty and heritage of the country and the unique experience of cruising in the fairly undiscovered regions of Vietnam, outweigh inconveniences or bureaucratic hurdles one may encounter.”
There are some essential stops on any Vietnamese superyacht itinerary, and here we look into what to do and where to stay ashore.
Ho Chi Min City
Known as Saigon before the revolution, Ho Chi Min City is Vietnam’s grand metropolis, where glinting skyscrapers dwarf the cream marble and wrought iron flourishes of its French colonial past. By day, it is “a crazy beehive of activity” as Sol puts it and by night, a futuristic wonderland of blinking neon and hide-away cocktail bars. In the centre of it all, in the sky-grazing heights of the Times Square Building in prestigious District 1, The Reverie Saigon is a Vietnamese-owned hotel that’s packed with as much character as the city itself. The vast, multi-coloured Murano glass light feature that wreathes the ceiling of the lift lobby at street level is a hint at the treasures to be found inside. Think intricate glass mosaics by Sicis creeping up walls, acres of rare marbles, outre furnishings by Colombostile finished with baroque gold flourishes and studded with rock crystals. As Guilio Cappellini, art director of luxury leather specialist the Poltrona Frau Group puts it, “I can’t think of any property anywhere in the world that has brought together so many of Italy’s leading furnishings design brands...except, perhaps, a museum.” But rather better than a museum, you can order practically anything you fall in love with in the luxury furniture shops on the building’s ground floor. It’s opulent, warm, fun, like nowhere else you’ll ever stay – and with service as polished as its décor.
The Panorama Deluxe room offers the sweeping vistas the name implies, as well as silk headboards, a standing chandelier dripping in crystals and a calming earthy palette. The grand bathroom has a rain shower and a tub with a panoramic view and a TV (watching Bladerunner here, while a rain storm soaks the electric city outside the window is quite an experience). The suites, all named after Italian artisanal designers, offer levels of shimmering opulence that few hotels in the world can match. Dim Sum in The Royal Pavilion is an essential stop-off – these neatly presented morsels run from melt-in-the-mouth pork puff buns to crispy bean curd and shrimp, downed with a cool beer and served in lavish surrounds.
Best by boat: Fly in and make the most of The hotel's new yacht, a 18.3m Beneteau Monte Carlo 6, which offers a variety of charter trips, taking in the city lights, the Can Gio UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the immaculate Taekwang Jeongsan Country Club – all while enjoying a champagne picnic and butler service. Then meet your own yacht and continue up the coast to explore more of this extraordinary country. “Fuel and water are available [in Ho Chi Minh City] and it's a good place for stocking up on fresh produce,” says Sol.
See: The War Remnants museum for a heart rending and wide-ranging investigation of the Vietnam war, occasionally delivered with heavy doses of propaganda – in itself a fascinating cultural experience. Plus spectacular photography and some very big tanks.
Eat: Built into an old townhouse in District 1, Cuc Gach Quan is packed with both character and exceptionally good Vietnamese food. The menu is an inch-thick book. Request the table upstairs made form an old four poster bed, order crispy sea bass with passionfruit sauce, aubergine sautéed with pork and let the excellent cocktails flow.
“Hoi An is an architectural treasure,” says Sol, “with buildings constructed in the 15th to 19th century. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to preserve its historical value, there's a unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and European building styles.” This elegant architecture, punctuated with Chinese temples, lines the streets of artisanal boutiques and low-key restaurants that lead down to the lantern-lit riverside. Anantara Hoi An is an elegant, palm lined and colonnaded pied a terre on the cool banks of the Thu Bon River, a short stroll from the centre of town. The best rooms in the house are the Garden and River View Suites, with four poster beds, palm-cut dark wood shutters, spacious sitting rooms and terraces, and a neutral palette splashed with turquoise.
A wealth of activities encourage guests to dive into Hoi An’s culture and buzzing life, from lantern making to the Spice Spoons cooking class. The latter explores the fresh, bright flavours of Vietnamese cuisine, it’s melting-pot history and allows you to try your hand (and tastebuds) at dishes such as fresh springs rolls and Bo Cuon La Lot (herbed and spiced beef wrapped in a betel leaf). Take in the sunset on a river cruise on a traditional boat, or catch the last rays by the jewel-like green-tiled pool. For casual dining there are bistro eats and wood-fired pizza among the canvasses in Art Space; or for modern Vietnamese cuisine take a seat on the romantic terrace over-hung with lantern-laden trees, at Hoi An Riverside. The spa is a luxurious treat after a day wandering the town, with delicious treatments running from Dawn Renewal (pair with the hotel’s morning yoga) with lots of foot-focus and a mud wrap, to a Vietnamese Coconut and Black Sesame Body Polish.
To explore further afield, pick from Anantara’s fleet of bicycles and take a spin down to An Bang beach, three kilometres to the north. This broad ribbon of golden sand is lined with laid-back bamboo and reed reach bars and restaurants serving peanutty salads, one dollar beers and herb-stuffed Banh Mi sandwiches.
At the northern end, set apart from the hubbub, lies the Four Seasons Hoi An. Dotted with fragrant frangipani trees, the resort sprawls from a beach bar up past three infinity pools to a host of chic pavilions. The architecture is spare, amply spaced, serene and stately. “It was designed by Reda Amalou, an award-winning French designer,” says Shingo Kido, director of public relations & communications, Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai. “He really believes in the clean lines, and he was inspired by Hue and the imperial palace. At Hue they respected a lot of space to get that feeling of serenity.” Facilities run from a space-aged gym and courts for any game you can bounce a ball at, to heavenly pavilions set on a lake at the Heart of the Earth Spa (there’s also a yoga pavilion with silk hammocks used, says Kido, “as an assist for antigravity yoga – so can do inversions to get more blood into your spine”). This year the resort is hosting various wellbeing stars (September 17-30 it’s Lara Zilibowitz and Benny Holloway for “Yoga, Music and Healing Vibration”). Once fully zen, La Sen restaurant is the perfect spot for a chilled glass of rose under breezy palms and a luxurious lunch with a Vietnamese twist – try the Nha Trang lobster with ginger and lemongrass.
Best by boat: Tender in near An Bang beach and take you for a whizz around the idyllic Cham Islands on the way – stop off for scuba diving or sunbathing on empty beaches.
See: take a day trip out to the My Son Sanctuary, a Jungle Book-esque UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient Hindu ruins. Anantara Hoi An Resort offers an excursion.
Buy: Hoi an is famous for its tailors and Yaly Couture is among the best. For easiest results drop off your favourite item of clothing, pick a fabric, and swing by a day or two later to collect your neatly folded doppelgangers.
Eat: It may look extremely unassuming but Banh Mi Phuong serve (arguably) the best Banh Mi sandwiches – meat, pork pate herbs and pickles in baguette – in Vietnam. The late Anthony Bourdain gave his seal of approval.
Ha Long Bay and Hanoi
“One of UNESCO’s Heritage Natural Wonders of the World, it is a huge bay dotted with thousands of limestone cliffs, creating a breath-taking scenery,” says Sol. This otherworldly seascape of forest cloaked limestone karsts, towering above placid waters is one of the most dramatically beautiful places in the world to visit by boat. Special protections mean you’ll have to leave your own yacht at Quang Ninh maritime port or Hon Gai anchorage, near Ha Long, then charter a traditional yacht for the day. You can stop off at spectacular, cathedral-like caves, kayak along the slim beaches and soaring cliffs, or just sit on deck with a gin and tonic and admire the pre-historic scenery – it would not be entirely astonishing if a diplodocus popped its head above the treeline.
Ha Long is also only 50km from Hanoi, an essential trip if you are in these northern reaches of the country. Whereas Ho Chi Min City is international and glitzy, the nation’s capital city feels lower-key and more distinctively Vietnamese and it is buzzing with life. Standing imperiously on a tree-lined corner in the French Quarter, The Sofitel Legend Metropole is packed the its Belle Epoque rafters with characterful history. Everyone from Noel Coward to Angelina Jolie have stayed (while Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un held their summit there earlier this year).
Accommodation is divided into two parts: the original early 20th century wing with glossy wood floors, rattan fans and louvre shutters; and the more recently renovated modern classic wing in lighter, softer tones and elegant organic prints on feature walls. The plum choices for colonial romance are the Charlie Chaplin or Somerset Maugham suites – palatial and full of original features – and the latter is hung with a painting that Joan Baez daubed while here. “She’s one of the most famous people to stay at the hotel,” a brass-buttoned doorman tells me. “She was here twice – the first time, during the bombing in in 1972, she stayed in the bomb shelter. She was very touched and wrote the song Where Are You Now, My Son?” You can visit shelter, rediscovered in 2011 and recently re-opened, which sits next to the pool, and listen to a recording of Baez’s song echoing through the concrete corridors. Restaurants at the hotel run from Vietnamese overlooking the courtyard garden at Spices Garden, to French at the more formal Le Beaulieu, but the hotel’s best game is really its cocktails. There’s low-lit, high glamour Angelina, where barmen climb a ladder to pick spirts from glinting shelves that run up to the ceiling, and La Terrasse, a Parisian-feeling smattering of tables under curling wrought iron at the front of the hotel. Top it all off with a stop at Le Spa du Metropole, for treatments including Sensations Orientales, which involves an exfoliating syrup and soothing amber oil.
Best by Boat: leave your boat at Quang Ninh and either chopper in or make the easy drive (The Sofitel Legend Metropole can arrange a VIP transfer).
Buy: stock up on silk cushions, beautiful eastern jewellery and stylish Asian homewares at Mosaique.
Eat: Grandma’s in the old town serves Northern Vietnamese food in artfully rustic surrounds. Order Grandma’s pancake, a crispy sandwich of herbs and prawns that you tear apart yourself, and the meltingly tender beef in bamboo.
See: Ho Chi Min’s imposing marble Mausoleum always has a queue – constantly moving at a steady pace – as visitors file slowly past the embalmed body of the communist leader, who died in 1969. It’s a strange and affecting experience.