Outside reception, I stood beside an SUV while the resort’s handlers unloaded my luggage. After they’d finished, I stood there, enamored by the architecture. “It’s amazing,” I thought. “It’s so Japanese.” I was right about the first part. But I was wrong, I would learn, on the second count, because the design aesthetic at The Nam Hai in central Vietnam is, in fact, mined from the depths of Vietnamese culture.
I only had to experience the resort’s Design Tour – available on the in-room iPods – to be able to distinguish provenance. For here, in the resort’s public buildings, are the double-tier roofs favored by the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. And there, in the flared eaves of the villas, was the archetypal Vietnamese house.
After checking in, I looked beyond the reception area, over the reflecting pool, and the surfaces of three more pools, to the golden sands of Ha My Beach. Or, what everyone in the West refers to as China Beach. Whatever you want to call it, one thing’s for sure: this area is experiencing a building boom the likes of which Vietnam has never seen. Over the past couple of years, newspapers started breaking big money hospitality news all over the front pages. Internationally renowned hotel and resort chains flocked to China Beach. So did big-name golf course designers.
The pioneer was The Nam Hai, a 100-villa resort that opened just before Christmas 2006, heralding the dawn of a new day in Vietnam. Until recently, the focus on Vietnam’s upscale properties has centered on Vietnam’s arrival as an option for luxury travelers. The new story in Vietnam is a function of design.
Where other resorts in Vietnam may employ an architect to design the structures, landscape and furnishings, The Nam Hai’s original owner, Indochina Capital, hired five designers. Dedication to style is a hallmark of the resort’s management company, GHM, renowned for ultra-posh properties in exotic locations around the world, from Bali to the Swiss Alps.
The celebration of aesthetics is everywhere apparent at The Nam Hai, from the resort’s emblem - a stylized Hoi An lantern, exquisitely reimagined in the restaurant as glass orbs - to the giant earthen jars, like testaments of an ancient people’s mystical commitments.
On the resort’s main axis, monumentally wide flights of stone stairs, like those built by Vietnamese dynasties, drop from the reception building to China Beach below. To get a sense of the resort’s layout, picture this: five long fingers of sand splayed on the beach, with 40 pool villas and 60 standalone villas arrayed around the digits like elongated horseshoes. Thus, every villa - except for a collection of eight villas sited on top of a 15-meter, man-made ridge - is on the beach.
From the heights, there’s an overwhelming expanse of rooftops. Like the columns of Greece and Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the roof is the predominant architectural signifier in Asia.
At The Nam Hai, the roofs are layered with flat, hand-made tiles that have acquired a distinctive black mottling. “In one sense, we’re trying to look as if we’ve always been here,” said Anthony Gill, the resort’s general manager. “That timelessness evokes a sense of grandeur that’s exactly right for a resort of this caliber.”
Beneath the roof, the villa’s dimensions subscribe to the traditional domestic layout in Vietnam. The archetypal house is about three times as wide as long. Faithfulness to this layout is problematic for a couple of reasons. The traditional Vietnamese house is dark and oriented awkwardly for modern living. The Nam Hai’s designers solved this in remarkable fashion.
First, they rotated the orientation of the living space by 90 degrees so that the wide part of the villa is the side of the house, not the front of the house. In the hotel villas, you enter through the side, and now the narrow front end of the house looks out to sea. The designers solved the lighting problem, which is a consequence of the house’s sheltering eaves, by installing floor-to-ceiling banks of windows.
In the traditional Vietnamese home, so much life takes place on the platform bed – the eating, sleeping, lounging, gossiping. The Nam Hai villas exalt the platform bed by making it new. The bed is here, and so is just about everything else: the TV, a desk, a tub, and a lounge area.
Like the terraced footprint of the resort’s grounds, the villa rooms step up from a private veranda and indoor lounge area, to the platform bed and, at last, the rear of the villa, where elaborately carved hardwood doors slide apart to the wash room.
As The Nam Hai defers to Vietnam’s heritage for its design, the resort defers to modern technology for its entertainment system. A flat-screen TV, pre-programmed with DVD movies in a half-dozen genres, swivels on the dais at the foot of the bed. Behind the bed, a docked 30GB iPod feeds a surround-sound system. A Krups machine brews a range of Ethiopian coffees, from regular to espresso.
During my stay, I wandered around, over the resort’s slate terraces and sandstone footpaths, amid swards of golf course-caliber turf. Usually, I ended up at the resort’s spa. Here, eight treatment bungalows front a lotus pond. Individual bridges jut from each bungalow to relaxation pavilions perched over the water.
In Vietnam these days, there’s a tendency to celebrate the aesthetic heritage of French colonialism in new architecture. Quoins climb the corners of so many new domestic residences; pediments crown the doorways; pillars frame windows.
The Nam Hai is half a world away from that.
For more information on the Nam Hai, please visit www.thenamhai.com.