TESTING THE WATERS

As in previous years, The Guide conducted a review of hotels and resorts from the north to the south of Vietnam.

By Thuy Duong &Thanh Van on October 16,2017 03:37 PM

TESTING THE WATERS

Photos: Viet Tuan

The Guide Awards are upon us once again, and The Guide Awards review team’s month-long trip took it to popular tourist destinations around the country, such as Halong Bay, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, and Phu Quoc Island. The aim of the trip, conducted from late July to late August, was to gather information for the 2016-2017 edition of the Awards, learn more about the status of Vietnam’s tourism sector, and engage with partners and friends working in the hospitality field.

The team visited a large number of hoteliers, policy makers, and travellers as well as many resorts and hotels in around 100 locations. With the theme ‘Green Tourism for a Green Economy’ our concern this year is ‘How to develop and exploit the economic potential of tourism while preserving and sustaining natural resources?’ Or, put another way, ‘Should Vietnam develop (tourism) or preserve (wildlife)?’

Halong bay - beloved child of mother nature

The review team for The Guide Awards 2016-2017 began its trip in one of Vietnam’s most famous destinations, where together with our luggage we brought questions that need to be answered: Should the country keep its natural resources for itself or open them to the world to earn revenue? How can Vietnam preserve the precious natural resources Mother Nature has bestowed upon it but still earn money from tourism development?

It seems that Quang Ninh is the beloved child of Mother Nature; a place with many advantages that can’t be matched elsewhere. The province contributes to Vietnam’s economic development in other ways besides tourism, possessing numerous coal mines and busy ports. Its future, however, seems tied to the tourism potential offered by Halong Bay and its rocky caves, karst mountains, and blue waters.

In the first seven month of 2017, visits to the province had reached 6.6 million, with revenue estimated at $426.8 million. Of the total visitors, two-thirds head to Halong Bay, whose natural beauty has turned Quang Ninh into one of the most desired destinations for local and international travellers alike.

Quang Ninh’s coal reserves are the largest in the country, with the volume of extracted coal in the province reaching about 11-12 million tons as at September 2016. In addition to mining, other industries such as transport, ceramics, thermoelectricity, and cement have also developed strongly. In just the first ten months of 2016, the provincial budget benefitted to the tune of VND30,900 billion ($1.370 billion) from economic activities related to mining.

To achieve this growth, however, Quang Ninh has had to face challenges stemming from inherent conflicts within the development process, with emissions from economic activities being released into the environment and seriously damaging the natural surroundings.

TESTING THE WATERS

‘We shouldn’t simply insist on natural preservation and ignore the opportunity to earn revenue from tourism development, or vice-versa. We need to continue to develop tourism and skip conservation efforts!’, believes Mr Trinh Dang Thanh, Deputy Director of the Department of Tourism in northern Quang Ninh province. It seems he is determined to preserve the rare natural heritage of Halong Bay for both Vietnam and the world but finds the economic burden to be a heavy weight in his role as a tourism administrator. The question is how to earn the most from tourism, such as opening more resorts, entertainment complexes and hotels, to attract more tourists.

Over the course of just two years, a number of new tourism projects have been put into operation in the province, such as the Sun World Ha Long Complex (invested by the Sun Group), Vinpearl Ha Long Bay Resort (Vingroup), Tuan Chau International Passenger Terminal (Tuan Chau Group) and the golf course in the centre of Halong city belonging to the FLC Group, which have brought a considerable number of visitors to the province. Minimising the negative impacts from such large numbers of visitors is indeed a difficult problem to resolve.

‘We are gradually completing three sets of a “Code of Conduct”: one for travel administrators like us, one for travel agents, and another for travellers,’ said Mr Thanh. This is one of his latest efforts since being elected Deputy Director of the Department of Tourism in May 2016.

The Code of Conduct for tourism administrators includes the necessary rules and macro-level control of travel agencies to limit negative impacts on the environment. The Code for tour operators seeks a commitment to minimise the waste discharges and to engage with the community to preserve natural resources. And the Code for travellers, distributed through travel guides, calls on them to save energy, food and water, and encourages the use of recycled products and the minimising of waste being discharged directly into the environment.

‘The number of domestic visitors has increased dramatically, with hotel room occupancy rising to 85% during the last two summers,’ managers at many local hotels, such as Saigon Hotel, Ha Long DC Hotel, Novotel Ha Long Bay, Royal Lotus Hotel, and Wyndham Legend, pointed out to The Guide review team. ‘This is remarkable, because prior to that, domestic travellers with kids didn’t choose Halong Bay as a destination for their summer vacation.’ Another question therefore emerges: how can the existing positive tourism situation be prolonged?

Danang - Lessons from Son Tra Peninsula

Mr Huynh Tan Vinh is a ‘Hot Facebooker’, with thousands of followers under the nickname ‘Song bien Tan Vinh’ (Ocean waves Tan Vinh). He isn’t famous for any of his critical observations or number of ‘likes’, nor is he the owner of luxury travel companies or the general manager of one of the most famous five-star resort in the city, Furama Resort Danang, which we visited. People choose to read Mr Vinh’s Facebook page for the latest information on the conservation of natural resources in Danang, especially the emerging case involving Son Tra Peninsula.

TESTING THE WATERS

As Chairman of the Danang Tourism Association, Mr Vinh has made strong statements against local government plans to turn the pristine peninsula and home of rare animals under threat of extinction, such as the black-shanked douc langur, as well as thousands of plant species, into a luxurious resort that will benefit just a few people. ‘We don’t decide on how many hotel rooms or how many tourism projects are in Son Tra, but we must preserve the natural ecology for our children and grandchildren,’ he said. ‘I will fight for that until my last breath.’

Mr Vinh, supported by 11,000 Danang residents, signed a petition to the Prime Minister insisting that Son Tra Peninsula not be destroyed for tourism purposes, since ‘Son Tra is Danang’s green lung, and if we make it cancerous, how can we breathe?’ he said, ‘If the local government maintains Son Tra as a rare wildlife place, the city would be a unique destination in Vietnam. It would help increase revenue for the entire community rather than for only a couple of people.’

Thanks to individuals with ‘hot hearts and cold heads’ like Mr Vinh, Danang has been able to keep its peace. The city isn’t as busy or noisy as other well-travelled tourist sites like Halong Bay or Nha Trang. It is, however, welcoming a series of new hotels built for the 29th APEC Forum being held in November. According to CBRE, 21 hotels will be added to the total with over 16,800 rooms, up 40% from 2016; the highest increase in the country during the 2014-2017 period. The international passenger terminal at Da Nang International Airport is also being urgently upgraded.

The Diamond Sea Hotel Da Nang, one of the hotels The Guide Awards review team visited, was as fabulous as its name suggests. It is located on Vo Nguyen Giap Street, with a long façade and uninterrupted views of the ocean. With a four-star ranking, its modern facilities, fully-equipped guest rooms and large conference rooms with ocean views make visitors feel as though they are staying in a five-star hotel.

According to General Manager Jamy Van Den Berg, Diamond Sea’s guests are mainly from Japan and South Korea, together with domestic visitors from Hanoi and HCMC, followed by Australian visitors. Chinese and Russians only account for a minority of guests. The hotel’s management team has committed to providing hands-on protection for the environment, by reducing waste discharges, encouraging visitors to save food and water, and funding local projects.

Adding to Danang’s beautiful tourism scene is the newly-opened Risemount Resort, with distinctive architecture far different from others in the city. The first of its kind in Danang, the 103-room resort was inspired by Santorini, Greece, and boasts fresh, open spaces with blue, vaulted ceilings. Featuring a courtyard, a rooftop pool, and a prime location just minutes from the beach, it invites guests to experience the coastal city the Santorini way.

‘When we treat nature and the environment badly, it’s a thousand times worse for our children,’ said General Manager Mr Pedro Mas Rubio. Vietnam, he went on, with its thousands of kilometres of coastline, should not ‘make any mistakes’ that harm nature, and must pay greater attention to water resources and waste collection and disposal.

Not far from Risemount Resort, Grand Vrio City Da Nang is also a newly-opened hotel, owned and operated by the Route Inn Group. The hotel is just a five-minute drive from the airport and a ten-minute stroll from the beach. Its Japanese hospitality style gives visitors a sense of excitement as soon as they arrive and a sense of satisfaction when they leave, as staff stand in line with banners greeting or farewelling visitors with ‘Ohayogozaimasu’ or ‘Sayonara’ (Morning and Goodbye in Japanese).

Other hotels and resorts in Danang The Guide team visited included Furama Danang Resort, Olalani Resort & Condotel, Melia Hotel & Resort, Centara Sandy Beach Resort Da Nang, One Opera Da Nang Hotel, and Green Plaza Hotel Da Nang.

Hoi An - Reviving the ancient town

Hanna and Hye Jin, two young South Korean women, were lying on the shimmering white sands of Cua Dai Beach, happily combing each other’s hair and sipping on a coconut. Their beauty and charm caught the attention of The Guide team’s photographer, and with their permission a number of shots were taken.

TESTING THE WATERS

Standing beneath a coconut tree where white sand meets blue sea, it’s hard to believe that, just three years ago, the sea’s fury damaged this beautiful natural setting. In the middle of October 2014, the people of Cua Dai were shocked to wake up and find that waves had swept away the entire five-meter high, 70-meter long concrete barrier and settled 30 metres inland overnight. A few months later, waves again swept away more 160 metres of beach and parts of some resorts along a three-kilometre stretch of coastline.

‘It cost VND70 billion and a lot of effort to again contain the sea,’ according to an officer from the Hoi An Department of Tourism. ‘Eventually, the sand returned to the coast.’

Cua Dai Beach isn’t crowded or busy like many others, but it’s popular among foreign tourists from early in the morning to late in the afternoon. It’s just a ten or 15-minute bicycle ride from the centre of Hoi An, while An Bang Beach, another wild stretch of sand, is just a little further away.

In addition to the tourism potential presented by nature, the ancient town, and the area’s many rivers and waterways, town leaders have also attempted to introduce even more attractions this year, such as a giant international culinary festival in March, a silk festival in June, and a cultural exchange event between Vietnam and Japan in August.

‘We collect wastewater daily, recycle it, and use it to water our trees,’ one of the drivers at the Koi Resort & Spa in Hoi An told us as we toured the resort by electric car. The recently soft-opened resort is a lush green oasis aimed at ‘bringing visitors closer to nature’. Named after a type of rare Japanese fish, the resort has superb Japanese architecture in the spirit of ‘a miniature Hoi An in the heart of Hoi An’. A natural canal in the centre of the resort reminds visitors of the Hoai River and along it are rows of two-storey villas that recall ancient Hoi An houses. Unfortunately, The Guide review team was unable to meet with the resort’s management to learn more.

Just a short distance away from Koi is the newly-opened Silk Sense Hoi An River Resort, whose architecture is in harmony with the ancient town, featuring two-storey villas, ‘roof gardens’, and a spacious pool, together with two private beaches accessible on foot or bicycle. ‘The resort aims to serve families with three generations thanks to its spacious 78 sq m suites with two bedrooms, living room, and kitchen,’ said Ms Kim Lien, Senior Sales Manager at the resort.

Other hotels and resorts The Guide Team visited included Golden Sand Resort, Anatara Hoi An Resort & Spa, and Belle Maison Hadana Hoi An Resort & Spa, as well as mini-hotels in the old quarter.

Nha Trang - Memorable destination

Nha Trang was a particularly memorable destination for The Guide team during our nationwide, month-long tour. We were warmly welcomed at lovely hotels and even enjoyed a great dinner with the family of one hotel owner.

TESTING THE WATERS

Nha Trang  remains a vibrant tourist town, as it was two years ago when we last visited, but some changes are quite noticeable. A couple years ago, there was clearly a Russian ‘feel’ in every corner of the city. Russian was found on restaurant menus, on hotel and shop signs, and even on advertising on taxis. Today, Chinese has replaced Russian.

‘The concept of “high” and “low” seasons has virtually disappeared in Nha Trang over recent years, as most three- to four-star hotels have occupancy rates of 95% and even 100% throughout the year,’ said Mr. Nguyen Van Trong, Deputy General Manager of the Premier Havana Hotel. And, of course, 90% of these visitors are from China. They don’t book single rooms, but instead come in large groups on charter flights, where a travel agent leases an aircraft exclusively for its clients. The advantage of this type of travel is it cuts prices and provides convenience for visitors, as they are accompanied by a fairly homogeneous group speaking a common language.

The MerPerle Hon Tam Resort occupies the whole Hon Tam Island, one of the most crowded islands in Nha Trang Bay. The resort is divided into two separate parts. The outside is for guests to have fun during the day, with a swimming pool, a long beach and a restaurant. Further inside is another much more peaceful section. The resort features 49 bungalows with breathtaking ocean or garden views and 15 leaf-roofed villas with separate swimming pools. According to a representative from the resort, every day the island welcomes 2,000 visitors, or 80% occupation.

As for environmental protection concerns, Mr Bulen Aksakai, General Manager of Cam Ranh Riviera Beach Resort & Spa, shared his thoughts with The Guide. ‘Conservation should start in the simplest way, with education,’ he said, ‘All we need to do is educate our children and the community about not throwing their rubbish away.’ Local governments should also have more foresight in tourism development. Newly-licensed hotels and resorts should meet specific criteria, such as using solar energy and installing their own waste treatment systems.

Of a similar mind, Ms Catherine Racsko, director of one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels in Nha Trang City - Sheraton Hotel & Spa - said urgent action is needed to educate the community about protecting natural resources. People should be encouraged to use recycled products and stop using plastic bags. The installation of mini waste discharging system inside the hotels or resorts is also needed, as is done in Japan.

The Guide review team also visited Novotel Hotel Nha Trang, Alana Nha Trang Beach Hotel, Fusion Resort Nha Trang, Premium Michelia Hotel, Duyen Ha Resort, Citadines Hotel, Bayfront Nha Trang Hotel, and Galina Hotel & Spa.

Phan Thiet - Kingdom of Resorts

The next destination for The Guide Awards review team was Phan Thiet and Mui Ne in Binh Thuan province, where it visited The Sea Horse Resort, The Cliff Resort & Residences, Anatara Mui Ne Resort, Cham Villas, Villa Aria Mui Ne Resort, Blue Bay Mui Ne Resort, Panadus Resort, The Sailing Bay Beach Resort, Novela Resort, Swiss Village Resort & Spa, Mia Resort, and Princess D’Annam Resort & Spa.

TESTING THE WATERS

On a 50-km stretch of coastline, the area has been known as the ‘Kingdom of Resorts’ since the mid-1990s. The strong sea breeze makes all three beaches very popular for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Tourism has developed outwards from the city of Phan Thiet to, among other places, Mui Ne, which has more than a hundred beach resorts as well as restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. It’s clear to see that some of the older resorts have suffered from coastal erosion, however, and their days may be numbered.

The Princess D’Annam Resort & Spa and Villa Aria Mui Ne Resort are the new ‘gems’ of the area. Located on an area of 5 ha and the first all-villa boutique five-star luxury resort in Vietnam, Princess D’Annam Resort & Spa rests on the peaceful shores of Ke Ga Bay. This royal, secluded sanctuary is the perfect beach destination for an intimate, romantic getaway or a long-awaited escape from the chaos of city life. It’s also home to an award-winning spa, two gourmet restaurants, a bar, serene pools, function rooms for private and corporate events, and heliconia-filled gardens. Room tariffs are quite reasonable, ranging from $130 to $1,000 depending on the room type.

Set on a beautiful beachfront in the middle of the Mui Ne ‘strip’, Villa Aria Mui Ne is the newest boutique beach resort in the area. The lush resort is a combination of modern tropical styles and French country luxury, with 22 suites, a bar-restaurant, and a small swimming pool especially suitable for couples.

Phu Quoc Island - Development proceeds apace

The final destination for The Guide team was Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam’s largest and off the country’s southern coast, which was recognised by AsiaOne magazine as a ‘Lost Paradise on Earth’. Thanks to its natural beauty, pristine beaches and favourable year-round weather, as well easy accessibility by daily flights from HCMC and Hanoi, it has become one of the most remarkable holiday destinations in Vietnam. The opening of stunning new resorts has been a feature of 2017.

TESTING THE WATERS

Our first stop was the luxurious Nam Nghi Resort, located at Vung Bau on the northwestern shores of the island and surrounded by untouched nature. Director of Operations Ian O Broin took us around the resort. We were impressed by its Tree House Restaurant by the beach, where tall trees had been preserved during construction. He introduced us to the most unique place at the resort, the Rock Sunset Island Bar, just a stone’s throw from Mong Tay Peninsula and with 360-degree panorama of Phu Quoc’s bountiful coastline and mesmerising seas, which complement the resort’s sophisticated natural setting.

The resort is beautifully decorated with collections of landscape photographs featuring rocky beaches and blue seas. All rooms and villas are designed to provide guests with a sophisticated island oasis and are equipped with high-quality furnishings to create a spacious, private retreat in an air of luxury.

We then headed to Fusion Resort Phu Quoc, situated on a 20-ha site within the private bay of Cua Can and the newest member of the Fusion chain in Vietnam. We felt relaxed in its space, with soft music and tranquillity. Fusion brings the concept of wellness to a resort, which includes its famous ‘all-spa inclusive’ service in the room tariff, offering daily spa journeys for all guests at no extra cost. The resort offers 97 spacious, rustic thatched villas, ranging from one to five bedrooms and each with its own private garden and pool, which bring balance to the body and mind in a quiet, secluded and thoroughly reenergising the natural environment, right at the water’s edge.

One of the famous eco-style resorts in the north of Phu Quoc Island is Mango Bay. When we arrived, its restaurant and bar on rocks next to the reception area were full of foreign guests enjoying the afternoon with Rock ‘n’ Roll music filling the air, accompanied by the sound of waves. Secluded rooms and bungalows are set within 20 ha of natural forest, gardens and utter tranquillity. The resort also boasts a broad green space with a pepper plantation, an island vegetable patch, a butterfly farm, an orchid garden, and a forest reserve.

From the north of the island, we took the 30-minute trip to the south, with Sol Beach House Resort, managed by the Melia Group on Truong Beach, our next stop. We were impressed by its spacious, breezy lobby with fantastic views over tropical gardens and the ocean. The resort is designed in a youthful style, with bright colours of light blue and white providing a sense of being in the Mediterranean. With 284 rooms and suites, the four-star resort offers an innovative experience for guests, with Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine at The Shack restaurant by the beach, in-house DJs, daily cocktails at sunset at the Ola Beach Club, relaxing spa services at the outdoor Zen area, and water sports such as surfing, paddle boarding and diving.

Also situated on Truong Beach, Novotel Phu Quoc Resort is inspired by the beauty of fishing villages in the Gulf of Thailand and designed by reputed architects from Kume Aisa in Japan. It has a contemporary European style and a ‘close to nature’ concept, with large green gardens and lotus ponds where guests, especially families, can walk or cycle together in the morning. The resort features more than 700 rooms in the categories of Superior, Deluxe, Suite, Bungalows and Villas, from three to five bedrooms.

We then headed to Duong Dong town, in the middle of Phu Quoc Island, where we enjoyed the cool, green tropical gardens at the luxurious boutique La Veranda Resort. The sweet resort features classic colonial architecture, with wide and breezy terraces, blue and white porcelain, Vietnamese ceramics, oil paintings, botanical gardens and, of course, a lovely stretch of beach. We recommend you to try its great cocktails while sitting on the terrace at sunset. The Pepper Tree Restaurant is famous for its elegant space and innovative fine dining, prepared from organic ingredients and created by award winning chefs.

Perhaps what enchanted us most on Phu Quoc was the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, located on Bai Khem, known as one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. We were captivated by the story of architect Bill Bensley, who designed JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. The architecture reflects an early 20th century style and embraces the traditions of French colonial architecture. Every detail, down to the decorative elements and staff uniforms, were carefully crafted and considered by Mr Bensley to reinforce the resort’s overarching theme.

Everyone who visits Phu Quoc Island will see that there are many construction sites dotted around. More hotels and resorts are being built and more flights from international destinations are being opened. As with other tourism destinations we visited, the island’s authorities, business leaders, and local people face the question of how to develop tourism in a sustainable manner, keeping the island clean, its water clear, and its forests pristine, while protecting the natural treasures bestowed upon the island.  

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