(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine , Advertorial)
Mui Ne, that tropical, beach-resort village that has mostly sprung up in the last ten years or so east of Ho Chi Minh City, is a five-layered affair. Proudly lofting it above all else are the sand dunes. Next comes a street a couple of kilometres long lined with bars, restaurants and shops selling souvenirs and everything the holidaymaker may need from sunscreen to liquor and crocodile-skin ware. Mui Ne is a free rather than captive market and that includes a wide choice of where to stay and eat. The hotels or resorts are three- to four-star [Vietnam division. â€“ Ed.] and set in their own gardens. With one exception they are low-rise, avoiding the eyesores of many a resort that was planned before it. The last two layers are what people come for â€“ a beautiful coconut-tree-fringed, orange-sandy beach and the expansive ocean usually azure and dotted with fishing vessels.
I cycled along the road passing a multitude of frontages of hotels or resorts [the distinction is not easy to make on the ground, and the name given a place is often only that. â€“ Ed.] in the three- and four-star categories. You have a wide choice of accommodation in this range. The cheaper places are further down and away from Seahorse Resort & Spaâ€™s prime beach location. Of course I cannot vouch for them all but I can certainly tell you that one of the more established hotels, the four-star Seahorse Resort & Spa, is more than just a safe bet. The first advantage is that, if, like me, you need exercise and enjoy exploring your immediate environment without adding to pollution, Seahorse Resort & Spa offers you free bicycle-use. They have chosen a good name, too. The seahorse is an aphrodisiac well known for finding its way into many a bottle of Vietnamese wine. The Seahorse Resort & Spa promises to pep you up during your stay by the sea.
I alighted at the portals of Seahorse Resort & Spa from my air-conditioned Sinh Cafe bus (VND100,000 for the five-hour trip from HCMC). Somehow I had thought that this was the back entrance and I wandered through the coconut-tree gardens in search of reception. Luckily a friendly employee chanced upon this lost guest and led him back to perform the formalities at the roadside offices. A welcoming fruit juice and a chat with very helpful check-in staff left me confident that I was going to be well looked after.
Soon I was comfortably settled in at my bungalow. Its location was excellent, close to the infinity pool and also that beyond-infinity pool called the ocean as well as the main dining facilities, which go under the French word for seahorse, Hippocampe. There were seahorse motifs on the walls. All the bungalows at Seahorse Resort & Spa are set well back from the road and have the same facilities but they vary a little in price according to position. One Internet booking site has them at between $147 and $202 a night. Standard rooms are also available, quoted at $73 by the same source. My tastefully decorated bungalow faced on one side to a garden stocked with tropical flowers and leafery which is like a central courtyard, as four bungalows are arranged around it. At the back through a door the bathroom and toilet were exposed to the sky with another smaller garden with a high wall and bamboo blind. You shower in the full bosom of nature here with the birds twittering in the background.
After my long road journey I was by now quite hungry so I trod over the pathway and up the stairs to the Hippocampe dining hall which offered international cuisine. Normally I am an easygoing, take-it as-it-comes sort of diner. On this occasion however I decided to test just how Western or international the food and service was. I put myself in the frame of mind of the most fastidious and finicky eaters I know, for example, the Publishing Consultant of this magazine. Arriving later than normal dining hours I had the full attention of the staff and appreciation of the decor of black and red hardwood dining tables and the tent-like beams and rafters above to myself.
First up was an aperitif. I ordered a complicated one called Long Island Tea. It was an education for me that this contains no actual tea. It only looks like black tea in its long, tall glass. In my poor Vietnamese, I tried to make it clear to the waiter, who had little English, that I wanted to see it mixed in front of me. After some insistence and a trip backstage to the kitchen the cocktail-mixer emerged. No gentleman in black suit and bow tie here, no dancing a calypso as he mixed, no stainless-steel cocktail shaker to be juggled and no decorative umbrella and slice of lemon on the rim of the glass. The mixer dutifully mixed all the ingredients, as I watched: rum, vodka, Cointreau, and red grape juice. He missed only the Coca-Cola, which was described as a component on the drink list. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the concoction and will look out for it again.
The next piece of fun revolved around the entree. I chose vegetable soup imagining that it would come as a clear soup. What it arrived as was cream of vegetable soup. I was served no bread rolls. Another trip to the kitchen and I had the pleasure of meeting the supervisor, a charming middle-aged lady who spoke no English. By now the waiter was suffering from severe nervous exhaustion and was substituted by a lovely young lady whose first trial with me was a complaint that the rolls had not been warmed and to be astonished to learn that a special knife was needed to spread the butter. Such a thing existed in the kitchen and it was duly brought to the table.
For main course I ordered the Aussie tenderloin steak. Steak is something I do not normally have in Vietnam, this not being cattle country. It was as succulent as could be, mÃ©daillon in form. It came with veggies and chips and in a red-wine sauce. I had ordered it to be cooked medium but it came closer to rare. That was not a problem at all. I like it both ways. I would that they also asked you, â€˜How would you like your chips (French fries), sir?â€™ I like them as reasonably large slices and not as they were here, little sticks Ã la KFC.
For dessert came crÃªme caramel with a delightful Vietnamese twist. It came on ice on a beautiful light-green platter. As the caramel mixed into the melting ice the custard became increasingly delicious, soothing the palate with its coolness. Despite my quibbles and a few foibles I had rounded off an excellent, filling meal served in the friendliest and most caring of manners.
Breakfast served at this same venue came as a sumptuous buffet with everything imaginable from both East and West to drink and eat. It was included in the room rate. I ate it among throngs of mainly Russian fellow guests.
Upon leaving the buffet I was met by the General Manager, Mr Tran Anh Tri, and we enjoyed a nice cup of tea together at the poolside bar. He was anxious to point out something I had not noticed: they have a mini rice paddy in the gardens near Hippocampe. They actually harvest the rice too. I put it to Mr Anh Tri that it must be difficult to cater to all the different demands and expectations that all the many different nationalities have. He nodded in agreement, accepting that in his business you never stop learning.
Mr Anh Tri had arranged a tour of the grounds for me. Seeing the gardens in broad daylight for the first time they did look stunning. â€˜Donâ€™t you worry about coconuts falling on guestâ€™s heads?â€™ I casually enquired. â€˜Not to worry about,â€™ that he replied, â€˜We harvest them well before that could happen.â€™ I was shown the souvenir shop on the ground floor of the Hippocampe building. It features reproductions of Champa art, a reminder that around Mui Ne there are vestiges of this great civilisation that became almost swallowed up by the southward advance of the Viets.
Next we visited the spa. Whilst quite small, it had everything you might expect: sauna, steam bath and massage rooms. Soothing piped music was playing and the outdoor Jacuzzi even had a mini TV set clamped to one side. There was also a tennis court. Mr Anh Tri informed that the gardens are irrigated by the natural stream that runs through them. This is stocked with plenty of fish and diverted at one point to form a pond. There are signs warning that it is quite deep.
A Seahorse bathroom, open to nature
Photos: Seahorse Resort & Spa
Most Western tourists these days are concerned that the hotels they stay at are environmentally friendly. This was news until recently to many in Vietnam, but Seahorse Resort & Spa was quick to heed it. Knowing that local recognition of environmental good practice can be easily be obtained with the slip of an envelope, and that anyone with a passing knowledge of Vietnam is aware of this, Seahorse Resort & Spa has gone to lengths to obtain the Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) Green Award, thereby being only one out of ten hotels in the country with this accolade.
I spent the rest of the morning relaxing by reading a book on my bungalow veranda and having a stroll along the beach. Furthermore I had a dip in the pool where I overheard a woman with a broad Yorkshire accent expressing her satisfaction with the hotel and Mui Ne in general. I even had time for the breezy bicycle ride I mentioned earlier.
All this activity worked up my appetite and I decided to do justice to Seahorse Resort & Spaâ€™s other less formal restaurant, roadside, which goes under the name of â€˜Bistroâ€™. I decided it was the time to try out the Vietnamese food. Some people complain about the street noise but coming from Saigon the location was not disturbing for me. Rice seedlings in a pot decorated the table and a basket of fresh green coconuts hung from rafters to the side of it. I ordered the seafood rice at VND154,000 to be followed by pork cooked in a clay pot (Thá»‹t heo kho tá»™) at VND110,000, all to be washed down by a bottle of Saigon Green beer. To my amazement the rice dish came accompanied by bread rolls and butter complete with butter knife. Laudably, they had learned the customerâ€™s preference and this had been communicated between the two eateries. I smiled at the cultural misunderstanding. In many years of living abroad myself I have made enough of them. And after all an error of addition rather than omission is hardly an error at all. Battting on their wicket they delivered their own countryâ€™s food well. I left satisfied and fortified for the long trip back home.
The Seahorse Resort & Spa has everything you need to recharge your batteries with ozone from the sea, the sweet scents of its gardens and the soothing therapies of its infinity pool and spa. Accommodation is to high standards and to the state of the art in comfort. The food, beverage and services are tip-top whilst there still may be a slight struggle at times to comprehend the strange ways of foreigners. Think of the word â€˜seahorseâ€™ not to denote something that needs to be immersed in wine but the place to immerse yourself in when staying at the now famous beach village of Mui Ne.n