On this stretch of unspoilt coast in Vietnam, fresh fish and and cold beer come with sea views and a singalong. Kendall Hill kicks back takes us on the perfect holiday in Vinh Hy Bay.
Photography by Christopher Wise
At Vinh Hy Bay on Vietnam’s south-central coast, the East Sea is crowded with fishing boats and laced with nets. The catch changes with the seasons but right now, in late summer, it’s anchovies flipping and flashing in the sunrays as they’re hauled aboard brightly painted trawlers.
The granite rocks jutting from the sea are riddled with caves where nimble collectors scale bamboo scaffolds to harvest stalactite swiftlet nests destined for sale as delicacies in the nation’s restaurants.
The coastal land is a patchwork of grapevines and cashew trees and, further south, salt mines and shrimp farms. Even seaweed is harvested and turned into rau hong van, a pleasant-enough jellied sweet. All anyone seems to think about here is food. Oh, and karaoke.
Vinh Hy is not yet on the foreign tourist map but its time in the sun will come. Nestled beside the 24,000-hectare Nui Chua National Park, a dramatic coastal promontory that looms wild and beautiful from the clear sparkling blues of the East Sea, this is as stunning a stretch of coastline as you could hope to find in South-East Asia. Sun bears, monkeys and barking deer inhabit its forests, as do dozens of bird species. Sea turtles nest in its protected marine conservation zone.
It’s a serene region that feels far removed from the usual hustle of Vietnam but just two hours’ drive north lies Nha Trang, the high-rise beach resort popular with Chinese and Russian tourists. Surely it’s only a matter of time before the holidaying crowds spill south.
For now there are only two resorts in Vinh Hy: a waterfront cheapie pitched at domestic travellers and Amanoi, an elegant 31-villa property that seems to float on a pink granite ridge between sea and national park. With room rates starting at $US650 (about $850) a night, horizon pools and excellent cooking from chefs Danny Woodbridge and Nhut Nguyen, Amanoi is already luring global hedonists to these unsung shores.
The resort’s sophistication contrasts starkly with the rustic village of Vinh Hy, where coracles bob in the shallows and single-storey fishermen’s homes line the waterfront. The tiny main square springs to life at sunset as vendors light charcoal braziers and cook the day’s catch.
There’s fish of all descriptions plus sea urchins, spiny whelks and clamshells, freshly shucked and flame-grilled so that their just-charred fresh bursts with moisture. One karaoke machine is blaring already but, as the night darkens and beer cans pile up, tipsy revellers will turn many of these houses into impromptu karaoke parties.
Vinh Hy Bay is best known for its floating seafood restaurants but they were all closed last year after a fatal capsize. The provincial government has announced a tentative reopening of some, under strict safety regulations, expected to take effect around midyear.
They’re closed when I visit so Amanoi staff, keen to give me a taste of local eating, improvise with a street-food crawl of Phan Rang, the fast-growing city an hour south. My guide is Vo Long Giang, assistant chief engineer by day and keen connoisseur of Phan Rang’s outdoor dining scene by night.
We head straight to the downtown night market, which turns out to be less a conventional market than a huddle of mobile motorbike kitchens on a vacant lot by a main road. Agile stallholders are frying, boiling, grilling and chopping dinner for city workers and happy families. A woman catches me staring at the chaos and cries, “Don’t just stand there – take a seat!”
I think her name is Tuyet because her stall is Pho Tuyet, which Giang says is well known for its beef and pork pho. I ask him why they’re so good and he says, “It is just the feeling of the local people about the taste – the spicy from the chilli mixed with the mild of the herbs, the fat and fresh from beef plus with the peanut... It creates the very special pho style.”
The market’s other attractions include pork ribs sizzling over smoky charcoal, cauldrons of fragrant stocks and banh mi stuffed with fatty veins of pork belly stained red with shrimp powder. Chicken rice, heady with ginger, sells for 30,000 dong (about $1.70) and pork buns come stamped with the Chinese characters for Double Happiness. One lady is busy ladling bowls of the central Vietnamese staple mi quang, a hearty omnibus meal of shrimp, pork, sometimes chicken and beef, vegetables, wide rice noodles and a potent meat broth seasoned with black pepper, sh sauce and garlic, all showered with toasted sesame crackers.
It’s a gift to have a local expert show me the best eateries – particularly here where the humble operators don’t rate a mention on TripAdvisor – and place my orders. For those flying blind, the usual street-food rules apply. Choose the busiest stall because its food will be freshest and, if the crowds are any indication, very good. Watch the food preparation to make sure you’re okay with ingredients and hygiene standards before ordering. Vietnamese street food is made in the blink of an eye so it doesn’t take long to decide if you’re keen to try. Ask questions. If the cook can’t answer you, maybe someone else will. If not, and you like the look of what’s cooking, plunge in regardless. As they say in Vietnam, carpe diem! (They don’t really say that in Vietnamese. They say, “chuc ngon mieng!” – bon appétit!)
Giang leads me to Banh Can Street, named after the dish served at the roadside kiosks lining this seaside avenue. Banh can are puffy rice-flour pancakes flavoured with quail egg, spring onion, fried pork, prawns and squid. They’re cooked in lidded clay dishes about the size of a golf ball over burning embers that send smoke clouds streaming over the road – and us. It’s said that the older the mould, the better the taste. Perhaps that’s why Phan Rang, said to be the birthplace of banh can, does them better than anywhere else.
We take our tiny, red plastic seats at a tiny, red plastic table and toast the evening, local style, with mugs of beer on ice. Banh can is all about the condiments and the table is set with a trio of sh sauces including mam nem, made from fermented fish, which Giang says I probably can’t eat. “Because of the smell,” he explains. (He’s wrong.) The rice cakes arrive crunchy and tanned on the shell with glutinous, chewy, hot insides. The added fibre of prawn shells is a surprise but at this price – a few dollars for a small feast of surf’n’turf treasures – no-one’s complaining.
The final stop is the seafood restaurants of Phan Rang Bay. All offer the same deal – sea views, cold beer and fresh fish – but Vi Hong Restaurant (16/4 Street, My Binh Ward, Phan Rang City; +84 68 352 1122) was a pioneer and, with its upstairs terrace overlooking the bay of twinkling boat lights, it’s still the most popular.
We dive into clams swimming in a broth of lemongrass and tamarind leaf, and squid plucked straight from the East Sea. When a whole fried fish arrives, our waitress sets to work stripping crisp skin and pillowy white fresh from its flanks and loading them onto rice-flour sheets with a fistful of herbs to make rice-paper rolls à la minute.
Meanwhile, the fairy lights strung above us swing in a warm sea breeze and we sip iced beers to a soundtrack of duelling karaoke gangs crooning on the sand below. Dinner and show. It’s about as fancy as Phan Rang dining gets but what more do you need?
Where to stay: Amanoi
Aman Resorts has an eye for Earth’s beauty spots – founder Adrian Zecha opened his first ultra-luxe resort on Thailand’s Phuket in 1988 – and it’s easy to see why the group located its first Vietnamese property on the pristine shoreline of Vinh Hy Bay.
The landscape looks almost Mediterranean – squint and it could be Crete or Corsica – in the way the sun-bleached granite coastline and sandy coves vanish into translucent waters. The Truong Son mountains shimmer in the distance for wow factor.
The setting is unique but the resort DNA is pure Aman – pared-back luxury, sympathetic architecture and impeccable service. The 31 guest pavilions mimic Vietnamese dwellings with their distinctive rooflines and latticework. Interiors feature rattan wall panels, oak cabinetry and raw silks. Five privately owned villas, each four or five bedrooms with resident cook and housekeeper, are also available for rent.
Half the villas have horizon pools but Amanoi also has a cliff-top pool and a 50-metre infinity number at the Beach Club beside the bone-white sands of the resort’s private beach.
The heart of the property is a grand pagoda-like pavilion housing the restaurant, bar, terrace and library. It’s set on the highest point of the hotel to capture superlative ocean and mountain views.
The food is so good – chef Nhut Nguyen’s claypot fish with palm-sugar caramel is sensational – that there’s no need to leave the resort to eat. But the street-food tour we road-tested is now a fixture on Amanoi’s activities roster and it’s a great excuse to have a meal with the locals.