Adrian Zecha has the uncanny ability of knowing exactly what holidaymakers want. It’s why the staff at the cult Aman hotels he formerly founded are almost supernaturally attuned to guests’ whims. And, as a pioneer of the world’s finest minimalist hotels, he understands that luxury can mean simple and stripped-back. With Azerai Ke Ga Bay (one of a trio of Azerai hotels in Vietnam), there’s little embellishment to the glossy white decor – and there needn’t be, because the sparkling waves of the East Sea, lush ginger gardens, dragon fruit plantations and golden sands do the heavy lifting for head-turning. Spa treatments using ancient Vietnamese wisdom, placid pools dotted throughout and locally fished and grown dishes are assuredly decadent, but in a place where cosseting staff speak a range of tongues, the lingua franca is still simple pleasure.
12 noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £231.38 (VND6,854,400), including tax at 13.4 per cent.
Rates usually include a buffet-style Continental or à la carte American-style breakfast, bike hire, a welcome drink each, tote bags and bottled water in rooms.
A ritual befitting a stay as refined as this (albeit with more of a Vietnamese flavour), afternoon tea is served poolside from 3.30pm to 4.30pm, the menu changes according to what’s in season, but tropically flavoured cakes and dainty sandwiches are assured.
At the hotel
Spa with sauna and steam room, beauty studio, gardens, kids’ club, games room, living room and lounge, boutique, laundry service, free WiFi. In rooms: TV, sound-system, minibar, Nespresso coffee machine, tea-making kit, air-conditioning, ceiling fan, bathrobes and slippers, bottled water.
Our favourite rooms
Suites and villas capitalise on the estate’s spaciousness – at the very least you’ll have 65sq m of space to play in. Design harks back to the Vietnamese retro-modernism of the Fifties and Sixties, with natural stone and timber finishes and a light beachy colour palette, given texture with rattan and seagrass matting, wood screens and pebble-wash flooring. All bear a calming simplicity – after all, this is an off-shoot of the famously minimalist Aman brand – with a luxurious feel, but the private pools in the upper-tier suites add some swagger to the serenity.
Bring an array of swimwear, because you’ll spend a lot of time frolicking like a fish in the hotel’s four – yes, four – pools. The star of the show is the vast infinity pool that spreads across the beachfront and around which activity thrums, whether it’s couples canoodling in cabanas, chatter from the alfresco lounge, or groups clinking glasses in a table outside the restaurant. It’s the sweet spot for sunset. Quieter is the Ginger Pool set among tropical gardens; and squirreled away are two more pools: one overhung with 50-year-old frangipani trees, the other in a peaceful courtyard.
Wave-like stroking, pressure-point stimulating, beachy visual aids: spa therapists here have an alleviating arsenal – including tips and tricks gleaned from ancient Vietnamese holism – to gently cajole guests into calmness in six frangipani-scented treatment rooms (including doubles for couples). Pampering starts off with a consultation and includes a complementary steam room and sauna session. Alongside soothing signature journeys, there are massages, facials, wraps, reflexology, and scrubs made using dragonfruit, coffee or rice. Plus a gentle, ginger-scented hair-washing experience. There’s a Jacuzzi and a gym with high-tech cardiovascular and strength-training equipment, and manicures and pedicures in the beauty studio polish off the spa spoiling. When you’re done you can relax along the oceanfront looking out to the lighthouse. Hatha yoga and guided meditation sessions can also be booked in a quiet leafy corner of the estate or on a platform by the pool.
You won’t need a beach bag – there’s a branded tote in each room. Bring knockabout gear, so you’re ready for bombing through rice paddies on a bike or romping through ancient salt lakes; and bring your sea legs for a wobble along the waves in a basket boat with the local fishermen.
If you’d like to take a little piece of Vietnam home with you, the onsite boutique sells lacquerware, rosewood boxes and other homemade handicrafts.
Welcome, although older, swim-confident kids will fare best here. Children are welcome in Deluxe and Pool Suites.
Juniors, tweens and teens who’ve shed their water-wings.
One child (under 12) can stay in the Deluxe Suites for free if sharing a bed with their parents, or for VND1,058,201 a night on an extra bed; two children (under 12) can stay in the Pool Suites for the same prices as the Deluxe Suites.
Life moves at a gentle pace here (unless you’re kitesurfing). Pastimes centre around playing in the pools or the sea and getting to know the surroundings intimately. The hotel can help arrange cultured days out and there’s a free kids’ club for under-sevens with arts and crafts materials, books, games and educational films.
Parents, order that round of drinks – each of the pools has a lifeguard and all welcome little swimmers. During the remodelling of the main pool, a sitting ledge was added too, so you can perch and help your tot float.
There’s a dedicated kids’ menu with different types of congee, pizza, spaghetti, chicken nuggets, burgers and a selection of sorbets and ice-creams, including dragonfruit.
Babysitting can be arranged for US$15 an hour.
The hotel's compulsory gala dinners are held on 24 December and 31 December, children can attend for half the adult rate (VND1,450,000)
The hotel is a responsible host: ingredients in the restaurant are grown onsite or sourced from surrounding farms, fishermen and salt fields; green electricity is generated from solar panels; energy-efficient air-conditioning systems have been installed; and lighting throughout is supplied by low-energy LEDs.
Sitting on the deck by the bay – watching the tide roll away.
Bright like tropical fish, to pop against the monochrome: flashes of turquoise, gold and coral; liquid-like silks; plucked-from-the-ocean pearls.
Here the landscape pretty much doubles as your menu: fat fruits from the plantations, salt from the flats and fish from the sea will all end up on your plate. Say, in a green-mango salad with prawns and calamari, coconut pork belly and lemongrass chicken. The grill is laden with lobster, whatever the sea brought in that day and grain-fed beef, and of the more international picks we like the braised short-rib with apple and ginger and truffled Vichyssoise. And at lunchtime get stuck into a torpedo-size bánh mì or zingy summer rolls.
What to drink when the sky starts to blush? Take a spin on the colour wheel – most of the bar’s signature cocktails are named after vibrant hues, say the Purple Lady with dragonfruit juice and sparkling wine, or a Jade with vodka, Midori and cucumber. The bartenders know the classics too.
Breakfast runs from 6.30am to 10am and you can take afternoon tea from 3.30pm to 4.30pm. Dinner is from 6pm to 10pm.
Dine in the peace and privacy of your room from 7am to 10pm (in-room breakfast will cost you extra).
Azerai Ke Gay Bay sits overlooking the blue expanse of the East Sea in beach-blessed Bình Thuận Province on Vietnam’s southeast coast. The five-kilometre stretch of coast it’s on is around a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City.
Tan Son Nhat International in Ho Chi Minh City is the most convenient transport hub for reaching the hotel. It’s just under a four-hour drive along palm-tree-lined roads from the hotel. Alternatively, Cam Ranh International is a five-hour drive along a spectacular coastal route. Transfers can be arranged by the hotel (US$129 one way, for up to three guests; US$185 for up to seven guests).
Bình Thuận station is around an hour’s drive from the hotel and it’s a stop on the epic North-South railway that runs between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, making it a convenient point to hop off if you’re on a cross-country trip. Alternatively, ride from Ho Chi Minh to Phan Thiet station (a four-hour journey), from which the hotel can pick you up for US$36 one way for up to three guests, or US$51 for up to seven guests.
Alongside your licence, you’ll need an International Driving Permit to take the wheel in Vietnam. Whether you want to or not is another story, as the roads can be poorly maintained, death-wish motorcyclists are many and drivers on the defensive. For this reason, car-hire in Vietnam almost always comes with a private driver, or the hotel can help to arrange transfers (around US$130 one way for three guests; US$185 for up to seven guests). There’s free parking on site.
Worth getting out of bed for
Far from the clamour of Vietnam’s cities, Azerai Ke Ga Bay enjoys a peace you can only find while deeply entrenched amid nature. The East Sea and its beachy fringe stretch out before the estate, while salt fields, ginger gardens and dragonfruit plantations spread lushly inland. To the north lies a rocky headland and Ke Ga Island, topped by a French-colonial lighthouse built in 1899 (accessible on foot at low tide), and to the south, rippling russet-hued sand dunes. With five kilometres of tropical shoreline at guests’ disposal, you’re sure to find a sunbathing spot to maroon yourselves on. Those who get restless after a few supine sessions can sail, paddleboard, windsurf, kite surf or go wild swimming. Fishing trips with the skilled locals can be arranged too, and the colourful boats that glide serenely along the shore add charming detail to an already dreamy panorama, and sunsets get very dramatic here, moving through lemon, bronze, fuchsia and mauve, a picturesque transition best watched with an equally colourful cocktail or at sea – intimate romantic cruises depart just before the show begins. In Phan Thiet to the north, the two-hour hike up Tà Cú Mountain takes you through thick rainforest and ends with Buddhist statues and an eye-catching pagoda at the top (those taking it easy can ride the cable-car). Less exerting is exploring the still-standing temples of the Cham Kingdom at Tháp Po Sah Inu. And, those looking to swing should head to the 18-hole PGA NovaWorld golf course, a 20-minute drive away. Or, you can simply spa, swim and relax in exotic splendour back at the hotel.
You’ll likely want to stay onsite and take in the views, but to get a taste for the locality, try Vietnamese favourites at Nhà hàng Trọng Tâm in Tân Thành.
On arrival at Azerai Ke Ga Bay, do yourself a favour: drop your bags, and make a beeline for the sealine. Apologise to the front desk, hurry past the aromatic frangipanes, jasmines and bushy fox-tail palms, head down between glossy white colonnades and arrive, panting, at one of the finest ocean fronts in the land. We’d been up and down Vietnam by the time we made our way here, and few sights stirred me more.
A lighthouse, built by the French in 1899, winks welcomingly from the little island across the water. A picturesque fleet of wooden trawlers shelters nervously from the blustery South China Sea in the bay’s shallows. Fragile fishing coracles bob up and down.
All this is even before you look around and note that you’re standing on the stately terrace of a retro-modernist clubhouse that leads down to a marble-lined infinity pool – for laps in the lap of luxury – and, beyond it, a private beach at your disposal. The whole resort, with its suites like secret hideaways in a sprawling, enthralling garden, is bright, white and splendid in the sun.
This honeymooning Mr & Mrs Smith were a tad cranky when we rocked up after a sweltering train from Ho Chi Minh City to nearby Quy Nhon station (great fun in usual circumstances, less jolly when the air conditioning breaks down) and an ill-advised lunch stop in nowheresville at which, to an old lady’s delight, Mr Smith found a fluffy bird foetus inside his egg.
You might instead rent a car from HCMC, which will be a zippy two-hour drive away (an hour less than it is now) by the time a brand-spanking new motorway opens later this year. But where would be the adventure in that? And, like footprints on the sand, these mild inconveniences were soon washed away by the first few hours simply soaking it all in. Palm fronds and Bird Of Paradise flowers loomed so densely outside the great bathroom windows of our walled pool suite that, when I took a dip in our enormous tub, it felt like bathing in the Eden Project.
That evening we were treated to one of the most stunning sunsets – a ‘stunset’, if you’ll indulge me – that I have witnessed: an explosion of pink and scarlet that looked like the rebirth of some fiery god.
‘It’s the best time of year to be here,’ says Tran from the front desk, ‘because the light is just right and the sea is calm.’ Correct on both counts, Tran, and perfect conditions for us to set off bright and early (well, before midday) for the lighthouse.
There are an absolute boatload of things to do in Ke Ga Bay – from zipping off by motorcycle to fishing villages, to jumping aboard for a day out with local anglers, to guided tours to the still-standing temples of the Cham Kingdom at Tháp Po Sah Inu or a brisk two-hour jungly hike up Tà Cú Mountain which end with Buddhist statues and an eye-catching pagoda (those taking it easy can ride the cable-car). But the lighthouse called to us – so that’s where we went.
Our guide, Hai (‘It means ‘the sea’ in Vietnamese,’ he told us) picked us up in a swanky black car and ferried us a few minutes down the road to a boat that swept us bouncily along to the lighthouse.
The becalmed sea, for reasons best known to itself, had become a little agitated by the time we boarded. ‘When the sea is very flat we can take you from the hotel,’ he said, before a rogue wave hit me in the face, proving his point.
It’s a 10 minute trip across the water and we spent an hour on the island (Hai brought a picnic, and pointed out where the watersport-mad city folk from HCMC like to come and kitesurf). It was bliss.
A few times a year, the tide is so low that you can walk to the mainland. 100 years ago the French brought chickens, frangipanis and the towering sandstone lighthouse to the island, ‘brick by brick, like Lego,’ said Hai, and all of them are still here.
'I nearly asked Mrs Smith to marry me beneath a lighthouse,’ I told Hai. ‘But it was too windy.’ ‘What?’, said Hai, proving my point. The island is rugged, windswept and utterly unspoilt, as well as being a useful windbreaker for the fishing fleet to hide behind.
Which is just as well. The restaurant, with a half day’s warning, pre-order local fish off the boats of your choosing to eat out on the seaside veranda at night, gazing out into the inky water as the lights of the hard-working fleet flash like the glitter balls of a giant floating disco.
Salt, sea spray and – if you'll indulge me again – love were in the warm ocean air. When we returned to our room, lovely Tran and her staff had laid a trail of rose petals to a bath filled with them.
It's these special touches that make Azerai Ke Ga Bay the sort of place people like me dream of running aground at: serene, serendipitous and surprisingly secluded, with a whole lot of heart.
The lights are on, come find your way home. To the lighthouse we go.