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This lesser-travelled city is a panacea for over-touristed Vietnam

Quy Nhon
Quy Nhon

Far from the hustle-bustle of Vietnam’s tourist-trodden cities, Quy Nhon is a panacea for the traveller on a quest for a more authentic experience

I spy something that looks like a handmade cracker, with a promise of candy inside. But it’s fermented pig skin mixed with herbs and wrapped in a rice stalk, chef Vinh tells me. I’m at a food market on the coast of Vietnam with Vinh, the executive chef at Anantara Quy Nhon Villas. Vinh buys the Tré, a local specialty, so I can use it in my cooking class back at the Villas where I’m staying.

Quy Nhon is a new destination for foreign visitors, a 10-hour drive north of Saigon, and 300km south of tourist magnet Hoi An. It’s a growing city, with a university that rises behind a curve of the East Sea, an ancient merchant port of ochre-coloured houses, Chinese temples, traders’ homes, and hundreds of tailor shops in south-central Vietnam.

The spectacle of Quy Nhon Market

The fishing industry is the bedrock of Quy Nhon’s economy and the sea is a rich source of food for locals. At 8am on a Saturday morning the central market is busy with shoppers. Wide metal bowls of fish, wriggling eels, squid, crabs and prawns, and pyramids of silvery anchovies crowd the floor of the wet market. Chunky tuna fish are perched on hillocks of ice and black tropical oysters are stacked high beyond the rim of buckets.

Chatter crescendos and falls, as buyers pick out their food of choice.

The Vietnamese buy fresh food every day, taking away their purchases in hard plastic carriers. For those with heavy orders, middle-aged men pedalling traditional cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) wait outside the market – and this sight causes me to do a double take. It’s rare to see an original working cyclo in Vietnam today, with many having been spruced up to carry tourists.

Vinh buys razor clams, a large silvery pomfret fish, the Tré pig skin, and sea grape – tiny stalks of peppercorn-sized pods of pale green. Before we leave the hubbub behind, we pitch for a morning snack at a stall laid out with plastic sweet jars full of food and liquid. I’m intrigued. The stall is busy with those looking for a takeaway, but Vinh and I sit down on stools. Into my glass goes black jellied Chinese herb leaf, coconut milk, soya milk, jellied local seaweed and mung bean paste; with a tiny squirt of vanilla popped in at the end. My drink is intensely sweet, with only a slight whiff of the sea in the glass.

Another cook in the kitchen

Back at the resort, Vinh and I get to work in the kitchen. Like a TV cooking show, Vinh has done much of the prep beforehand, so I focus on the stove. I fry small chunks of fermented pig skin and sliced onions, adding Hoi An chilli sauce, Vietnamese mint and lime juice, and serve the dish topped by roasted peanuts and crispy shallots. It tastes divine — like bacon on speed.

After an early rise and my early lunch, I head back to the villa for some R&R. The Anantara, perched on a private cove south of Bai Xep beach, possesses lush vegetation concealing 26 luxury villas. A floor-to-ceiling window opens out to a private pool of tiled blue, with views of the East Sea. I wade in the shallows, gazing at tiny islands that rise from the teal-green water and the moored fishing boats painted in primary colours that bob on the unruffled surface.

“To introduce visitors staying in Anantara Hoi An Resort to Quy Nhon – not yet on the tourist map – the hoteliers figured taking the iconic Reunification Express train that trails the coastline from Hanoi to Saigon would make for a logical and a romantic way to travel. They were right.”

Romance on the rails

Anantara’s approach is to focus on under-explored destinations, showcasing them to the world. To introduce visitors staying in Anantara Hoi An Resort to Quy Nhon – not yet on the tourist map – the hoteliers figured taking the iconic Reunification Express train, that trails the coastline from Hanoi to Saigon, would make for a logical and a romantic way to travel. They were right. It also whisks me away from the intense commercial atmosphere of Hoi An to Quy Nhon’s peaceful coast.

The Vietage by Anantara is a luxury carriage attached to a regular train, a glamorous way to reach Quy Nhon. It’s fitted with six booths seating 12 passengers, and each booth is furnished in tones of soothing pale biscuit and gull grey, cocooned in smart rattan dividers with art-deco curves.

Pastries and coffee are served first thing on the six-hour journey, by Mr Tien and Mr Binh, both dressed in waistcoats and blazers imagined by Vietnam’s acclaimed fashion designer, Tom Trandt. Coffee is followed by craft cocktails: my moreish Vietmojito is made with Hoi An’s Sampan Rhum, and I drink it seated at the curved onyx marble bar – an area perfect for socialising.

I’ve chosen fresh Quy Nhon seafood salad, Hoi An chicken salad with rice, and passionfruit tart with dragon fruit compote for lunch, but there is time to squeeze in a complimentary 15-minute neck massage beforehand. I dip into a dedicated spa room and watch the views of the buffalos and rice paddies race by, as the tension in my neck melts away. My fine dining experience helps the six hours spent on board The Vietage slip by. We pull in to Quy Nhon following lunch and after a 30-minute transfer from the train station to the resort, I’m swimming under glorious sunshine by 3.30pm.

Quy Nhon heritage

As well as exploring the riches of the coast, I am keen to see what I might find inland. Anantara’s guide, Thich, takes me on a grand tour of Quy Nhon’s home province, Binh Dinh, to learn more about the many cultures that have shaped Vietnam. We visit a series of exquisitely carved red brick towers, with flower and leaf motifs, built along the country’s fertile coastal plains by the Cham, a Hinduised people who ruled southern Vietnam from the 2nd to the 15th century. At Banh It towers, built at the end of the 11th century to honour Shiva, the supreme creator, we ascend the tower’s mountaintop perch to take in the impressive views out towards the sea.

Later, at Quang Trung Museum, I learn about a significant late 18th century peasant rebellion in Vietnam, via striking murals. Binh Dinh province is the capital of martial arts in Vietnam, and I’m treated to a mesmerising demonstration of various moves and a hypnotising battle drum performance – a shattering war cry to summon warriors centuries ago.

More peaceful is a visit to a rice-paper making village, where I witness a local couple steaming rice paper flecked with sesame seeds over a cauldron, stoked with fire and rice husks. They make 600-800 papers a day that are dried on bamboo racks in the sun.

It’s not my first visit to Vietnam, but Quy Nhon is a new discovery, and it feels fresh and exciting. The railway journey, the lush private pool villas, and the immersive trips into this under-the-radar destination’s culinary culture and heritage have been a balm to my soul.

 

Journey Notes

For details on the Vietage visit thevietagetrain.com
For details on Anantara Quy Nhon Villas visit anantara.com/en/quy-nhon
Tickets for the Vietage can be bought by any customer staying at any property in the region

Inside Asia Tours in Brisbane has been creating tailor-made tours to Asia for 20 years. To travel to Quy Nhon and beyond visit InsideAsiaTours.com or call 07 3186 8800.

Vietnam Airlines offers flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

vietnamairlines.com

While You’re Here

Take a martial arts class at Anantara Quy Nhon Villas with Master Phuc, a lithe teacher of Viet Vo Dao Martial Arts who will put you through your paces.

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