Escape from Saigon in Vietnam’s Núi Chúa National Park
On reaching the cliff edge of Núi Chúa National Park, we stare out over the sandy beach to the glimmering green papaya sea. The coastline buckles south into the horizon. “What does Núi Chúa mean?” I ask our Vietnamese guide, Minh. “It means the place where they worship gods,” he replies. I can sense why. Here, high above Vietnam’s East Sea – the country’s name for the South China Sea – it’s so wildly beautiful, it could only be a sanctuary for sacred homage.
Núi Chúa National Park is at the base tail of the Annamite mountain chain that folds up the central spine of Vietnam. And, like some retreating glacial mountain, the Annamites seem to have spat out what they were chewing on further up the range. All around us are the randomly dumped, bulging boulders, shards, remnants of a million biscuit-coloured rocks scattered over an enormous clifftop plateau.
Much of Núi Chúa, on the central south coast of Vietnam, seven hours north by road from Ho Chi Minh City, is considered desert and, to seal that description, it’s often buffeted by dry winds. In fact, Phan Rang, the nearest city to the park, means “hot wind place”.
On our walk to the clifftop, we’d pass cactus, prickly pear and clumps of what look like hardy, tropical gorse. The dry, arid sense of the area is startling in Vietnam, a country known more for the humidity that thickens the air much of the year – especially in the south.
Hot from our walk, we sit down to rest amid the precarious piles of granite rock and are observed by handsome black-and-white goats. We wonder out loud what geological tantrum had created such a curious, colossal outcrop. From this high plateau, we make our way down through the shambolic rockiness to Turtle Meat Beach. It isn’t egg-laying season for the marine green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles of this coast, but we could see the attraction of these shores – no one lives on or close to this deserted beach.
Braving warm wind and rocky mayhem on the return ascent, we make our way back to the new Aman resort, Amano’i, for lunch, and an afternoon’s relaxation. Amanresorts has built 31 pavilions on the cave-pitted cliff coastline of the national park. The pewter-grey roofs of the pavilion rooms appear to bob on the surface of the evergreen forest, with its cashew-nut and persimmon trees, which spreads in an undulating jumble around the fishing village inlet of Vinh Hy Bay. All the pavilions – some with private pools – have been carefully sunk into the forest, leaving just the rooftops visible.
Down at the Amano’i Beach Club, on Ba Dien Beach, overlooking one of the resort’s pools and the fishing vessels of Vinh Hy village, we indulge in fresh spring rolls served in a bamboo tray, Vietnamese bánh xèo (rice pancake stuffed with prawns, sprouts and herbs) and lotus-seed soup accompanied by diced dragon fruit and melon.
We’re then transported to the Aman Spa, in a beautiful building with wide steps leading down to the silent Lotus Lake. After a hot footbath of fresh lemon and ginger, we submit to the signature Aman treatment. All the knots of our rocky park walk are expertly kneaded out of our aching backs.
The following day, reenergised, we begin with a Pilates class in the tranquil surrounds of the Pilates studio at the spa pavilion, followed by a breakfast of pho bo (beef noodle soup). Vietnam’s pho bo is not just any beef noodle soup; the national dish is a lovingly prepared homage to texture, colour and flavour, combining white noodles, tender slabs of beef, red chilli, splashes of fish sauce, spices, lemon and a forest of herbs.
After our breakfast of soup, pastries and coffee, we feel the need to burn a few more calories before reclining into the relaxing embrace of the resort grounds. The leisure manager, Richard, offers to kayak out with us around the misshapen coastline, with its big, wonky jumble of rounded, stained-grey boulders shoring up the forested cliffs that supported the resort.
Shortly after leaving the protection of the Ba Dien Beach cove, the cliff face, slashed with pencil-thin holes, rears up above us. Screeching bats and swallows swoop in and out of these elongated crevices and black crabs and barnacles cling to the rocks just above the salty sea line. After paddling past a few coves, we float into clear, teal-tinged waters and draw up onto a deserted golden beach so that we can snorkel. Forest-green and brown velvety coral – some curlicued like unbroken pencil shavings – spread out beneath us. We spy fat sea cucumbers, translucent needle fish, electric eels, dozens of parrot fish and black jewelled fish flitting about in the shallow waters.
The return kayak trip requires a bit more muscle as the waves have started to jump by late morning; so reclining by our private pool in the afternoon seems a well-earned reward. The Aman’s black, oblong pavilion pools, like the pavilion buildings themselves, are buried in the subtropical forest and fixed around the boulders and bushes that are spread-eagled across the cliffs. With the quiet isolation in the afternoon, the wildlife appears. White butterflies with tangerine-tipped wings hover, birds rustle and the Ochraceous Bulbul songbird, with its Mohican crest, tweets; a long-tailed squirrel nibbles in the trees but – more surreally – the call of the endangered (and, shamefully, hunted) black-shanked douc langurs is broadcast across the rocky divide.
By night, we climb the wide, shallow granite steps of the central pavilion, crowned by stepped, descending roofs. A little ostentatious for these quiet rural parts, we expect Daniel Craig as James Bond or a sword-wielding Samurai warrior to jump out from the cavernous corners. Dinner of enticing, fresh seafood spring rolls, beautifully rendered pan-seared sea bass, passion fruit souffle and several amuse-bouche is served alfresco, overlooking the East Sea, while we watch a floating city of squid-boat lights help haul tasty tentacles from the deep.
Buffering the Aman resort and the Núi Chúa National Park are the Cham communities of southern Vietnam and their ancient Champa Empire temples – exquisitely carved, ruddy-red brick towers erected in honour of kings.
The city of Phan Rang, an hour’s drive from Amano’i, was once the capital of the Champa Empire, a second-century Hinduised kingdom that became the most powerful empire in southern Vietnam for more than 1,000 years. We set out with Minh to explore this area. At Po Klong Garai, the three ornate towers command an elevated position on a hilltop outside the city. Built to honour the Cham king Po Klong Garai in the 13th century, they taper northward with carved, stylised decoration, a statue of the Hindu god Shiva dancing above one of the main doors. The doorjambs, made of polished stone, are pressed with neat Cham script. In the main temple, Shiva’s vehicle, the bull nandi, crouches in the pathway, as wafts of incense billow out of the chamber.
Although these ancient bricks stand testament to an ancient empire, the descendants of the Cham still live in this area of southern Vietnam. Minh takes us to visit the village of Phuoc Dan, which is famous for its Cham pottery. Inside the My Tiên shop, a 75-year-old grandmother, Dang Thi Gia, her beautiful, deep-silver hair pulled back from her face and her mouth stained a shiny black by decades of betel-nut chewing, puts paid to the idea that potters must have a wheel. She reaches for a large dollop of clay and begins, with consummate expertise, to fashion a pot in front of us, using her body as the pivoting wheel. She scuttles around and around the clay lump, kneading and smoothing the pot with her fingers. It takes only five minutes for one fully formed clay pot to be rendered in her experienced hands.
Outside, close to the My Tiên shop, on Phuoc Dan’s main street, we see how the clay creations are finished and perfected for sale. Pots, already dried in the sun for two days, are being shuffled into and buried beneath a pile of straw in an off-street yard. The straw is set on fire which, in time, fixes the pottery.
Back at the Amano’i, we take tea on the decking next to the central pavilion pool as the sun closes down on the long, rocky fingers of Vinh Hy Bay. Amano’i means “place of peace” in the Sanskrit language, a tongue that reflects the Hindu and Buddhist heritage of this coastal stretch of the country. And, apart from the birds whose gossiping peaks in the moments before dusk, we watch the quiet night colour the bay, with the stars of the sky and the sparkle of the squid-boat lights rendering the distinction between the sky and the Earth a beautiful, silent nil.
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