New Life for Vietnam's China Beach

It was a gritty playground for U.S. troops during the war, but now it's all about spas and seaweed wraps for luxury-minded tourists

China Beach is becoming Vietnam's premier luxury resort destination. But the first time I visited, back in 1993, there were so few accommodations for tourists that I had to sleep on the sand. I was there as a freelance reporter covering the first (and last) Vietnam International Surfing Contest, and the only hotel for miles around, a dilapidated state-owned joint, had been booked for weeks.

Because the infrastructure was inadequate, organizers had to rig up a mile-long telephone cable to a temporary phone booth on the beach so reporters could file their stories and surfers could call their girlfriends. Bathing facilities consisted of a garden hose.

Fourteen years later, I visited again, this March, and while the sand was the same, most everything else had changed. China Beach is now home to the Nam Hai, a five-star, 35-hectare hotel and spa complex that opened last December, and the Furuma Hotel, which opened in 1998. Not only did I score a villa with a view but for the next 24 hours I was in for some serious pampering at the Nam Hai.

Spoiled and Solitary

Two delightful Vietnamese women walked me to my villa, and spent the next 20 minutes showing me how to work the cappuccino maker and the Wi-Fi, and how to synch the iPod (each room comes with one) with the TV, which in turn controlled the room's extensive sound system, and how to operate the three different choices for bathing—a sunken lacquer egg-shell bathtub, indoor shower, or rain shower in the private garden. There was no garden hose in sight.

They spoil you when it comes to swimming venues too: two 45-m. pools and a 50-m. infinity pool overlooking the beach, and of course the South China Sea. The Nam Hai and the Furuma Hotel (a couple of miles north) are the only two resorts on the coast south of Danang, so the beach is blissfully free of hawkers, the scourge of most Vietnamese beaches.

If solitary strolls aren't your thing, the historic village of Hoi An is a 10 minute shuttle-bus ride away. Once a thriving port for Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese ships, Hoi An became a sleepy backwater after the river silted up in the 19th century. Today, its narrow streets and beautifully preserved merchants' houses are a major tourist draw.

Reliving Recent History

Hoi An is also a great place for tailoring, and if you bring something to be copied, they can turn it around in less than 12 hours. It also boasts some of central Vietnam's best local delicacies, including shrimp pancake and Cao l?u, a dish of rice noodles topped with slices of roast pork, dough fritters, and lots of fresh herbs and veggies.

For a slice of more recent history, spend a couple of hours at Marble Mountain, a limestone outcropping among the rice paddies just six miles north of Hoi An, which boasts superb carvings. High up the mountain, there's Huyen Khong Cave, which was the base for Vietcong guerrillas during wartime. But be careful not to get ambushed by local guides, who will insist on accompanying you the entire way—and extracting a fat tip at the end. However, as they are usually teenagers anxious to practice their English, the money goes to a worthy cause.

China Beach & Hoi An

How to get there: Fly to Danang International Airport, just a 25 minute drive from the beach, on several daily flights from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, as well as thrice weekly flights to Bangkok and Singapore.

What to bring: Usual beach stuff, and your favorite items of clothing for cheap and excellent tailoring.

Fun Fact: China Beach—its real name is Non Nuoc beach—was so named by U.S. GIs who surfed there while on R&R during the Vietnam War. The surfing is best in the autumn.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.