It was the same old story: The swimsuit model had beaten me to the
last room. Some Audrey or Petra, one of those lovely, long-legged
connivers. Or maybe it was that honeymooning couple from Berlin.
Whoever the culprit, the silk-clad hostess at the Ana Mandara
Resort was now explaining in the most gracious way imaginable
that the exclusive Vietnamese resort to which I'd flown from
halfway around the world was filled. This tasteful, placid oasis
on the South China Sea, offering a delicate blend of local
architecture, hospitality and ocean views, expected no vacancies
for weeks. There'd be no breeze-cooled nights in a grass-roofed
bungalow for me. No Bali-styled suite furnished with native woods
and rattan. No strolling Filipino band at dinner, no private
tropical gardens overlooking a white sand beach and a turquoise
The hostess proposed the Yasaka, a mile down the road--a
comfortable if charmless high-rise. A bustling four-lane
boulevard separated it from the beach, and the ambience was more
Paradise Lost than Found. At the Ana Mandara one awakened to the
gentle sounds of lapping waves against the sand; at the Yasaka
one woke at 5 a.m. to the shrill and surreal sounds of
loudspeakers broadcasting Communist propaganda, news, weather
reports and opera.
I showered, breakfasted, then raced to the lobby to sign up for
the Sea Hunter Tour, an "exciting fishing tour" which offered a
boat, fishing equipment and guide for $40. No mention was made of
the species of sea creature providing the excitement. Sailfish,
perhaps? Shark? My guide, Nguy Tan, picked me up at 9 a.m. by
taxi and showed me his baggie filled with bait. They were
sardines, small fare for a hammerhead. My expectations fell still
further when he handed me my fishing equipment. It was a
cylindrical piece of wood, about the size of a coke bottle,
around which a few yards of line were wrapped. "Only small fish,"
Nguy Tan explained. "Big fish all gone. Dynamite."
A few hours of such excitement is all a body can stand. I took a
walk on the beach, heading toward the Ana Mandara. The resort was
hosting a complimentary cocktail party. Scarfing a free
champagne, I took an unaccompanied tour of the hotel grounds.
Strolling past the lobby bar, I discovered a private outdoor
enclave in the midst of a tropical garden where a masseuse was at
work on a broad, well-oiled back. I bowed in apology and
retreated. Early diners were beginning to fill the open-air
restaurant, rich with the scent of herbs from the garden, the
orchids and the sea. A swimming pool lay at the center of the
terrace, beyond which was the hotel lobby, a space of such
tranquility that a devotee of feng shui must have laid it out in
a moment of divine harmony with the universe. I sat and
contemplated the complementary relationships between the seating
areas, reflecting pool, antique furnishings and the raven-haired,
silk-robed staff members who glided silently past, smug in the
knowledge that good luck, good eating and good spirits would come
to all guests who stayed within the walls of the Ana Mandara. The
rest of us? We were flies on the dung of an ox.
February 25, 2003
Paradise, I was learning, was best appreciated from inside the
gates--at sunset, at poolside, during an outdoor massage with a
tall rum drink in hand. "We must not let in daylight upon magic,"
the 19th-century English writer Walter Bagehot wrote. And we must
not forget to make our reservations far in advance. --E.M. Swift
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE ANA MANDARA, TURN TO PAGE 218.