Highway to heaven
When you arrive at the Anantara Resort and Spa reception in the small seaside town of Mui Ne, a delicate Vietnamese woman with a grip like Schapelle Corby on a body board bag gives you a firm but achingly satisfying neck massage.
This is accompanied by a frosty drink made of dragon fruit, honey, ginger, orange juice and vanilla.
It's a welcome introduction after the four-hour drive east from Tan Son Nhat international airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The drive isn't so bad, truth be told. After the long flight from Sydney, experiencing the hustle and bustle of the city through the windows of Anantara's comfortable, air-conditioned people-mover is probably the best way to experience the hustle and bustle of the city.
I found myself dozing in and out of consciousness so that the journey became a fragmented kaleidoscope of images - tower blocks and temples, crazy drivers wearing toy helmets on overloaded, weaving, honking motorbikes and mopeds ... all eventually giving way to smaller roads, greener pastures, open valleys, palm trees, oddly isolated coffee shops and rice fields.
Just don't look through the front windscreen; the overtaking rules, if there any, would make even Mark Webber blanch. The journey takes you through Phan Thiet, 25 kilometres from Mui Ne. It is officially a tropical coastal "city" of 200,000 people, but one that has wide, clean streets and the feel of a bustling, medium-sized fishing town. The port and the rivers that run off from it are packed with the bright-blue and yellow fishing boats that ply the nearby waters and contribute to its reputation as a top spot for seafood and fish sauce.
The resort itself is luxuriously elegant, built in traditional Vietnamese style and cascading away from the main building in a crab-like pincer movement - the deluxe villas in the gardens on either side cupping a palm-fringed, freshwater lagoon and, further down, a delicious swimming pool that overlooks the wide sweep of an immaculate beach, where locals fish from old-fashioned coracles.
The hotel has 89 rooms, suites and villas, five restaurants and the hushed quiet of the Anantara Spa, where a legion of the nicest, friendliest women in the world will pummel you into relaxation with treatments such as the aloe after-sun worshipper, the Vietnam coffee scrub or the anti-ageing caviar facial.
There are all the usual watersports available from the resort (windsurfing, sailing, snorkelling and kite surfing), as well as Vietnamese cooking lessons, but for those who want a little bit more adventure I'd suggest hiring one of the ubiquitous scooters and heading back into Phan Thiet. The road to the city is well-kept and safe enough once you get used to the barrage of warning honks from other road users.
During the day, visit the lively open-air market to marvel at the freshness and variety of produce and have your Western values outraged by the casual cruelty of crouching women who chop up live frogs with kitchen shears.
In the early evening, just drive the streets - their grid-like nature makes it difficult to get lost. The cafe and seafood restaurants around the port area - with the fishing boats just a stone's throw away in the river - are little glowing oases of heat, steam and beautiful aromas, and heave with many generations of local families.
We stopped in a sprawling garden bar next to the Binh Minh Hotel in town, drank iced Saigon and Tiger beers at $2 each and later, as the sun dropped away, wove through the city and, at the suggestion of resort general manager Mark Eletr, went to the Quan An A Kia restaurant, run by one Le Phuong Thao and her family.
Here we tucked into a feast of, among other things, pork terrine with lime and salt and pepper, bitter melon rinds with dried shredded pork, and a confronting dish of sweet and sour frog stomach, which tasted a bit like calamari.
Also worth doing is a tour (these can be arranged through the hotel) around one of the 36 local nuoc mam (fish sauce) factories for which the area is renowned. There is a stretch of road between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne that I dubbed Fish Sauce Alley for the distinctive, all-pervading aroma of anchovy.
The enterprises here are all surprisingly low-tech. Put simply, the procedure is this: Combine three parts anchovy with one part salt in a very large earthenware jar; weigh it down. After which, leave it in the sun and stand back for nine months to a year. Look again - there's your fish sauce.
In a courtyard packed with these earthenware jars, the owner explained the process, lifted the lid on a few jars nearing the end of the maturing period and pointed out that, despite all the gloopy dark-brown fluid inside, no water is ever used in the process - all the liquid has been leached out of the anchovies, the dried-up husks of which are used as fertiliser.
Of course, failing all that, you could just sit at the in-pool bar at the resort and watch the world go by until your dragon fruit-pulp massage appointment. And you might just need it to get the anchovy smell out of your hair.
The writer was a guest of Anantara Resorts and Spas, and China Southern Airlines.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
MUI NE SAND DUNES
One of the area's more well-known attractions, the Mui Ne sand dunes, stretch to the horizon in white, gold and red. Reports vary but are overall very positive. Beware pickpockets is a common warning. Hire a scooter and go on your own or take an organised tour.
Bau Trang is an oasis - a series of three lakes - within the Mui Ne white sand dunes. Day trips are available. It's an area of natural beauty known for its lotus flowers.
TA KU MOUNTAIN
About an hour from Mui Ne, Ta Ku Mountain is covered in rainforest and is one of the area's popular destinations. Hike up the mountain or take the gondola to catch a glimpse of exotic birds and wildlife.
THE FAIRY STREAM
Sometimes taken in as part of a sand dunes trip, the Fairy Stream is a little river that winds through bamboo forests. Walk upstream for about 25 minutes to reach a small waterfall.
KE GA LIGHTHOUSE
Built by the French in 1897, the 60-metre lighthouse is on a rocky island that overlooks a deserted stretch of beach. It is increasingly popular as a sunset tourist destination. Take a tour or hire a bike. It's about 25 kilometres the other side of Phan Thiet.
Rooms at the Anantara Mui Ne Resort and Spa start from $183 a room a night, for a deluxe room. The resort is a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City with a limousine service to the property available for booking. Train travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Phan Thiet is also an option, with the resort's limousine service available to transfer guests from the train station.
MORE INFORMATION anantara.com.