For Americans of a certain age, the Mekong Delta is not a place readily associated with tranquil vacations. Nearly 16,000 square miles of wetland, it is a semi-wilderness of swamps, canals, islands and paddy fields that extend southwest for 200 miles from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the Cambodian border. During the Vietnam War it was a place of incessant, bloody conflict between Viet Cong guerrillas and men aboard the speedboats and helicopter gunships of the U.S. Navy and Marines. But today the delta is peaceful once more, a shimmering landscape decked out in a thousand shades of green, where farmers can harvest three rice crops a year from the rich alluvial soil.
Can Tho, the capital of the delta, is a city of around 1.5 million inhabitants situated on the Hau River, one of the nine major channels into which the Mekong River divides. Traditionally, it was the delta’s entrepôt, and even now it is famous for its floating markets, where farmers from far afield bring their agricultural produce — pineapples, melons, garlic, radishes — to sell or exchange. Rice milling remains the principal industry.
As well as an inclination to see a little of the delta, our trip to Can Tho had been motivated by a desire to stay at Azerai Can Tho, the latest venture by Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts, which opened in June. Even at the age of 86, Zecha continues to inspire fascination among travel cognoscenti, most of whom accord him near mythical status as the world’s most talented hotelier of the past 30 years.
Leaving the city behind, we headed out into the muddy brown flow, immediately becoming part of the life of the river, with its tugs and barges and sampans.
Most visitors reach Can Tho after a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, but we arrived from the opposite direction, having crossed into Vietnam at the Cambodian border town of Ha Tien. Following a four-hour journey through flooded rice paddies and fields of stubble temporarily occupied by thousands of foraging ducks, our car pulled up at a pavilion beside the Hau River. There, we were ushered into a spacious reception that bore many of the hallmarks of a Zecha property: generous proportions creating a feeling of space and serenity, refined minimalist architecture and the widespread use of natural wood and stone. This was merely a prelude, however, as the resort itself is located on an 8-acre island, so after brief formalities, we headed to the end of a pier and boarded one of the property’s speedboats. Leaving the city behind, we headed out into the muddy brown flow, immediately becoming part of the life of the river, with its tugs and barges and sampans. Our crossing took a slightly circuitous route in order to avoid the shifting shallows created by silt deposits, but after little more than five minutes we had entered a channel, cut through bankside vegetation and tied up within a small hidden dock.
The first thing that struck me about Azerai was its serenity. Apart from the occasional putt-putt of a small boat on the river, there was no sound other than birdsong and the rustle of the wind in the trees. It seemed impossible that we were still close to the center of a major city. There are no vehicles on the island, and guests either walk or cycle around the resort, which comprises a series of elegant pavilions, some open-sided, others enclosed by glass. These are widely spaced and set amid trimmed lawns dotted with palms and banyan trees. Aside from a magnificent 105-foot swimming pool, the principal focal point of the property is a huge lotus pond, with areas of deck around its perimeter that provide tranquil places to sit beneath an umbrella to read or watch the circling shoals of koi.
Zecha’s stated intention at Azerai was to create an Aman-like property at a more modest price point. The practical implications of this were revealed in our room, one of two housed within a freestanding pavilion. There are 60 accommodations at Azerai — facing the river, the garden or the lotus pond — approximately twice the number at a typical Aman resort. Their dimensions are relatively modest at around 375 square feet, though they are made to feel more generous by steeply pitched ceilings and outdoor terraces with daybeds. The aesthetic is entirely familiar, however, with expanses of local hardwood, rattan, bamboo and a color palette of creams and grays. Even though it lacked a tub, our bath was spacious, well-appointed and well-lit and came with a separate walk-in monsoon shower. The air-conditioning proved extremely effective, and the room provided all the expected amenities, such as an espresso machine and fridge. The only real omission was a work desk, though this is doubtless more of an inconvenience to a travel writer than to someone on vacation.
Azerai offers two restaurants, The Café serving chiefly Vietnamese food — where we enjoyed a delicious green mango salad with shrimp and an excellent seafood curry — and The Grill for European as well as Asian cuisine. (Can Tho is famous for its restaurants and street food, and the resort is happy to make reservations or arrange food tours.) Other amenities at the resort include a light, airy, extremely well-equipped gymnasium, plus pilates, yoga and meditation studios. And an extensive spa has eight treatment rooms and suites with private baths.
The Azerai in Can Tho is likely to be the first in a portfolio of similar resorts. (The company recently acquired and refurbished Azerai La Residence in Hue, on the east coast of Vietnam, once home to the colonial French résident supérieure.) If so, the Azerai brand may change the face of upscale travel in Southeast Asia, perhaps not as dramatically as the first Aman resorts did three decades ago, but significantly nonetheless.
The feeling of tranquility and seclusion; the spacious grounds and picturesque lotus pond; the comfortable accommodations; the excellent Vietnamese cuisine.
The rooms lack tubs and are not especially spacious (but then this is reflected in the more reasonable rate).
The resort organizes a variety of interesting excursions, including boat trips to an early-morning floating market, food tours, cycling expeditions into the delta and visits to a cacao farm and chocolate factory.