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 sea.
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.
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.