“Welcome to Lamarck University,” a headmistress smiles at us as we walk through the entranceway. “Strange”, we think, “we thought this was a JW Marriott hotel”, but being the trusting journalists we are, we sit patiently on an enormous swing seat sipping our welcome drink, waiting for someone to explain what's going on. There are huge glass cabinets around us filled with antique books, a cast of the previous Dean's head, a stuffed squirrel with dragon wings and uniformed staff members drifting across art deco tiles. There's a lot to take in.
This is architect and designer Bill Bensley's imaginary world: a renovated French university campus cum modern-day wonderland. It's big, bright and a little bit mad. Alongside the buildings and the interiors, Bensley designed uniforms for the staff, soundtracks for each area and the overarching narrative that ties it all together.
No detail has been forgotten and in a lot of ways, it's still a work in a progress since the hotel only opened a few months ago and Bensley keeps arriving with boxes of bric-a-brac to add to the spaces. The newest addition, we're told, was a collection of sewing machines that now sit on the shelves of the French cafe, French & Co.
We're driven in a golf buggy to our room, located in the Department of Agriculture, along a faux high street, past the Department of Zoology and an old-school running track with a miniature spectator's stand. The resort is colossal in size, not just because there's 244 number of rooms and 8 villas, but the buildings themselves are towering and heavy, so much so that it's difficult to properly appreciate the resort as a whole from the land; the best viewpoint is from a paddleboard on the turquoise sea.
The departments are all uniquely designed, with their own colour schemes and furnishings. Ours is green, with beautiful framed drawings of plants and vegetables lining the walls, and open air corridors. Our bedroom is three floors up with a large balcony and breath-taking views of the white sands of Khem beach and beyond that, the Emerald Bay. It's the time of the year when the floating houses take up residence on this side of Phu Quoc so there's life to observe on the waters too.
We're in the Deluxe Emerald Bay Front room, which is the entry-level category, but it feels more like a stylishly decorated apartment than a hotel room. It's spacious and homely with mirrors, plush fabrics, splashes of colour and a cabinet of crystal glasses. The bathroom is the highlight with a two sinks and a wet room area at the back with a rain shower and stand-alone bathtub. On our first day, it's pouring with rain for the whole afternoon, but instead of being annoyed at being deprived of precious hours of sunbathing, we're excited to be given an excuse to stay inside. Even more spectacular though is the top floor suite in the Department of Shells; decorated in an azure blue that almost exactly matches the colour of the ocean on a bright day.
The sitting room is filled with pencil drawings of flamingos and exquisite Parisian-style furniture, creating the perfect picture of modern decadence. The resort, in general, is a fusion of Asian and European design, with traditional buildings on the high street invoking the spirit of the ancient city of Hoi An whilst the quirky and contemporary interiors are reflect the designer's playfulness and penchant for opulence.
Our favourite lunchtime spot is French & Co, a cool dining room with tables piled high with meringues, tarts and pastries and a sultry soundtrack of Parisian jazz. The goats cheese salad and smoothies here are the highlights, and you can sign up for a pastry class with the pâtissier on certain days of the week. Sadly our stay doesn't coincide with pastry making, but we sign up for the Vietnamese coffee class one afternoon. Seated round a dining table in the far corner of the restaurant, we're each given a ceramic cup and filter, and plate of ground coffee.
The barista tells us a little bit about the Vietnamese coffee culture and shows us how to prepare a thick, chocolaty cup of strong dark coffee sweetened with condensed milk. The majority of daily activities are complimentary balancing indulgence with health and entertainment. There's make your own scrub at the spa, mixology classes in the department of chemistry, yoga on the beach (or on a paddle board), lantern making classes, meditation, cooking plus specially themed evenings such as “crab a beer” and Bia Hoi (local beers and snacks served street style on plastic red chairs). Or you can borrow the resort's water sports equipment and spend the day lounging on the beach and playing in the water before taking your pick of the three restaurants.
Cocktails are served at the Department of Chemistry on the water front with a live DJ playing sophisticated dance tracks here you can also enjoy tapas style plates (the calamari comes highly recommended) or wander over to the Department of Architecture for a more formal dinner setting. The Tempus Fugit restaurant (interiors are vaguely reminiscent of a smart train station) is where a feast-style buffet breakfast is served and an all-day dining menu of refined Vietnamese, French or Japanese cuisine – the sushi maki rolls and miso-marinated cod are particularly delicious.
The most special dining venue though is Red Rum at the other end of the resort. The restaurant is an open sided pavilion on the beach specialising in the fresh seafood. With only a few tables, the atmosphere is intimate and romantic, and on extra special occasions, a private table can be set up right on the sands.
The Chanterelle spa is mushroom themed (hence the name) with a cabinet filled with drawers dried mushrooms at the entrance and drawings of mushrooms on the ceiling. Like all JW Marriott spas, the treatments are categorised into calm, indulge, invigorate and renew, with a list of express treatments that you can handily squeeze in in-between activities.
We book in for an hour's ultimate aromatherapy massage with our chosen oils. Lying on unbelievably soft treatment beds in a yellow spa suite, it's a deeply relaxing and indulgent experience that's over all too soon. So the next day we return for a couple's Thai massage class where we learn a simple relaxation routine from the expert therapists, designed to specifically target the back and shoulders after a stressful day at work.
For the first day, the JW Marriott is bewildering. It's like being dropped into another world, which is so vibrant and full that you can't possibly take it all in, but slowly, as you adapt, you can start to appreciate the charm and fun of the resort. It's as much a place for relaxation and escape as it is for play. If you're expecting the authentic Vietnamese experience, you won't find it here, but it's unique kind of experience in itself. There's nowhere else quite like it.
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