Mar 29, 2019
Following the well-trod pilgrim path to Vietnam’s most spiritual peak, features editor Eloise Basuki spends a few nights at Yen Tu mountain’s new designer resort, a sprawling palace that honors the mountain’s regal history. Photographed by Leigh Griffiths
IN 300 B.C., A HERMIT MONK named An Ky Sinh hiked to the top of Yen Tu mountain in search of eternal life. He came to the right place: More than 400 varieties of medicinal herbs grow in these forested hills in northeast Vietnam. Though An Ky Sinh never found the immortal mix, up on Yen Tu’s peak, 1,068 meters above sea level and just an hour from legendary Halong Bay, he did find enlightenment. Soon, more spiritual explorers journeyed to the region, the most significant of whom was King Tran Nhan Tong. The 13th-century king had brought harmony to the country after successfully ousting Mongol invaders, but by 1299 he sought a different kind of peace—he renounced his throne to embark on a more spiritual life, and chose sacred Yen Tu as his new home. Here, crowned with an affectionate new nickname, “the Enlightened King,” Tran Nhan Tong launched the first Vietnamese sect of Buddhism called Truc Lam. The monk built pagodas, shrines and temples on the mountains slopes, establishing Yen Tu as an essential religious site for the country’s Buddhists. These days, one million pilgrims trek this mountain every year; during Tet more than 50,000 people climb to the top each day.
But on this day, a wintry November afternoon, it’s just me, a few woolen-hat-wearing nuns and my guide, Camellia Dinh from Tung Lam, the private development company that installed the cable cars on Yen Tu 14 years ago. Tung Lam has done more than just make the mountain more accessible (the cable cars cut a 30-kilometer hike down to a 15-minute ride). Last year the group developed a sprawling accommodation complex at the base, offering pilgrims—and tourists like me—a place to stay that feels almost as hallowed as Yen Tu itself: a replica 13th-century palace.
The reverence is a credit to Tung Lam’s chairman, Bui Dinh Tuan, whose specific vision for his hotel—that it must reflect the spirituality of the destination—saw nine different architects and their designs rejected: towering glass skyscrapers were too modern in this ancient land; 600-room monsters lacked charm and personality. Finally, Tuan was introduced to Bill Bensley, the Bangkok-based designer who has become hoteliers’ go-to for resorts that require authentic character. Bensley’s winning idea turned the former carpark space into an ode to the Enlightened King: a traditional village offers US$15 monastery-like dorms for pilgrims; a central field and vast pavilion can hold events for up to 8,000 people; and a 133-room M Gallery hotel, Legacy Yen Tu, treats guests like royalty in the palatial rooms of the “king’s residence.” Though the cable car quickly brings me back down to earth, entering the hotel still feels like I’m in another world. This is more than just a property with a sense of place; it’s a trip back in time.
My Journey to the Chua Dong pagoda, the tiny but venerated copper temple that clutches the craggy peak of Yen Tu Mountain, has left me breathless. Granted, the two cable car tracks do most of the grunt work (the sheer final leg that hovers high above dense bamboo groves and ancient pine forests is particularly swift, and nerve-wracking), but it’s still a steep and sweaty 900-meter hike to the summit from the final station. I barely catch my breath admiring Chua Dong, known as the spiritual home of Truc Lam, before we start the downward trek along a rocky trail to say a quick prayer to the ancient statue of An Ky Sinh, and the towering copper figure of the meditating Enlightened King (I’m told he’ll grant you financial success if you make it up to meet him).
While the trek defeats me—the nuns, of course, don’t seem to break a sweat—these extra exertions are intentionally left for the pilgrims’ benefit. “The chairman wanted to keep it a spiritual experience,” says Markus Hesse, Legacy Yen Tu’s general manager. “He didn’t want a cable car straight from the bottom to the top—you’re there in five minutes, take a selfie and then head back down. He wanted people to still experience the pilgrimage.” It’s something that even I, just an observer, can appreciate: Dinh offers me a sip of the holy water that flows into the small, mid-mountain Mot Mai temple built into the rock; I make a blessing at the incense-clouded Long Tien pagoda; and try my luck with the king’s effigy, crossing my fingers for a raise (though I’m enlightened enough in the ways of the modern magazine industry not to bet on it). The views itself are worth the trek, but as my calves begin to cramp I’m thankful that my room back at the Legacy has been designed to be a place of respite.
I’m staying in a deluxe room on the upper floor, which looks over the inner field to the village and the palace gardens. In spring highland streams trickle into a moat, and the bordering trees burst into a golden bloom of yellow apricot blossoms, one of the ancient native trees that are found on Yen Tu. My room is peaceful not just for the watercolor-painting-view I take in from my balcony, the heavy wooden doors, or the flickering ceiling lights set in traditional urns. But also because there’s no TV. Tuan and Bensley agreed that there was no need for outside entertainment at a serene place like this. “We are the first Accor hotel out of 4,500 to not offer TVs in the rooms,” Hesse says. “At first I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I haven’t had a single complaint. You’re not going to come to a place like this and then sit in your room and watch a movie on HBO.”
Bensley may be famous for his out-of-the-ordinary designs (a fictitious university-themed resort on Phu Quoc; a zip line to enter his new tented camp in Cambodia) but Legacy Yen Tu feels purposefully, and delightfully, restrained. The whitewashed palace walls remain unadorned for the winter moss to decorate naturally. The curved black roof tiles were manufactured to match those on the mountain’s modest pagodas. Obviously, though, restraint does not translate into boredom. Interior walls are a traditional mix of clay and rice husks to keep the foundations dry. The bathroom sink, made from central Vietnam white marble, is shaped like a blooming lotus flower. And take a closer look at the floor tiles. Engravings on those in the hall were hand-etched by local artisans, and—my favorite touch—on some of the tiles in my room, which were handmade by a local Yen Tu potter, you can spot stray paw prints from the craftsman’s cats.
Bensley’s fingerprints, meanwhile, are all over the public areas. Bright fuchsia lounges and embroidered silk pillows sit within a lobby clad in orange hessian rice-sacks and crowned with vibrant Asian artwork. In the bar (though more café than cocktail lounge, to fit the Buddhist surrounds), a painting of the “Tiger Queen,” who I’m told resembles the Enlightened King’s beautiful fourth wife, overlooks a mottled bronze bar, cartoonish tiger rugs, and oversized four-poster lounges. At the hotel’s Tho Quang restaurant, buffet breakfast is served on rustic-looking wooden cabinets, with regal, though slightly dysfunctional, throne-like chairs.
Of course any good queen must keep in touch with the common folk, so I leave my palace quarters for the five-minute walk from the hotel to the Hang Huong village across the field. Low-season makes the empty village seem a little theme-parkish, but the food is still the real deal. For lunch I eat country-style Tien Yen salted chicken and fermented Yen Tu bamboo shoot at Nha Hang Cho Que restaurant, finishing with a thimble of local apricot wine. Cultural activities feel authentic, too. In the evening, I huddle among a small audience in the village center, and watch a troupe of giggling local teens—many of them hotel staff—perform traditional dances. On another night, I visit the village’s meditation center and learn Truc Lam Zen meditation from one of the masters, who tells me the local agarwood incense smoking by my feet cleanses the soul.
But the most significant wellness draw here is yet to come. Opening later this year, Legacy Yen Tu’s 2,240-square-meter spa is set to be another pilgrimage of sorts, as you’ll almost certainly find Zen after a visit. Centering on a digital-detox theme, the complex will be Wi-Fi-free: drop your phone at the door and wander to the brick hammam; get scrubbed with a bamboo-charcoal exfoliant; and unwind in a singing-bowl bath, releasing tension with the help of melodies that vibrate underwater. The spa will be a hands-free space, so while relaxing oil massages are not on the menu, aura therapy, jade facials and wood tapping offer alternative treatments. I’m keen to soak in the herbal bath, which Hesse tells me will be made up of the medicinal plants An Ky Sinh searched for all those years ago. Yes, I know, a steaming herbal infusion is not going to grant me a life everlasting, but I’m thinking a trip here will surely extend it. accorhotels.com; doubles from VND2,700,000.