Related: Audley Travel
Indochina’s medley of French-colonial architecture, exquisite temples and hill tribes, scattered across some staggering scenery, has been attracting visitors for decades. The lure is abetted by a range of hotels that can help you explore in style, whether you seek the grandeur of a Vietnamese neo-classical hotel or a modern eco-retreat on a private island. Below, Audley specialists have narrowed it down to the best of the best.
Muang La Lodge, Muang La, Laos
After a day’s exploration, you can rejuvenate in an alfresco hot tub at Muang La Lodge, while the staff serve you lemongrass and ginger iced tea. A worthy way to spend time in any luxury resort, but here you can admire the surrounding emerald rice fields, jungle-clad hills and the Nam Phak River that wraps around the hotel. A local might pass carrying great hulks of wood or a herd of water buffalo might trudge by through the shallows.
Arguably the most luxurious place to stay in Northern Laos, Muang La Lodge is a series of half-timbered, stilted villas. Each villa is furnished with polished wood (treated regularly with fragrant essential oils) and paintings from Lao artists, as well as a private terrace and more space than you’ll know what to do with.
Cross a suspension bridge and you’ll find the hotel’s infinity pool on its own island, surrounded by tufts of jungle and the blue-green waters of the river. On the riverbank is a sala — a wooden stilted platform traditionally used as a rest stop for weary travellers — which is an ideal sport to enjoy and aperitif as the sun goes down and the sky is bathed in a blush of red.
Azerai, Luang Prabang, Laos
There’s a roundabout that’s considered the centre of Luang Prabang, and the freshly-painted white façade of the Azerai hotel sits right by it. Opposite is Sisavangvong Road which transforms each evening into a daily night market, filled with stalls selling fabric, silverware and barbecued fish. You can’t get a better location.
A newly opened hotel, the Azerai is built on the site of French officer’s quarters and has incorporated French shuttered windows and blue roof tiles with Laotian tiered roofs and whitewashed staccato walls. The rooms are set in a quadrangle, overlooking the gardens and pool, creating a relaxing oasis within a UNESCO-protected town of gilded wats, markets and street food.
All the rooms feel spacious — aided by the copious use of white fabrics and polished satinwood — but choose an Azerai room and you’ll have your own private terrace. After exploring the town you can be revived in the Massage Retreat by therapists trained in traditional Laotian techniques (focusing on pressure points) or dine on French-Laos fusion dishes in the alfresco Bistro.
Phum Baitang, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Set in a sprawling complex of palm-shaded lawns and rice paddies, Phum Baitang is a collection of Khmer-inspired stilted villas. Some have a traditional wooden-decked terrace that looks onto the surrounding countryside, others lead into a private plunge pool. There’s a free-standing bathtub and all the facilities you’d expect in a luxury resort, alongside palm matting and bamboo-clad walls.
This peaceful retreat is just 15 minutes away from the buzz of Siem Reap’s restaurants, spas and bars (the hotel has its own fleet of tuk tuks to take you into the town). Use it as a base for exploring the temples and you can complement your experience with Cambodian cooking lessons and Khmer-influenced spa treatments back at the hotel.
Song Saa Private Island, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
From afar, Song Saa looks like a Maldivian island, complete with a cluster of over-water villas, each with their own set of steps leading into the ocean. On closer inspection you’ll notice that the centre of this tiny private island is jungle rather than palm trees, the staff wear conical hats and the menu is inspired by local Cambodian spices and seasonings.
A 40-minuite speedboat ride from mainland Cambodia, Song Saa is an understated island resort in the Gulf of Thailand. As you arrive, the staff line up to wave you in, quickly placing a drink in your hand. From then on, everything is seamless. Each villa has a private pool and more space than the average family home. Days start with sunrise yoga and finish with candle-lit dinners in the over-water restaurant.
Owners Mel and Rory have created the Song Saa Foundation, a non-profit organisation to protect the habitat of the surrounding Koh Rong Archipelago. This includes establishing Cambodia’s first marine reserve, where you can snorkel or dive amongst healthy coral gardens. The hotel staff come from the neighbouring islands and you’ll find service comes with a genuine smile.
An Lam Retreat, Ninh Van Bay, Vietnam
Jacques Cousteau once described Nha Trang as ‘one of the most beautiful bays in the world’. Unfortunately, it’s now a high-rise beach resort where every hour is happy hour. If you’re seeking the beauty Cousteau once appreciated, Nim Van Bay is a 15-minuite speedboat away on a peninsula of the softest white beaches and frothy green jungle.
An Lam Retreat is tucked into its own boulder-edged cove in Ninh Van Bay, looking across the water to the forested peak of Hon Thi Island in the distance. As you arrive by boat (although on a peninsula, you can’t get there by land), the first thing you’ll see is a huge curved wooden structure that looks like a lotus flower mid bloom. This is SEN, the hotel’s restaurant that serves traditional Vietnamese seafood with a contemporary twist – for example, the calamari arrives piled into the husk of a coconut.
Each of the villas is designed to complement the surrounding boulders and forest, with driftwood walls and hand-dyed fabrics. Most have their own pool, as well as personal butler service and an outdoor sun deck. Days here are to be spent luxuriating in your surroundings, be it by the pool, the small curve of golden sand or in the spa that’s tucked deep in the forest.
Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi, Vietnam
From it’s opening in 1901, the Sofitel Legend Metropole welcomed in a golden age of travel. Heads of state, ambassadors and celebrities would dine together on elaborate haute cuisine, while writers and artists debated in a haze of cigar smoke in the bar. Somerset Maugham wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour here and Charlie Chaplin spent a lengthy honeymoon with actress Paulette Goddard in the largest suite.
This grand dame of hotels has stood witness to the Japanese invasion of Vietnam during World War II and survived heavy bombing during the Vietnam War. Join the ‘Path of History’ tour run daily by the hotel and you can learn more, as well as a chance to enter the 1970s war bunker that sheltered guests.
The trysts of history may have swirled around the hotel, but, aside from a few short periods it’s stayed open. Over a hundred years after it first opened, this is still the best hotel in Vietnam. Rooms and suites in the Historical Metropole Wing have preserved the original grandeur with polished wooden floors, carved bedsteads and cut-crystal chandeliers.
Disclosure: Our property, service and product reviews are sponsored by the proprietor or brand being appraised. All opinions remain our own and are in no way influenced by the sponsor.