A luxurious train ride down the tracks from Da Nang, this up-and-coming destination on the central coast of Vietnam is the jumping-off point for exploring ancient Cham ruins, tranquil countryside, and some of the country’s best seafood.
Photographs by Christopher P. Hill
From my seat at the train carriage’s marble-topped bar, I watch the Central Vietnamese countryside sweep past outside the window: a procession of fluorescent green rice fields speckled with slender white egrets, conical-hatted farmers, and lumbering water buffalo. To the west, the hazy foothills of the Annamite Range stretch along the horizon; to the east are snatched glimpses of a sparkling sea. Save for the occasional river crossing or town, the scenery hasn’t changed much since we pulled out of Da Nang Station five hours ago. But then an ancient brick tower hoves into view on a distant hilltop. “The ruins of Thap Banh It,” says Tien, the bartender. “Welcome to Cham country.”
Were this a typical Vietnam Railways carriage, I’d likely have spent most of the 300-plus-kilometer journey between Da Nang and the port city of Quy Nhon trying to catch up on sleep. But The Vietage is something different. Launched in 2020, it’s an exclusive 12-passenger railcar developed by Thai-based hotel brand Anantara to complement its two resorts in Central Vietnam—one in Hoi An, just south of Da Nang, and the other on the seaside of Quy Nhon. The Vietage is attached to a regular passenger train on the North–South railway, a narrow-gauge line that follows the curving coastline of Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. In most other respects, though, it’s its own little world. There are smartly uniformed staff, private booths with woven rattan screens, good Wi-Fi, and a cocktail bar serving freeflow wines and appropriately named tipples like the All Aboard and Off the Rails. I’m handed a glass of bubbly as a welcome drink. Lunch is a treat too: duck foie gras with onion compote followed by a salmon fillet with chili beurre blanc and a chocolate crème brûlée. There’s even a massage chair where attendants offer expert shoulder massages.
By the time Tien mixes up my second whisky sour–ish Off the Rails, we’re already well into Binh Dinh Province, of which Quy Nhon is the capital. A cradle of traditional Vietnamese martial arts, Binh Dinh is also closely associated with the Champa Kingdom, a Hindu civilization that at its height controlled much of what is now central and southern Vietnam. Vijaya, whose lonely ruins lie to the northwest of present-day Quy Nhon, served as the Cham capital for 300 years until the kingdom’s decimation by the Vietnamese empire of Dai Viet in the 15th century. And while the most famous Cham temple site is the UNESCO-listed My Son Sanctuary near Hoi An, it’s Binh Dinh that claims the biggest and best-preserved monuments from that era.
Not long after passing Thap Banh It, the train pulls into Quy Nhon’s Dieu Tri Station and we disembark. The Vietage is unhitched and pushed onto a siding, where it will sit until a north-bound train returns it to Da Nang that evening. Some passengers, like me, are met by BMWs from Anantara Quy Nhon Villas, 40 minutes down the road. A few disperse in the direction of other hotels, as you don’t need to be a guest of Anantara to purchase a ticket.
But you’ll want to be. With just 26 one- and two-bedroom villas overlooking an isolated stretch of golden sand, Anantara’s intimate Quy Nhon property is a perfect base from which to explore the area. Or to just stay put, as I’m tempted to do when I lay eyes on my villa’s beachfront plunge pool and adjacent cabana, which look out across the water to a pair of rocky uninhabited islands.
Still, after a restful night’s sleep, I venture out the next morning with a young Anantara-arranged guide named Dinh Quoc Thich, who started a private tour company some years ago to cater to Quy Nhon’s quietly growing tourist numbers. “Many people have already visited Da Nang and Nha Trang; now they are discovering Quy Nhon—our history, our food, our landscapes,” he says as we drive 15 minutes into the city. “More hotels and restaurants are opening all the time. I think if you come back in three or four years, you will see a big change.”
For now, Quy Nhon still feels off the radar, even along the lovely palm-lined promenade that runs almost the full length of the city’s seven-kilometer beachfront. Thich and I are the only visitors at the Binh Dinh Museum, a compact repository of Cham-era relics that sits in the shadow of a 43-story hotel tower, one of a handful of new high-rises on the otherwise modest skyline. And aside from a solitary guard dozing in the midday heat, we also have Thap Duong Long to ourselves. This is one of seven Cham sites in Binh Dinh, a trio of 12th-century brick temple towers that jut up 20 meters or more from the flat countryside of the Tay Son district, an hour’s drive inland from Quy Nhon. It seems impossible that we are the only ones here. Tufted with jungle vegetation, the towers look like they could have been plucked from some obscure corner of Angkor.
We do encounter a modest throng of day-trippers at the Quang Trung Museum, which occupies impressive grounds in a nearby township. The galleries here chronicle the Tay Son Rebellion, an 18th-century uprising led by three local brothers who would unite all of Vietnam under their rule. In an adjacent auditorium, a display of the Tay Son style of martial arts performed by teenage boys and girls shows just what fierce fighters the rebels were.
As it turns out, Phuc Tran, the sinewy head of security at Anantara, is also a master of martial arts, and guests can join him for lessons on the resort’s lawn. My own attempts to mimic any of his moves end in ignominy; and when he brings out a pair of lethal-looking bamboo sticks, I know it’s time to throw in the towel. Or rather, exchange it for a beach towel on one of the sun loungers flanking the main pool. Sipping a fruity cocktail, I chuckle at the nearby “weather station”—a coconut hanging on a chain next to a sign that reads COCONUT MOVING: WINDY; COCONUT WET: RAIN; COCONUT INVISIBLE: FOG; COCONUT GONE: HURRICANE. As the sun fades below the hills behind us, I watch as the lights of hundreds of floating squid traps in the bay twinkle to life—a constellation of fallen stars on the darkening sea.
Another morning, I join Anantara’s Hoi An–born chef Vinh Tran on a visit to Quy Nhon’s wet market, where sidewalk vendors and covered stalls sell all manner of meat, vegetables, and seafood. I’m also introduced to local specialties such as banh it la gai, little banana-leaf pyramids of sticky rice cake stuffed with mung bean paste or shredded coconut; and tre, rolls of fermented pig’s ear wrapped in guava leaves and dry straw. Back at the resort’s glass-walled restaurant, chef Tran disappears into the kitchen with his groceries to whip up an indulgent lunch of sesame-dressed sea grape salad, fried squid in fish sauce, and soya-brushed steamed pomfret.
Tran’s varied menus—Cognac-flambéed lobster bisque, cherrywood-smoked Ibérico pork loin, mushroom risotto drizzled with truffle oil—hardly encourage culinary exploration beyond the resort. But on Thich’s recommendation, I grab a cab into town to a roadside eatery called Gia Vy 2, which he insists makes Quy Nhon’s best banh xeo tom. Here, Vietnam’s ubiquitous rice-flour crepes are topped with sweet, crunchy river shrimp, bean sprouts, and spring onions that you then roll in rice paper with an assortment of herbs, thinly sliced mango, and dollops of fish sauce. As promised, they’re delicious.
On my last afternoon, Thich takes me on a hike up Xuan Van, one of several forested hills that cradle the city. The way is paved with stone steps marked at intervals with plaques representing the biblical stations of the cross. At the top, some 240 meters above sea level, a narrow ridge is dominated by statues of Mary and a crucified Jesus, their plinths festooned with yellow marigolds. Thich says the statues were built in the 1960s by residents of the then Catholic-operated leper colony in the valley to our south. But you don’t have to be a particularly religious person to appreciate the views. Before me is the great arc of Quy Nhon’s seafront, its sheltered harbor backed by a rolling peninsula gilded in the slanting light. It feels like a blessing just to be here.
Quy Nhon Essentials
The Vietage (US$400 per person, one-way) travels twice daily between Da Nang and Quy Nhon; the return journey is at night. Flying is also an option, with Quy Nhon’s Phu Cat Airport served by domestic flights from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hai Phong.
WHERE TO STAY
Anantara Quy Nhon Villas
Base yourself at this elegant all-villa property for its quiet location, terrific food, and cliff-side spa pavilions (doubles from US$500).
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Next Stop, Quy Nhon”).