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Discover Vietnam's hidden paradise island for an A-list getaway

Phu Quoc's newest luxury resort delivers an A-list escape in paradise in the south of Vietnam

19 July 2017
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If you're heading long-haul for an A-list escape, it doesn't get much better than Bill Bensley's unique university-themed resort on the beach of Emerald Bay, Phu Quoc for a real lesson in relaxation. Brand new to the pardise Vietnamese island, the JW Marriott hotel – named Lamarck University for the incredible fictional backstory that themes its architecture and ethos – offers a luxury escape on the island already favoured by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.

After checking into my opulent room in the Department of Conchology – all of the hotel's buildings are inspired by university departments and the 244 guest rooms each cost around $1million to complete – and admiring my view of the sandy beach, I refuelled at the resort's French & Co Café before heading to the indulgent Chanterelle Spa. The mushroom-themed wonderland held more than a hint of inspiration from Alice Through the Looking Glass to help guests escape from the tropical heat, while their special jet lag full body massage cured any tension left from the long flight from London. Their fresh lemongrass iced tea was an added treat; a Vietnamese staple, I would recommend many stops in cafes and restaurants to enjoy this refreshing drink.

bar© Photo: Custom

Later the shell pool, one of three pools in the resort, beckoned for a quick evening dip before dinner in the resort's Red Rum al fresco grill. Not usually a huge fan of seafood, I was quickly won over by the incredibly fresh fish selection – I'd recommend the grilled local oysters, which were flavoured with subtle amounts of chilli. Sticking with the locally sourced theme, I was less nervous to try the Department of Chemistry's cocktail menu, opting for a bright green Panang, which combined local ingredients and rum and creamy coconut milk for a rich, crisp flavour.

Breakfast was served in another of the hotel's restaurants, Tempus Fugit, which I discovered after a stroll through quirky architecture including a running track and plenty of fun murals – including a British postbox promising to deliver any letters to Mars in the next century or so. Like many of the resort's eateries, Tempus Flight offers a round the world approach to its cuisine, and breakfast options included Asian style meals, continental croissants, full English fry-ups, freshly made Omelettes and even an ice-cream bar.

sea© Photo: Custom

Fully revived, an ocean adventure was calling. Although the island, like the resort itself, boasts plenty of opportunities to relax in the sun the former fishing island is also rich with tradition, and Lamarck offers plenty of field trips and classes for its eager students to make the most of. From traditional lantern making to diving for pearls, there are plenty of ways to make the most of the island's natural beauty. I opted for a boat trip around the southern islands, where scuba diving in the warm sea and fishing for our lunch were invigorating highlights. In the evening, Phu Quoc's famous Night Market is the ideal spot to pick up souvenirs such as locally farmed pearl earrings and necklaces, or sample street food delicacies. Lamarck University provides a complimentary bus each night to the market, a major tourist attraction for locals and visitors alike, and while in town don't miss popular beach hangout Rory's for a drink and dance.

After my taste of Phu Quoc's paradise, I couldn't resist spending an extra couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) where local Uber mopeds made it super easy – and completely thrilling – to travel to all the major tourist spots during my short time in the city. Be sure to book a hotel in District One in order to make the most of local markets such as the central Saigon Food Market and Ben Thanh market, which is perfect for sampling street food or bartering for souvenirs like bags or coffee in the buzzing evening market.

cu chi© Photo: Custom

Early evening is the perfect time to take in a view; the best spot in Ho Chi Minh City is the 360˚ viewing platflorm at Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower. However, if your city visit has worked up a thirst there's a tasty way to avoid the Skydeck entrance fee: the tower is also home to a stunning cocktail bar and cafe called EON51, on the 51st-52nd floors, where you can enjoy those same colossal views while listening to live music with a cocktail in hand. Follow your sunset views with an authentic splash of Vietnamese culture at Vietnam's most famous Water Puppet Theatre – a spectacle that is not to be missed – before dining at The Racha Room for an upscale Asian tapas style meal. 

If you have time for a day trip, a morning visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is well worth the journey. You can buy a place at most tourguides, hotels or even hostels, and my trip with TNK travel was an immersive lesson in the life of Vietnamese guerilla soldiers during the war with America in the 1960s-70s. There, you will go underground into the tunnels where villagers lived during US bombarded, and from where the Vietcong rebels stages their attacks. It's intense and claustrophobic, but a thrilling glimpse into a part of history that was entirely foreign to me. Back in HCMC, after a much-needed clean up, I visited the 1920s Art Deco central post office and Notre Dame cathedral, both hallmarks of Saigon's more Western architectural influences. From there, a short walk took me to The Secret Garden restaurant, a beautiful leafy restaurant perfect for lunch. The War Remnants Museum and a trip to the Thien Hau Pagoda – the oldest temple in Ho Chi Minh City – completed my final afternoon in the city with a glimpse into two very different stages of the city's history. 

Rooms at JW Marriot Phu Quoc begin at around £308 per night in the peak dry season (November-March); visit Vietnam Airlines flies from London Heathrow to Phu Quoc via Ho Chi Minh City from £462 return. 

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