About ten years ago, a Frenchman and his Vietnamese wife decided to purchase two traditional Vietnamese houses and relocate them to Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island. It was a major logistical challenge, but a very nice idea. They created a beautiful, simple place in open green grounds.
I’m very happy I got stay there a couple of times. I’d trade luxury for atmosphere any day and this place had atmosphere in spades. Long Beach was just a few metres away.
A few years later, the idea was no more. Owner pressure to keep developing and build more rooms, killed the original concept. When I last checked, one of the old houses was still on the valuable block - but the dream of a low density small resort on the beach was dead.
In many ways it’s the story of tourism development in Vietnam.
I was reminded of that Phu Quoc project a few weeks ago when visiting Ninh Binh outside of Hanoi. While cycling around Tam Coc, the main tourist centre of the province, with its magnificent karst limestone mountains, streams, and caves, we spotted a cluster of old traditional houses.
We soon discovered that what was intended to be a heritage resort and museum of traditional Vietnamese architecture, faces an uncertain future.
This place is stunning - both in the beauty of the buildings, and the glorious setting. Even the steady rain that fell when I was there, didn’t dampen my excitement as I wandered around.
The owner Mr Thoa, has transported 22 traditional homes from various provinces in Vietnam’s north, and carefully positioned them, taking account of the natural features of the land. It's like a small, timeless Vietnamese village.
The houses have distinctive design features typical of their places of origin. No doubt Mr Thoa has made additions - but the timber frames are original, and I was assured other features were faithful to the original structures.
The oldest of the houses is 300 years old.
Some thoughtful investment could make this one of Vietnam’s most beautiful and authentic developments.
The idea of moving heritage buildings from their original location will present problems for heritage absolutists. But buildings such as this are being demolished and replaced throughout Vietnam. In that context, any action that attributes value to them, is probably worthwhile. It's a little like a sanctuary for an endangered species.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Mr Thoa has so far been unable to realise his ambitions in developing the place to its full potential. We couldn't get a sense of whether there was a problem of money, expertise or something else. Whatever the obstacle is, if this place is never developed, or disappears, it will be a terrible lost opportunity.
Of course equally important is that these gems be developed well. The heavy handed renovations seen elsewhere on our visit to Ninh Binh - more like complete rebuilds of ancient temples - are a heritage disaster.
This is a great development for Vietnam - showcasing the country’s beautiful traditional architectural heritage, with an awareness of its natural surrounds. I can’t think of a hotel or resort in Vietnam that captures those two goals as successfully as Mr Thoa has here - though the interiors are a mess right now.
Vietnam’s default tourism setting is overbuild and over-develop. Barely a week passes without news of some new mega project. Heritage listed Hoi An in central Vietnam is already under pressure. Phu Quoc Island has barely arrived as an international destination and is already facing over-development and sustainability concerns.
Mass tourism is a given in most countries - including Vietnam. But Vietnam as a destination is increasingly being defined by mass tourism development. That's a risky strategy, since it tends focus on fickle and price sensitive markets, and risks robbing destinations of their unique attributes.
Diversity is a safer bet - and that should include a strong cultural and heritage tourism focus. These segments drive some of the most commercially successful tourism destinations.
For those doubting the commercial viability of smaller projects, check out, Sala Lodges across Vietnam's border with Cambodia in Siem Reap. These guys did something similar to Mr Thoa, transporting traditional Khmer houses from around Cambodia, and building what may be one of the coolest resorts in Indochina. And it’s deservedly very successful too. Just this morning, I was watching the BBC featuring Angelina Jolie cooking spiders in the resort grounds.
Mr Thoa's beautiful place is called Lang Viet and is located behind the main tourist boat station at Tam Coc. It's listed on Google maps. There are rooms available now but they are basic and pretty unpleasant - a far cry from the setting, the structures and what this place could be.