01 Vietnamese temples inspired all of architect Bill Bensley’s decisions at the InterContinental Danang; 02 View of a decorative winding staircase; The lounge area overflows with bold design features; 03 Lime and lemon hues add zest inside the Citron coffee station; 04 Over-sized and ultra-comfortable - relaxing is easy at the Long Bar; 05 Black and white recur through the resort’s luxurious suites; 06 Every public space is designed with the utmost attention to detail; 07 An exterior view of the villas at sunset; Architect and landscape designer Bill Bensley.
The most stunning new place to relax at in Vietnam is inspired by the elegant design of the country’s temples.
Vietnam’s Son Tra peninsula is one of those places that feels folkloric, mystical, as though the everchanging ocean and the wise, still mountains were finally at peace. Clinging to the coastline here, where the land tumbles into the water, is the InterContinental Danang, Bill Bensley’s latest resort.
The California-born, Bangkok-based designer and landscape architect already has the kind of resumé that makes jaws drop, from Thailand’s Four Seasons resorts to a newly opened boutique hotel in Siem Reap, but with the InterContinental you get the feeling he’s pulling out all the stops – even more stops than usual, if indeed that’s possible.
The InterContinental covers 250 hectares at the peninsula’s so-called Monkey Bay, a 600-metre private cove, Bensley tells us. “Our site is very steep, about 80 metres from the lobby down to the beach, but this steepness gives each and every bedroom and bathroom fantastic views of the bay. I sculpted the site into four distinct and flat levels: beach, earth, sky and heaven.” But that doesn’t mean there has to be any out-of-breath scrambling between the steps of paradise. “These levels are connected by the ‘nam tram’,” he says. “A funicular made in New Zealand, with an oversized Vietnamese hat!”
The beachfront villas, with private pools, and a variety of different types of suites display an intricacy of thought, an exquisite attention to detail, from the architectural nuances and heavenly landscaping to the fearless interiors and statement furniture. It all appears to have the Bensley signature. “We designed everything that the guest sees, feels, smells and hears,” says Bensley. “We designed the architecture, interiors, gardens, the tabletops, the menus, the staff uniforms, the signage, the artwork throughout, and even the playlists in all of the public areas. We designed and produced in our Bangkok studio some 300-plus original works of art for this project – some pieces are five metres by three metres.”
This shows in the continuity of the InterContinental; in the way shocks of colour explode on a crisp black and white palette and in the way you can’t walk two feet without stopping to admire another feature – like the conical balconies, or the ace-of-spades motif that recurs in windows, on ceilings, partitions and mirrors. The resort is bursting with ideas like these, but where are they all from?
Bensley says: “Historically, as in all societies of Southeast Asia, Vietnam puts the greatest effort of design into its temples. As always, before I start a project in any country, I study the rich heritage always found in religious buildings as these are a great repository of design ideas and language. Everything – every stick of furniture, every window and door, every building, every gate – was designed with this rich language of the Vietnamese temple.”
And when it comes to “rich language” and the InterContinental, it’s not just metaphorical. Describing this resort with literal language can weave a spider’s web of words. “It is Vietnamese … a contemporary interpretation. Surprisingly luxurious. Village-like. Quirky. Sumptuous. Artistic,” are the ones Bensley chooses.
Like Bensley’s other exotic resorts, there’s hardly a place to stand that wouldn’t make a painter want to run and grab his easel. The deeply saturated colours of the region’s scenery paired with Bensley’s renowned landscaping talents and photographer’s eye make the resort exterior as beautiful as indoors.
“The landscape, especially in the rainy season, is a delight, as there are a dozen waterfalls that punctuate the terraced gardens,” he says, when asked to describe the grounds. “The gardens are structured; as a Vietnamese hillside village, where variation of a language is the key principle. By this, I mean that as one moves through the gardens one will find over 100 unique pieces of art, but all have a similar look. These art pieces are in the forms of gates, ceramic lantern walls from Bat Trang, to the humourous brass monkeys offering their directional advice.”
Respect for the natural surroundings and the greater country inform all of Bensley’s decisions, but as well as this he is intent on creating unequalled masterpieces. The brief for this project, he says, was “to make the best resort in Vietnam. And I was given total freedom to design as I like.” As the five-year project nears completion at the end of this year – it’s now in the soft opening stage – does he think this is his greatest accomplishment to date? “Perhaps,” is the coy reply. Or perhaps he’s already thinking about his next project, which will be the royal palace of the king of Malaysia. Commissions don’t come much grander than this, but when you ask the man who’s so adept at creating paradise for others what his own idea of heaven is, Bensley cops to simple tastes: “My little backyard.” Bai Bac, Sontra Peninsula, Danang. intercontinental.com, bensley.com
Published in the August/September issue of Surface Asia