Where to stay in Vietnam: The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa

Continuing my series of Where to Stay, today we’re in Phan Thiet in Vietnam. Phan Thiet is a coastal city in south-east Vietnam, a four to five hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City airport – sounds long but it’s totally worth it when you get there. It’s the capital of Binh Thuan Province with a population of around 300,000 and is actually only 200km from Ho Chi Minh City. At its centre is a bustling little fishing port and an amazing market.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is outside the centre in the beach resort area of Mui Ne. There’s a long palm-lined stretch of sand with plenty of watersports and a strip of hotels, restaurants and shops alongside it.

The hotel is laid out through beautiful gardens and is built in the style of traditional Vietnamese country houses. Here’s what I loved about our stay there.

The room

We stayed in one of their beach bungalow. A meander down a winding path through lush tropical vegetation takes you to your brightly painted, welcoming home for your stay. Set right on the edge of the beach – a few steps from the sand – the room was light and spacious with an enormous bed, large wardrobe and generous seating area.

Looking back from the beach to the beautiful bungalows

The bed’s made even cosier at night with the mosquito net

The glass doors opened out onto a large patio complete with two amazingly comfortable sun beds and an umbrella. This is where we spent a lot of time reading, sipping wine and just taking in the marvellous view from our verandah.

The seating area and our view towards the sea

There were good tea and coffee-making facilities, including a range of teas and a fridge which was restocked every day with fresh bottles of water and replacements for anything else you may have drunk. So no issues with in-room refreshments then. Other essentials (for me anyway) included a safe, plush bathrobes and towels, lovely bathroom products and great wifi.

The large bed and its crisp white linen

The bathroom

One of the best hotel bathrooms ever…large with a separate toilet, a wonderful corner bath for long bubbly soaks and – best of all – an outside area with a hammock and powerful shower.

Light floods in from the enclosed outdoor shower

How I love an outdoor shower

The views

The joys of waking up every day and opening the curtains to look through palm trees across the beach to the vast South China Sea.

Looking out across the South China Sea…just awesome

And as the sun set every day the little lights along the beach came on turning our beach view into a twinkling, magical land.

Night comes and a magic falls over the beach

I particularly loved the light at sunset

The pools

As well as the warm, inviting sea to swim in there were two pools, never crowded while we were there. Both had waiter service so you could lie back and enjoy lunch or a cocktail in the sun. The infinity pool at the top of the resort is perfect for getting in your lengths.

Looking through the hibiscus to the pool

Chef Hoang and his amazing food

This is a hotel with food in a league of its own with a genius chef. From the vast breakfast buffets to the amazing dinner menu with a selection of Vietnamese and Western dishes, there are plenty of exciting flavours to discover. Chef Hoang is always on hand making sure things are running smoothly when he’s not cooking in the kitchen.

The first couple of breakfasts took some serious decision making. The range of Vietnamese dishes on offer was stupendous – all on top of plenty of pastries, eggs any way you want them and a tropical fruit feast. I soon established my favourites – and tucked into fresh Vietnamese rolls every morning, filled with prawns, vegetables and herbs and dipped into Chef’s delicious, spicy peanut sauce.

Fresh Vietnamese rolls for breakfast, just delightful

A colourful first breakfast course of tropical fruit

We pored over the menu every night carefully choosing different dishes until we’d pretty much gone through it all. We tucked into delightful salads with Chef’s secret dressing, fresh fish and wonderful pork and duck dishes.

The amazing prawn salad in crunchy baskets

On our last night Chef Hoang made us a special dinner. We started with his special prawn salad served on banana leaves in these lovely bamboo bicycles (love the presentation).

Our prawns presented on the cutest of dishes

And for mains he specially selected a grouper for us from the market that morning. It was baked in a tangy sauce and  parcelled into rice papers with herbs, noodles and vegetables added at the table. A real ceremony.

Our special grouper and vegetable parcels

The beach

Okay everyone knows I’m a real beach baby, so I was in complete heaven here. The whole of hotel life is focused around the beach. You eat looking out to sea, open your curtains to the beach, exercise by walking along the beach…and it’s all rather quiet as the beach is private to the hotel.

At the Victoria life centres around the beach

My favourite time of day was sunset, which happens early in Vietnam – around 5pm. The beach became bathed in golden lights and shades of orange and pink.

Another beautiful sunset turns everything golden

The cookery course

We signed up for a food and cooking excursion. Awakening early we headed into the harbour with our guide, Lam and Chef Hoang. The catch of the day was coming in and the negotiations were in full swing as people heckled over prices – the women take delivery of the catch from the men and do all the bargaining.

The bustling harbour in Phan Thiet centre

From there we headed to the colourful market in the centre of town with it’s beautiful piles of tropical fruit, fish galore and every cut of meat you could need. Plus all those random household necessities dotted throughout. On the way home we stopped off at the local fish sauce factory where Lam explained the vast quantities of fish sauce consumed by the Vietnamese – it’s used in so many of their dishes.

On our return to the hotel we headed for our cookery course in the beautiful thatched gazebo on the beach. Chef Hoang and two of his chefs cooked us a delightful lunch which we ate overlooking the beach. Nothing like having three chefs cook you a private lunch! We left armed with a tasty collection of Vietnames recipes, including one for his secret salad dressing. I really must make that soon, it’s fabulous. And no, my lips are sealed.

Chef Hoang and his smiling helpers

Here’s the amazing prawn and banana flower starter they made specially for us. How exotic is that?

Prawn and banana flower with Chef Hoang’s secret dressing

The staff

The service at the Victoria is impeccable. We were so well looked after by everyone, from the front desk, waiters, chefs, masseurs, cleaners and gardeners. There were smiling, happy faces everywhere and nothing was too much trouble.

The spa

We had excellent massages in the open-fronted spa, with sea breezes and crashing waves providing the background to our indulgent treatments. Vietnamese massages are slightly less harsh than my experience of Thai ones, making it a perfectly relaxing experience while also getting rid of all those long-haul-flight induced knots. I also had a lovely manicure – the staff were expert and prices good value.

The gardens

The beach bungalows are sprinkled through the most beautiful and lovingly tended gardens. Perfect green lawns punctuated by our sunny yellow rooms and tropical trees and flowers including three of my absolute favourites: hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani.

Wash your feet off after a walk through the gardens

Live life surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus

The bedtime stories and other special touches

Okay this is a unique one. Every night we returned from dinner to discover cake delights in our little wooden box with a rolled up scroll alongside it – our nightly bedtime story. A truly charming touch and a great way to find out more about Vietnamese folklore.

I so looked forward to my bedtime story every night

Other special touches I loved included the fact that a chilled glass of water was delivered to your bed at the pool or beach as soon as you sat down – why doesn’t every hotel do this?

And the towels were extra large – having been specially made to perfectly cover the cushion on the wonderfully comfortable beach beds.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is the sort of place where you walk around with a smile on your face all day. Its beautiful and relaxing environment is made even more idyllic by the combination of smiley service and wonderful food.

It was a sad day indeed when we had to say goodbye and head off on the next leg of our adventure to Saigon, which you can read about here.

We organised our trip to Vietnam and Thailand with travel experts Eastravel. They are great to deal with and at the planning stage we spent some time discussing where we would visit and stay – with great results. It was a fabulous, well organised trip. You can read more about Vietnam and Thailand soon. Watch this space.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite thing about it? Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.


The totally fabulous food of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a vibrant, bustling country with an amazingly diverse history and a wide range of influences that have made it into the fascinating place it is today.

There are delicious eating opportunities around every exciting corner, from the colourful street markets to the five-star hotels and restaurants. I even discovered several new dishes which became firm favourites. I’ll be testing out some Sri Lankan recipes myself at a later date and sharing them with you, so watch this space. You can read more about my trip to Sri Lanka by clicking here.

Now sit back and devour my pictorial tribute to Sri Lanka’s wonderful food.

There’s plenty of fruit on offer and the streets are lined with a seemingly endless supply of wonderful produce.

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Love these huge, creamy avocados

Buffalo curd is a Sri Lankan delicacy. We visited a farmer who makes it by hand using milk from his buffalo herd and watched him stirring his concoction over a fire before pouring it into these terracotta bowls and letting it set. It’s tart and tasty and usually served with their deliciously sweet jaggery syrup.

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Buffalo curd doesn’t get fresher than this

Restaurants serve up fresh crab in many shapes and forms. It looks beautiful with shells in pinky/ orange and tastes sweet and juicy.

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Fresh crab salad in the buffet spread

Dhal is a dish on offer with every meal – I loved it in my breakfast hopper (more of that later). Coconut cream adds a silky smoothness and richer flavour.

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A bowl of spicy lentils

And here’s my personal favourite. From the first breakfast when I was directed to the hopper station I fell in foodie love with these crispy Sri Lankan-style pancakes and proceeded to create different versions every time I had one. Made while you wait with fried eggs nestling in the base, they really are a great addition to any mealtime.

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Bring on the two-egg hopper

As Sri Lanka is an island you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s plenty of fresh fish to sample. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Negomobo fish market. We got up before dawn to witness the boats coming in, fish being auctioned and even carefully portioned and sliced for sale to eager customers.

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The fish is filleted and sliced straight off the boat

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A lady seller sorts through her live prawns selection

The markets are a buzz of activity and aromas, selling a wide range of exotic wares. There’s a lot of grains in Sri Lankan cuisine, here they are proudly on display.

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Sackfuls of grain in the market

Here’s my favourite hopper combo – an egg topped with dhal, tomato relish,and  coconut and onion sambals. So yummy!

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Spicy hoppers make for a great breakfast

When you have such a cornucopia of fruit on offer, you’ve simply got to make juice. This colourful little juice bar on the street in Negombo offered a truly exotic choice. We sampled the nelli and avocado juices. Nelli is kind of like a gooseberry and the juice has a serious zing to it and leaves a bit of a tingle on your tongue. Something of an acquired taste I would say. I adore avocado so loved the juice, which was literally just avos pureed. As you can imagine, it was thick, creamy and beautifully rich – and extremely filling.

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Ordering juice is quite an experience in Sri Lanka

If you’re feeling thirsty on your journey there are stalls everywhere selling King coconuts. The top is lopped off for an instant, portable drink that’s full of electrolytes – ideal for rejuvenation on a sultry Sri Lankan day.

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One unique Sri Lankan experience I was lucky enough to experience was lunch in the chena overlooking fields of okra, chilli and tomatoes. These shelters are dotted around the lands and used by farmers to watch their crops from and prevent wild animals from destroying them. The range of 10 colourfully tasty dishes were prepared for us by the farmer’s wife using local ingredients and served with an incredibly warm welcome.

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A range of tasty traditional dishes to tuck into

Little roadside cafes are a great place to stop for lunch. There’s no menu, you’re simply brought what’s on offer that day. We tucked into a selection of vegetable dishes including the best tempered potatoes, a sweet carrot dish, dhal and onion relish served with smaller portions of fish and chicken and, of course, rice.

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A relaxed lunch on our road trip

I had the privilege of enjoying several cooking presentations which is why I’ve learnt lots of new recipes to share with you. As I said, watch this space. Here are some of the exotic spices I’ll be cooking with.

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Sri Lanka’s spices are a joy to cook with

Of course Sri Lanka is also the land of tea – one of my favourite drinks. So I made sure I sampled plenty of it. I also visited the beautiful highlands around Nurawa Eliya with its emerald tea terraces as far as the eye could see and the delicate aroma of tea flavouring the air. Total tea heaven.

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The tea pluckers are out no matter what the weather

I loved the flavours and aromas of Sri Lanka. And the freshness of all the ingredients. A wonderful foodie paradise.

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

 

Where to stay in Phuket: The Kata Beach Resort

Continuing my series about lovely hotels around the world that you really should stay in, today we’re at the Kata Beach Resort & Spa in Phuket, Thailand.

Phuket is a large and very diverse island. That means if you want to party up a storm, get active with watersports, explore temples and places of interest, indulge in gourmet food, shop, lie on the beach – or any combo of them, Thailand has plenty to offer.

We particularly like the Kata Beach area, having visited a few years ago. The beach is amazing, there are plenty of restaurants all serving great, well-priced food and the shopping’s also good. Plus it’s a bit quieter than some of the more party-focused areas of the island, there are no clubs and after a certain time of night a peace washes over the area. Love the peace.

We’d spotted the Kata Beach Resort on our ambles around the town last time and put it on our wish-list of hotels to stay in if we ever returned to the area. Sometimes wishes do come true.

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A trumpeting welcome to the Kata Beach Resort

So here’s what’s good about it.

The position

Set right on the absolutely stunning Kata Beach (more of that later), the hotel couldn’t be in a more convenient spot. You’re a minute’s walk (if that) from your room to the sand and only a few minutes walk away from a cluster of lovely beach restaurants. If you go in the other direction out the front of the hotel you’re right in the middle of the shops, markets and a generous selection of other restaurants.

Perfect if you love eating out, like us. A short walk, a short inspection of what’s on offer and you settle down to a delicious meal every time. At lunchtime we liked to amble down the beach and sit barefoot looking out at the sea (we soon stopped even taking our shoes with us), tucking into a range of Thai favourites. Top of the list was the spicy green papaya salad which tastes like health on a plate – in a good way.

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One of my very favourite Thai dishes – zesty green papaya salad

The hotel is set back from the main road behind the amazing elephant fountain. So you’re only steps from the buzzy nightlife as well as being able to retreat into the cocoon of peace that surrounds the hotel. The food is really varied in Kata (more so than in many other parts of Thailand I’ve visited) and standards are high (more details coming soon in another post). Here’s a fabulous king prawn dish we had for dinner one night in a restaurant on the main road.

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Giant, juicy king prawns with a lovely red curry sauce

The beach

Kata Beach is nothing short of spectacular and the hotel is right on it. A sweeping bay beckons in front of you with the beautifully blue and warm Andaman sea just waiting for you to plunge into. Here’s a picture I took from my sunbed using my panorama function.

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Take me to the beautiful beach

I love a good daily walk and the extent of the beach meant about 45 minutes of power walking – with some strolling and several stops to take in the sights, of course. This is near the far end where a little house that intrigued me nestled in the trees. I want to know who it belongs to.

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Exercise is a pleasure on Kata Beach

The views

Of course, this is allied to both the position and the beach. Wow! To have views like this right in front of you wherever you look is totally uplifting. Here’s my daily vista through the leaning palms.

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It’s hard to get up from your bed with a view like this

The rooms

We arrived around 8 at night at Kata Beach and the first thing I did was walk through the room to the balcony door and out to the sound and sight of the sea. The perfect inspiration to go to bed and wake up to. The rooms are spacious with extremely comfortable beds. Boy did we sleep well here.

Air conditioning is good and easily adjustable, there’s a safe to leave your valuables in (always vital for me) and there’s a kettle with tea and coffee replenished daily. Plus an extremely chilly fridge to ensure there’s always a cold one to quench your thirst on those sultry Thai days. All the comforts of home, basically. Plus the wifi signal is excellent, another necessity for an internet junkie like me, after all I do have to blog and post on social media, don’t I?

Top tip: make sure you specify you want a sea-facing room. It costs a little more but is more than worth every penny.

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We soon felt at home in our spacious room

Oh and here’s the early morning view from our balcony – before the serious suntanners hit the pool.

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Happiness is a room with a view

The pool and its bar

As you can see our room looked over the pool to the sea. A real indulgence having two swimming areas right on your doorstep. The pool is lovely and warm and big enough to stretch out and have a bit of a swim. And it has the must-have swim-up pool bar. The joy of sitting in the water sipping a cocktail! The bar also does the most wonderful lattes, just what we needed to get our day off to the best start.

The perfect start to the day – at the poolside as the beach wakes up

The perfect start to the day – at the poolside as the beach wakes up

Here’s the view from the bar across the sunbeds to the azure sea. This was just after a rainstorm, which we sheltered from under the bar’s covered area. Very handy.

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Blue and more blue as far as you can see

The breakfast

How I love hotel breakfast. You’ve got plenty of time and you don’t have to do anything yourself, except decide what you want and eat it. Kata Beach Resort’s international buffet took some exploring every morning. Before doing that I helped myself to a huge plate of tropical fruit…I think I ate  more papaya than the average person does in a year!

There was also a good selection of pastries and a range of Western options including, sausages,  tomatoes, potatoes done any way as well as freshly cooked bacon and eggs made to your demand at the egg station. Being in Thailand I embarked on eating the Thai version every day – a helping of noodles or rice (or sometimes both!) sprinkled liberally with fish sauce and chilli. Amazing how I got into this, breakfast doesn’t seem the same anymore!

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Start the day with a plate of fresh tropical fruit

And a few other things

It’s fair to say you’re tripping over people wanting to give you a massage in Phuket, here you don’t even have to go looking for them. At the hotel there’s a little hut right on the beach where you can lie down, breathe in the sea air and listen to the soothing waves while all your cares are massaged away, though it’s hard to have any cares at this stage. An hour of intense massage that leaves you feeling totally revitalised costs 300 baht. That’s about £6. Really!

Then there’s all the beach sellers. You slowly watch the beach waking up as dozens of industrious vendors parade their wares up and down all day. They’re always pleasant, happy and take no for an answer without too much hassle. Needless to say the products are such good value (and there’s always room for bargaining) that I usually ended up buying something anyway. Summer wardrobe replenished!

If you’re more the kind of person who wants things made just for them, you’re also in the right place. There’s a tailor on-site and he’ll make sure your garments fit perfectly. Choose your fabric and he’ll measure you up and provide several fittings to make sure you get exactly what you want. It’s good value, too, my husband had three pairs of trousers made for 3,900 baht which is just under £80.

There is an impressive dinner buffet of changing themes, from Italian, international, seafood, steak and barbecue to classic Thai. Something for everyone. The wine list is extensive (the hotel even has its own wine shop) but like most places in Thailand, imported wines are pricey, especially when you consider what great value the food is. Oh well, treat yourself…

I’ve realised that this all sounds as much like a spotlight on Thailand generally as a review of the Kata Beach Resort. Well, that’s because that’s exactly what you get here. The best of everything that’s great about this wonderful holiday destination. Aah how I miss Kata Beach.

We’ve explored quite a bit of Thailand now and have used a range of tour operators as that’s the best way to get a really good deal. This year we travelled with a company called Eastravel. I can’t recommend them enough. They were friendly, helpful, efficient and went out of their way to secure the room we wanted and make sure all our needs were met. If you’re going to Thailand (or anywhere in the Far East actually) from the UK you really should check them out at www.eastravel.com

Do you have a favourite part of Thailand? Have you stayed somewhere special? I’d love to hear about it as I’m already thinking about my next visit there – so do get in touch.

Find out more about the hotel at www.katagroup.com

Asian chicken skewers

I love cooking because it’s such a great creative outlet. You need to take time over each stage, deciding what to cook, choosing the right ingredients, preparing everything, cooking it perfectly and making sure it looks tasty when you serve it up. To me none of this stressful, I love poring over recipe books, surfing the net for inspiration and coming up with a new recipe to try. I even love shopping in supermarkets!

So when Sainsbury’s launched their new Speciality Ingredients Range of more than 30 products from Japan, the Middle East, pan-Asia and the Mediterranean and sent me some to experiment with, I was delighted. These ingredients make it quicker and easier to cook from scratch, so that’s got to be good.

Time for some creative thinking. Here’s the first of three recipes I’ve come up with using some of the ingredients I was sent.

Serve the skewers with fluffy rice

Serves 2

2 chicken breasts

1 onion

Half a red pepper

Half a green pepper

For the marinade

4tbsp Sainsbury’s mirin

4tbsp soy sauce

1tsp sesame oil

Juice of 1 lime

2tsp Sainsbury’s ginger

1tsp sugar

Slice the chicken up into bite-size chunks.

Mix together all the ingredients for the marinade and place the chicken in it. Cover and leave for at least half an hour, up to 4 hours.

Take 2 wooden skewers and soak them in cold water in the sink for at least 3o minutes. This prevents them from burning under the grill.

Slice the onion and peppers into chunks the same size as the chicken. Thread onto skewers, alternating chicken, red and green peppers and onion.

The skewers, all threaded and ready to cook

Empty the marinade into a pan and boil on a medium head until the liquid reduces and becomes sticky like a glaze. Baste the skewers with the glaze and cook under a low grill for 10 minutes. Then turn over and baste the other side with the glaze. Cook for another 10 minutes.

Glistening, cooked kebabs

Finish off with another brush of the glaze before serving. Serve with rice.

The mirin and ready-chopped ginger I used.