If you’re searching for the best places to stay in Vietnam, including luxury Vietnam resorts, why not consider one that’s away from the usual hotspots? Avana Retreat is complete with abundant nature, spectacular scenery and initiatives that support local villages – and it isn’t in Sapa! We arrived after a four-drive from Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi. The route had taken us up through the Bao La commune in Mai Chau province and high into the mountains. There was also with a pit stop to admire the amazing views along the way.
Stepping out of the car, the refreshing air soothed our frazzled nerves after the long trip from Singapore. We knew from the peaceful natural surrounds that this would be an ideal place to stay in Vietnam – somewhere we could fully unwind and recharge.
The reception was warm, too – and this would set the tone for our stay. We soon discovered that all Avana staff, including the founder, are Vietnamese, and 90 percent are from the nearby Panh village. In the same way the resort’s name reflects “a beautiful flower nourished by the elements of nature to bloom in its native land”, one aim of Avana Retreat is to see local culture and heritage thrive with its presence.
Staying in the clouds at Avana Retreat
This 15-hectare Vietnam resort took almost six years to be ready. It quietly opened to the public during COVID, when Vietnam was still closed. It’s favoured by city-dwellers looking for a convenient weekend getaway at one of the best places to stay in Vietnam. However, Avana Retreat is still relatively unknown outside of the country.
We stayed in a Bauhinia Mountain Suite. At 98 square metres, it’s the smallest of 36 villas – the two-bedroom Senna Hilltop Pool Villa is 229 square metres. Yet it was still spacious, with a living area containing a day bed that transforms into a bed, an outdoor balcony with sofa, a King bed and a bathroom with separate rain shower, toilet and bathtub.
The interiors reflect local and regional building methods. Think thatched roofs, rattan ceilings incorporating a Thai weaving technique, wooden floorboards and walls made from earth. Each villa of this Vietnam eco lodge showcases local arts and crafts such as handdrawn beeswax paintings of ethnic patterns, and traditional Thai cushion covers.
The bed looked out over the balcony and our favourite thing to do was to enjoy the scenery as we lay in bed. The resort’s location high on a mountain means that it can get enveloped in clouds; one rainy evening we kept the balcony doors open and the mist entered the villa to create a mysterious effect. The next morning, we woke early and discovered that the property was still shrouded in cloud, and it didn’t clear until around 9am.
The villa was fitted out with many comforts and modern conveniences such as a pod coffee machine, and a tablet which we could use to book the buggy, make reservations for spa treatments and even watch Netflix on.
Treading gently at Vietnam resorts
Avana Retreat has many initiatives to keep its footprint light. One is restoring the previously barren hill by planting more than 10,000 trees. Also incorporated into the resort are terraced rice fields which the Hmong farmers continue to cultivate.
In July, they opened a Bamboo Forest where goats, deer, hens and pigs find sanctuary. The onsite free-ranging chicken farm, which guests can visit, provides organic eggs for the restaurant.
The entire Vietnam luxury resort is plastic free, too – packaging, cups and bags are made from bamboo and paper, and trash bags from biodegradable corn starch. The buggy runs on electricity, and lights run at low power so as not to affect plants and creatures of the land.
Refillable glass bottles contain drinking water that’s purified at the resort’s own bottle plant. Guests can also loan complimentary stainless steel water bottles to take on treks to the local village.
Most importantly, the resort creates a sustainable economy by providing training and employment for the locals.
Nourishment from the local land
All-day dining is available at the onsite Green Chili Restaurant, whose menu includes typical Vietnamese fare – pho, traditional spring rolls, dried beef with green papaya salad, beef in bamboo tube, grilled marinated catfish and more. All the ingredients are locally sourced and desserts are handmade locally.
There’s also international flavours such as Japanese wagyu striploin and Australian tenderloin black Angus steaks, pan-seared salmon, burgers and pizza. Vegetarian and vegan options are available too; at breakfast, there was soy and almond milks for coffee and tea, next to fresh juices and, for those in the mood, champagne!
We love that only natural local herbs and plants are used in the dishes at Avana Retreat, which enhances the natural flavours of the food.
The idea for the Vietnam luxury resort took shape when the founder discovered the Pung Waterfall while trekking in the mountains here. The desire to preserve this natural beauty and share the rich local heritage of the ethnic Hmong people resulted in the experiences offered onsite at Avana Retreat, many of which were included in our stay.
Nature and art
One morning, we visited the waterfall that provided inspiration for the resort. The air was cool and we spent time admiring its majesty and taking photos. We followed the cascading water back to the pool outside the restaurant. We stopped and watched koi fish and a variety of local ducks swim languidly.
Following this calming activity, we headed to the Stilt House Museum to beef up on local culture. A guide took us through the artefacts, costumes and craft of the ethnic Thai, Hmong and Muong groups residing in Mai Chau.
We then sat down and created our own Hmong batik painting with beeswax to take home. A Hmong woman who couldn’t speak English guided us with gestures and smiles. She even let me try on a traditional skirt before I left.
Next was a scented candle workshop at the spa. Enveloped by soothing scents, we created our own soy and beeswax candle, complete with dried flowers. In the evening, we watched a movie at the open-air cinema at the grass field adjacent to the restaurant. We admired the night sky and tried to spot constellations.
Exploring by jeep
The following morning, we took a jeep tour at 6am. This was an added cost, but it yielded priceless memories! We began by driving through the cloud enveloping the mountain as we headed down towards the village. Although it was very early, the Thai and Muong villagers were already busy planting in the rice fields that we passed.
Our driver used a translator on his phone to communicate with us. He brought us to Bao La, the local market, where a variety of fresh produce and crafts were being sold. We began our ride back to the retreat at around 7am, detouring to a natural stream. Here, my partner tried his hand at driving the jeep for a few minutes.
By now, the sun had fully risen. Our driver stopped at a spot where the sunlight revealed a spectacular vista of verdant rice fields on both sides of the track we were on. We took time for photos and to watch villagers in their daily routine.
Arriving back at the resort at 8.30am, we headed to the View Point for a panorama of the valley below before breakfast.
Another favourite spot of ours was the Cloud Pool Bar. Every afternoon at 4pm, complimentary snacks are served and drinks are at one-for-one prices. We took our drinks and soaked in the heated infinity pool, a great location for admiring the view.
Mai Chau is an ideal alternative to Sapa – there’s nature, trekking and local culture but without the tourist hordes and packaged experiences.
Avana Retreat offers the same luxuries and experience as any luxury Vietnam resorts in Sapa. The difference is an authentic experience of the land and the locals, making it one of the best places to stay in Vietnam. You’ll leave feeling refreshed, pampered and fulfilled.
This article on the best places to stay in Vietnam first appeared in the November 2023 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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