Off the beaten track and just waiting to be discovered, many consider JW Marriott’s latest venture in Vietnam a design masterpiece. Zara Horner reports.

Over the past decade Vietnam has featured on more and more travellers’ radar and as a consequence development and the tourism industry has been growing exponentially.

The direct contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in Vietnam was US$9.3bn or 4.6 per cent of total in 2016 and is forecast to rise by 7.5 per cent this year and to rise by 6.0 per cent annually from now until 2027, to US$17.9bn. The sector is having a huge effect on the country’s employment, exports and investment figures, which are all expected to rise this year as a result. (Source: World Travel and Tourism Council, 2017).

There are pockets of the country which remain largely undiscovered. Phu Quoc is an island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, which is Vietnamese.

Known for its palm-lined white-sand beaches, more than half the island is national park which features mountains and dense tropical jungle. It is here JW Marriott has sited its latest country offering.

“We see Phu Quoc as an emerging, off the beaten track destination in Asia, waiting to be discovered,” explains Ty Collins, general manager, JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay.

“The island is Vietnam’s hidden gem, still very untouched and full of natural resources that reflect JW Marriott’s dedication to creating enriched experiences for guests. In fact, JW Marriott is the first international hotel brand to open on the island.”

Given the stunning views and nature of the location, the group was conscious about reflecting the history and natural environment “in a one-of-a-kind design narrative.”

JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay

An education

The resort is housed on the site of a French colonial academy of learning and pays homage in particular to French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution, and who taught at the academy.

“As the story goes, Lamarck University was the intellectual and educational pinnacle of Bai Khem in the early 1900s attended by the island’s French colonists, closing finally in the 1940s,” Collins tells us.

“The main buildings of the resort have been constructed [from the crumbling campus of the colonial seat of learning and remain] in early 20th century style to reflect French architecture of the era.

“Bill Bensley has worked on a number of high-end luxury hotels in Vietnam in the past with Sun Group, the owner of JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, and we saw a potential for creating a unique narrative with these buildings and thought this was something Bill Bensley, the king of luxury resorts, would be able to bring to life.”

As a result, Bensley and his team handled all of the design work from planning through architecture and all interiors.

Top concept

Since founding his practice in 1987, the Harvard-educated American designer has brought more than 200 hotels in 30-plus countries to life. This project, estimated to have cost around US$250 million, is more like a whimsical town than a hotel or resort.

“In terms of hotel concept, there really is no other resort property in Asia like the JW Marriott Phu Quoc,” Collins says. “A tremendous amount of time was spent on this project to ensure that every single detail, down to the decorative items and staff uniforms, were carefully selected to reinforce the hotel’s overarching academic theme.”

This theme runs throughout the property. For example, the bar is not ‘just’ a bar… it’s the Department of Chemistry.

Department of Chemistry

“The academic theme, Lamarck University, is applied throughout the property,” Collins explains. “Department of Chemistry is the resort’s cocktail bar, which plays on the chemistry lab theme – serving counters are decorated with beakers and scientific instruments; the ceiling is designed with a periodic table and matched with a striking atom-shaped light.”

To increase the level of authenticity, Bensley’s team sourced over 5,000 antiques, old teaching paraphernalia, carpentry tools, artwork etc. while travelling across Europe multiple times to source for the resort.

“Guests can expect to see vintage furniture, antique teaching equipment, tools, prints and sketches which all showcase the evolution of mankind and nature,” Collins elaborates.

“The lobby and reception is themed as a college library. It’s a bright and airy space housing dozens of artefacts, vintage books and suitcases. As guests enter, they are greeted by an imposing trophy sculpture that symbolises the academy’s previous sporting successes.”

There are four major wings for the accommodation, as well as separate buildings for entertainment, dining and banqueting venues.

The 244 hotel guestrooms, suites and villas are spread throughout the property to create the illusion of separate, dedicated sections.

“The buildings each have a unique theme related to an academic faculty,” Collins says. “For example, in the main accommodation buildings we have rooms called ‘Biology’, ‘Zoology’, ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Shell & Botany’.

“We’ve also created one-of-a-kind banqueting and meeting rooms. The ballroom, named the Auditorium, showcases a series of vintage atlases. The other individual meeting spaces each tell a unique, whimsical story. In the ‘Room of Bad Ideas’ guests may find quirky references to failed inventions and ideas, including original vintage sketches of a six-wheeled vehicle.”

Meanwhile, The Artistry Department is a meeting room inspired by Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and incorporates a bold lighting fixture constructed from large paint brushes. Another breakout area is styled like the hospitality ‘green room’ of an ancient theatre, where costumes and props are on display.

Colour palette/s, materials, and textures are all equally out of the ordinary. A palette of reds, turquoise, blues and greens for the rooms has been used to complement the emerald-coloured sea. Furnishings have been custom-made in dark timber and patterned flooring elevates the sense of comfort and luxury in the rooms.

“To take advantage of the idyllic views, we planned the interiors so that all rooms and suites are ocean-facing and include a spacious balcony with sofa seating,” Collins points out. “Guests staying on the ground level also have their own private garden and direct access to the hotel’s swimming pools.”

Evolution continues

The four-bedroom seafront villas called Lamarck House have recently completed and are now open and “are the epitome of the resort’s design narrative,” according to Collins, while it is expected that the ‘Pink Pearl’ will open soon. This is “the resort’s crown jewel” restaurant and will serve Cantonese cuisine.

“Bill is a very creative architect and designer, and is always looking to add more touches to ‘his’ resorts whenever appropriate. He is still collecting antiques and artefacts for this hotel during his travels,” says Collins.

This reflects the general tenor of evolution within the place. When it first opened the university was quite modest and traditional, conforming to the local design vernacular, but as it grew and more people came, other cultures – notably Chinese and Japanese – had an influence. Much as it was throughout Vietnam generally. The buildings of the university got bigger and grander, which Bensley has taken full advantage of, having what looks to be a lot fun in the process.

“Along Rue de Lamarck – the main ‘street’ that extends through the hotel – we’ve designed traditional Vietnamese shophouses to resemble the ancient streets of Hoi An,” Collins says. “The architecture of these buildings reflects a unique blend of Chinese, Japanese and Western influences, allowing visitors a glimpse into Vietnam’s past. There are many more elements around the resort that allude to Vietnam’s colonial past. Every detail has been carefully crafted and considered to reinforce this.”