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‘Back to school’ at Marriott deluxe resort in Vietnam: Abandoned French university is repurposed for relaxation

Oct 06,2018
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The entrance of the JW Marriott resort. [JW MARRIOTT PHU QUOC EMERALD BAY RESORT & SPA]
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Top, a suite room at the resort; above, the private beach for use by the resort’s guests.[JW MARRIOTT PHU QUOC EMERALD BAY RESORT & SPA]
A school is not exactly a favorite destination as a relaxing and stress-free holiday spot. But it becomes a tempting choice when a school in the tropics has grand, pastel-colored architecture spanning 17 hectares (42 acres) with beautiful photo spots and many water sports.

Located on Phu Quoc, just off the coast of Cambodia and Vietnam’s largest island, Lamarck University has attracted adventurous travelers in search of luxurious accommodation since it opened in January 2017. Designed by the Harvard-educated architect and landscape designer Bill Bensley, who is renowned for creating premier Southeast Asian resorts like the Four Seasons Langkawi in Malaysia and the Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap in Cambodia, the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa was designed in a quirky salute to the French university that occupied the site from 1880 until the 1940s.

Named after the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the school had been abandoned from the university’s demise until Marriott International’s flagship brand turned it into a resort. But even after the renovation, the resort still clearly maintains a collegiate vibe at every turn.

Each guest room is themed after a specific departmental study such as architecture, zoology or astronomy. Even the pink-colored bar has an academic name, the Department of Chemistry. Sitting in front of a corner of the beach, the bar gives visitors scenic views of the water through its wide open windows.

These scenes and leisure activities are not exactly the type of things usually associated with lively Vietnam. No hectic streets dominated by motorbikes and vendors competing to lure tourists to their street food. Instead, Phu Quoc, which has cemented itself as one of Southeast Asia’s hottest destinations over the past few years, boasts of calm and unspoiled beaches.

“A beautiful beach is not what people usually expect to see in Vietnam,” says Ty Collins, general manager of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. But Collins, also called the school’s dean, hopes to change that general perception through the resort’s paradisiacal private setting on the island’s emerald-colored “ice-cream beach,” which got its name from the soft, white texture of the sand.

The resort has steadily gained attention from people around the world after the spread of images of its photogenic spots on social network media. In fact, guests at the resort - especially young women - are often seen plotting with their companions to capture themselves in glamour shots with a backdrop of the architecture, interior designs or the beach and ocean.

The resort’s daily activities, referred to as classes, also keep its guests, or students, busily occupied. Falling into three main categories - culinary, culture and well being - a few of the offered classes are Vietnamese traditional cuisine and coffee-making, lantern-making and water sports, like surf yoga. The classes sometimes take place in one of the resort’s three scenic pools when the weather is not favorable on the beach.

Despite its rising popularity, especially with Chinese tourists, the resort’s main target of this year is Koreans, says Collins, because “Koreans like to explore.” Although Korean visitors are relatively few compared to travelers from other Asian nations like China or Japan, Collins, who worked in the hotel business in Seoul for three years, sensed that Phu Quoc could be a very enticing travel destination for Korean travelers because they often “seek hidden gems” and enjoy the thrill of being at the forefront of “creating trends.”

According to Chompu, director of marketing communications at the resort, Koreans are “quality customers” because they are willing to learn the local culture and also like to see and actively share their pictures via social networking services.

Phu Quoc is a rapidly developing island. There are several tourist attractions like Vinpearl Safari Phu Quoc - the first-ever and largest safari park in Vietnam - a night market where fresh seafood is served, fish sauce factories and the world’s longest sea cable car, which travels nearly 8,900 meters (5.5 miles). These days, even more tourist attractions, like a water park, are being rapidly developed.

“What you’re seeing today on this island will be very different in one or two years,” said Chompu.

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]