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A day away at La Ferme du Colvert Resort & Spa

Update: October, 16/2012 - 23:07

 

Master at work: Superstar chef Didier Corlou demonstrates the possibilities when you combine simple local ingredients with traditional French cooking techniques.
Pillar of the community: The resort enjoys special ties with the nearby ethnic Muong villagers. For more information, visit: www.lafermeducolvert.com
Sitting pretty: Guests take in the spectacular views of the rainforest from one of the traditional Muong guesthouses.
Enjoy the view: The tranquil surroundings provide an ideal backdrop for those seeking a relaxing break.
 
by Jak Phillips and Elisabeth Rosen

"Ssshhh. Do you hear that?" asks Frenchman Jean-Michel Chassedieu, owner of La Ferme du Colvert Resort&Spa. "That is the beautiful sound of nature. It's a sound many Hanoians have forgotten."

We are sitting on the veranda of Orchid House, the main restaurant/reception area of the spa and it's certainly tranquil. Outside, a dense and luscious rainforest envelops our surroundings, punctuated by the steady flow of streams and the occasional call from the forest's animal inhabitants. Inside, an elegant combination of Vietnamese and French colonial architecture adds a soothing veneer of comfort to the primal landscape.

Just 45km west of ‘forgetful' Ha Noi, La Ferme was first conceived in 2003 when Chassedieu and his wife An Thanh Tran, who oversees the day to day running of the resort, returned to the area where she spent the war years as a refugee. Initially just a dense forest set back from the main road, the pair spent the first few nights sleeping in a tent. But their hard work eventually came to fruition and by 2005, La Ferme was open for business. With an ethos of offering ‘an authentic Vietnamese experience with high class cuisine and clean, comfortable living standards', it was always going to be important for the resort to integrate well with the surrounding commune, home to approximately 6,000 Muong ethnic people.

To maintain the Vietnamese authenticity, one of the couple's first actions was to purchase several traditional stilted guesthouses from the nearby hamlet. Having had a large hand in constructing the resort, it's fair to say the Muong people play an even larger part in running the place. Around 95 per cent of the staff live within 200m of the resort and, under the watchful eyes of Chassedieu and his wife, have flourished into diligent and charming workers who truly enhance your stay.

Cementing the resort's strong bond with Cu Yen and other nearby villages, free school classes are provided for local children, as are free health check-ups for all villagers. As Chassedieu, 51, says: "The Muong are our friends and our neighbours, so I feel honoured that they consider our resort to be an extension of the villages. Integration is a big part of the experience."

As for the amenities, guests can enjoy a wide range of activities from spa treatments, to bike rides, boating and fishing on the resort's Dap Dom Lake, which Jean-Michel claims is perhaps the only lake in Viet Nam to boast wild cacoa fish. The footpaths carved out of the rainforest are certainly charming, but probably require sturdy footwear to be negotiated in complete confidence. With 10 guesthouses at its disposal, the resort can sleep 100 people at any one time and regularly caters for NGO conferences as well as people on vacation. Mosquito repellent is strongly advised, this being the rainforest, nature's parasites are unsurprisingly populous.

La Ferme certainly offers a welcome antidote to the hustle and bustle of Ha Noi. In addition to our party, one other guest had decided to escape the capital for a weekend of nature. Acclaimed former executive chef at the Ha Noi Metropole and current owner of La Verticale, Didier Corlou, dropped by to offer training to the local Muong kitchen staff, as well as to serve up that evening's feast with a fusion of local ingredients and French philosophies.

"For me, Vietnamese food is the best cuisine in Asia, but people haven't talked about this as the country's had more pressing problems," Corlou, who has lived here for 22 years, told the Viet Nam News.

"It's family oriented, with an emphasis on sharing both the cooking and enjoying of food with loved ones – my two favourite parts."

For the aperitif, guests were led to a secluded corner behind the main lodge, where a Muong woman sat rolling silky sheets of steamed rice batter around minced pork and wood ear mushrooms for banh cuon. Close by, another ladled mixtures of rice flour and turmeric into a sizzling skillet to make banh xeo, folding the finished pancakes around shrimp, bean sprouts and slivered vegetables.

After a glass of La Ferme's signature blend of Da Lat wine infused with sweet red syrup, guests took their seats, surrounded by lush, dark jungle. Using only local ingredients, Corlou crafted elegant French interpretations of Vietnamese dishes. The meal began with five season soup, a glutinous consomme with flecks of tofu and broccoli and lotus seeds adrift in a thick, clear broth. Steamed cannelloni followed, stuffed with a blend of crab and spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger. Earlier, guests had watched Corlou crack duck eggs into individual bowls of young green rice; now, simmered in coconut milk, the dish had mellowed into a risotto, golden egg yolk trickling over chewy grains.

 

High society: Guests tuck into the feast prepared by Didier Corlou outside La Ferme's main Orchid House reception building.
 

Palates cleansed with lemon sorbet, guests turned their attention to the main course. There were unctuous slices of grilled duck, steeped in an aromatic sauce infused with green tea and spices, and grilled chicken, glazed with honey and cut into rough, charred strips. The only thing lacking was a vegetable dish, which might have rounded off the meal.

The sharp, sweet aroma of tea permeates all of La Ferme, even finding its way onto the dessert menu: tea-flavoured cake, green tea ice cream topped with puffed rice, a post-prandial cup of tea.

Despite the elegant touches, the meal lacked any sense of pretension.

"The light food is beautiful and simple," Corlou said. "The hallmark of the very best cuisine."

Prices for the resort range depending on which lodge you stay in, but they span from mid-range to reassuringly expensive (see the website for more details.) To sum up La Ferme, it's fair to say the place is a refreshing paradox. The resort's luxury stems from the unceasing hard work of the owners and attentive staff, while its beauty is entirely the work of nature. — VNS

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