This article first appeared in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of WGM.
Tucked away on Vietnam’s pristine south-east coastline lies Ho Tram. Once a small beach town frequented by local city slickers looking to get away for a few days, it remains a hidden secret to much of the outside world despite the first of up to five resorts planned for the area – The Grand Ho Tram Strip – opening in 2013. But all of that is starting to change. After a turbulent and inauspicious start, The Grand is on the verge of a bright new era thanks largely to new plans, new management and a shiny new golf course as good as any around the globe. WGM CEO Andrew W Scott was recently invited to visit this stunning property and in the coming pages he’ll take you through Vietnam’s only integrated resort. There is also an interview with The Grand’s new President Shaun McCamley and a review of the property’s popular night spot Club 9. As you’re about to discover, The Grand Ho Tram Strip has a lot to offer.
World-class integrated resort gaming is a new tourism frontier for Vietnam. Despite boasting a young and burgeoning population of 93 million people – many of them passionate gamblers – locals are still restricted from playing in any of the handful of small limited-offering casinos scattered across the country. Making the decision to build and operate a large scale integrated resort casino in Vietnam was always a bold proposition. But Asian Coast Development Ltd, developers of The Grand Ho Tram Strip, took the plunge.
The first and thus far only one of five proposed resorts to be developed along Ho Tram’s glorious beachfront, The Grand, is simply referred to locally as Ho Tram. The property has endured its share of problems along the way with MGM Resorts terminating its management contract shortly before opening and the subsequent delays adding US$25 million to costs – all of which belies the hidden gem that awaits those keen to experience something a little different from the hustle and bustle of Macau’s gaming scene.
Located 125km south-east of Ho Chi Minh City, which equates to about 1.5 to 2.5 hours by car (depending on traffic and how fast you tell the driver to go), the entire Ho Tram project covers a whopping 164 hectares on a 2.2 kilometre beach front.
The first stage of the Ho Tram Project – The Grand at Ho Tram – covers 23 of those hectares and cost US$590 million. Finally opening its doors in July 2013, The Grand at Ho Tram combines a 541-room five-star hotel and casino as good as any international resort in Las Vegas or Macau with the glorious weather and beachside luxury befitting a tropical paradise.
By the time the next phase, scheduled to start in the next few months, is finished The Grand will boast around 1,100 hotel rooms as well as up to 40 private beachside villas to go with the nine restaurants and luxury spa that already operate.
And the Greg Norman-designed golf course – rated as one of the top eight new courses in the world in 2014 in Golf magazine – isn’t too shabby either!
The Grand Ho Tram Strip is geared more towards VIP than mass market gaming and as such doesn’t boast the largest of main gaming floors. Of the 90 gaming tables in total, 55 of them are set aside for VIPs. Having said that, the main floor is so beautifully presented that anyone setting foot inside can’t help but feel like a VIP themselves. It is everything you would expect from a top tier property in Macau.
There are six table games available at Ho Tram including baccarat, blackjack, single-zero roulette, sic bo, Ho Tram Poker and Stud Poker. There is also a live dealer installation by Interblock with 30 terminals offering baccarat and roulette.
Ho Tram also has 585 slot machines, all brand new, including the usual favorites from the likes of Aristocrat, Bally and IGT as well as a number of electronic table games. A wander through the main floor revealed the biggest jackpot at the time to be worth around US$160,000 on Aristocrat’s Fa Fa Fa, with this jackpot actually shown at all times on a TV screen near the five hotel elevators which we found to be a nice little touch.
Main gaming floor players can also grab a bit to eat at 8 Dragons restaurant right by the gaming floor, which offers a range of quick but quality eats. The membership program features five levels of sign-up – Classic, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Infinity.
Aside from the eight junket rooms in operation at Ho Tram, there is also a higher limit room on the main gaming floor called The Pearl Room which is open to all, boasting eight commission baccarat tables, two blackjack tables and a roulette table. There are also two private gaming salons each with a baccarat table and four slot machines.
Most betting here is conducted in US dollars although some table game betting is in Hong Kong dollars.
One of the great pleasures of staying at The Grand is the wonderful accommodation. Beautifully presented with high end fittings and spectacular views out over the beach or the golf course, these rooms provide a wonderful oasis when you need to take a break and relax in your own private space – if, of course, you can resist the many other leisure activities that beckon each time you look out the window!
The Grand boasts a total of 541 rooms over 22 levels with the beach side of the hotel providing expansive ocean views out to the horizon. These rooms are as good as anything you would find at any of the famously luxurious Macau properties.
Those looking for a truly memorable experience might even consider a few nights in the 3,500 square-foot Presidential Suite. Like something out of a movie, it comes with its own massage room, treadmill room, office, entertainment area and dining room.
One of the most impressive aspects of The Grand, whether you are a guest or simply a visitor, is the incredibly friendly service. Staff, many of them sourced from the top 5-star hotels in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, are extremely well trained and will always stop to smile and say hello whenever someone walks past – something which can be sorely lacking in the integrated resorts of Macau and Manila.
In fact, it’s fair to say the staff here go above and beyond – as evidenced by an incident that occurred while I was waiting for a car to take me from the hotel to the golf course. The course is actually within very easy walking distance, no more than 100 metres or so, but staff insisted on driving me there and while I waited the security guard at the front wandered over, offered me a cool glass of water and enjoyed a friendly chat until my ride arrived. Where else can you find security guards of that caliber!
SUN, SAND AND SURF
Guests of The Grand can also access the hotel’s pool area which features two pools for swimming and a third for decoration. If the bright sunshine is a bit much, there are eight beautiful cabanas poolside to choose from as well as a bar and snack outlet named Bojangles – or if the ocean is more your style you can simply climb out of the pool or stand up from your deck chair, walk a few metres and voila … you’re on the beach!
The full ocean beach stretches more than 2km and with good surf – not just a few bucket loads of sand trucked in and dumped on top of a concrete slab.
The Grand Ho Tram Strip is a stunning property. Walk through the front doors via the main entrance and you’re greeted by a very large grand lobby highlighted by an impressive circular glass feature in the center. For those entering via the separate VIP entrance, expect 5-star personalized one-on-one service as you are whisked away to the VIP reception area.
Management has obviously thought long and hard about creating a service culture, with smiles everywhere and nothing too much trouble for any member of staff irrespective of their status in the hierarchy.
The fixtures and fittings are of the highest quality – again what you would expect from any 5-star international resort in Las Vegas or Macau – and the array of large paintings dotting the walls are all originals. You won’t find any prints here!
Designed by renowned casino architect Paul Steelman – whose firm is responsible for the likes of Sands Macao, City of Dreams and multiple Harrah’s properties across the United States – The Grand features super high ceilings and an earthy color scheme dominated by reds, blacks, golds, grays and browns.
There are also a lot of windows at The Grand Ho Tram Strip so pretty much wherever you walk on the property you can take in superb views over the beach or golf course.
The Bluffs, an 18-hole links style golf course designed by former world number one golfer Greg Norman, is without doubt The Grand’s pièce de résistance.
This stunning course hugs the Ho Tram coastline and features rolling green fairways which cut through towering sand dunes to provide a unique and spectacular golfing experience. I can also attest from first hand experience that those responsible for maintaining The Bluffs do a magnificent job. There isn’t a weed in sight and the fairways look more like greens, so perfectly manicured is the grass. Ho Tram’s climate is also perfect for the outdoors and my time in Vietnam was met by beautiful blue skies, a tiny smattering of fluffy white clouds, temperatures around 30 degrees and not a drop of rain.
Playing a round at The Bluffs is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. At a hefty 6,268 metres long, it’s a bit much to walk so players can make use of one of the 75 two-seater golf buggies on offer. And if the effort of hopping out of the buggy to take your shots proves a bit draining, you can also stop for a break at any of the three air-conditioned kiosks located around the course to refuel with a drink and a bite to eat. All of the caddies at The Bluffs are female and all of them locals, which makes for a very pleasant round!
Just as impressive as the course itself is The Bluffs clubhouse which, at three stories high, boasts a pro shop on the bottom level, board and conference rooms and a 110-seat restaurant called Infinity. The floor to ceiling windows look out over the course, the practice green and the ocean all the way to the horizon while inside the brand new tables, plush carpet and large screen TVs showing various golf tournaments from around the world make for the perfect environment to put your feet up after a tough round.
Back downstairs to the public locker room, you’ll find 143 separately numbered lockers and it’s a nice touch to see one of them done up with Greg Norman’s name on it as if this would be the locker he would use upon future visits to Ho Tram. Of course, I expect that he would use the VIP suite instead where the 5-star lockers are befitting of a full-scale international golf tournament.
As it happens, The Grand has recently confirmed they will host a major Asian Tour event in late 2015 with around 130 PGA professionals taking part.
FOOD AND BEVERAGE
The Grand has nine food outlets on site with most located at the center of the property and 8 Dragons on the main gaming floor. They include fine dining Cantonese restaurant Jù Băo Xuān, the French-inspired Brasserie, casual café Cà Phê Le Monde, Bojangles by the poolside and Ginger, which provides both buffet and a la carte options for breakfast and authentic Vietnamese cuisine during the afternoon and evening. There is also Infinity restaurant at The Bluffs golf course and the recently opened La Crêperie which is a great place to grab a sweet or savory crêpe in the afternoon.
Ginger is located below the lobby level and, for those who enjoy a massage or treatment before they eat, can be accessed from The Spa down a sweeping circular staircase.
Brasserie is an intriguing place to eat with its delicately tiled floors and snooker table! Although it is unmistakably French in flavor, the highlight of my dining experience here was a magnificent Australian Wagyu steak which was cooked to perfection.
Jù Băo Xuān is the property’s flagship restaurant. Tastefully decorated in Chinese red, the ambience is delicious – as is the food!
Cà Phê Le Monde, as the name suggests, is another French inspired venue – very open with small round tables set al fresco style out to the lobby. This French influence comes as no surprise. The French controlled Vietnam from 1858 to 1954, and to this day that period remains evident through architecture, language and food.
Inside the main gaming area itself, 8 Dragons provides a great quick eats option for players, while there is also a largely Asian-inspired food court, Nam Nam Express, open from 11:00 to 23:00 daily.
The Spa at The Grand Ho Tram Strip is simply called The Spa, and while the name might not be particularly imaginative it offers everything you could ask from a 5-star spa. Walk in and you immediately feel at ease in the peaceful and relaxing environment, with water running down the frosted glass wall and gentle music piping throughout.
There are 12 treatment rooms available – 10 singles and two doubles each with views out over the beach – and treatments include a range of massages, body wraps, body scrubs and facials. Prices are quite reasonable with 60-minute treatments generally around US$60 and 150-minute treatments for as little as US$100. The spa is open from 09:00 to 23:00 daily.
The Grand also features an impressive gymnasium which is open 24 hours to guests.
BANQUETS AND MICE
The Grand do events very well and there are a range of options available for hire, be it for a small and intimate function to something much, much bigger. In fact, the Grand Ballroom has capacity for up to 1,500 standing guests!
Aside from the Grand Ballroom, The Grand boasts four smaller rooms – Ballrooms A, B, C and D – which can be hired individually or two combined such as A and B or B and C together. The Grand Ballroom covers 1,250 square meters and the small rooms either 280 or 320 square meters each depending on the room.
There are also five pre-function spaces to go with the Ballrooms, ranging from 52 to 100 square meters in size.
The Grand recently held a sit down dinner for 650 VIP guests to celebrate the opening of The Bluffs, with course designer Greg Norman not only in attendance but quick to praise the function’s quality and level of service.
Although there is talk of a new airport being built in Long Thanh, less than an hour away by car, the closest airport at present is in Ho Chi Minh City. The drive to Ho Tram was previously a brutal four-plus hours but that has all changed with the opening of a new highway last year and an increased speed limit reducing the travel time to a comfortable two hours. If traffic is bad it may take 20 minutes longer but by the same token lead-footed drivers have been known to do the Ho Chi Minh City to Ho Tram run in 90 minutes.
If you’re lucky enough to enjoy the ride in one of The Grand’s VIP Sprinters you’ll enjoy an experience somewhat similar to an airline first class cabin with a large flat screen TV, wi-fi, USB hubs and even a telephone to call the driver on the other side of the partition. These VIP Sprinters carry six people in style with their air-conditioned comfort and leather seats. It’s also a very scenic drive taking in the vibrant, modern Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese countryside and beach views as you near Ho Tram.
Flights to Vietnam from other major Asian cities are frequent. From Hong Kong there are either three or four flights per day, depending on the day of the week, via Vietnam Airlines, Cathay Pacific and United with the flight time coming in at around two hours and 40 minutes.
Flights from Guangzhou run up to four times per day flying China Southern or Vietnam Airlines, flights from Shanghai run either once or twice per day via Vietnam Airlines and China Eastern Airlines and from Beijing there are four flights per week via Air China.
There are 16 countries that are visa free to enter Vietnam for periods ranging from 14 to 30 days. They are Brunei, Cambodia, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Norway, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Sweden and Thailand. For those requiring a visa, The Grand can help arrange this with a minimum of fuss although several days notice of travel is required.