“Welcome to Lamarck University,” a hotel staff and our guide greeted us as I stepped into the lobby of JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. University? Isn’t this a hotel, or more specifically, a five-star resort? Before I could ask any further, she continued. “Our university was founded in 1894 by the French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. The current dean, Ty Collins’ great, great, great, great- grandfather used to be the dean here, back in those days.”
We are standing in the lobby of a hotel on the island of Phu Quoc (pronounced “foo wok”), which lies just off Vietnam’s southwestern tip.
This is the apparent backstory to the place: this “university” is a cluster of Hoi An-style architecture that started out as a boys’s school for European immigrants to the area. When the first and second wars descended, these families fled and left all their belongings behind. Artefacts from the library, tennis team, rugby teams have all been preserved and now sit proudly on display, in glass cabinets.
As the in-depth historical run-down wrapped up, our guide said, “That’s why Bill Bensley is so amazing. I sometimes wonder how he even thinks [up] of things like that.” That one sentence made me realise that the “history” she had just shared was all made-up by one man — American-born, Bangkok- based architect Bill Bensley. There were no immigrants, no scientists, and no universities.
Bensley is the brain behind the entire concept for the resort — from its fabricated history to the architecture and interior design. He was engaged by Sun Group, one of Vietnam’s most prominent real estate developers, to develop this luxury resort located along the Bai Khem Bay on Phu Quoc island. “This hotel was built on a blank cheque,” shared our guide.
The 59-year-old architect said in an email interview with T Singapore, that he first set foot on the site “some six or seven years ago.” Back then, the very site housed a small fishing village, which has since been relocated. The vast tropical land, lined by a strip of pristine white beach, overlooks the sparkling emerald-green waters of the ocean. It was the perfect canvas for Bensley, to translate his design ideas into a physical structure that encompasses his passion for learning. “My university years were some of the happiest years and the people I met [then] definitely influenced my career,” said the Harvard alumni.
Bensley’s affinity with architecture started way back in high school when he dialled a wrong phone number. “I was in charge of the Career Studies Program. I was phoning up the Anaheim Police Department but I dialled the wrong number. Instead, I got a landscape architect company,” recalled Bensley. “I didn’t even know what a landscape architect was but I told the guy over the phone, ‘Oh, you are an architect. That’s cool. Can you visit my high school?’” The architect did and thereafter, Bensley enrolled himself into the landscape architectural programme at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Bensley’s decision to build the new JW Marriott resort in the likeness of a university appears to be personal and autobiographical. Some of my casual chats with the hotel’s staff revealed that even after the property’s official opening early last year, Bensley has repeatedly returned with new decorative pieces or furniture, and has even refurbished some of the hotel’s facilities and accommodation wings. “This hotel is like his baby,” shared another hotel staff.
The hotel’s 244 rooms are divided into 11 room types, ranging from standard rooms facing the Emerald Bay, suites, villas and penthouses. When a guest checks in at the concierge, he is dubbed a freshman and receives a hotel room number and key which, too, designates him (Hogwarts-style) to a corresponding “faculty”. A female traveller (who had a phobia about reptilian creatures) had checked into the hotel and was assigned — you guessed it — to a private villa designated for the study of reptiles. There were dozens of illustrations of the evolution of reptiles hanging on the walls, as well as literature and sculptures dotted around the room. Suffice to say she vehemently refused to step in to the room was promptly reassigned to another “faculty”.
Yet, beyond the whimsical academia references and commissioned illustrations that are dotted throughout the resort, Bensley made sure to honour the local Hoi An architectural vernacular in every hotel room — a style which “reflects a unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, and Western influences”, he shared, that the Vietnamese has picked up over the course of their history — a French bathtub sits by a Chinese-styled mirror framed in decorative teak wood and red tassels. Likewise, a wooden oriental-style wardrobe houses a nón lá, a Vietnamese conical straw hat, within it.
There are three pools shared by all guests while selected suites and all villas come with private pool. The spa’s design is inspired by mushrooms, and ballrooms and meetings rooms, five food and beverage establishments — the latest is a decadent 1920s-themed French restaurant called Pink Pearl, which opened late last October — complete the resort.
The Pink Pearl is reportedly the brainchild of a fictitious Madame Pearl Collins, the wife of the fictitious Lamarck University’s dean, a woman who enjoyed the social gatherings of the ’20s. The three-storey restaurant faces the sea — the ground floor houses the dining area where a female opera singer, a pianist and a violinist perform at dinner, the basement is a wine cellar where guests can dine in privacy, and there are several private dining rooms on the upper floor. All the furnishings in these rooms (most of them are decorated in various shades of pink) and other design elements in the hotel — floor tiles, wall mosaics, chairs, and lamps — were custom made in Vietnam and other European cities, and shipped to Phu Quoc by sea.
This project is indeed an impressive architectural and design feat. The accompanying luxurious service and facilities are impeccable too. Yet, it does get a little contrived at times when a staff addresses you as a “student” or insists that this fictitious university is true.
Why go to such lengths to “invent” history and an entire university?
“I think it’s paramount that everything we do is totally unique in this
very competitive world of hotel and resort design,” said Bensley. “The design of hotels and resorts is akin to making movies. One has to write the script, design the scenery and the props, assemble the cast and design their wardrobes.” And that was exactly what Bensley did — build a hotel and write its history. It calls to mind a quote, reportedly by Napoleon Bonparte: “What is history but a fable agreed upon.”
Subscribe to our newsletter