The Shifting Sands of Vietnam

The Shifting Sands of Vietnam

MUI NE, VIETNAM – I shade my eyes from the early morning sun and try to drown out the banter of the excited young foreign backpackers gathered outside Saigon’s main bus station on De Tham St.

I push open the dirty glass door at the entrance of the station and head toward a ticket kiosk where I ask the agent for return fare to Mui Ne, the lovely beach town in BinhThuam province — located 200 kilometres north of Saigon.

It’s not the first time my girlfriend and I have made the four hour journey to what was once Vietnam’s best kept secret. Judging by the long line waiting for the bus, though, it becomes obvious to us that Mui Ne is no longer ‘our’ exclusive secret hideaway.

Mui Ne was, until recently, a quiet fishing village — a suburb of neighbouring Phan Thiet but then tourists from Saigon discovered MuiNe’s warm beaches and the tourists quickly followed.

Mui Ne is now a regular stop on the omnipresent bus route between Saigon and Hanoi — a place where penny-pinching backpackers find cheap accommodation and well-priced meals.

But like everything else in Vietnam, Mui Ne is rapidly changing — plush seaside resorts and manicured golf courses are quickly taking over the backpacking town.

We pile onto the bus along with the backpackers and Bao, the driver, expertly navigates Saigon’s motor scooter-clogged streets leading away from the bus station in search of Hwy. 1, Vietnam’s main transportation artery.

The swaying of the bus quickly lulls me to sleep but a sharp right turn into the obligatory gas station/restaurant/bathroom stop a few hours into our journey jolts me awake. These are routine stops in Vietnam — places where you can stretch your legs and buy fresh fruit or cold beverages from a bevy of sellers who man them for just pennies.

“Chao Anh, (you buy, you buy from me),” shouts a lovely lady wearing a traditional non la (conical hat). She is holding a woven tray overflowing with a colourful abundance of fruit — rambutans, lychees, dragon fruit, bananas, pineapple and Oreo cookies.

After handing her a few thousand dong — the local currency which amounts to just a few Canadian dollars — and exchanging a few high 5s with the local kids, we pile back onto the bus for the second and more scenic leg of the journey.

Small villages flash past as I chomp on my Oreos and fruit. School children riding bikes wave and the odd water buffalo gives the bus a menacing glare.

This is rural Vietnam at its best.

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Above: Time seems to stand still in Mui Ne, where the town drifts off into the sea.


As Bao turns the bus off chaotic Hwy. 1 and we get our first glimpse of the turquoise water that laps Mui Ne’s white sandy shores, the passengers let out a joyful gasp in unison.

We’ve arrived in Vietnam’s version of paradise — but this is not the Mui Ne we remember from earlier visits. The place where once we had to take a motorbike taxi 15 minutes into Phan Thiet to buy swimming trucks is now teeming with surf shops, bars, restaurants and modern hotels gathered along a resort strip that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida.

The world has discovered our secret hideaway!

Although Mui Ne is much busier now, examples of its quaint charm still exist — the remarkable golden sand dunes located just outside town; the French-designed Ke Ga lighthouse; its colouful fish market; and eclectic neighbourhoods quickly make us realize the long drive from Saigon is still well worth the effort.

After checking into the Mia Resort — formerly the Sailing Club Resort — and being welcomed with cold towels, we quickly unpack and head straight to the beach and settle in for a relaxing holiday.

Even though the old Sailing Club we stayed at on previous visits has been transformed into a modern resort, the staff remains attentive and courteous, quick to respond to our every need. Hospitality in Vietnam exceeds the norm no matter what category of resort you stay at.

Now in full holiday mode, we search out beach activities. The surf shops have plenty to choose from — kite-boarding, kite and wind-surfing — and they’ll even organize motor scooter rentals and excursions.

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Above: Mui Ne's beaches are among the best in the world and locals like to sell to the tourists.


Bars are open late and there are plenty of affordable dining options along the South China Sea strip.

The motor scooters are perfect for exploring the sand dunes, which glow at sunset, or the neighbouring fishing villages where locals always have a smile for a visitor.

We jump aboard our little scooters and head for the market where we are greeted by rows and rows of drying fish.

We make small talk with the villagers and fish mongers and one man steps forward to introduce himself as a fellow Canadian — he’s returned to his native Vietnam from Hamilton to visit family and friends. It’s much more common for Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) to return home now that the country’s communist regime has adopted a more open policy.

After purchasing a coconut and climbing to the top of a nearby sand dune to enjoy the breathtaking view, two young local girls — one 7 years old and the other 11 — approach and ask the obligatory: “Where you from?”

The delightful youngsters are trying to make a few extra dong by offering the stranger a ride on their sand board.

I respectfully decline but the girls persist.

During the conversation that follows, the youngsters tell me they do not attend school and try to help their poor families by offering thrill rides to tourists.

There are many other young boys and girls doing the same along the sand dunes in this desperately poor region of Vietnam.

Finally, I give in — who can resist such sweet faces?

My first attempt on the board ends with me face down in the sand.

Who knew riding a sand board would be so difficult?

The girls are doubled over laughing at my clumsy attempt.

“Try again?” the youngest girl shouts.

Fearing another failed attempt may result in me doing some serious damage to my body, I decide it’s time to go. I brush the sand off me, jump aboard the motor scooter, bid the girls farewell, and head back to the resort.

Much has changed in Mui Ne since our first visit — but much remains the same.

Which is why, no matter how popular Mui Ne becomes, it will always hold a special place for those who discovered its secrets many years ago.

 

Information
- Mui Ne is approximately a 4 hour drive from Saigon.
- The best time to visit is during the dry season (October to May)
- Mui Ne is often synonymous with Phan Thiet, it’s larger neighbouring town.
- Mui Ne is Vietnam’s premier destination for kite boarding & windsurfing.
- Check out the Ocean Dunes Golf Club in Mui Ne - it’s designed by former Masters’ champion Nick Faldo.
- Tour East Holidays offers a full range of tour packages to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. To find out more about Vietnam, go to www.toureast.com

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