“Sand lines my soul which is filled with the breath of the ocean."
The equivalent of sixteen dollars bought each of us a bus ticket from Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) to the beach resort of Mui Ne, a four and a half hour trip up the Vietnamese coast. The driver instructed each person to remove shoes and provided plastic bags for us to store them for the journey. Assigned seats were reclining beds so we stretched out and had a relaxing exit through the frenetic city traffic.
The scenery changed as we headed north, from urban streets packed with motorcycle traffic and suburban towns with flower-filled rotaries to rural areas where we began to see the first bits of elevation in the form of small peaks along the coast and in the distance to the west. The China Sea came into view as we entered Phan Thiet, a coastal area made up of about thirty miles of towns (or wards) that have been transformed into a resort destination. We followed the beach road further north to the ward of Mui Ne with more than a hundred beach hotels, as well as restaurants, bars, shops and cafes.
Our hotel was a pleasant surprise. The bargain price of 700,000 Dong (about thirty-eight dollars a night) had made us wary, despite the photos we had seen at the agent’s office in Ho Chi Minh City, so we booked only two nights in advance in case we didn’t like it. However, the hotel had tropical gardens, a large pool area that led to the sand and rooms with nice amenities and balconies. Paradise! After a swim, we arranged to extend our stay to five days.
On our second day there, during one of our walks through town, we came upon a local company advertising a private Jeep tour of some of the natural wonders of the area. The price was reasonable and it sounded intriguing so we booked an afternoon tour for the next day.
We woke to sunshine and blue skies and by afternoon it was hot, so the Jeep’s first stop was a welcome relief. We drove to a soft, red creek known as the Fairy Stream (Suoi Tien). It is colored by the clay and limestone particles that filter in from the multi-colored rock formations at its shores. We got out, took off our shoes and walked upstream on the soft red dirt bottom. It was no more than knee-deep at its highest spots and felt pleasant and cool in the intense heat. Winding its way through bamboo forests, boulders, and the dunes behind Mui Ne, the whimsically-named stream soon opened up to a natural fairyland—a high-walled canyon of orange, white and yellow sand formations on the banks of the stream. (Water flows into the cliffs and erodes the sand blocks to create strange ever-changing shapes that ignite the imagination.) It was otherworldly and beautiful and led us to a waterfall.
After wading back downstream and returning to the Jeep, our driver took us into the center of Mui Ne’s fishing village. Fishing is at the heart of Vietnamese culture and many communities rely on it to provide income and food for their families. Offshore were many vessels in the elongated traditional wooden boat design used for deep-sea fishing. Closer to shore, the port was busy with the movement of round woven tubs, the traditional basket boats of Vietnam they call Thuyen Thung. These coracles are native to Wales but have been used in Vietnam for centuries.Some fishermen were using them as dinghies to paddle out to the wooden boats anchored offshore and carrying cargo to and from the larger vessels. Others were fishing directly from them with their nets. (It’s said that during the French Colonial Era, when a new tax on owning a boat was introduced, they were also a means of evading the tax. The fishermen argued they were not taxable because they were not boats at all, but baskets and they were successful.)
After some time spent wandering the waterfront looking at workers sorting and preparing the catches for sale, we boarded the Jeep again to see Mui Ne’s famous and enormous red and white sand dunes. We drove to the white dunes (doi cat trang) first, about 15 miles north of town. This took us past some stunning coastal scenery. At the dunes, I rented a hand-made plastic sled from a young boy and hiked up into the hilly desert dunes. I coasted down several times. It was fun but very hot in the baking sun so we headed to the tree-shaded area at the bottom, got some cold drinks and set out in the Jeep again.
Next stop were the red sand dunes (doi hong) where we hiked to the top and watched the sunset. We experienced a Sahara-like remoteness far away from the built-up resort areas but it was not a solitary experience; the ridge was filled with people observing the fiery climax of the day. We hiked back down as the evening cooled.
On the ride back to the hotel, I noticed a metal plaque on the dashboard of the Jeep. It read “Property of the U.S. Army.” I wondered how it came into the Vietnamese owner’s hands. I later learned that when the U.S. evacuated from Saigon, it left behind lots of military vehicles and equipment, including not only Jeeps but also aircraft. U.S. planes still litter the field at Tan Sun Nhat airport.
Have you been somewhere on holiday and seen remnants of war?