I glance to the right side of the road where the sun glitters off the South China Sea (Biển Đông or East Sea in Vietnam) and a line of small fishing boats like soup bowls strung together bobs in the distance. But a look left distracts me – a dangerous thing on a motorbike in Vietnam. I roll to a stop in the sandy shoulder as traffic goes honking past. Sand dunes rise away from the road, rippled like a puddle in a gust of wind, and colored a deep red as if transported from Mars. A four-hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City brought me a world away from the Vietnam of history textbooks and worn-out war movies. Farther along the coast the dunes fade suddenly to white and yellow interrupted here and there by unlikely green spaces – even some mangroves – and a few titanium mining operations. Tucked between desert-like dunes and the sea, Mui Ne and the coastline of its province of Binh Thuan go from “laidback” to “meditative” the deeper one explores.
Throughout human history celestial events have been seen as harbingers of big things to come. In the case of Mui Ne it was a solar eclipse and the matter of note was the birth of area tourism. On October 24, 1995, thousands came to the beach leading up to this southeastern fishing village. Travelers looked up for the eclipse and but what lay beneath their feet didn’t go unnoticed. Light-colored sand and sizzling surf stretch for kilometers in either direction. Fourteen years later what started as a small oasis for backpackers along this road between the provincial seat Phan Thiet and the village of Mui Ne has grown into a 10-kilometer tourist strip, with hotels, resorts and guesthouses on the beach side, and restaurants, souvenir shops and even some high-end jewelry dealers opposite. No buildings rise much higher than the coconut palms interspersed between them so despite development something quaint remains about the place. The laidback backpacker vibe still dominates even as families with children, moneyed professionals and adventure travelers stroll along the strip at dinner time.
I decide to do Mui Ne in style and check into a smart bungalow at the four-star Blue Ocean Resort, a spacious property set at the edge of the beach and one of a few places that has a swimming pool. In the shade of a thatch umbrella I watch the waves break on the beach which runs from east to west, ideal for both sunrise and sunset. The beach is clean and not a hawker is in sight.
Mui Ne’s proximity to Ho Chi Minh City is noteworthy, but what makes it ideal for a beach vacation is its microclimate. Being in the tropical south brings the perfect temperatures of course, and while the north often takes some daily rain during the monsoon season from May to as late as November, the combination of trade winds and rising dry heat off the dunes keep Mui Ne in sunshine even through most of June and July. The nearly constant winds, in fact, fuel two of Mui Ne’s most popular recreation activities: windsurfing and kiteboarding. From where I sit I can see WindChimes next door, one of over 20 area wind-sport schools and outfitters. Out in the undulating blue and turquoise, kiteboarders crisscross with each other and the occasional fishing vessel while the outfitter’s “beach boys” (and girls) await them on the sand to assist with the kites when they return to shore. WindChimes gets as many CEOs as backpackers these days.
Those same waves stock the local menus. Mui Ne’s abundant seafood originates a stone’s throw from where it is being cooked at sidewalk grills or mom and pop restaurants. But contrast these eateries with the upscale sushi bar Snow and its glass-block bar backlit blue and air-conditioned seating and it seems Mui Ne is picking up a bit of chic. The uber-hip Sankara welcomes guests with torches and reflecting pools into an open-air lounge with sexy lighting and cabana-style cushioned sitting areas. Its two bars, lit up red, serve pricey cocktails as moody club music sets the tone. Not my thing this week. I ride down the road until I see a smoking grill propped up on the back of a lifeguard’s rescue board next to a scattering of tables and a tilting shack with a piece of corrugated tin for a roof. Fresh sea critters wiggle around in a couple of buckets of water and an old aquarium all hooked up with a slim bubbling air hose, the seafood equivalent of an IV. The road is five feet from where I sit, while the beach is another 15 feet the other direction. No shade, no music, no uber-anything — just the sound of the surf and the taste of its bounty.
See more photos of local life on my Mui Ne blog post
Despite the tourists and the increased prices that come with them, local life carries on much as it was. Travelers refer to the entire strip as Mui Ne but in fact that is the name of an active fishing village. Colorful boats fill the harbor and bowl-shaped reed boats are turned over in the sand. The next day I take the motorbike down a rock-strewn street to the water where the men and women of the village inspect their nets and hack some more reeds to repair their boats. Back out on the main street, a woman navigates an old wooden cart pulled by two oxen. An impatient bus driver gives a blast of his horn but she doesn’t seem to notice or care. As I pass, children on the way home from school shout in unison as though rehearsed that morning, “Hellooooo!”
I follow the highway north of Mui Ne forgetting to sunscreen my hands and burning them almost purple for the next few days. It’s desert. Rising dunes, first red, then later yellow to white. What look like shifty industrial operations appear from time to time, pumping water up from the sea and filling dark pools dug into the dunes. It all looks slightly unprofessional and haphazard, like it’s being done on the sly, and I feel compelled to pretend not to notice for some reason and only look at them with sidelong glances. Alien and out of place I can’t imagine what’s going on here. Only by chance do I hear a Vietnamese staff person say a word that sounds vaguely like “titanium.” An internet search later turns up pictures of the machinery I was seeing. Vietnam is one of the richest sources of the valuable metal.
The next day, I leave Mui Ne to sample another side of Binh Thuan. About a half an hour south of Phan Thiet after passing through more dunes and brush, my taxi rounds a bend in the road and we are suddenly surrounded by dragon fruit farms and rice paddies at the entrance to Princess d’Annam Resort and Spa. One of Vietnam’s latest luxury resorts, the Princess shares a curving sandy bay with just a tiny fishing village. The property’s eight acres show a lush central ginger garden, reflecting pools, and a collection of villas that guests apparently have trouble getting out of. Despite the area attractions – the 1897 French-built lighthouse on Ka Ge Island just 300 meters offshore, Takou Mountain and its enormous reclining Buddha, sailing and windsurfing right in front of the resort – guests are choosing to simply sit and enjoy a bit of pampering in a truly luxurious environment.
This took the resort’s general manager Jean-Philippe Beghin by surprise. “We were so paranoid about providing enough activities, but it turns out clients just want to take it easy.” Vietnam has long been a touring destination with travelers hitting all the highs across the country in a week or two. The Princess d’Annam takes the Mui Ne beach destination concept and adds five stars of meditative bliss. Touring has its challenges like anywhere – language barriers, the constant travel and changing of hotels. Many of the travelers who arrive at Princess d’Annam are looking for “a breathing space before they go out.” A two-story luxury spa overlooking the sea, a gourmet chef in the kitchen, and a wine list topping 100 vintages help make a very nice space indeed.
I’m there for work – run to all the sights, take photos, take notes, interview people, sleep, wake, repeat – and as soon as I step onto the gleaming marble walkway into the lobby I don’t want to do a damn thing. I want to be horizontal poolside with a drink and a book. I could stare for hours at the bobbing blue fishing boats and their flags snapping in the breeze and the lighthouse high up on its rocky perch painted in soft colors by the intervening haze. The staff offers to take me out for a quick sail before I have to leave to catch my train back in Phan Thiet but though I love being on the water, I almost decline for just a few more moments of chilling out. Instead I climb on, bob around the bay, and get soaked through to my wallet (fortunately I didn’t have my cell phone or camera along). The young man – one of 200 employees at the resort, all locals in an otherwise underemployed area – is quite skilled and maneuvers the little catamaran in and out of the fishing boats. The men shout to me and I ask him what they say. He says they are inviting me aboard to eat and drink with them. It doesn’t sound that gregarious, but what do I know?
Back ashore I change quickly for the ride back to the station and reluctantly I head back for Saigon. Binh Thuan is on the travel radar now, adding its own version of the Vietnamese experience as Mui Ne and Ka Ge have changed “going there” to “being there.” While somewhere in Hue or Danang tourists board another bus for the next attraction, guests at the Princess gather quietly at the seaside terrace to sip wine and watch the sun set over the dunes at the end of the bay.
See epikoo for a good windsurfing forum and resource