I went to Mui Ne (M-oo-e Nay) on my first visit to Vietnam in 2006. Back then it was, as it is today, a bolt-hole for the Saigonese, and had been added to the foreign tourist destinations a few years earlier. Tourists started coming here in the mid-1990s to see a solar eclipse albeit, thanks to certain guidebooks, by mistake, and wound up at the beach at Phan Thiet, which in their ignorance, they called Mui Ne. These days nearby Rang Beach is also referred to mistakenly as Mui Ne, so it’s becomes quite confusing. It probably doesn’t matter in the scheme of things as the bus drivers know where you want to go, and even if you’re heading somewhere else you’ll get dropped there anyway to be thrown at the mercies of the local transport operators. Hopefully these aren’t like Ha Noi taxi drivers – never ones to let where you want to go get in the way of where they want to take you.
Mui Ne’s population is small, just 25,000, and the town is officially a ward of Phan Thiet, capital of Bình Thuận Province. The whole province is a geographic paradox. It has lakes, forests and rivers, peaks up to 1500m, beaches and coral reefs. It’s also one of the most arid areas in Vietnam yet one-third of the land is given over to rice cultivation.
Phan Thiet was named for Hamu Lithit in the Cham language. Bình Thuận was part of the principality of Panduranga in the Champa Empire. The Chams once populated a series of independent principalities in central and southern Vietnam, which today is generally referred to as the ‘South Central Coast’. Bình Thuận and the neighbouring Ninh Thuận Province survived the fall of the city-state of Vijaya, capital of the Champa Empire on the Côn River, to the Vietnamese in 1471. The more northerly Ninh Thuận Province survived as an independent state until annexation by the Vietnamese in 1832, whereas Bình Thuận and Mui Ne succumbed much earlier.
The Champa Empire once dominated maritime Southeast Asia. They became exposed to Sunni Islam through Mallacca in present day Malaysia and from there, onward trade with India. Their architecture is distinctive utilising flat brick rather than sandstone block, the ruins of which can be seen today in central Vietnam especially in Nha Trang and at My Son, the latter taking 1000 years to build. Despite the best efforts of the US air force, much of it still stands.
Between the rise of the Khmer Empire to the west and the southern push of the Vietnamese people who were themselves pushed by the Chinese, the Chams were squeezed out. Outnumbered on the battlefield many fled to modern-day Cambodia and the rest were reduced to a small enclave around Nha Trang. By fleeing Vietnam to Cambodia, they sought refuge from genocide and enslavement at the hands of the Vietnamese, but later suffered much the same fate at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Today they are a small but significant minority across the border in Cambodia, where they can be seen in distinctive headgear and live in communities dominated by the mosque, rather than by the pagoda.
The beach at Mui Ne stretches for several kilometres with bungalows and restaurants strung along both sides of the only road. The area enjoys a micro climate of low rainfall, even during the wet season. The town is famous for its sand dunes, well two huge ones anyway, one red and the other white, where the preferred recreation is sand-sledding. At Christmas, the town attracts northern Europeans; particularly Scandinavians, and sometimes Russians, escaping the harsh winter back home.
Persistent onshore breezes make Mui Ne a magnet for water sports, namely windsurfing and kite surfing, and for those not afraid of heights and winds, hot air ballooning. Mui Ne translates to ‘Shelter Cove’ because for ages local fishers have used the coast to shelter from the strong winds. The local fishing is good; mainly shrimp, squid and tuna to be found at the nearby islands.
When I visited in May, it was off-season. The restaurants were mainly empty, and the bars quiet. These days it’s busy at weekends. The children of the elite; the political and commercial or both, drive the 200kms due east from HCMC in European sports cars to compare notes. Vietnam is a one-party socialist state that has fully embraced the free market. Vung Tau to the south is another bolthole but much larger, is not as renown for water sports, gets less of the backpacker crowd, and attracts its own semi-permanent expat crowd; Aussie vets and Russian oil workers.
Mui Ne is a laid-back relief from the hectic claustrophobia of HCMC. I like HCMC; the street life, the architecture, the food, the history; but you can see why people want to get away from Vietnam’s largest city. Motorcyclists it’s been said ‘swarm like locusts’. It’s said the city is plagued with them. You get your lungs full of the local carbon monoxide all day long. It’s a motorised cacophony. You cannot hear yourself think. There’s a motorbike for every single person living in the city, a population of over 8 million, with another 1000 motorbikes added every day. Personally, I find them entertaining. Countries where motorised travel is dominated by two-wheels are generally far more interesting than those where people drive around on four-wheels, which I can see at home.
That said, I can only absorb HCMC’s intensity for just a few days. What better place to go than Mui Ne. I’d heard it was tranquil, and on the long journey north to Nha Trang, the “Riviera of the South China Sea”, and beyond. Just north is the wonderful sounding Cam Ranh Bay, and considered the finest deepwater shelter in Southeast Asia. The bay was a naval facility once used by the French, then by the Americans (also as an air base) and later, by the former Soviet Union and now, by none of these. It was also the staging area for the Imperial Russian fleet before the Battle of Tsushima with Japan, the first ever defeat of a European power by an Asian country. The Vietnamese meanwhile have outlasted them all.
Mui Ne I knew was on the coast, in a country that’s one long beach. In the Mekong countries of Southeast Asia, those of the former French Indochina: Vietnam was first in line for beach frontage, Laos got none, and Cambodia just a sliver. A geographical reality mirrored by the economic and military pecking order.
To get to Mui Ne I took the bus, courtesy of the Hanh Café–that’s the name of the bus company, though they also have hotels and restaurants. Like bus travel in Southeast Asia, the leaving time is sometimes not the time the bus leaves. Rather a vehicle, usually a minivan, arrive and takes you on a tour of local hotels, where other passengers who didn’t get to the bus terminal are picked up. And you get to go around and around, sometimes for an hour.
Finally, we were on the highway out of HCMC. At the on ramp to one section of motorway, traffic slowed to a crawl and stopped. Eventually we moved slowly passed the scene of an accident, someone on a motor scooter had come off and the bike, a write-off, was being hauled onto alternative transport.
“They reckon there are 15 people killed in this city every day on bikes”, said the guy sitting next to me. “Really?” “Yep, I’d believe it to.” My fellow passenger on, what turned out to be a rather empty bus, was Rob from south Brisbane. Retired, he reckoned he couldn’t afford to live in Australia on the pension and spent much of his time in Vietnam. “Well, my last wife divorced me and cleaned me out, so I get the pension into my account every fortnight and I just go to the machine here and collect it. I spend most of my time in Nha Trang.”
This time around, after spending three or four weeks in Nha Trang he was heading north to Ha Noi and then crossing into Laos from near Dien Bien Phu. From there it was across country to the Mekong and down (well, upstream) to Thailand. “I have to do these things now, I can feel myself slowing down.” If Cam Ranh Bay once acknowledged the French military presence in Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu, (read ‘Hell in a Very Small Place” by Bernard Fall) was the 56-day battle where Genreal Giap established his reputation and that saw the end of French colonial rule in 1954.
Last time around he’d gotten sick in Vietnam. “I was really ill with a fever and musculature paralysis. I went to hospital in Nga Trang but no one knew what was wrong with me. They put me in a room with a pregnant woman. Every night her family would come in with a primus stove and prepare her food. They were even looking after me. Eventually they packed me into an old Russian ambulance and drove me to the SOS hospital in Saigon. There they did some tests and after two hours the doctor was back, the Chief of Staff actually, a Dane. He was smoking a cigar, in a hospital I couldn’t believe it! He asked do you want the good news or the bad new? I said give me the good news. ‘Well, we know what’s wrong with you, you’ve got dengue fever. The bad news is we charge US$1300 per night, how many nights can you afford?’ I said one, this one, so they put me up down the road in a $10 a-night hotel and treated me as an outpatient.”
He said if you ever get sick in Vietnam “the best thing you can do is get yourself off to Bangkok or Hong Kong as fast as possible.” The fact Cambodians come to Vietnam for treatment puts their health services into some kind of perspective.
Mui Ne has its tourist features. There is a reclining Buddha, the largest in Vietnam, 49m long which took 3 years to build, and heaps of water activities as the beach has a fair surf. Transport along the beach and to the dunes is providing by motorbikes or four-wheel drives. Ex-military vehicles abound, both US and Soviet. I saw an immaculate US Army jeep, the kind that turn up around these parts, complete with army issue entrenching tools still attached to the exterior panels. These days the roads can resound to high-performance sports cars, and the sand dunes to yet more trail and quad bikes.
I rented a clapped-out mountain bike and rode down the several kilometres into Mui Ne itself, the next town down the way. With the constant onshore wind, natural air-conditioning, you can get sunburnt quickly. The town then was non-descript, dirty and reeked of the main industry, fishing. Woven baskets full of tiny fish were laid out along the beach in the morning sun drying. With the on-shore breeze, the smell was over whelming. That night while out hunting dinner I walked into a large concrete drain cover, the streets being dark, lighting seemingly not a priority, so that put paid to any swimming for a few days.
Ten kilometres north of Mui Ne on the road to Nha Trang, is the largest sand dune I’ve ever seen. Partially covered in scrub it looked about 200m high about 1km long. All along the coast the sand has encroached on the land, the soil where visible is a reddish colour. We traveled through farming country dotted with small towns on a good road largely deserted. Boys tendered herds of goats on the road side and the countryside consisted of rolling agriculture that reminded me of the Greece or southern Europe I’d seen rather than what I’d expect in tropical Southeast Asia.
Mui Ne has aconstant turnover. The open tour buses cruise the main drag picking up and off-loading passengers heading both north and south. People arrive and depart daily. It’s easy to get somewhere else or back to where you came from. Mui Ne is a great getaway on the road to somewhere else, and you can always come back if you want to.