HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Sands of Mui Ne

The day after we went canyoning we took an early bus to Mui Ne, which was pretty much the only place in Vietnam popular with tourists that I hadn't been to yet. A small beach town about five hours northeast of Saigon, Mui Ne is a popular weekend getaway, but somehow I had managed to never make it up there. Taking a bus from Da Lat, though, isn't very common, and we soon discovered why: the road between the two is ghastly, at least for the first hour. Enormous potholes nearly swallowed the bus, and at times there was just dirt or gravel instead of pavement. As we crawled over bone-rattling craters and bumps we wondered just how long this torture was going to last.

Eventually, though, the road improved and followed a pass through the mountains that provided epic views towards the coast; in fact we could even see the ocean at certain points, though we were still a few hours away from it. After around three hours of descending down hairpin turns and switchbacks we finally exited the highlands and stopped at a run-down 'rest stop' to use the bathroom. We were greeted by the saddest menagerie of animals I've ever seen: multiple filthy dogs, one with a limp and another with a cut on its face; two brand-new puppies that were barely mobile; and two scrawny cats that looked like they hadn't eaten since being born.

After nourishing this sad crew with some crackers we piled back into the bus for the final leg to Mui Ne. Once we checked into our hotel (optimistically called a 'resort'), we ate lunch and rented motos. While talking with the guy who rented out bikes, something that annoys me more and more the longer I spend in Vietnam came up: the assumption that every foreigner is a tourist, and the refusal to believe that some of us actually live here.

For example, the guy asked Anthony and I, "Where are you going next?"
Me: "Back to Saigon. We live there."
Guy: "Oh, you are leaving for Saigon?"
Anthony: "Um, we live in Saigon."
Guy: "You are leaving Saigon..."
Me: "No, damnit...ah screw it, just give us the keys."

Now, some of you may think I'm making a big deal over something that was just a simple miscommunication, but I don't think so. Many times, on this trip, on others, and here in Saigon, I've told locals where I live, only to have them laugh, as if I'm playing some sort of joke. It's so frustrating to forever be viewed as an outsider, just a stupid tourist who doesn't know any better and is an easy target for scams. I've seen more of Vietnam than the vast majority of Vietnamese people, yet simply because of how I look they think it's my first day in the country, and have a hard time believing that it's not. End rant/

This was going to be the first time Alex, Mike, and Joe had driven motorbikes, and after witnessing the country's traffic for four days, they were terrified. Anthony and I assured them that it wouldn't be bad, particularly since traffic around Mui Ne is light. Just stay to the right, and always be ready to react when another driver does something that makes no sense. After a few fits and starts the guys were doing fine, and we headed to the red sand dunes, which are a popular attraction just outside of town.

As soon as we parked at a shop across the street from the dunes, we were set upon by a group of deeply tanned children who shoved plastic slides into our hands before we could even react and demanded money. We were theirs now. We crossed the street and slogged up the dunes, which were incredibly windy. The landscape was amazing, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. From certain angles it looked like you were stranded in an endless desert.

The kids were pushy about their slides, and they barely gave us any time to take pictures as they constantly urged us to slide down the dunes, but they were fun to talk to. Another thing that has annoyed me recently is the unwillingness of many locals to even try to understand foreigners when they speak Vietnamese. Now that I can actually speak a bit of the language, this is exceedingly frustrating. It really kills your confidence when you work up the courage to spit out a sentence in Vietnamese, only to have the person respond in English with, "I don't know what you said," although it's obvious they didn't even try. On the dunes I discovered that I need to practice with kids, since they understood everything I said. I'm not sure if they're more open-minded than adults, or if they just understand poor pronunciation better, but it felt great to be able to ask questions and talk about how it looked like it was going to rain without having them stare at me in confusion. End second rant/

After sliding down several dunes and getting our first group picture of the trip, we headed back to our bikes and thanked the kids for the fun time. Except for the one boy who kept trying to grab our penises. Not sure what that was all about.

the dudes
We returned to the hotel and hung out in the pool for a while. The guys had done well during their first motorbike experience, and they seemed only mildly frazzled. We had dinner at a French restaurant down the street (ostrich filet...delicious) and hit the hay.
The next day Alex was, let's just say, visiting the bathroom regularly, so he stayed behind while Joe, Mike, Anthony and I took our bikes farther up the coast in search of the white dunes. After a quick blast up the empty road along the sea we found a sign for the dunes and headed down a tricky path towards them. After a few minutes of skittering along the sand we arrived at a parking area, and walked to the dunes. They were more expansive than the red dunes, and mighty impressive.
The main attraction of the white dunes is the ATVs that are for rent, and after discussing the option for a minute...
...we decided to go ahead and do it. This illustrated once again the certain amount of freedom you can get here that simply isn't possible in the U.S., or any other developed country. We didn't have to sign any waivers, fill out any paperwork, or go through an hour-long safety lecture before venturing out on the dunes. The guys renting out the ATVs simply gave us a 30-second primer on how to start and drive the vehicles, and then sent us off. For 200,000 dong ($10) we each got a 100cc ATV (they had 300cc models, but we all agreed we would probably kill ourselves on them) and 25 minutes to go wild. Fortunately my mom wasn't there, because she has always told me to never, ever drive anything like this.

It took me a couple of minutes to get a feel for my ATV, especially because the steering wasn't properly aligned, but we were quickly roaring across the dunes, flying down their sides and trying to climb back up. At one point I drove into a bowl surrounded by steep dunes, and could not find a way out. My underpowered ATV couldn't make it up the banks, and I ended up having to stand up and practically hump it up a dune while giving it gas.

Somewhat surprisingly, we all returned after the allotted time without having flipped any of the quads, or done any other damage, so we called the day a major success and got back on our bikes. As we pulled back onto the coast road we saw that there was a curtain of dark storm clouds draped across our route farther ahead. We gunned it, hoping we could beat the rain back to town, but a few miles out the wind picked up and the rain suddenly started coming down in sheets, completely obliterating visibility. We were in the middle of nowhere, but we knew there was a resort just ahead where we could pull over for a respite. The rain was coming down so hard, though, I wasn't even sure we would make it that far: since we were driving fast it felt like it was hailing, and I thought my skin was about to be ripped off. The rain was blowing right at us, and for a few seconds I had to drive with my eyes closed, since it was too painful to keep them open. The resort appeared on the left and we all made a beeline for it, sprinting inside even though we were already completely soaked. In Vietnam the rain operates like a light, either on or off; there is no steady buildup from sprinkle to drizzle to rain like there in the U.S. One minute it's dry, the next it's the apocalypse.

The storm blew itself out in about a half hour, so we mounted up and drove the rest of the way to our hotel. After returning the bikes we relaxed for the rest of the day and ate dinner at a simple oceanfront restaurant where we ate a simply disgusting amount of seafood for less than $35. All in all we had a great time in Mui Ne. The following morning we were heading back to Saigon.
the beach behind our hotel


  1. I was contemplating whether or not I should comment to your rants. But I thought I just give a perspective of a foreigner (not really, I have my citizenship) in America.

    Your rants have its merits because dealing with Vietnamese people can be difficult at time even when you can speak the language.

    As of 2011, Vietnam receive about 5+ millions of visitor a year. Now, let's take that number compare to number of expats living in Vietnam. I don't know the exact number but I'm confident that it certainly is not even in the 10 of thousands. So, how do you expect people to really not think that you are not a tourist? Even when I went back to visit, they think I'm a tourist, and I was born there! I think it's because I'm not dark enough and also my clothing. LOL!

    Also, you are probably right that the young people could be more open minded and probably more used to foreigners attempting to speak Vietnamese.

    So let me tell how a foreigner feels in America. I live in Atlanta for 17 years (NYC of the South, lol). I am very comfortable with the question of people asking me where I am from because there's a slight accent in my speech. That's understandable. However, I have many Asian friends who were born and bred in America speak perfect pitch English and still get ask that dumb question. So let me know your thoughts on it.

    1. Glad you commented! I was hoping for some opinions on the rants. I don't know how many expats live here either. What I was trying to emphasize is not that I'm annoyed when people think I'm a tourist - as you mention that is expected. What's frustrating is that many people seem unable to accept that someone ISN'T a tourist. If I say 'I live in Saigon'...even in Vietnamese, almost no one believes me.

      Obviously I don't know what it's like to be a minority in the U.S., so I don't know what it's like to get that question there. I feel that, in general, most Americans are open to the fact that anyone could be a citizen, thanks to the country's diversity.

  2. I'll be in Mui Nu in a few weeks - can't wait to check out the sand dunes.
    In regards to your rant #2 - I just assume Vietnamese don't EXPECT me to speak Vietnamese, so when I ask them a question in Vietnamese or say something in Vietnamese they think it's just jumbled english because they're EXPECTing english. My pronunciation is obviously not perfect, but I do feel like it's gotten much better on the things I say regularly. I'd compare it to when an aussie is speaking quickly, I really have to strain to understand what they're saying because of the accent, even though we're speaking the same language.