Sharon Fowler takes a break in the Vietnamese seaside town of Mui Ne
IT could be the heat, but after five hours on a bus from the hill town of Da Lat, when pine trees have given way to palms, the first glimpse of the pale waters of the South China Sea brings a spontaneous cheer from a group of fellow travellers. When we alight in Mui Ne, we may not feel like cheering but there is plenty to admire in the soft white sands and calm blue of this beautiful bay.
While Nha Trang has long been the best known beach town in Vietnam and Phu Quoc Island, to the west, has recently picked up the lion’s share of attention, during the past decade the southern fishing town of Mui Ne has been transforming itself into a relaxed and friendly resort.
In October 1995, Mui Ne was Vietnam’s prime viewing location for a total solar eclipse. Thousands descended on the area and discovered its charms, and since then tourism has been steadily increasing. There is now an abundance of accommodation, with everything from backpacker budget bargains to luxury retreats but, for the moment at least, there’s still a relaxed, smalltown feel and this is one place in Vietnam where you’ll meet few street hawkers.
Mui Ne is just a few hours’ drive from Ho Chi Minh City, near the larger port town of Phan Thiet, and is a favourite among expats looking for a weekend escape or a longer getaway. It’s a Southeast Asian mecca for windsurfing and kitesurfing enthusiasts, but inactivity is not underrated. Explore the sand dunes, local culture and fine food, or simply laze by the water with a good book or two.
Best bay: In Mui Ne, all roads lead to the beach. It has the lowest annual rainfall in the country so is definitely the place to take advantage of some aquatic recreation. Although the long, gently curved crescent of the bay is crowded with resorts, the beach is refreshingly quiet. Most mornings during my stay there is just a handful of people in the sea. Along the wide stretch of sand, a few locals have spread sarongs and set up jewellery stalls selling wooden beads.
While there are plenty of lovely pool areas in the various resorts here, don’t ignore this gorgeous palm-fringed beach.
Best shopping: After breakfast and a swim, wander the beach and then explore the main road. Mui Ne is one long strip of resorts on its ocean side (about 10km long), with restaurants and stalls on the other. The area is not known for its shopping; however, you can purchase holiday essentials such as sunscreen and sarongs, and we do spot a solitary tailor.
It’s also worth visiting the markets in Mui Ne or Phan Thiet, where there’s an abundance of stalls selling nuoc man, the popular local fish sauce, and geometricpatterned textiles made by the Cham people.
Best local lunch: Mui Ne is known for its seafood, which is generally very fresh and incredibly good. We drop into the Peaceful Family Restaurant, a small, open-walled venue with a fish pond running along one side and cooling ceiling fans. The decor is bare and the service super-relaxed; we lunch on delicious chilli and salt fish and morning glory sauteed with garlic for about $6 for two, including drinks. It is one of the best meals of our stay.
A must-try is dragon fruit, the pinkish-red and spiky fruit with tiny black seeds and mild-tasting white flesh. It’s found throughout Vietnam but primarily grown in Mui Ne and is one of the area’s most important crops.
Best Cham sites: The ethnic Cham people, considered to be descendants of the kingdom of Champa, are settled in Phan Thiet and Phan Rang, a couple of hours north of Mui Ne. Take a taxi or tour to well-preserved Cham towers at both locations or, for something closer to home, the Forest Restaurant in Mui Ne has Cham artefacts and textiles on display, with Cham staff (mostly from Phan Thiet) dressed in traditional clothing. The waitress insists on giving us indecipherable menus in Russian, so we just opt for a cool drink while listening to the rhythmic indigenous drummers who frequently perform here.
Best harbour and sand dune experience: Most resorts offer a range of private tours with car and driver. There are also a few local tour operators. Sinh Cafe’s tours, which operate out of the Mui Ne Resort, have been recommended to us. We find the service is adequate and most tours cost from $US5 ($5.40) a person. One afternoon we opt for a minivan tour with Sinh Cafe and our first stop is Mui Ne harbour, a 10-minute drive from the town centre. Hundreds of traditional wooden fishing boats bob in the water, while on shore locals prepare to go out in their rowing boats, which look like giant woven fruit baskets.
It’s a further 40-minute drive to the white sand dunes, for which Mui Ne is well known. We pass the distinctive pastel headstones of Vietnamese cemeteries and are held up by herds of goat and cattle that block the road at occasional intervals. As we near the dunes, the roadside becomes rockier and sandier and then decidedly bumpy as we turn off the main artery.
On arrival, it’s pleasantly cool and our driver informs us it is already raining in town and the wet is heading our way. The shower holds off for an hour as we meander through undulating pale yellow dunes, while local children offer horse rides or handmade raftlike sheets on which to slide down the largest of the ridges.
The last stop on our tour is Fairy Springs, a stream that winds between red and white sand cliffs from the edge of the dunes to the end of Mui Ne beach. Unfortunately, it’s turning dark by the time we arrive, so we can only imagine the striking coloured crags.
Best buddha: Another must-do trip is to the nature reserve of Takou Mountain in Binh Thuan province. The drive to the mountain takes about an hour from Mui Ne (most resorts offer this tour, as do local operators) and visitors can then walk or take a cable car through rainforest to the 1879-built pagoda at the summit. At the top of the mountain lies the largest reclining buddha in Vietnam, a white stone creation 18m high and 49m long.
Best sound system: At night, Mui Ne is still fairly quiet; neon signs light up the openair restaurants while locals and tourists stroll the strip and motorcycle taxis ply for trade (taxi-cars are also available if you’re not keen on the bikes, and it is less than the equivalent of $10 to anywhere in town). Early in the evening we drop into the Sand Dollar Pub, a red-walled open-fronted bar that plays Bob Marley and a nice mix of contemporary tunes. Sit on the cushioned dark wooden furniture here and savour a Typhoon Tina, a tasty watermelon-based cocktail, for just a few dollars.
Best food and drink with a view: The Sailing Club’s restaurant and bar sits just metres from the beach and is hard to go past for fresh ocean air, tropical views and delicious food. By day there’s a near-empty horizon, while the evening brings a sprinkling of tiny lights from the local fishing community. Any trip to Vietnam requires a taste of pho, the traditional broth, served here with plenty of bean sprouts and mounds of fresh coriander, mint and lime wedges. Pho bo (beef) or ka (chicken) are just a few dollars. For main course, I try the seared sea bass with a sundried tomato and olive tapenade on cauliflower mash with cardamom-orange infusion.
South African chef Lizette Crabtree offers a mixed menu of Vietnamese, Thai and Western dishes, with plenty of seafood; most cost less than $15.
Best spa: End a long day by sampling the Sailing Club’s Lotus Day Spa, which offers a variety of treatments in an open-air hut or spa room. I opt for a Dermalogica facial (from $US22) and my husband for a 60-minute Recovery Massage ($US18). The Vietnamese massage moves from tiptoes to earlobes and the facial includes a midtreatment eyebrow pluck, so if you have any ticklish spots, or are after soothing rather than surprising, best to politely let the therapists know beforehand. It’s a perfect way to end a trip to this lovely town. Checklist Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines offer regular direct flights from Australian ports to Ho Chi Minh City. Virgin Blue and Vietnam Airlines have announced a code-sharing agreement that will help smooth connections from Melbourne and Sydney to Vietnam and beyond. Phan Thiet is 200km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City on Highway 1; Mui Ne is a few kilometres further north. Most resorts offer private car return transfers from the capital to Nha Trang or Dalat for about $US90-$US100 one way. ■ www.jetstar.com ■ www.vietnamairlines.com ■ www.virginblue.com.au ■ www.vietnamtourism.com ■ www.muinebeach.net
Net worth: Hundreds of traditional boats, some no more robust than large woven fruit baskets, fish off the beach at Mui Ne; their catch supplies local seafood restaurants