Sharon Fowler takes a break in the Viet­namese sea­side town of Mui Ne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Us Holidays -

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.jet­ ■ www.viet­na­mair­ ■ www.vir­gin­ ■ www.viet­nam­ ■

Pic­ture: Sharon Fowler

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

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