Having endured a painful five-hour bus crawl northwards from Saigon (for the large part through endless urban sprawl and repetitive communist architectural monstrosities) we finally pitch up at the coastal resort of Mui Ne.
Mui Ne is a resort known for two things: wind and sand.
- Windsurfer, Mui Ne
The winds which blow off the South China Sea are pretty much incessant, lending themselves to some fine kitesurfing and wind surfing.
These sports have become the mainstay of tourism in the area and as one stares along the 15km resort front.
For much of the day the sky is dotted with a colourful melange of kites. Beneath these colourful canopies, kitesurfers of all abilities try to hit a wave and get “big air”, or at the least, manage to stand up on the board for more than two seconds.
The downside of these winds is that much of the sand on the beachfront has been blown away, revealing a bare concrete breakwater at the foot of many hotels.
The winds of change were not only sculpting the coastline here at Mui Ne, but they were also at play with our travel plans.
It was here that we made the decision to cut our trip through Vietnam short. We had been hugely disappointed with what we had experienced so far, and in particular the poor transport infrastructure and endless scams and price rigging had sullied our view not just of the country, but more importantly of the people.
Vietnam is the only place I’ve ever been where my default setting was “trust no one”. I feel a constant need to be on my guard and frankly, after nearly six months on the road, it’s not worth the hassle.
It is a sad state of affairs, but is also a feeling shared by numerous, if not the majority of visitors to this country (well at least with those to whom we had spoken).
Those with a bigger budget or the ability to really get off the beaten track seem to get the most out of this testing country. On a tight budget and with a baby preventing us from just jumping on an “easy rider” bike and doing a Dennis Hopper, we were truly in the firing line.
We therefore decided that after a diversion into the hills to the city of Dalat, we would head on down to Danang and then Hoi An, before flying the hell out of Nam.
But first of all, we had some sand dunes to see.
Riding in a battered jeep, our initial halt is at the Fairy Stream, an insignificant river that winds its way through he dunes behind Mui Ne where a feeble hand written sign informs us it is prohibited to proceed without a guide.
Sensing this to be a work of utter bollocks, we proceed regardless.
The area has been likened to a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. From what I saw, and from my wife’s experience of both, I can only assume this description was given by someone who has never been to Arizona.
Steep, red, sand hills overlook the valley as it winds through sparse bamboo copses lending it a distinct and curious charm as we waded ankle-deep along the sandy riverbed.
A troop of young boys tails us along the stream yet never approach us with any propositions. Most unusual in these parts….
Not to worry though, when we returned to the path where some had left their flip-flops as advised, they found that in order to get them back they would need to pay a “minding fee”.
With flip-flops already in hand, we were able to walk straight out
My cynical relationship with the Vietnamese had just saved us US$2!
Our next stop was the fishing village where the stench of fish sauce which had already whacked us as we approached the Fairy Stream, took on a whole new dimension of pungency.
The seafront was completely carpeted with discarded clam shells which crunched underfoot as I walked upon them. An armada of colourful fishing boats bobbed on the tide, whilst on shore, boat maintenance was taking place apace.
Young women in traditional headwear crouched around plastic baskets sorting the day’s shellfish catch. With its long stretch of coastline, this part of Vietnam is a seafood lover’s wet dream. Of course, just be sure that the bill is correct….
The main event of the day is a trip to the dune fields 15 or so kilometres north of Mui Ne.
The scale of these sculpted sand hills is very impressive and immediately encourages me to slip into Lawrence of Arabia mode, but with no camels at hand it was either rent a dune buggy or walk.
The dunes of Mui Ne range in colour from white, through gold to a clay court red. The most massive of these dunes are the white ones at Bao Trang, allegedly the driest place in all of South-East Asia.
Curving in perfect arcs above us, the white dunes cut a stark profile against the tropical sky.
The going was heavy as we hiked up hill, but upon cresting the top of a ridge it was possible to jump off and freefall for a few metres before landing in a commando roll on the soft sand below.
For the adventurous there was the opportunity to sleigh down the step dune faces on small blue-plastic seats, before hauling oneself all the way back to the top. Not so much fun in the tropical heat!
The Mui Ne dunes stretched for several kilometres inland and though no Erg Chebbi, they are substantial nonetheless.
My advice to anyone wishing to see the dunes is to get there soon.
With the rate of development taking place on the coastal strip of Vietnam, this area is likely to be a golf course bunker within a decade.
Such is progress.