Thursday, May 1, 2014

Two nights in Mui Ne Vietnam

Along with a zillion other people in Saigon today, I headed out of town for the long holiday weekend.  My destination: Mui Ne, the popular beach getaway spot.  As I checked out of my Saigon hotel, the receptionist giggled and warned “Mui Ne, very crowded now, you know.”  Hmm, why was she giggling?  I guess I would have to wait to find out.

I had a bit of trouble booking a place in Mui Ne.  I had waited until I arrived in Saigon (being ignorant of the holidays), and as a result, found the pickings slim.  I managed to find one by calling directly the manager of a relatively new hotel I stumbled across on

I knew very little about Mui Ne.  I had been to Danang and Nha Trang in the past, and had a positive view of Vietnam’s beach destinations.   The little I read on Mui Ne sounded interesting, and the bus companies claim it is only a four-and-a-half hour journey.  I thought it would be a neat side trip.

I booked a morning bus from Saigon to Mui Ne.  I knew the Futa Bus Company ran a double decker, but I didn’t realize the strange arrangement until I boarded.  Passengers sit on two levels, in sleeper like seats.  You have to climb over your neighbor to reach the upper births, and the seating includes a middle row that just kind of floats in the middle of the bus.

Whether because of creative marketing by the bus companies, or because of holiday traffic, the trip took closer to seven hours, much longer than expected.  Groan.  At least the seats were comfortable, the tickets cheap at $7 (including a $1 holiday surcharge), and the bus service door-to-door to the hotel.

I stayed in Mui Ne for only two nights.  I had hoped to book three nights, and then (upon check out) go directly to the Saigon airport to catch my Hanoi flight.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a room for the third night.  The actual (versus advertised) seven hour journey made it even more difficult to justify a mere two night stay.  I spent 14 daylight hours (round trip) for just 28 daylight hours on the beach, a much worse ratio than I expected.  On the bright side, I might have missed my flight had I actually been able to book that third night (thinking erroneously the bus ride was shorter).

The first order of business after check in was to rent of motorbike for $5 a day.  The second order was to find food.  I love seafood, and my mouth still waters when I think about the excellent fresh crab and shrimp I ate in Nha Trang.  Hoping for a similar experience, I headed off to an open air, water front restaurant that my inbound bus had passed.

Bo Ke Mr. Crab actually has several spots along the main strip of Mui Ne, so I assume business must be pretty good.  Let me digress here on the topic of what and where exactly is “Mui Ne.”  There is a large bay with a very long stretch of beaches just east of the town of Phan Tiet.  Everyone (especially every hotel) calls this bay area “Mui Ne”, but I think the official Mui Ne is technically around the corner outside the bay.  The main strip of road to what everyone calls Mui Ne runs parallel the large bay;  the street is called Nguyen Dinh Chieu but later changes its name to Huynh Thuc Khang.  The strip and bay actually cover parts of towns called Phan Tiet and Ham Tien, not Mui Ne.   It’s a little confusing (at least for me), especially because the quality of the beach changes radically along the entire bay, but more on that later.

Back to the food.  I pulled my motorbike into Bo Ke Mr. Crab’s outdoor restaurant with great anticipation.  The fresh seafood on display looked good, so I ordered shrimp, squid, and seafood noodles, along with a cold beer.

Mr. Crab was not a good initiation to Mui Ne.  I am not picky about ambience in this part of the world, but I had thought that outdoor ocean front dining would set the tone for my short stay.  Unfortunately, the beach on this particular stretch of the strip was pathetic and garbage stewn.  Moreover, the outdoor restaurant could have used some design consulting, as the WC glared in front of diners’ eyes.

The service was indifferent at best.  Of course, I could live with all of that if the food passed muster, but sadly, the food was quite mediocre, qualifying as mall court food.  Thankfully, all this only cost about $13.

I returned to my hotel, the Sun and Sands Hotel.  I think accommodations in Mui Ne run anywhere from $20 to $500 per night, with off-beach backpacker hostels and local guest houses on the low end, to some very luxurious beach side resorts on the high end.   When I spoke to the manager of the Sun and Sands, he offered me a room at $60 per night, and said that it would drop to $40 if I came back at a less busy time.

The hotel seems relatively new and still working to get the kinks out, especially among the staff whose English needs upgrading.  The hotel infrastructure itself is in pretty good shape, with clean, well-furnished (albeit small) rooms.  They really need to spruce up the grounds, as it is a bit of an eyesore in places.  Still, the hotel is beach front with its own huts, and there is a small pool as well.  The breakfast is excellent.

I discovered the hotel’s particular stretch of beach is typical for Mui Ne’s beaches.   The surf is relatively tame (at least on my days), and the beach is long and sufficiently broad.  The downside is that both the water and the sand are littered with “stuff”. Much of the stuff is typical ocean flotsam that might be found anywhere worldwide (before hotel staff or local public services clean it up), but the other stuff on the sand here is literally just garbage that people dropped.

Many of the visitors weren’t dissuaded by any of this and happily splashed around.  I went in the water only once briefly, and that was enough for me.  From underneath the beach hut, the ocean still looked pretty.  It was relaxing just to chill and drink beer.  The cows on the beach did throw me for a loop.

Many enterprising local women had set up the expected charcoal-fed mini fresh seafood businesses on the beach.  My complaint about the water cleanliness aside, I definitely wanted to try some.

So for dinner, I selected some shellfish and a bunch of clams and ate it under my hut.  Ahhh, that was good stuff!  And the whole thing only cost $4 with a beer.  This was so much better than Mr. Crab.

I went to bed early as I had planned much for the following day, and easily fell asleep.

The next day, I headed down for the hotel breakfast at 6:30 am.  The brunch stations offered your typical Western options, but also some fairly good local selections, too, all served with strong Vietnamese coffee lightened with a bit with condensed milk.

I hung out on the beach for most of the morning just relaxing and people watching.  I debated ordering more seafood from the local ladies, as the food sure smelled good, but I was still stuffed from the breakfast.

 I did buy some sweetened tofu as dessert, which was satisfying.

In the early afternoon, I headed over to the White Sands, one of the popular natural tourist spots about 20 kms away.  I’d only skimmed over the reviews so I was unsure exactly what to expect, but I was up for a motorbike adventure.  I didn’t have a map, so I got crude directions from the hotel desk.  More important, I had them write on a piece of paper “Where is White Sands?”  I knew I probably couldn’t understand the answer anyone gave me, but at least I could follow their finger pointing.  I grabbed a quick lunch at a mom-and-pop shop around the bend and off I went.

About ten minutes later, I came across a harbor with many fishing boats, and stopped for a photo.  I think this was actually the Mui Ne harbor.   I also noticed a lot of restaurants that didn’t appear particularly touristy, and made a mental note to check them out later.

The ride to White Sands took about 50 minutes, with several stops to ask locals for directions with my little paper translation.  Luckily, their finger pointing kept me on the right track and the ride itself was fun and scenic.  Ocean views are almost always pretty and blooming flowers were everywhere spruced up even ramshackle little huts like this along the way.

On the last turn off, paved roads ended suddenly, to be replaced by a sandy, stone filled trail.  It made for occasionally treacherous biking.  Four wheel drive vehicles passed me by, making me literally eat their dust, but I survived without wiping out.  I also found some good photo ops along that trail.

I made the last turn and entered the White Sands area, where I paid a 50 cent admission fee.  So cheap, I thought.

Then I saw it.  The White Sands is basically a humongous series of sand domes.  It would take lots of effort to trek around.  The enterprising Vietnamese did offer ATVs for rent, however, at $15 per 20 minutes.  So much for the cheap admission .  There was no way I was hiking in that hot sand.  I rented an ATV and joyfully zoomed around.

It was so much fun just driving the damn thing that I briefly forgot why I was here.  I refocused and rode around to check out the sights.  The sand dunes were OK, not spectacular.  I also didn’t understand why some people thought it might be fun to slide down them on plastic sheets.  Can you imagine lugging it back up in deep, hot sand?

When my 20 minutes were up, I just headed back out.  The drive back was equally fun.  The rash of new resort construction projects struck me as perhaps getting a bit ahead of itself, given what I saw in the Mui Ne strip area.  But then again, “Asian real estate” and “deep boom bust cycles” are synonymous terms.

About half way back, I came across the “Red” Dunes which I had skipped on my drive up.  I had time now, so stopped in.  Much smaller than the White Dunes, I just walked up the hill.  The color of the sand makes this place unique, though I would call it more brownish than red.  I paid no admission fee, but had to pay someone 50 cents for a parking spot for my motorbike.  Families milled about, again sledding down the hill.  I thought it was cute, and at least the walk uphill was shorter.

The novelty of the sand color wore off quickly.  I got bored and headed back, pulling into the harbor and other stops along the way just to take in the views.

The stretch of beach in front of my hotel was OK.  It certainly was a lot better than that in front of Mr. Crab.  It was getting a little dark, but I wanted to see what the rest of the bay was like.  I took my motor bike and went exploring.  As expected, the beaches in front of the more expensive resorts were broader and much better kept, as the staff tried to clean up the rubbish to keep guests happy.  A little bit of human effort can make a big difference in the quality of the beach.  The quality of the water itself of course was constant.  If you come to Mui Ne, do your research to determine exactly where your hotel is located, and what the beach is like there.

For dinner, I rode back to the harbor side to restaurant Lang Chat.  I went a little crazy in picking dishes.  The food was very tasty and I couldn’t stop ordering.  I ate spicy crabs, barbecued shrimp, large clams, and stir fried morning glory.  The spicy crabs were particularly good, though hard to eat without nutcrackers.  When dinner ended, my hands were sticky, my face smeared with sauces, but my belly was happy.  The bill was much higher than I expected, at $30, but by global standards, still a very good deal for the amount of fresh seafood I consumed.

Since I had started the day early, I was pretty tired by this point.  Once again, I headed to bed fairly early.

The next morning, I woke again early for my Vietnamese breakfast and just hung out on the beach under my favorite hut.  As I mentioned earlier, the view from the dining area needs to be cleaned up.  This hotel is good value for the buck, but is still a work in progress.

I hung out on the beach until check out time, just relaxing and people watching, including a group of locals who were engaging in their version of beach Olympics.

The bus company was scheduled to pick me up at my hotel at 2:00, so I checked out at 1:15 and had a quick lunch across the street.  The fried rice and veggies were simple but pretty good, at only $4 with a beer.

As might be expected, the bus was half an hour late. The ride was very long and bumpy, and not a great way to end the side trip.  I spent most of it on my laptop working, but the ride tired me out.  The bus company owns the rest stop and herds riders into their expensive food canteen.  I just wandered around the fence into a local vendor.  I had them make me some shrimp tortilla-like wrap and a bag of barbecued pork as snacks to munch on for the rest of my ride.  It cost me a buck.

Overall, I am glad I went to Mui Ne.  I enjoyed relaxing under my beach hut and actually felt refreshed (at least until the return bus ride).  The White Sands and Red Sands were both a little hokey, but I enjoyed motor biking across the country and ocean side.  I generally liked the food as well, so I’m glad I got a chance to try this area out.

Still, if I had to do it again, I would much rather go to Nha Trang.  I think on a heads up basis, Nha Trang easily beats Mui Ne on all fronts: beach, food, nightlife, hotel choices, etc.  Mui Ne’s supposed advantage is proximity to Saigon.  However, one can easily access Nha Trang in a comfortable overnight sleeper train.   Thus, the actual “down time” is negligible, compared to the long day-wasting bus ride to Mui Ne.

As an aside, both places struck me with the prevalence of Russian tourists.  I assume they are no different than tourists from any other country; my comment reflects more that I find Cyrillic menus and advertising signs unexpected in most other global destinations.  In fact, you will find more businesses here catering to Russians than Chinese.  I wonder what it is about Nha Trang and Mui Ne that makes it so.  I was too tired from the bus ride to wonder too much about it.

By the time I checked into my hotel, I was fairly hungry.  I had a craving for Vietnamese pork chops.  A friend of mine actually introduced me to this dish in a Vietnamese restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown of all places, and I’ve enjoyed it since.   I found an outdoor restaurant where a young boy was grilling pork chops as fast as people could eat them.  It tasted great, and only $3 for a simple two chop meal.

Saigon was hopping again on this Saturday night as crowds were milling about bar hopping and partying.  But I was too tired and starting to feel my age.  I crawled off into bed, ignoring the music and noise of the outside crowds that drifted in from my window.  Sometimes sleep is the best entertainment.

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