Mui Ne was something of an enigma on our arrival – we rolled into town after dark, having taken the afternoon bus from Saigon. The ever-excellent Futa bus staff dropped us right at the Duc Thao Guest House – the good reviews on TripAdvisor were promising, and when Duc himself had swiftly answered our emails the previous day, we knew it would be a good bet. The family welcomed us into a spacious, clean double room and Mui Ne would have to wait until morning.
Venturing out early for breakfast, we discovered a long, dusty road running about 5km between Mui Ne village and the town of Phan Thiết. A sandy white beach is backed by a continuous line of guest houses, fancy resorts, convenience stores and cafes. We didn’t actually get to see the beach – the smarter resorts are all set between the beach and the road, and we were quickly turned away by a jobsworth security guard who was very keen to protect his little strip of sand from two scruffy looking backpackers. It didn’t seem to matter that they had a price list posted for access to the sand for non-guests – not that we would have paid anyway; by all reports the beach on Mui Ne is windswept and rather dirty. We didn’t press the matter.
Certainly if we had hit the beach, we would have stood out from the crowd – several months on the road has left us with deeply (although slightly unevenly!) tanned skin. But the vast majority of Mui Ne visitors are not backpackers – they are package tourists from Russia: easily identifiable from the pale white glow that can only come from spending 50 weeks of the year in one of the world’s coldest, dampest climates. Or if that didn’t give them away, it was the ubiquitous tiny short shorts, button down shirt and souvenir Vietnamese nón lá hat. Indeed, the whole beach seems largely owned, operated and visited by Russians – expect to see Russian signage and menus, Russian food, Russian music, and Russian speaking Vietnamese.
After a delicious – and extremely cheap – lunch and what may be Mui Ne’s only ‘com chay’ (vegan) restaurant, it was time to wait for our pickup for the dune tour organized by Mui Ne Backpackers. We don’t usually go in for group tours, but the drawcard white sand dunes are a little far to comfortably reach by moto, and with a price of $8 per person and a maximum group size of 6, the tour compares favourably with hiring a private jeep. As it turned out, the ‘tour’ was little more than transportation to the four main sights in the area, although this suited us just fine.
First up was the ‘fairy stream’.
Billed as ‘the most magical place in Vietnam’, it’s a little unusual. You remove your shoes and stroll for a couple of kilometres up a dark reddish-brown stream of water, flanked on either side by trees, sand dunes and rocky canyon walls. Half way upstream, you have the opportunity to ride a scared to death ostrich, but WTF, please don’t do that. At the end there was supposed to be a waterfall but either we didn’t walk far enough or it had fallen victim to the dry season. It’s certainly an interesting diversion – the colours of the sand and rock are magnificent, but if this is as magical as it gets then we were not off to a good start.
We made a quick pitstop to look down on the fishing village – hundreds of colourful boats fill the harbour, making for a truly postcard style view. We stood and watched for a few moments, snapped a couple of pictures and were then whisked off again. As for the fishing village itself – who knows?
Fortunately the magic was only just beginning. After an extremely pleasant drive along the coast – conjuring up memories of the beach roads in Maui, you really can begin to understand why they call this “Vietnam’s Hawaii” (until you get abruptly snapped back to reality by the next pile of trash on the roadside) – we reached the tour highlight: the white sand dunes. Visible from a distance, it’s a bizarre sight, as if the set of “Lawrence of Arabia” has been transplanted into this not-quite-idyllic scene. Drawing nearer, the drone of ATV motors and the hollering of tourists begins to fill the air, and you wonder what you’ve let yourself in for.
Access to the dunes is about 50 cents, and you can opt to take a ride on an ATV at around 10 bucks for 20 minutes. We chose to walk and were able to quickly get past the screaming masses – it looked fun, but the bikes seemed to get stuck with alarming regularity – and out into some untouched sand. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of walking for 20 or so minutes, and going from some typical Asian coastal countryside to perched atop a huge, pristine white sand dune. The sand feels something like brown sugar beneath your feet and stretches before you nearly to the horizon. A wonderful playground, whether you choose the bikes, to slide on a hired plastic board, or simply to roll, run and jump as we did. An hour was over too quickly and soon we were back in the Jeep, minds suitably blown.
The final stop was the red sand dunes. Instantly we are mobbed by children wanting us to hire their plastic board to use for sliding, but we elect to follow the crowds to the top of one of the higher dunes and wait for the sun to go down. The sunset is very muted, as they often are in Asia at this time of year, as the haze swallows the last of the day’s light, but the colours are still beautiful – the sand is almost as red as the faces of some of the less athletic tourists racing up the dunes, trying to catch the view before it is gone.
Back at the guest house, our feet were surprisingly sore from climbing on sand all day – you really get a workout walking on such a soft surface. Without the ocean to moisten the sand and pack it tightly, it’s a very different experience to walking on the beach. After a nondescript dinner at a – yep, you guessed it – Russian restaurant, we took an early night since the bus to Dalat was collecting us at 6am the following morning. Mui Ne was a great experience – not the most riveting destination but a stunning reminder of the contrasting environs in this country. Certainly 24 hours was enough for us – but then, we’re not Russian…