Mui Ne: A Little Resort Town in Viet Nam

People who visit Mui Ne either love it or hate it.

Before I get into why this is so, let me give you a short description of its location and geography. It’s approximately a four-hour drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City on the coast of the South China Sea. It’s easy accessibility to the city and its 10 km long beach make it a great seaside escape not only for HCMC residents but also tourists. Over the past 10 years it has morphed from a sleepy fishing village into an over-developed resort town.

The main and only street follows the coastline for 10 km. When approaching it coming from HCMC, you enter from the west which puts you into the actual town of Mui Ne… the main tourist strip with all the fancy resorts. This end of the street is called Nguyen Dinh Chieu which then turns into Huynh Thuc Khang somewhere in the middle. Keep travelling along and you will find yourself in the City of Phan Thiet…also the capital of the province…which is graced with a large harbour dotted with a multitude of colourful fishing boats. Here is the centre for SE Asia’s production of nuac mam or fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

So this is Mui Ne. It’s a one street strip of restaurants, fancy resorts, budget hotels, and restaurants lining both sides of the street and hemmed in by the ocean on one side and sand dunes on the other.

Most people who absolutely love it are the windsurfers. They come from all parts of the world to do their stuff. With more than 200 days out of the year with strong winds coming off the ocean, it’s a surfer’s paradise.

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The red  and white sand dunes are another rave about this place. Coming very close to the strip of beach resorts along the sea, they appear to be in the backyards of many hotels. I just had to go to the end of the garden at my place to see a part of them. The better views are outside the town where you can be right in the midst of them and experience the joy of driving a dune buggy. I preferred to simply walk and observe the buggies as they got mired in the sand. I was attempting to be more ecologically responsible.

On the white dune.

On the white dune.

The Russians love Mui Ne  because they get great package deals to and from their country, and like us Canadians they are eager to escape their harsh winters for some fun in the sun. In fact, they have almost taken over the town as evidenced by the restaurants which serve Russian food. Even the menus are in Russian. Many restaurants, shops and hotels are now Russian owned by expats who have moved there.

Anyone who likes sun and a tropical climate also loves it, especially at this time of the year which is their dry season. For those staying in a four or five-star resort with their own private beach, life at the beach is good. However, for budget travellers a beach isn’t always easily available. If your hotel/hostel has wrangled a deal with one of the bigger hotels or resorts who are willing to let others use what they think is theirs, then you’re in luck. Fortunately, the place where I stayed did have access so I had the beach at my disposal. Although the beach itself is lovely, it is beginning to show some wear and tear. In some spots the sand is disappearing due to erosion. In other places, the beach is being invaded with piles of garbage and cattle who are allowed to roam at will. For me this was not inviting so I merely used the beach to capture a sunset or two. I didn’t bother to sun bathe or go swimming. I may have if I had been staying in one of those swanky resorts who lay claim to a piece of the beach or have their own outdoor pools.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Is it now evident to you what people might hate about Mui Ne? The Russian invasion, the dirty beach, the over-development, and one more thing…the bland food….are the list of complaints I have heard. I have to agree on the dirty beach and the over-development, but the Russians and the food were more than acceptable to me.

I had a young Russian couple next door to my room at Diem, Lien where I stayed. Although their English was limited, I found both Vera and Vasili easy to talk to and curious about Canada. We found we had much in common. Yes, most Russians prefer to keep to themselves, which has earned them a bad reputation, but I have found they are actually shy with other tourists because of their lack of English. I have not and did not encounter any difficult or loud Russians.

As for the food, I found a lovely little restaurant newly opened three months ago, on my first night in Mui Ne. I enjoyed the food and ambience so much that I returned every day from there on. Owned and managed by a young Viet Nam couple with a four-month old baby, who was at first fussy and probably colicky, I indulged in fresh scallops nicely prepared in a garlic sauce, stewed chicken in a clay pot, tasty grilled chicken with morning-glory greens, fresh spring rolls, and for a change, spaghetti carbonara. All the food was prepared by the husband who was a fabulous cook in my opinion. Everything was fresh, tastefully spiced, and reasonably priced. A glass of good Dalat wine was only $1.50. My dinners were consistently at about $5,00 including the wine. The name of this little gem, in amongst all the other similar restaurants along the strip on the Huynh Thuc Khang end on the dune side, was Mui Ne House. They have no website and aren’t on Face Book since they are so new, but if you are ever in Mui Ne then do try to find them. By the way, the baby settled down after that first night and slept peacefully in her hammock from there on.

One more attraction which gets mixed reviews is the Fairy Stream. I wasn’t too excited about seeing it. However, it was part of the tour package I took to see the dunes at sunset so I had no choice. It’s actually a pretty half hour walk…in bare feet…from the sea up to its source. Strange rock formations in various shades of red and white shaped by the water as it meanders through the sand dunes create an unusual and different site every day.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

Strange looking sand formations.

Strange looking sand formations.

Our group.

Our group.

I read in Travelfish that they wouldn’t recommend it because of reports that it was dirty and hazardous. Other than a couple of cows we met along the way, I noticed no garbage at all. Apparently the town authorities have been working on a clean up. One thing which did take me by surprise was the demand from a sweet young woman who was showing us sites and taking our pictures along the way. Little did we know she wasn’t a part of our tour, but a self-employed ‘tout’ who demanded we each pay her 100,000 dong at the end. In Canadian dollars this would be $6,00. Being more budget conscious and perhaps a little more experienced at what was happening here, I immediately spoke up and stated this was way too much money for a half hour of her time. After some haggling, we settled on 20,000 each. To me this was worth her time and the information she was able to share with us. We could have paid her nothing since she wasn’t a part of our tour. Our jeep driver had no English and didn’t accompany us. I doubt if we could have learned anything on our own.

There was one other incident on this tour which took us by surprise. After we had toured the great white dune on our own time, we were told to meet our driver at the jeep by five o’clock so we would have time to catch the sunset at the red dune before heading back to town. After we had all finally assembled to head back, we had to wait. At first we weren’t sure why, but our driver after much discussion with the other jeep drivers informed us simply that the police were asking for money to the tune of 5 million dong or $295 Cdn. I couldn’t believe it! Here, right in front of our eyes, was the corruption you hear about in this and all SE Asian countries. Fortunately, our driver was honest and had the decency to tell us. After a 20 minute wait, we started out only to stop two if not three more times to wait out the police. There was much telephoning and further yelling from the other jeep drivers at each stop until finally our driver informed us with elaborate hand signals that we would be taking another route back to town. There went our opportunity to see the sunset which was to my mind no big deal. It wasn’t until the next day when I met up with a gal who had toured the dunes the day before with a group that actually paid a lower fine…a fine for doing nothing wrong as far as we could tell…that I realized what we had missed. The red dune at sunset is absolutely gorgeous!

I hope I haven’t painted too gloomy a picture of Mui Ne. What impression you come away with is purely a personal one. My eternal optimism sees it for what it is. It has its problems and isn’t perfect. However, I am happy with my time there even though I am not a surfer. Looking back I enjoyed my meals at the Mui Ne House Restaurant immensely, not only for their good food but for the warm greetings I received from the owners. The family who own and manage Diem Lein Hotel were also helpful and hard-working, especially the two sisters. I particularly enjoyed the garden, a little haven of flowers, trees and butterflies, which provided me with a peaceful place to have breakfast each morning. Furthermore, I was able to catch up on my sleep because the building was built like a motel and situated well away from the noisy street traffic. I doubt I’ll ever return to Mui Ne unless I were to use it as a short stopover on my way to HCMC or Dalat… or take up surfing!

A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam

 

The mighty Mekong River.

The mighty Mekong River.

There are three reasons for my return to Viet Nam for the third time. Since my last trip here was over four years ago, I was curious to witness the changes that might have occurred in this country now toted to be the fastest growing economy in SE Asia. The second reason was to delve more closely into the Mekong Delta region in the south…a part of Viet Nam I have never visited. The third is the people…for their spirit, openness and generosity.

I have been twice to the North and seen many of its beautiful attractions, such as Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue, the original Imperial capital, and the present capital of Hanoi. However, it is the south that beckons me this time around. The two regions are quite different in culture and historical background. The war in the 60’s and 70’s precipitated by Ho Chi Minh’s dream to unite his country with his communist manifesto seemed to divide the country more than ever. As we know, he was not successful, but that has not stopped this country from moving on. Both the south and the north now look at Ho Chi Minh as a national hero.

My entrance to this beautiful country was at the small city of Chau Doc bordering onto Cambodia…and why Chau Doc? It is one of the overland border crossings into Viet Nam where with relative ease tourists can enter the country from Cambodia after a leisurely boat trip down the mighty Mekong River.

Having our visas checked at the border.

Having our visas checked at the border.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced in this friendly town with a population of about 103,000. There isn’t anything outstanding about it other than it claims to be Viet Nam’s foremost fish farming centre. It also has a floating market as many towns and cities in the Mekong Delta can lay claim to. Nevertheless, there is comfortable feel to it which lends visitors a reason to linger for awhile.

Chau Doc lies beside the Baasic River, a tributary of the Mekong. This is the walkway.

Chau Doc lies beside the Baasic River, a tributary of the Mekong. This is the walkway.

The Victoria Chau Doc Hotel. A piece of grandeur built by the government.

The Victoria Chau Doc Hotel. A piece of grandeur built by the government.

I had to stop for a refresher in its inviting surroundings.

I had to stop for a refresher in its inviting surroundings.

My waitress dressed in her Ao Doi.

My waitress dressed in her Ao Doi.

Chau Doc's market.

Chau Doc’s market.

Selling flowers for Tet, Viet Nam's New Year.

Selling flowers for Tet, Viet Nam’s New Year.

I almost made the mistake that most tourists do… of going straight on to Ho Chi Minh City thinking that there was nothing of interest here. However, something told me I needed to give Chau Doc a chance so I booked a hotel for four nights. I was more than ready to leave behind the chaos and grime of Phnom Penh and Chiang Mai for the slower pace of a town in the idyllic Mekong Delta.

Chau Doc welcomed me with open arms. Mr. Nguyen Van Long, the owner and operator of Mr. Long travel agency, which happened to be right around the corner from my hotel was the first to do so. I arrived the night before so next morning before looking for a place where I could get some good coffee and food, I first needed water and a map, and he had both. An older man in his 60’s, well-educated with fairly good English, we were able to quickly connect. In no time I had booked a tour to the floating market and a fish farm, as well as my bus trip to HCMC. I also discovered he was teaching English in his spare time to a small group of kids who were anxious to improve their skills When he found out about my teaching background, I was the perfect catch for him and immediately received an invite to attend his attend his Sunday morning class.

Mr. Long with his wife and granddaughter.

Mr. Long with his wife and granddaughter.

His generosity didn’t end there. He arranged to partner me up with the mother of one of his students to take me out to their favourite restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. I was not expected to pay so they blocked any attempt at my efforts to return the favour. After my second meal with them, Trinh, the mother, insisted on taking me to the closest thing to a night club. We watched couples who took formal dancing with a smattering of jazzy moves thrown into the mix strut their stuff. Added to this were some pretty good singers accompanying them with sad love songs. Again I tried to pay for our drinks when she went to the ‘ladies’ but again she had beaten me to it. Later on I found out that the Viet Namese are very good at adopting people they like, going above and beyond in their generosity to prove this.

Mr. Long with mother, Trinh and her daughter and son, two of Long's student's.

Mr. Long with mother, Trinh, and her daughter and son, two of Long’s student’s.

Two more students I met at Mario's coffeehouse both eager to speak English.

Two more students I met at Mario’s coffeehouse both eager to speak English.

There was no question that I was being treated like royalty. In fact, Trinh would arrive at my hotel to pick me up on her motor bike at exactly the time we arranged. Like all bike drivers in Viet Nam, she was a master at manoeuvering the traffic all the while she was turning to talk to me sitting behind her. She spoke very little English making it difficult for me to understand her and know what she was doing. I had to resign myself to sitting back and going with the flow… not always an easy thing for me to do.

The tour I had signed up for with Mr. Long had me up at six in the morning for a visit to a floating market.We left just as the sun was rising in a small wooden boat steered by a woman which is common throughout the delta. Seeing how the families live on their boats and conduct their business is always interesting. We stopped to visit a family who had received bags of watermelons which they were busily sorting and preparing to sell to the vendors at the markets. Of course, I got to sample some.

On one of the floating markets.

On one of the floating markets.

Watermelons for sale.

My tour also included a short visit to a Cham village where we visited a mosque since many Cham are Muslim. They and the rest of the Viet Namese who could be of either Khymer or Chinese lineage all seem to carry on peacefully with their daily living. However, I did see some rather poor children begging so my guess is that this Cham community isn’t doing as well as the others.

Path over the canal leading to Cham village.

Wooden bridge to the |Cham village.

Wooden bridge to the Cham village.

Mr. Long informed that the fish farming industry in Viet Nam accounts for over 20% of the country’s seafood output. He remembers when there were maybe 100 farms around Chau Doc where he grew up but now over 150,000. The fishing is carried out on the in houses built on stilts with floating metal drums attached underneath them for raising the fish. The fishermen import the fish eggs come from the Tonlee Sap…the largest lake in SE Asia located in Cambodia. They are then raised to a market size of about 1 kg. and fed on a dough like substance consisting of cereal, vegetables and fish scraps. Each drum can produce up to 400 tonnes of fish in a 10 month cycle. Their fish is exported to all of Europe and the Americas. It’s a huge business with two kinds of catfish as the prime fish. For how much longer I asked? His answer was that the industry is already showing signs of trouble ahead for several reasons: the rising cost of fish food, the dams which have been built on the Mekong by China, and climate change.The farmers now supplement the fish food with their own food scraps. The excessive building of dams and climate change have played havoc with the water levels causing the fishermen to move around much more and work harder than they ever had to.

Fish farms built on stilts.

Fish farms built on stilts.

Drums where the fish are raised.

Cages where the fish are raised.

Meeting Long, his friends, and students were the highlight of my stay in Chau Doc. They are perfect examples of the open and generous spirit which caught my attention the second time I visited Viet Nam. On my first visit to Hanoi in the north, it rained the whole time I was there. The terrible weather, my too brief visit, and the more reserved nature of the northerners failed to make a positive impression upon me. The special energy that I and many others have noticed which prevails largely in the south, perhaps explains why this country is moving forward in leaps and bounds. They have left their horrific past behind them, they are living very much in the present, and  they dream of a better future for their country. No where is this more evident than in Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, formerly Saigon, which will be the subject of my next post.

 

A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

Ever since the devastating turmoil imposed by the despotic years of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge in the late ’90’s, Cambodia has been struggling under a repressive Communist government to rise again from the ashes. On the outside it appears that the country is achieving this as evidenced by the flocks of tourists visiting the ancient city of Ankor in Siem Reap and the rampant development of slick new condos, hotels, gourmet restaurants, and fancy vehicles in Phnom Penh or PP, the capital of the country. It appears to have all the trappings of a world-class city, but as we know all too well appearances can often be deceiving. You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence of poor services…more trash everywhere…and too many people living in poor housing or practically on the streets because of lack of employment and the rising cost of living. Yes, there is still a long way for this country to go to get back on its feet.

A luxury govt. hotel across the river.

A luxury govt. hotel across the river.

So why have I returned to Phnom Penh and Cambodia for the fourth time? I have finished my shopping…at least most of it…and I have seen most of the country before.

There are two…no three… reasons why I have returned:

  1. To meet up with a friend I met several years ago in Bangkok who lives and works here.
  2. To splurge a little by eating out at good NGO (non – government organizations) restaurants with some of the best food in SE Asia.
  3. To spend my tourist dollars to support the sweet Cambodian people who work so tirelessly in the tourist business.

My friend, Michelle, is a journalist for the  Cambodia Daily newspaper and fellow Canadian originally from Quebec. She has lived in Phnom Penh for more than a decade covering a fledgling art scene in hopes it will help give the people a better sense of their historical past, something which has been sorely missing in this country. She loves Cambodia for the people and their perseverance, as I do. She endures the corruption, the dirt, the poverty, and the crime by striving to help all the people she employs and meets here in her daily life. Like many journalists today, she faces cuts in her salary and the possibility that her paper could fold. Yet, she still keeps the interests of her cook, her cleaning lady and her tuk tuk drivers at the top of her list even though she finds it increasingly difficult to pay them. As she puts it, their livelihood depends a great deal on her.

As soon as I arrived she and her driver came to pick me up at my boutique hotel, The Little Garden http://www.littlegarden.asia/and whisked me off to “Romdeng” one of the first restaurants established by a well-known and respected NGO called Friends http://friends-international.org. Do take the time to look up this group of dedicated individuals who have done so much for this country. This is their mandate:

“We are a leading social enterprise saving lives and building futures of the most marginalized children and youth and their families across the world.”

Michelle and I celebrated our reunion with a glass of wine…the first of my splurges… and delicious Khymer food in a lovely garden setting.

To further my pace of self-indulgence on my second night here, I suggested we meet for dinner at another well-known restaurant in PP… FCC or the Foreign Correspondence Club http://fcccambodia.com. FCC had its beginnings in the late ’90’s after the Pol Pot days as a place for foreign correspondents and aid workers to eat, drink, and share stories of the horrors of war. It became a PP icon. Unlike most private correspondent clubs, this one is public and run as a not-for-profit. I first went there over five years ago and was disappointed in the food. It was nothing to rave about and was expensive. Now the food is tasty, nicely presented, and decently priced. We splurged once more and had a cocktail ‘two for one’ special. The ambience and decor at FCC have remained as they always have been since its inception. You can sit on the roof top terrace looking out at the Tonley Sap River with the twinkling lights of the many boats as they sail past.

The FCC restaurant and hotel.

The FCC restaurant and hotel.

Enjoying our splurging.

Enjoying our splurging.

Although most of my shopping was completed and shipped from Thailand, I was hoping my buyer’s eye could find some hand-made items made out of recycled materials which the Cambodians are masters at creating. I found my store as I was walking along Sisowath Quay on the river front. With the help of an eager young sales clerk who spoke fairly good English, I picked up some small money pouches or pencil cases made of recycled materials by victims of the landmines.

My time in Phnom Penh and Cambodia is almost over, and I’m ready to go. I accomplished everything I had set out to do. Michelle and I had a fantastic time splurging and indulging ourselves…. a rarity for both of us. I enjoyed every meal I had while I was here including the breakfasts at my hotel which were delicious and varied with real coffee. I skipped lunches which I made up for with dinners, wine and cocktails and all met my expectations. With the help of the tuk tuk drivers, I was able to give my feet a well-deserved rest after all the walking I did in Chiang Mai. And, I found some saleable items to take back home which I know will be a hit because they support a very good cause. Tomorrow I will say ‘good-bye’ to Cambodia and sail down the Mekong River for Viet Nam. Another adventure awaits!

A typical Cambodian tuk tuk.

A typical Cambodian tuk tuk.