I arrived in Mui Ne at midnight and disembarked what had been a tolerable five-hour bus journey. The road from Ho Chi Minh to Mui Ne was like an artery in the body. Motorbikes, lorries and buses bursting along like oxygenated blood cells. The organised mayhem being enveloped by a never-ending wall of houses. Uniquely there were no apparent towns or villages. The 250km road was just one long town. Each house slightly set back from the road with a family business built onto the front. The Vietnamese owners all sat or laying in hammocks in their open-fronted shops gently waiting for customers in need of food, a motorbike service etc… to stop by.
In Mui Ne the bars were closing and I walked along the main road spoilt for hotel choice. I really wanted a beach front residence and neglected the guest houses on the other side of the road. I booked into a hotel that I will not recommend. I was taken to a very nice $30 room only to discover it was still occupied; unfortunately the next room was $20, at the back of the gardens and was generally uninspiring. Being extremely tired I lazily accepted my room and went to sleep.
In the morning I went for a walk on the beach. Mui Ne beach is quite nice, but sadly the water is not. The waves lapping gently onto the beach had a rather unnerving green tinge and the broken line of dead fish along the tide line confirmed that I would not be going swimming in the ocean. I went back to my resort and took a dip in the refreshing pool and waited for my jeep to arrive to take me on a tour of some local sights in the afternoon.
My jeep tour took me to a locally famed “fairy stream”, Mui Ne fishing village, an unusual sculpted river bed, some white sand dunes and some red sand dunes. In my jeep, that had been left by the Americans when they left Vietnam, were two students from Essex, a rather quiet and unsocial german girl and a friendly Dutch couple who had been made to sit in the back on the gas cans. Our guide was a pleasant Vietnamese guy.
The ‘fairy stream” was an interesting anomaly; carved through soft, grey limestone and rich, brown clay a trickle of shallow water washed over a river bed of sand. Visually beautiful and slightly ruined by the stream of tourists and unwanted adolescent “guides”. Mui Ne fishing village never really materialised. We stopped in a lay by that overlooked the village and watched some fishermen spread huge buckets of what appeared to be krill all over a steep, sloping harbour wall. All I knew was the drying fish reeked. We headed off to a dried river bed, cut dramatically into a red earthen plain. People had carved their names into the steep red walls. We also saw a recently dead dog that was being eaten by flies. Which was nice. The red dunes and white dunes were quite dramatic. The dramatic scenery was exaggerated by an imposing thunderstorm system that brushed by us whilst myself and the Dutch couple hiked the white dunes. Soaking wet and many photos taken later we headed back to our hotels.
In the evening I went to a nightclub/restaurant called Sankara. Sankara is a luxury open air venue with dramatic lighting and tented private booths. I sat at the bar and ordered a burger (my first western food of the trip…I had a massive craving). Sankara was quiet and after dinner I was welcomed by the general manager who was an ex-pat from the UK. Reaching his late 40’s in age and waistline he gave me the low down on living in Vietnam with his Aussie mate who had subsequently joined us. The Aussie was interesting enough and kept me entertained whilst the manager fretted about the inadequacies of the staff he had recently inherited. They both kept buying me free beers so I stuck around for a while talking about luxury golf resorts, their interfering Vietnamese in-laws (they had both married considerably younger and more beautiful Viet girls) and Vietnam’s progression over the last 10-15 years. The Sankara was reasonably priced but backpackers may have been put off by the expected luxury. I headed off to find somewhere more vibrant, but most places were closing up and the nightclub in my resort seemed to look quite seedy when I walked in. Rebuffing the offers of motorbike taxi owners to be taken somewhere else I went to bed.
The less said about the following twenty-four hours the better! I woke up ate some lunch and went off to catch a bus to Nha Trang and subsequently Hoi An. I had really wanted to spend a day in Nha Trang, unfortunately I was running out 0f days and Hoi An was higher on my travel priorities. My journey to Hoi An was a six hour seated bus journey, Mui Ne to Nha Trang, and a mammoth 12 hour sleeping bus journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An. The seating bus was fine; comfortable seats, half-empty and some beautiful scenery to accompany my breaks from reading my second book: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer (A tawdry tale with moments of emotion but generally a disappointment). The business lined roads had petered out and the coastal views and mountain ranges of central Vietnam gratefully blessed my journey. As darkness fell we arrived in Nha Trang and I transferred to the waiting sleeping bus. At first I was disappointed to find my “bed” was located awkwardly above the bus toilet on the upper bunk and that the bed was essentially cut off shorter than the others because of its position. I waited for the bus to fill up before I went searching for any unattended beds. The bus attendant showed me to the back row. There were three columns of single beds with upper and lower bunks. The back however squeezed in five beds on an upper and lower level. On the back row on the lower level were three empty beds. I jumped in one and eventually sprawled out over two. At this point it was comfortable enough. Attempts to sleep were however broken by pot holes and being launched unceremoniously towards the bunk above your head that was ominously only fifty centimetres above. The journey took a devastating turn of events when the bus oddly stopped at a random service station and two more travellers boarded. A skinny small girl and her giant, sweaty overweight French partner. Naturally he took the bed next to me. For the next ten hours I was squashed against the window, repeatedly being launched towards the low roof. Not much fun for someone with a mild aversion to claustrophobic areas. In fact…not much fun is an understatement, I prefer to describe it as the worst night of my life.
Hoi An felt like it had a lot to make up for considering the last eighteen hours. After scrimping on the bus journey rather than flying (The only way to effectively travel quickly and comfortably around Vietnam- and not at much cost either!) I checked into a decent hotel on the edge of the famous old French quarter, ate some delicious fresh breakfast that they graciously let me have despite not staying the previous night and I went for some sleep considering I’d had none on the bus!
When I woke around midday I grabbed my camera, treated myself to a steak lunch and got lost in Hoi An’s incredible streets. The preserved architecture is a testament to the French colonisation and the lack of development in Hoi An in the last 200 years, this being due to its busy port business of the previous centuries being stolen by nearby Danang. Hoi An is famous for being part of Asia’s interconnected “silk road”. Tailor’s dominate the streets of Hoi An and you can get a handmade suit with your fabric of choice for $100. I didn’t get one but you could get shirts, dresses, traditional Vietnamese style clothing, shoes, anything! The pagodas in Hoi An are similarly beautiful, decorative and serene. I ate and drank far too much during my stay in Hoi An. It is simply too pleasurable to sit by the river, with a book in a nice restaurant and watch the world go by in this UNESCO world heritage site.
The following day I took a day trip to My Son. My Son is a Champa dynasty Hindu temple in the jungle about 50km form Hoi An. Another UNESCO world heritage site it is a reminder of Vietnam’s ancient and deep history. Constructed between the 4th and 14th century and partially destroyed by U.S. carpet bombing during the Vietnam war, My Son is a series of sites (some undergoing preservation work) with various temples made from small stone bricks. The temples are uniquely styled, sometimes partially overgrown and in many cases just piles of rubble due to the explosion of U.S. bombs. The knowledgeable guide was there to answer questions. I spent most of my time trying to take photos without the throng of tourists getting in the way and spoiling them. In the afternoon I did more of what I enjoyed about Hoi An best…eating, drinking and reading. I bought some presents for my girlfriend. (Who has told me to mention how much I missed her on the trip).
The following day was my final day in Vietnam. I caught a midday flight to HCM and with eight hours to spare before my overnight flat back to South Korea I had one last look around, ate some more Pho and went to the cinema to watch Cowboys and Aliens. (Surprisingly entertaining).
Vietnam was definitely an adventure I will never forget. I would like to return so I could explore the more northern areas of the country like Sapa and Halong Bay.
My defining memories:
Phu Quoc- Nearly untouched, wonderful locals, great food, terrible roads.
Hoi An- Serene and relaxing.
HCM- A charming mentalness, a true testament to the future and ambition of Vietnam mixed with its original charms.
Road travel- DO NOT travel by “sleeper bus”.
Mui Ne- I enjoyed my tour, but this resorts future is bleak. An action destination for watersports is not going to favour well when it’s waters are so polluted.
People- Touts, drug dealers masked as touts, motorbike taxi drivers and taxi drivers. All are annoying, too prevalent and stop you from relaxing or just try to rip you off. Walking down the street in HCM can be a laborious task. It is really sad as the honest people of Vietnam are genuinely awesome, welcoming and interesting.