Deciding to travel during Vietnam’s second batch of major holidays wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.
The last week of April was a triple-whammy of Kings’ Day, Reunification Day and International Labor Day. It’s basically like tossing the 4th of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day into a blender and hoping it doesn’t start a fire.
Like everyone else in Vietnam, I went to the beach.
(I’m going to use the Vietnamese diacritic marks at least once for each word to show you how it’s really spelled. Afterward it will appear in English to make things easier.)
Mũi Né lies about 130 miles from Sài Gòn along Vietnam’s main highway, Route 1A. Of course, only chumps take the main highway. I wanted to take the coastal road (and so should you). The scenic route adds another 30 miles (maybe an hour and fifteen minutes) to your trip but it’s worth it.
So, the girlfriend and I loaded up her motorbike (she didn’t trust mine) like a pack mule and rolled out of the city bright and early. We were hoping to watch the sunset on the snow-white sand, spinning around in circles in the surf before falling down laughing. Of course, I would be wearing a white linen shirt and khaki shorts, and she a sarong and bikini top.
Just kidding! Nearly all of Vietnam’s beaches face east. You might be able to catch a beautiful sunset in Phú Quốc or Rạch Giá, but not Mui Ne. Oh, and we didn’t leave the city until 1 pm. Whoopsie. Do as I say, not as I do.
What should have been a relaxing drive quickly turned into a congested, hot mess after disembarking the ferry from District 2. Within 30 minutes we were caught in torrential rain in the middle of a rubber tree plantation (which of course ended exactly 15 seconds after we found shelter).
We avoided Hell’s Highway, sure; but the first leg of our journey is also the main artery from Saigon to Vũng Tàu. Vung Tau is a beach just an hour from Saigon, so naturally it gets packed—even when it’s not a holiday. The road is an endless stream of bikes, huddling against the shoulder periodically to let wave after wave of buses and taxis pass by.
The route to Mui Ne veers off the highway to Vung Tau and cuts through the small city of Bà Rịa before emerging on the shore. We stopped on the side of the road for a kickass bowl of bún riêu—a kind of tomato, pork, crab and blood noodle soup—and headed around the mountains to the coast.
Finally, some water. We puttered on and on, stopping for coffee in the town of La Gi. By now it was already dark. La Gi had a beach of its own, but we kind of wanted to find a hotel in Mui Ne before midnight—so on we went.
At some point we got turned around and shot out onto Route 1A for a few miles—just long enough to see two accidents. The first involved a small delivery truck, completely crushed like an empty soda can by one of those hulking orange tour buses that fly around blind corners on the wrong side of the road. It looked fatal.
Just five minutes later, a police truck flew by us. It looked like a 30-year-old hand-me-down from the Soviet Union. We met it down the road at the scene of another accident. A man on a motorcycle must have tried to pass a stopped truck, where he was completely annihilated by a second vehicle. His bike was shattered to pieces, and bits of flesh were strewn across the asphalt.
Well, enough of that. Back to the country roads, where at least you have a chance to veer into an orchard before getting decapitated by a bus driver.
Soon enough we wandered into Phan Thiết—originally this area’s premier beach until people realized Mui Ne was better. On your first visit to Phan Thiet, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you can smell the nước mắm. Phan Thiet produces a ton of the stinky/delicious alternative to soy sauce, made from fish and present in every single restaurant in the country. We would stay here for the night and head to the beach early the next day.
“You have your passport, right?” Jade said as we pulled up to a quiet little hotel.
I don’t know how many of you have ever single-handedly ruined someone else’s vacation before, but it’s something everyone should experience at least once.
Fuck. I had…my wallet. And money! That should count for something, right? And my driver’s license! Look, I’m from America. Isn’t that enough?
“Uh…I forgot it…”
We’d already had this discussion before, back in February when we drove to Châu Đốc for Tết (Vietnamese New Year). The thing is, you NEED your passport to book a hotel in Vietnam. But I’ve always gotten away with my driver’s license (even my student ID once); if not that, I have a photocopy of my passport. I know it’s the law, but if you’re like me, you don’t savor the idea of leaving your passport/visa with strangers.
Well there are two sides to that coin, my friend. Turns out hotel owners don’t like renting rooms to possible criminals and illegal immigrants—especially during major holidays when police are more likely to check rooms.
“OK. I will go to ask if they have any rooms,” she said.
Good news, they had a room! What luck. “They don’t need to see my passport?”
“I didn’t ask…but I think no.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
“Shouldn’t we ask?” Jade went back inside to ask. She returned almost instantly.
“No more room for us.”
Thus began our wanderings around Phan Thiet. No vacancies here. Need your passport there. Too expensive over there—foreigner price plus holiday price.
It was the perfect shitstorm. Why didn’t I book a hotel before we left? Why didn’t I bring my passport? Why didn’t we leave earlier? All great questions.
Outside Phan Thiet proper and halfway to Mui Ne, just before the big luxury resorts made their appearance, we pulled into Dai Nam hotel. From the outside it gave the impression that it used to be immaculate, but those days were long gone. It was really two buildings—the actual 3-story hotel and an adjacent building with a karaoke room and the staff’s apartments. Of course there was karaoke.
Running solo, I went inside. Let me handle this; they’ll know we mean business.
Nobody at the desk. Nobody out back. Nobody in the bathroom. At this point I was seriously considering grabbing one of the room keys at the desk and checking myself in for a trial period. I called upstairs.
“Xin chào!” Nothing. My stomach was rumbling. After a few more minutes I tried again.
“Hellloooo?” Aha, that must have been the secret password. Awoken from his slumber, the concierge heard the call of the almighty bald eagle echo throughout the premises. It was the sound of money.
I listened to the familiar sound of flip-flops smacking down the steps and tried my best to ask for a room in Vietnamese. At this point I was so tired and hungry, I don’t think I could have muttered coherently in English, let alone a foreign language.
At first he seemed to say “No, we don’t have any rooms. Take your drunk ass outside and sleep it off.” I started to leave and he followed me outside. I waved at Jade like a castaway desperately flagging a passing ship.
Lo and behold, they did have a room. Or many. He went back inside, and Jade stayed silent.
“So they don’t need my passport?”
“I don’t know. He’s going to check.”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t think either of us felt like grunting more the equivalent of “HAVE ROOM YES?” in either of our native tongues.
A few minutes later (that felt like an absolute eternity) we were ushered inside and given a room key. Now, I’m not going to say the room was a dive because I’ve certainly stayed in worse places, even in America. And for a helluva lot more money. But after a day on the road the last thing we wanted to fall asleep to was the smell of cigarettes and a dirty floor.
But as Jade later remarked: “I already planned to sleep at a pagoda tonight.”
Whatever. We took a shower and set out one more time to find some friggin’ dinner. Mui Ne is no Saigon, and our options were either a 4-star resort’s restaurant (hmmm…maybe not tonight) or a mom-and-pop convenience store.
We practically had to wedge ourselves under the roll-down metal security gate, but we were damned hungry. The bleary owner looked over his shoulder to his wife, who shrugged and disappeared into an adjacent room with a scowl.
I was very close to buying a bottle of liquor with a whole gecko inside, but I sadly realized it was probably fake. With its radioactive green hue, I estimated there was probably a 50% chance it would turn me into a supervillain. Plus, what better way to start tomorrow morning than lizard vodka and fried eggs? Well, scorpion sake, for one. But I digress.
We capped the night off drinking warm Saigon Green beer, munching away on sad little “sausages” (really just rolled-up Spam), dry instant noodles and peanuts. It was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had, and I only feel a little dirty saying that.
Do any of you have any vacation screw-ups you want to share with the class? Leave a comment and tell us all about it.