We woke up at the crack of dawn to the sweet melody of kids watching TV next door…at max volume. I didn’t realize televisions could go that loud without illegal modifications. Or maybe we were feeling the violent chemical reactions in our stomachs caused by mixing dog food-grade “meat” with light beer.
Either way, we were wide awake. Mui Ne was ours for the taking.
Well, Hàm Tiến was ours for the taking. The little slice of crescent-shaped sand between Phan Thiet and the next peninsula is actually called Ham Tien. Don’t ask me why everyone gets it twisted. Mui Ne is on the other side of the peninsula.
Just a friendly reminder—but I want to again point out that this is one of the busiest holidays in Vietnam. Where Tet and Independence Day (February-ish and September) have the entire country migrating en masse from the cities to the countryside to spend time in their hometowns, this week is all about dat beach.
And if you’re missing inner-city Saigon’s traffic, I’m about to put a smile on your face. All of those buses, taxis and bikes are at the beach…packed onto tiny thoroughfares barely big enough for the not-infrequent herds of cattle passing through town.
Ham Tien is ONE little road—Nguyen Dinh Chieu—and the shops, restaurants and resorts that line both the ocean and inland sides. There’s also a newer road (Vo Nguyen Giap) that runs through the hills just to the north.
There’s not really shit up there, but it’s a hell of a ride. I’ve heard not to go up there at night, since the lack of, well…everything makes you an easy target for robbers. A couple much smaller
roads sidewalks hiking trails connect brave riders between the upper and lower roads.
The first thing that smacks you in the face on the main road is that ALL the signs are in English, Vietnamese and Russian.
Russians love Vietnam’s beaches. It’s weird to find decent pho, burritos and stroganoff on the same road, but there you go. This is the place to make your combination vodka/snake liquor/Budweiser bender a reality. (Next time, I promise.)
The next thing you’ll notice is that the area is a freaking desert. Yes, a desert. In Southeast Asia.
Mui Ne has a unique microclimate with very low rainfall, and it’s home to both brilliant reddish and white dunes. The road into Ham Tien has a place where you can pay to rent a cheap plastic sled and try to push yourself down some of the red dunes.
Do yourself a favor and notice that nobody can grind out more than a couple feet before skidding to a halt. It’s not snow.
Moving on, you’ll drive past countless posh resorts and seafood restaurants on your right, and travel agencies, shops and all sorts of the usual Vietnamese suspects on the left. At this point, you’ll also notice how dirty the beaches are.
I want to say the piles of trash and dead fish were because of the holidays, but I know Vietnam by now and that’s not the case. The resorts keep a clean house, but venture off their property and you’d be forgiven for thinking it a landfill.
I’m exaggerating a little, but personally I have a very hard time wading in murky water that contains more empty yogurt cups than fish.
For now we skipped the beach. We wound our way through Ham Tien to the end of the line—where the road veers sharply uphill to rejoin Vo Nguyen Giap—and made a right into the fishing village so far untouched by the steady march of tourism.
This is the place to be if you want to pay normal prices for fruit, seafood or toiletries—a little run-down market about 2 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Nguyen Dinh Chieu. We shot back down the coastal road to our hotel before climbing the impressive hills onto the high road.
Jade wanted to change her shoes at the hotel so her feet didn’t burn. I didn’t care because mine look like freshly caught squid. Better to get a little color.
Too bad somebody stole her shoes. Yes, her shoes. She left them outside by her bike, but somebody with a foot fetish or a shitty conscience nicked them. At least nobody snatched my passport!
The scenery up on the high road is really breathtaking—unlike anything else you’ll see in Vietnam. And not because of the view or natural beauty, either. It’s just so strange. I could talk about it all day, but here’s a video instead.
We chugged along past Ham Tien and Mui Ne to the bigger dunes. We didn’t quite make it that far, though. Got too hungry and had to stop at a little rest area up in the hills. It was like an oasis, and the food actually wasn’t half bad.
The peace and quiet was interrupted by Hell’s Angels—a vicious gang of travelers on souped-up classic Vespas from the city. The whole mood of the place changed instantly. It was like Blackbeard’s crew had just docked and wanted all the wenches and rum RIGHT NOW.
Almost immediately after, a delivery truck ran into the cashew tree we were sitting next to (does EVERY tree in Vietnam make something edible?); everybody had a good laugh. What was that tree doing taking up all those good parking spaces?
With our private retreat ruined by pirate shanties and student drivers, we figured it was time to visit an actual beach.
East of Real Mui Ne is Hon Rom. We pulled in to a packed parking lot and got shaken down for a hefty $5 parking fee by a Hugo Chavez-looking attendant and his son. It felt more like protection money.
“It would be a shame if something happened to your left mirror, huh? For a small fee, I’ll make sure nobody touches it.”
You should know that beaches in Vietnam are free. Supposedly you can waltz right through a resort’s beaches without paying a dong (though they own the chairs and umbrellas, so god help you if you sit down), but that doesn’t stop owners from charging exorbitant parking fees.
If bitching about $5 sounds petty, keep in mind that the cost of parking right on the riverfront in the heart of Saigon is less than 25 cents.
I’ll be honest…at this point I had rock-bottom expectations for Hon Rom beach.
I’m happy to report that I was right.
It wasn’t as dirty as Mui Ne or Ham Tien but that’s all relative. It also wasn’t as dirty as a landfill.
Let me describe it to you, since I was too irritated to bother snapping pictures.
From the road, you trudge down a steep staircase to a roofed common area. Families are grilling seafood and selling typical overpriced crappy beach souvenirs—you know, sea shells from last night’s dinner and aggressively tanned Scopes pushers.
Everything is uncomfortably wet-looking; you won’t want to take off your shoes yet.
Down more damp steps to the beach. You still won’t take your shoes off. Within 50 feet of the pavilion is an open drain pissing out all the runoff water from the restaurants and (I ASSUME) bathrooms you just walked by. Most of the swimmers are right here.
Jade and I played a fun game called “Don’t Fall Into The Open Sewer” and made our way south to slightly cleaner pastures. I let her frolic in the water while I dug around on the beach for crabs and (presumably) rats. There’s got to be rats here.
I also wasn’t looking forward to rescuing Jade when she got a plastic six-pack yoke stuck in her gills.
Eventually I stopped being an old man and waded out myself. The water was pleasantly warm, and really wasn’t as dirty as I thought. Avoiding human waste is funny like that.
But the main reason I got in the water was that a naked kid (he was at least 8) was rolling around in the sand near me leaving little holes in the beach. Rather than get busted on Vietnam’s version of To Catch A Predator I gave up on my sandcastle—now that he was away drilling for clams somewhere else, I shook the trash bag off my foot and went to dry off.
Here come the sandflies. These utter pieces of shit are a bitch from hell. Excuse me for being sheltered, but I’ve never had a run-in with sandflies before. The beaches of my childhood (what I can remember from my plastic safety bubble) weren’t a living nightmare. Here’s all you need to know.
Mosquitoes suck, but they’re slow. Flies are fast, but they don’t drink blood. Sandflies are the satanic bastard offspring of both—possessing the speed, agility and unkillability of a fly and the unquenchable thirst for blood of a mosquito. Bring some mosquito repellent with you if you hang around the beach at night.
We got the hell out of Dodge and headed back to base for a rinse in real water.
Time for dinner and some damn seafood.
You are really spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh seafood in Mui Ne. The main drag is chock full of restaurants with tanks sitting right next to the road. You can really get to know your dinner personally before you eat it—and if it doesn’t have fight left in it, don’t eat it.
Our crab made a break for it during its weigh-in and tried to murder a bowl full of giant sea snails.
These seafood joints are oceanfront but not beachfront. At least where we sat, the beach is completely eroded away. It’s a common problem in Mui Ne that resorts have to battle every year. You’re left with an ugly concrete slope leading down to the water, but at least you can hear the lapping of waves, right?
We gorged ourselves on a massive crab, a plate full of grilled shrimp in Thai curry, grilled butter garlic squid and fried rice with squid, shrimp and fish.
I wanted to spend all of my money here. Sharks, snakes, alligators, turtles, frogs, snails, clams, oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, squid, octopus, fish…but perhaps my biggest regret is not eating The Thunderstorm.
These restaurants are one of the best places to people-watch. I sat and eyeballed the Korean family next to us—two little girls and the wife buried in their phones while the happy-go-lucky dad was off taking pictures and digging through his fanny pack.
Dad brought back some grilled corn as a treat for everybody. Thanks pops! Then back to the phones. Mui Ne isn’t really the best place to take your kids unless they like rolling around naked in sewage.
Were you ever let down by a hyped vacation spot? Let me know in the comments below!