New Year in Mui Ne

by Helen Conway, Nov 12, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Phan Thiet

After nearly four weeks on the road in Vietnam, my husband put his foot down. For at least two days, I was not allowed to drag him to any more temples or pagodas. Our Western New Year was going to be spent somewhere calm and relaxing.

We arrived in Nha Trang, having heard reports of its great beach where we could relax for a few days. However, the cool, blustery conditions were certainly not conducive to tropical living, with the clouds rolling several turbulent shades of gray and the swelling seas pounding onto the beach.

After heading on to Ho Chi Minh City, we began to hear reports of the beautiful Mui Ne. Several of the "open-tour" bus companies run there daily and a ticket from the city costs only US$6 return.

We left Ho Chi Minh City on the morning of December 31st and the four-hour journey took us through the sprawling, chaotic suburbs before heading east along Highway 1. The gray smog blanketing the city pulled back to reveal a clear blue sky and a fierce sun burned through the bus window.

A road branches off the highway at Phan Thiet, running along the palm-fringed seafront to a fishing village at the end of the peninsula. There are several low-key resorts dotted along the road and if you have pre-booked a place to stay, the bus will drop you at your accommodation.

We alighted at the Full Moon Resort, approximately halfway along the road. We walked along the flagstone path and an air of calm at once descended on us. Hotel staff casually tended the already well-manicured gardens. The restaurant and bar area- tables and chairs arranged beneath a large, thatched umbrella- quietly reverberated with the gentle laughter and chatter of bikini-clad guests, busy playing cards and sipping freshly-squeezed juices. A gentle breeze whispered through the palm fronds, eliciting a sporadic clackety-clack from a bamboo wind chime.

The English bar-tender quickly transformed his bar into a reception desk by pulling out a guest-book and checking us in. It was small wonder the staff were so relaxed when the view from their "office" was so idyllic. It comprised a wide stretch of golden sand, topped by a strip of azure ocean, capped with an eternity of angelic blue sky. It was like a magnificent horizontal triptych.

The Full Moon Resort is run by Phuong and her European partner, Pascal. The rooms here were more expensive than we had been used to paying in the rest of Vietnam but, as they say, location is everything. Our room was on the first floor of a new block, the balcony overlooking the magnificent beach. We had secured this room at short notice because the block was still being finished, although we had been hastily reassured over the telephone that our room would be ready.

And so it was. Smelling of fresh plaster and salt air, it was a far cry from the must and smog of Ho Chi Minh City. The mosquito net, draped over four poles, created the impression of a luxurious four-poster bed and the tiled floors were refreshingly cool under foot. The bathroom even contained a corner bath- a real dream after four weeks on the road. In excited anticipation, I ran the water, hoping to have a long soak before the New Year's Eve festivities began. I soon discovered, however, that the plug did not seal properly in the hole and within five minutes, I was sitting in an empty bath. I then ran some water in the sink and, on hearing a loud trickling noise, I found that the U-bend underneath had not been connected to the pipe, so the water ran straight out of the sink and onto the floor. This was still Vietnam, after all.

In the evening twilight, we strolled along the beach. The sun was setting in spectacular fashion. A coconut palm had grown nearly horizontally from the beach, before shooting its fronds up towards the sky. Its curve partly-framed the massive, red orb that was the setting sun. A picture fit for a postcard: the fiery sun, the silhouetted coconut tree, the gentle waves breaking on the shore and the wet sand glowing purple with the fading light. Where was my camera now? What a way to turn down the lights on the last eve of 2001.

Once night had fallen, it was time to party. We joined some friends whom we had met whilst traveling and the eight of us began celebrating with several bottles of 333. The Full Moon Resort was offering a barbecue at US$15 per head, which seemed quite expensive, so we made our way to the nearby TM Brothers Café. By this time, it was 10pm and the place was devoid of customers, others presumably already fed and now being watered in time for the witching hour. Perhaps the staff were hoping to close early. Then we arrived, en masse, to order a banquet.

We asked the waiter to bring us a random selection of dishes, having fixed a price with him beforehand. Whilst we sat around one table, on small plastic chairs, the waiters set up the plates and dishes on a neighboring table (we were the only ones in the restaurant, after all). When our meal was ready, we moved across to the other table to savor some of the best food we had in Vietnam. Meanwhile, fruit plates were set up on the first table and we moved back again after the main course. This fabulous meal, including drinks, cost the astounding price of US$4.50 each.

Suddenly we realized it was 11.53pm. We ran down the street to Jibes, apparently the most happening joint in this part of Mui Ne. We managed to buy eight beers just before the countdown to midnight began.

The dancing continued well into the early hours of the morning. A large group of young Brits were seriously partying, enjoying a welcome break from teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City. Carol, a 20-year-old Scot, with cheeks flushed bright red, was dragging any seated person up on to the dance-floor.

We also met Giles, an English man who had set off from Ho Chi Minh City that morning on a Minsk motorbike. He had purchased it from an Australian backpacker in a bar the previous evening for US$300. He hoped to ride it all the way to Hanoi. It had broken down four times on the way to Mui Ne. We wished him luck.

Eventually, tired revelers lit bonfires on the beach to insulate against the pre-dawn chill and we finished the night gazing at the sea and the stars.

One flaw with the Full Moon Resort was the workmen, who decided they were going to finish tiling our balcony at 7am on New Year's Day. The hammers and chisels sounded like they were knocking straight into my skull. My husband made a hasty visit to reception to plead for a little consideration.

Later on that day, we had to change rooms, as our luxury room had already been booked for that night. We moved into the smaller (but considerably cheaper) beach bungalow. The bamboo walls and vaulted ceiling allowed the heat out and the sound of the sea in. A Pokemon bedspread complemented the tropical décor. It seemed a curious Vietnamese trend that some otherwise stark rooms along our travels had been enlivened with bed sheets adorned with cartoon kittens or puppies. Even when we inadvertently checked into a brothel in Ho Chi Minh City, the room had a Pikachu bedcover.

Mui Ne is renowned for its sand dunes, which are reportedly just a few kilometers from "town." Two friends hired motorbikes and set off to find them. They returned three hours later, unsuccessful in their quest, but having enjoyed the rare occurrence of a quiet road where they could ride in (relative) safety.

Windsurfing is also available for those with energy to burn but one of Mui Ne's biggest draws is the sheer lack of anything strenuous to do. A shelf next to the bar is full of books in several languages, standing testament to what the sunbeds encourage most people to do. Waiters are on hand all day, serving large fruit platters of pineapple, mango and dragon fruit. Fruit juices and smoothies can quench the most heat-induced thirst and everything is charged to your room so there is no need to carry money around.

The most exhausting thing we managed was a walk along the beach, past fishermen mending their nets or setting out to sea in their two-meter wide basket boats. Refreshingly, there were no pedlars trying to sell us anything.

It was encouraging to see how many resorts were low-storey. Many had tried to remain in-keeping with their natural surroundings, being constructed of bamboo or timber and with thatched roofs. Barely anything reached above the tree line. Only at one resort further west were there taller blocks, with rows of sunbeds on the beach, all empty.

Mui Ne is one of the most beautiful spots in Vietnam, with a surprisingly small number of visitors. People seem fond of saying that "Vietnam is the new Thailand," Vietnam apparently like Thailand was twenty years ago. I have only seen the Thai islands since they fell prey to the ugly trappings of tourism, complete with high-rise apartments and international hotel chains. Perhaps this too will be Mui Ne's fate. My advice would be to see it while it is still a fantastic getaway.

© Helen Conway 2002