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Published: October 11th 2013
On a Thursday night we lie, shivering under the covers desperate for the heater to kick on, the only pair of socks I'd packed working to thaw my feet up in the central highlands, surrounded by coniferous trees and nay a coconut in sight; Friday afternoon scorched in the middle of desert sands that may well take the skin clean off your feet, thick dusty air giving way only on occasion to a merciful breeze from the bay - a rolling sea of brick-red sand dunes as far as the eye can see.... welcome to Vietnam. Over thousands of years ethnicity, political allegiance, cultural practice and foreign meddle have found their culmination in a country with one of the world's most fascinating contours - a snake-like head gazing north toward China, the serpentine body wrapping itself around the nations of Laos and Cambodia to the west, a vast ocean to it's east. With it's unique geography - over 1,600 kilometers north to south, yet only 50 kilometers wide at it's most narrow - Vietnam encompasses an incredible diversity of landscapes within it's relatively modest landmass. Owing to this fact, a six hour bus-ride can transport you from the pinnacle of Vietnam's
4:30 AM on the Coast
The sun was peaking over the horizon as we drove in search of the white sand dunes.
central highlands with towering pines, sloping hills and crisp, cool mountain air to oppressive heat and rolling dunes of gold and rust colored sands stretching alongside pristine blue waters where palms hang lazily in the gentle breeze.
We left Da Lat early in the morning, so early in fact that no one in our guesthouse was awake, save for the old lady who'd never spoken a word of English in her life and didn't seem to understand the concept of numbers too well either... so little in fact that we began to worry that we weren't going to get our bill paid on time to catch our bus. When we finally straightened everything out and hit the road it was about a mile to the Sinh Tourist shack where we would catch our bus, Tara reaching into my bag about half way along to double check our map. What followed was the realization that our "Rough Guides: South East Asia" book - an absolute treasure that included detailed maps of almost every city we planned to visit over the next five months while omitting the shitty travel advice contained in Lonely Planet - had vanished (along with a cheap
Vietnamese hand fan we had purchased in Hoi An), and we realized almost instantly that while cleaning our room someone at the Les Sapines Guesthouse had stolen the guidebook and, inexplicably, the two-dollar fan. It made a bit of sense with the guidebook because the guesthouse has a huge collection of used guidebooks in the downstairs lobby, and they either thought we had stolen it and they were taking it back, or they simply build their collection by pillaging the rooms of their guests. Because we had never seen that book before and it had proven so useful, we were seriously tempted to run back, packs in tow, and look for it but as we imagined the scene of trying to explain the situation to that old lady and the prospect of missing our bus and having to pay for new tickets, we trudged on toward the pick-up point in a state of somber silence and deep mourning.
The bus ride from Da Lat down to the coast is a real roller-coaster with breathtaking views and stomach-churning curves. At times the whole scene would have you convinced that nothing exists in this whole world, save for mountains of dense
A surprise addition to a $10 / night room.
green vegetation, intertwined into some massive net - one cast over the whole world perhaps, with only the tiny winding road carved out from it's magnitude. After several hours, the mountains gradually gave way to hills - the slope continuing to decline until eventually we came around a bend and there it was, the bright blue ocean and brick-red sands, befuddlement to the senses as only hours before we had been coasting through pine forests - to our right now strange but captivating brightly painted above-ground graves added to the brilliant color spectrum with pastel yellows and blues - we were on our final stretch of the road to Mui Ne, a small fishing village surrounded by beautiful sprawling dunes of sand and pristine coastline. We turned onto the coastal road where a tiny fishing village continues on much as I imagine it has for generations - it was one of the most impoverished looking places I had seen in Vietnam since the hill-tribe villages of the far north - then a few miles down start the small restaurants, shops and beach resorts no doubt owned by wealthy investors who had never so much as sniffed the fishy air of
Fishing Boats in the Harbor
The small fishing village stretches out beyond the bay.
the village, yielding eventually to a bizarre stretch where all the signs are in Cyrillic and giant Russian-owned clubs and restaurants begin to tower above you with mammoth beach-ware emporiums across the way, then finally huge mega-condos both complete and under construction and a sign for a ritzy golf course and then it all just sort of disappears back into nothing. The amount of businesses was almost unfathomable due to the fact that there was really just no one around, many of them were closed in fact - it was as if some megalomaniac of sorts had gone on a building bender throwing cash and laughing at the sky about the profits that may perhaps never come. We settled in at the end of the strip with the least amount of development closer to the fishing village. We landed a room for the bargain price of $10 a night with our own infinity pool that, with a little trick photography, stretched clear out into the majestic blue sea.
We had only two nights in Mui Ne as time was running low on our visa and so we vowed that we were going to use one night to visit the
red dunes for sunset and another to catch the white dunes at sunrise - and nearly as exciting was the fact that we had heard talk of a joint known as Sinbad that was supposed to specialize in Middle Eastern food and as most who have spent a year or two living in Asia can attest, every once in awhile you need to get some bread in your diet and flatbread with chicken, tzatziki, onions, salad, spicy sauce and the rest was calling out for me from the shore. We had our first meal there that very afternoon with a side of more bread and hummus - our first of three visits there in our three days, and I'll also have you know that a doner sandwich will run you only about $2.50 which may hit the wallet a bit harder than local food, but at well under half the price of a McDonald's value meal (in Vietnam) who can really complain? Afterwards we bummed around the pool and felt like shit for awhile as our stomachs were reintroduced to heaps of bread - peering out over the vast blue ocean while local women with buckets full of fresh caught
Beautiful contrasts are a focal point of the landscape here
seafood trolled the coast. An hour or so before sunset we rented out a scooter to take the comparably short ride to the red dunes - only about 20 kilometers away - and whipped along the coast, the town now appearing on the horizon, wrapped around a bay now loaded with fishing junks as the sky took on an enchanting glow and cast long shadows across the village. We parked the bike for a few moments to breathe it in. I contemplated the nature of the place, Ocean City Maryland with cyrilic script to my rear, a time-forgotten village to my fore - I couldn't even suggest it to be an odd pairing, as to do so would mean there was some type of symbiosis between them. They were of two different worlds, and between them waves of tourists and travelers trying to make sense of it all.
As we headed inland the vegetation - shrubs mostly - became far less and the soil took on increasingly intense hues or brick-red, the sun still casting long shadows across the surface. We hit a final roundabout and the dunes stretched out beside us, makeshift 'restaurants' lining the opposite side of
It could almost double for Tatooine
the road to where the dunes opened up - offering parking with any purchase - a common scam that should be avoided in all parts of Vietnam, pursued often by the proprietor or their lackey with increasing degrees of intensity until you either take a ride or get taken for one. We drove slowly as kids with plastic 'sleds' came running up, trying to gain assurance that you would rent your sled from them rather than their rivals - just beside them were slightly older kids who tried to lure you to their restaurant / parking space. I located the least pushy of the roadside salesmen and he insisted that I could purchase one coke for $1 and park there and after repeat assurances I locked up my bike and parked. A young boy - more persistent than most - began to ask us where we were from and proceeded to tell us his life story, the kind of interaction that is intriguing, though you know the end-game involves a question about a sled. We listened to him for a time as we walked up the hill - I say this as if we had a choice - and he
Watching the sunrise as we searched for the white dunes - 4:45 am.
talked about what it was like to be a sled-selling kid in Vietnam (FYI to the American kids bitching that your teacher took away your mobile, your life isn't all so bad). At one point he asked how old I thought he was - I thought he was about 8, I guessed he was 12 to make him feel good and strong and he shook his head and told me he was 14, but truth be told he was no bigger than an 8-year old in America. Should you give the kid some money, rent his sled - perpetuate the system of child labor, would anything really change if you didn't? - no. Eventually a group of girls came up to grab a sled from him and we were off the hook, we wandered far off up and over the dunes. From a bird's eye perspective the dunes probably aren't that big, maybe the size of 20 - 25 football fields, but once you wandered off from the primary entrance it gets quite desolate and you can find yourself in places where you can see nothing but desert, it makes for some cool photographs and also a lot of fun
Mì Quảng in the Old Town
This is what breakfast could be, should be and is.
if you are willing to commit to several hours covered in a fine red powder (I was). As the sun ducked over the horizon we watched toward the west as the fishing boats began to turn on their lights, they twinkled all across the harbor and made a fine backdrop to the desert hills. 'How's Vietnam?,' people ask. Not too bad.
The air had cooled considerably as we made our way back to the guesthouse - tonight would be our night of rest as the following night would be cut short at around 3 am as we planned to rise and make our way through the darkness to the much larger but significantly more distant white dunes. We spent the time in the middle cruising into town for breakfast, having one of those famous little dollar bowls of noodles enjoyed at long metal tables on small plastic stools, a plate of fresh herbs on the side that puts many a salad to shame, spicy and salty sauces and tangy ones too, maybe some fresh lime and sugar on the side as well - just an anonymous little place like any other. We watched kids in grade-school trudging through the
muddy side streets, the lucky few perched perhaps up on two wheels and people coming and going in their time tested ways. We were back to lunch at Sinbad's and then played it easy at the pool and tried to get an early night of sleep. 3 am came all too soon of course and we made our way out into the darkness, tired and chilled by the cool air, one young man sat quietly behind the bar, the lookout perhaps, he gave us a quiet nod. It was about 3:30 before we got on the road and by about 4:30 it looked as though a great match had been struck somewhere beyond the horizon and we still hadn't found the white dunes. We settled instead to just cruise between the arid landscape and cool sea, watching the sky cast it's fiery-red against the soft rolling waves. The fishermen were out already, casting lines and nets in anticipation of the day's bounty. It may be that we aren't the best with directions, but once we found the road in toward the white dunes, we found it very difficult to figure out exactly where we were headed. By the time we
found a place to park our bikes and pay a small fee the sunrise had already ended, but no one had arrived at the booth and so we let ourselves in. A few sleepy guys near their ATV's offered to rent them out at inordinate prices but we just shook our heads with a smile and proceeded on foot. Just before the dunes there are some beautiful ponds covered with hundreds of lily-pad flowers in full bloom. One of these had a little bridge which led to a small home that had been converted to a restaurant. Tara walked over and asked the woman if she could pee and the woman took her into a small outhouse, Tara looking around in confusion as the room not only lacked a western-style toilet but was devoid, even, of a simple squatter. Recognizing the troubled look, the woman grinned and proceeded to demonstrate how you go to the back corner and just squat down over a tiny little drainage hole her laugh building in crescendo until I could faintly hear it from my perch overlooking the scene.
We headed out over the white dunes which were vastly larger than the brick-red dunes,
so large in fact that it was all too easy to look out and picture yourself actually in the middle of a desert. Just moving from the foot of the first dunes to the pinnacle is quite a challenge, your feet and sandals sinking down into the sand, growing hotter and hotter by the second. By the time we had crossed two dunes and made it to the place where we would ideally have watched the sunrise, we were about two hours too late and the sun was already out and scorching, we pounded through our bottles of water and were desperate for more. We played around in the sand for a bit longer. Gazing out into the dunes there was no sign of life, save for the ATV tracks from the riders who had already come and gone, so far as I could tell - we didn't see another soul on the dunes the rest of the morning, the faint hum of ATVs off in the distance was all the humanity the mighty hills could muster - it was my first time in a 'desert' and the natural beauty, solitude and magnificence were worthy of awe. Too hot and
exhausted to get a sense of how far these mountains of sand actually stretched, we made our way back toward the bike.
On the way back we stopped to have a look at the above-ground cemetery we had passed on the way in - against the brick-red sands with the sparkling waters in the distance and the surreal pastel color scheme of the tombs themselves, it was actually very very beautiful, enchanting perhaps. Visiting a cemetery has always seemed a gloomy and somber affair where we come from - perhaps the way we are socialized to view death, but this place seemed more like a park welcoming us to have a look round - was it inappropriate for us to walk around here and snap a picture or two? Maybe, but it seemed quite right at the time. The entire day was so bright and the colors were so rich that the entire scene seemed as though it was reaching out at us, trying to pull us into the painting - more colors than a kid with a belly full of mushroom salad on Koh Chang, or so I imagine. We took one more little ride through the fishing
town, down some narrow alleyways and past the school, a church and then right out to the coast. Some of the villagers gazed dreamily as we drove past, a tinge of curiosity in their otherwise placid expressions. Eventually we made our way down toward the restaurants, clubs, karaoke bars and gift shop mega-centers that seemed capable of self-cloning and this of course was Little Russia, and the scene became more desolate as we hit the sprawling condos, both built and waiting to be, and signs for some super-exclusive, members only golf course. So close was the proximity that you could probably look out from a top-floor condo and see the bay with the glowing junks and twinkling lights of town just beyond - yet the psychological distance between the two was immesurable. I thought about the little soup stand where I had enjoyed breakfast, I peered up at the cold concrete and steel structures - it brought me great pain. To witness right before my eyes the plague that will ultimately spell the end of travel as I know it was hard to swallow - and knowing so little about travel myself, I can only imagine what the original intrepid
visitors to the region should think were they to see it now. I went into one of the big emporiums to look for some swim trunks, they were made by Hurley and cost $40. I walked out. Back at the beach I felt my thoughts bouncing around like a set of dice in a gambler's hand - a sad but introspective way to look at how the excesses of money and growth will drive a stake in the heart of all that remains pure, no more certain a law will ever be presented before mankind. I rode the wave of sadness clear out of Mui Ne - feelings like this come and go, we had so much to see and taste, so many people to meet - so many distractions to help us pretend that all the wonders of a time more simple than ours could continue to realize themselves.
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