13.09.2013 35 °C
Finally managing to tear myself from Saigon I decide to head up the coast about 300km to Mui Ne, a picturesque beach town near the famous fishing city of Phan Thiết, a favourite getaway for the Saigonese seeking a break from the bustle and pollution of the city. I was certainly looking forward to some peace and quiet after Saigon, I had a wonderful time in the city but it is an exhausting place.
I took the train from Saigon travelling up the Reunification Express. The trains in Vietnam are a reasonably good way to travel, they can be a bit slow as they clicky clack up and down the country but they’re safe, inexpensive and the sleeper carriages make long journeys durable. Also travelling the trains in Vietnam is a cultural experience in itself and you often meet people on the way. Walking between the carriage classes is like a dissection of Vietnamese life, from the hard seat carriages full of men drinking beer (any time of day) to the restaurant full of various vendors who will regularly walk the length of the train hawking their baskets full of fruits and cooked foods. You will also see whole families spilling out of sleeper berths and business travellers in the soft seat class.
Vietnam has one railway line called The Reunification Express running from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north a distance of some 1,800km (1,200 miles). This railway originally built by the French in 1936 and then cut half way up the country when the North and South separated only to be reunited after the American War (what the Vietnamese call the last war here). There are many trains on the line regularly ferrying the population up and down the country, for longer journeys the sleeper class is actually quite good, 4 berth to a cabin with good beds that you can stretch out on.
As I finally leave the sprawl of Saigon behind me the countryside opens up with an endless patch work of rice paddies and small holdings interspersed with clusters of palm and coconut trees. The land is rich, green shooting up everywhere – out of the paddies, along the river, between the cracks in the roads. I pass peasants minding their crops in the fields, hiding from the mid-day sun under their conical hats and leaning lazily on their bamboo walking sticks. Water buffalo mingle passively around them not even noticing the clicky clack of the train as it passes. This is Vietnamese life as it has been for thousands of years and no doubt will continue for many more.
I got off the train at Phan Thiết to take a taxi the final 20km up the coast to Mui Ne. Phan Thiết itself is the Fishsauce capital of Vietnam and one of those odd Vietnamese coastal towns steeped in the history of one trade and never quite sure which cloak it wore. The surrounding province lies on rich red clay and sand dunes, massive sand blows run up the coast to the north and in the rainy season the red clay swamps the province, plastering itself over the buildings and people. The hot season brings winds which cover the streets in sand and dust making the old women complain that it grits their joints. As I walked out of the station the air held that ting of briny decomposing fish which is consistent in so many of the fishing towns here.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Fishsauce in Vietnam, it is hugely popular often eaten straight as a dip or spread and making its way into just about every dish. Phan Thiết has a sea-heritage dating back many hundreds of years and at one point everyone in the town knew how to make Fishsauce, placing fresh fish unwashed and ungutted into salt barrels to ferment. Like fine wines there would be expensive bouquets that would fetch incredible prices and Fishsauce was often used as a currency, stashed away under beds for rainy days when it could be brought out and sold. Fishsource is as important as air to the Vietnamese, as necessary as life itself.
Short taxi ride took me to Mui Ne, a beach lined with coconut trees and a single road running the 5km length surrounded by hotels and guesthouses. Popular with tourists for its natural beauty and nearby sand blows, it has a relaxed laid-back feel to it which I welcomed after nearly 3 weeks in Saigon.
I booked into the Sea Winds Resort, a lovely cheap guesthouse about 100m off the beach run by a man called Mr Tan. He has a collection of small independent 1 and 2 bedroom huts surrounded by a lovely well maintained garden of palms and flowers. With his wife they run a good guesthouse, clean and tidy. Mr Tan is ever helpful presenting me, when I arrived, with one of his handmade maps of the local area outlining the best routes to see the local attractions.
I decide to spend 2 nights in Mui Ne, then I will head north again, I still have a lot of distance to cover in this country before I can head west to Laos. One day was a washout, raining all day with frequent heavy bouts, coming down like sheets of water. There is a cyclone in the China Sea off Hanoi in the North, it recently caused havoc in the Philippines and is now sitting off North Vietnam - down here we’re experiencing the tail end of this massive storm some 1,000 miles away. Power has been out all day in Mui Ne leaving nothing to do but read books and drink beer.
Power cuts are frequent in this country (in fact the whole region has problems with generating and buying enough power to meet the needs of their growing population and heavy industries), especially outside the larger cities in the country. Most places have backup generators used to keep minimal power to fridges until the power can be restored. Mr Tan tells me today they have cut the power to this whole area, rationing what’s available to other areas of the province. Tomorrow it will be some other part of the province experiencing a rostered black out.
The next day I wake to clear blue skies, already stifling hot by mid morning. I take Mr Tan’s advice and hire a scooter from a trust worthy friend three houses up, I was planning to go and see some of the local sights today. For 250,000 Dong (5 quid) you get a scooter for 24 hours.
It’s actually illegal to ride a motorbike or drive car without a Vietnamese license, but as with everything in this country there is a way around provided you know how. So this is how it rolls; police, especially in tourist areas, will turn a blind eye to Westerners riding bikes. As long as you wear your helmet and don’t drive too stupidly. Of course you can still be stopped at anytime but it’s rare. If you are stopped and checked you’ll be $100 out of pocket. The police will issue an on the spot fine of $30 plus confiscate your motorbike for 10 days which results in a further $60 fee to the rental company.
Mr Tan assures me I’m at low risk of being stopped so I decide to risk it and head off up the coast, camera slung over my back, hot morning sun beating down on my steel helmet fashioned like an old GI army hard hat.
My first stop is the fishing port of Làng Chài about 15km up the coast. A sprawling fishing and market town with a large fleet of fishing boats anchored in the bay. The fleet of what must be a couple hundred boats lies dormant in the day, anchored near the beach whilst the fisherman sleep and the women wash and sell the fish in the market. The fleet fishes at night, using bright lights shone into the surrounding water to attract their catch. You notice them at night lighting up the entire horizon out to sea.
The town has an active market at its heart and a maze of small streets all zigzagging their way eventually down to the sea. The narrow streets full of baskets drying shrimp from last night’s catch and the air full of that fermenting fish smell which seems to grip your nostril’s not letting go. I weave the bike down the narrow alleys being careful not to run over pans of drying shrimp which seem strategically placed to test your bike skills.
The people of this town are poor, everyone is busy head down with the fishing trade, you see the poverty and endless hard work in their faces. They are not particularly interested in a white man riding a scooter around their drying shrimp beds, although occasionally I did get a wave and a smile, especially when taking photos.
I carry on and pass several lads working on a 4WD beside the road, their bodies and limbs disappearing into the vehicle at impossible angles as they tinker and fix.
The fishing fleet itself looks impressive floating 100 yards off the beach, a riot of multi coloured wooden boats huddled together bobbing in the hot mid day sun, some with flags and engraved dragons on their bow.
The smell of fish getting to me I decide to head up the coast about 30km to Bàu Trắng, an area of huge white exposed sand blows. Before leaving the fishing town I fill the scooter up with fuel costing me $3, I will be riding quite a distance today. As I leave town I pass motorcycle police busy checking over local Vietnamese bike riders, after a quick glance in my direction they seem to ignore me and I carry on more than slightly relieved.
The White Sands of Bàu Trắng are impressive; I approach on a dusty track battering my little scooter over the pot holes, I pass farmers in ox-drawn carts transporting their goods like they must have done for hundreds of years. I leave my scooter in the designated parking spot and take a walk up onto the white sand blows, impressive in their size – only in the deserts of Australia have I seen such large dunes.
I head back down the coast towards Làng Chài and stop to check out the Red Sand Dunes just outside the town, also impressive. These large red sand blows overlook the fishing town below with its sleeping fleet in the bay.
The afternoon is pressing on so I ride back towards Mui Ne. I was keen to see one last sight before heading back so stopped at the famous Fairy Stream (Suoi Tien) just north of Mui Ne.
The Fairy Stream is a small river that winds its way through a bamboo forest and small canyon, resembling a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. You walk up the sandy ankle-deep stream barefoot, the warm red/brown water delicious around your feet in the hot tropical heat.
You can climb up the red sand hills overlooking the river valley and slide back down. The sand seeping into the river giving it a red colour. There are also spectacular out crops of limestone that have been carved by water running down them, looking like upside down stalagmites.
After a few kilometres walking you come to a lovely waterfall with a bathing pool. There were a couple of Vietnamese families enjoying the cool water when I arrived, I jumped in and joined them – it was so refreshing in the hot afternoon. I took some photos then headed back down the river.
On the way back I saw a man offering Ostrich rides. Funny to behold, these creatures can actually run quite fast even with someone on their back. I decided not to ride the Ostrich, mainly because the previous night I may have eaten its brother. Ostrich meat is common in Vietnam and actually quite tasty, akin to beef in texture and taste.
My next stop will be Nha Trang some 400km north up the coast and Vietnams premier beach resort-town. I’d had a nice few days in Mui Ne and was now feeling relaxed and recovered. Ever helpful Mr Tan advised me to take a tourist bus to Nha Trang, according to him this would avoid backtracking to Phan Thiết to catch the train and would actually be slightly quicker and cheaper once you factor taxis into the cost.
A large air conditioned sleeper bus picks me up outside Mr Tan’s Sea Winds Resort for the 7 hour journey to Nha Trang, costing a little over $7 in total. The bus already being 1 hour late when it picked me up we set off and soon found our way to National Route 1A road which will take us all the way to Nha Trang.
Similar to the railway line National Route 1A runs the length of the country from north to south, built by the French in the early 20th century and recently upgraded with loans from the Japanese ODA and the World Bank. During both the French Indochina and the recent American Vietnam war road 1A was the site of a number of battles between Vietcong and French or American troops.
We arrive late into Nha Trang but I soon find a nice little guesthouse near the tourist district run by a lovely French speaking Vietnamese family. The guesthouse is full of French families on vacation and I find myself having to brush off my French as English doesn’t go very far here.
Nha Trang has traces of human settlement dating back to the Cham Empire, though during Vietnamese rule, there wasn’t much more here than small fishing villages. The French recognizing the beauty of the bay, with its islands and white sand beaches, began the transformation into a resort town. American soldiers agreed, and Nha Trang became a favourite holiday spot during the war.
Nowadays there are a lot of French here and an extraordinary amount of Russians. The Russians have direct international flights into Nha Trang from many of their cities and they come in their thousands to avoid the cold Russian winters. Many Russians, married to Vietnamese, purchase apartments and prefer to stay here whilst renting their places in Russia. They treat Nha Trang the way many Europeans treat Mallorca or Costa del Sol, unfortunately also creating a similar vibe.
The beach and the surrounding bay are beautiful with its warm clear waters and near all year round sunshine. But I must admit I didn’t feel so comfortable here, especially around the tourist heavy areas. There is a lot of scamming and you get hustled almost continuously. Theft is rife with a lot of handbags and wallets being stolen and the general atmosphere not really to my liking.
One day, as if to confirm my dislike of this place, I had my camera stolen whilst swimming with friends up the coast at a quiet beach. We rode scooters up the coast about 20km to a lovely sheltered beach. It started to rain heavy, a chilly hard rain which soaked and made us shiver. In the sea was the best place so we jumped in, deliciously warm compared to the chilly rain storm around us. We swam, keeping an ever vigilant eye on our belongings which were only 10 yards off the beach behind a small rock.
To our shock, when we returned to our belongings to dry off after swimming we found that my camera and 4 mobile phones had been stolen, they also emptied our wallets of cash but left my cards thank god. Thankfully the camera was my small Sony snapper camera and not my Nikon but it was still a nice little camera for carrying in your pocket when out and it had a number of shots still on it from Nha Trang which are all gone now.
This incident cementing my dislike of the place, the final evidence confirming my judgements and making my mind up to leave as soon as possible. I’d stayed 5 nights already in Nha Trang and the following day bought an overnight sleeper train ticket to Danang.
The railway stations are interesting here. Everyone is kept off the platform behind locked doors in a large waiting room until the train arrives and the guards swing the doors open. Like a pen full of agitated cattle everyone bursts out onto the platform. You often have to traverse train tracks to get to your designated carriage and once there you throw your luggage up onto the high step of the carriage then clamber up the vertical metal stairs. I image train travel in 1950’s Europe would be similar, high stepped carriages that you have to climb up into. The trains also look like they were built in that era.