06 January 2006

Mui Ne

My favorite place in the whole world is a beach. Preferably a tropical beach, on a hot sunny day. And that’s where I went for a few days. I set out for Mui Ne, 200K south of Ho Chi Minh City, on Tuesday morning, and got back Thursday night.

As usual, with Delta Adventures, and I think with any tour bus company in Vietnam, the 7:15am bus left at 8:15, and the four hour trip was close to six hours. But it was worth it.

Mui Ne may not be the closest beach, but it is the one everyone recommends. I tried to find out about accommodations from people at work, who did give me a few tips on budget places, but most said to “Just get off the bus and look for a place”. Fortunately, I did not listen to their advice. There is nothing worse than hauling your crap around in the noon-day sun as you go in and out of hotels trying to find a reasonable place at a reasonable price that has vacancies. When I booked the ticket, I was handed a brochure for a “resort” that cost $15 a night, was on the beach, had a pool, and looked decent. I ended up calling the owner and booking a room.

The beach front hotels run along a twenty kilometer strip, the center of which is Kilometer 12. I was told that I should look for lodging in that area so that I could wander out at night to the various restaurants. I wasn’t sure how far my hotel was from the center, but figured it couldn’t be that far away. I thought about this as the bus rolled on and on before it dropped me at the Minh Tam resort, at kilometer 15.

The young woman at reception came out to greet me. I must say that I was not in the best of moods; it had been close to seven hours since I’d left my house, I was dehydrated and probably in need of food. Still, the place looked lovely. Small structures, with rooms on two floors, surrounded a courtyard and pool. To the left was a thatch-covered, open-aired, restaurant. All was quite simple, but clean and inviting. Best of all, was the sound of the surf and ocean breeze.

I got into my room, changed into beach attire, and headed for the pool. There were six beach lounges, all taken. But then I noticed a walkway on the far side of the pool that ran along the short sea-wall. It was filled with lots of comfy chairs and little thatched-roof tables. I threw my towel down, got out the Harry Potter, and baked in the sun. Sitting there, despite the tranquility, fantastic weather, and good book, I couldn’t help thinking I had made a mistake and that I should have taken a hotel 3 kilometers down the road. I just wasn’t feeling relaxed or happy.

After my hour in the sun and a shower, I decided to take a walk to see what was available down at kilometer 12. I walked along the narrow two-lane road, past abandoned buildings, buildings in progress, fishermen’s houses and shacks, an occasional hotel, and crews putting in an expansive, multi-colored, tiled sidewlk. Palm trees sprung up out of it every ten feet. Some parts were completed, others not even started. Often, I had to walk in the street and watch out for the speeding buses, although traffic was not that bad. I passed Kilometer marker 14, then 13, and was starting to think that this was not at all fun and maybe I should just take the bus back the next day.

As I walked on, and as the hotels began to become linked at the seams, I noticed that you could walk into any of them and go straight through to their beach restaurant and then the beach. I entered a surf shop and ended up at a kite-surfing operation.

I had heard this was all the rage in Mui Ne, and could now understand why. There weren’t any real waves to speak of, but a good amount of wind. I had never before seen this sport except on TV. Basically, you strap on a harness, slip your feet into straps on a short board, and hang on to a crescent moon-shaped kite. (don’t know the dimensions, but it is huge). And then you let the wind carry you away. I had no desire to try it, but it seemed hundreds of people, at several different shops, were very eager to do so. I continued my walk, this time on the beach, still feeling like maybe this was a mistake.

But then I looked down and saw seashells. Seashells! Oh, I had forgotten about one of the best reasons for walking on a beach! I immediately started picking them up and tossing them in my bag, deciding if this one would be good for earrings, of if that one would do better on a collage. And just about then, the beach took hold. Hey, I thought, this is where I derive life force, this is the place that brings me inner peace, this is why I came here. And just like that, I was cured of any desire to leave.

I also realized that this section of Mui Ne sucked, and I was ever so grateful that I hadn’t gotten off the bus here. It was packed with mostly western tourists, being loud and guzzling beer. At the time it really bothered me, but later I thought, well, what did you expect? People come to the beach to drink, surf, and party. I come to mellow out, which is what I could do back at my little resort.

As I walked the 3K back, the sun began to set behind me. The sky filled with bright pinks and a sliver of moon glowed over it all. I made it back before it was completely dark, and went into the restaurant area to see what was available to eat. I’d seen them grilling some calamari earlier, and it had smelled awfully good.

A was a bit taken aback by the prices on the menu. The place may be called a “resort”, but it was just a simple place, yet prices were as high as some of the really fancy places down the road. All things being relative, it really wasn’t that expensive. I got the grilled calamari and a cold bowl of rice. I soon learned that the restaurant part of the hotel needed some serious work. One can’t blame the help, though. They simply didn’t know how a restaurant works and obviously the owner wasn’t interested in showing them

After eating, I again went out to the sea-wall chairs. A few other guests were out, either quietly talking or just watching and listening to the sea as it rolled in a few feet below us. I glanced up to look at the moon and was greeted by the sight of millions of stars. I gazed up in amazement. I can’t even remember the last time I have seen that many stars. No longer was the sky spotted with an occasional cluster of blinking lights, but was blanketed with twinkles. There aren’t any blank spaces. I knew this, but had forgotten. How was I ever going to live with the meager sight I have to look up at every night in the city?

I got up early the next morning determined to get a pool chair. I’d noticed that the couple who had snagged the best seats when I’d arrived had not vacated them until after the sun went down. First, though, I sat down to drink some tea.

From where I sat, I had a good view of the small fishing boats anchored within swimming distance of the shore. Then I saw a group of ten people, in single file, hauling in a net. I got up and walked down to the beach. Slowly and methodically, the eight women and two men hung on to a rope and walked backwards. They had a rope belt around their waists with a cord attached that, in turn, wrapped around the line they pulled. As one of them reached the wall, he would unfasten his cord, walk into the water at the front of the line, reattach himself, and continue to pull. There was a definite, hypnotic type rhythm to the process.

I glanced out onto the sea and saw that two men in two boats were directing those on the beach. Occasionally, the people pulling moved to their left a few paces, without breaking stride. It was around that time that I noticed a second group of ten, hauling in the other side of the net. It must have been close to an hour before the net started to emerge from the water.

Now, when a person went to the front of the line, she scooped the net, twisted it over the line, and reattached her belt cord around it. Other people started to appear on the beach with baskets and buckets. When the entire net was on the shore, the process of opening it and extracting fish began. I walked down to take a closer look, along with several other tourists.

One Canadian-Vietnamese man was asking questions and translating for me and another man. Out of all that work, there seemed to be about three large baskets of small fish. Some would be to eat, some to sell. He talked to the women in charge who told us that the share for each of the workers would be 2000 VND, about 20 cents. A young boy was rewarded two, good-sized fish for helping with the hauling in.

I started to talk to another, middle-aged couple, also Canadian-Vietnamese. I asked when they had last been back. It was their first trip in thirty-five years. I made some comment that it must be wonderful, to which they replied that they had very mixed feelings. They seemed to be most bothered by the poverty. They had been in Vietnam a few weeks, and would soon be joined by their sons, one of whom was about to get his PhD from MIT.

The head women came over to us and again I heard a bit more about their lives. I was curious to know if they lived behind us, next to my hotel. She said some did, while others lived farther away. My translator said he was very surprised to see people still engaged in this type of work, and figured it would be a matter of only a few years before tourism replaced fishing.

Eventually, all the fishermen went home, and I went back up to the pool, to find that yesterdays couple was eating breakfast, but had all their stuff covering the only two pool chairs that had sun. I knew they would be in for the long haul.

I picked out one of the remaining two lounge chairs, and tried to move it to a better position. There was not a whole lot of room in which to do this, and the chair was made of something equivalent to solid oak. So as I pulled it, the back rest collapsed on to my forearms. Fortunately, they had ice that day, so the swelling was kept to a minimum, and it is still not bruised, but for about an hour there I thought I had cracked a bone.

This time, I cooked for a little less than two hours, went back in to hose off and get ready for the shoreline walk. Now that I was thoroughly into the beach lifestyle, I could start to dress properly. I threw on a sarong and tank top and took off down the beach, plastic shell-collecting bag in hand.

As I walked, I passed a group of giant, woven, tub-like baskets that the fishermen use as row boats to get out to their fishing boats. From what I saw, only one or two people ride in them, but they look like they could easily hold five people. They row with a paddle that is attached to the front of the basket, while standing up, and using a motion that looks like they are stirring a cauldron in front of them. They push the oar out and bring it round in a half circle until it meets the boat, then do the same in reverse. I have no idea how in the world that could make you move forward in a straight line.

On the way back, I stopped at a little shack to get a drink. Out in front were various family members including the cutest one-year-old boy. I had said hello, and had started to go towards the drinks when I felt little arms latch onto my leg. I looked down to see the cute kid hanging on, and everyone laughing. I reached down and he took hold of my finger and was not about to let go, as he stared straight into me. I then realized that I was wearing a shocking pink, patterned sarong, and the kid was going nuts for the color. When I tried to walk away, he began to cry. I had to hang with him a few minutes before I left.

It was close to five when I got back. I thought I could jump in the shower before I took sunset pictures. But the electricity was still off as it had been since noon. (no electricity = no water pump to the upstairs rooms). It didn’t matter, the sun goes down early here and sitting outside to watch all of it was better then going inside for any reason.

I watched and listened to the day end on the beach in Mui Ne. I spent more time fixated with the heavens. I realized, once again, that I wanted to live at the beach. There really is no better place that I know of.

Sporting quite a tan,