My first impressions of Mui Ne were not good. I’d go as far as saying that I was disappointed.
After a long six hours from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, then another five from HCMC to Mui Ne, I was braced for the excitement of – how did the Lonely Planet put it? – “Arguably the best all-round beach in Vietnam.”
We arrived in the dark. At least, we thought we had arrived.
The bus stopped in the middle of the 6km strip, where 90 percent of the passengers disembarked at the Vietnam-Austria House.
“Not you,” the bus driver said, waving us back to our seats.
We were alone except for one other couple. The street lights gradually disappeared, and the bus stopped at a brightly-lit sign to let the other couple off.
“Their place looked nice,” I said. “Hopefully ours is, too.”
We had booked through a travel agency in Saigon, and had been assured that the Duy An was a reputable guesthouse.
My last glimmer of hope was snuffed out when the bus stopped next to a vacant sandy lot littered with empty Saigon bottles and plastic bags.
“Duy An,” the driver called out.
Tired eyes will often see things as worse than they are, which is why we decided to overlook the mosquitoes, wet toilet paper, bug corpses on the beds, and ineffective mosquito netting.
In the morning, things didn’t look much better. We rented bikes and rode down the strip to get a better feel for Mui Ne.
Three kilometers later, the chain fell loose from Jared’s bike. We stopped so he could implement an emergency repair. One kilometer after that, the chain snapped. To say he was angry was an understatement. To say I did not find it funny would have been a lie, but I managed to keep it quiet.
Staying at the Duy An was unappealing, but another long bus ride sounded worse. It turned out that there were plenty of rooms available in Mui Ne, they just cost more than our budgeted $20 a night. So we splurged, and booked three nights at the Vietnam-Austria House. At $40 a night for a private ensuite room with our own balcony and beach access, it was one of the better ideas we had the whole trip.
The relaxation portion of our vacation got underway pretty quick. Jared rented a board and tackled the waves of southeastern Vietnam – even tame waves look good to a surfer who’s been out of water for six months.
A group of men on the corner offered to rent us a motorbike for five bucks. So we did. Jared drove, of course, and I clung desperately from the back, as usual.
We stopped at the fishing village, which is basically a crowd of blue-sided boats all moored in the same bay.
We also came across a whole bunch of abandoned bowl-shaped boats.
One of Mui Ne’s main attractions is an expanse of red and white sand dunes. We decided to motor on over there to see what the fuss was all about. Immediately on arrival, a band of small children surrounded us, demanding that we give them money to use their dune slides (i.e., a strip of plastic).
The kids knew just enough English to do what they needed to do, relying on their tone of voice to convey how they really felt.
“You want to slide?” (innocent, childlike tone of voice)
“Maybe,” I said.
“Why?” (still innocent, slightly insistent)
“I’m not sure yet,” I said.
“Why?” (tone of voice approaches anger) “Why you no slide?”
Slightly scared, we negotiated a price of 20 dong ($1) for one slide. That was after talking them down from 60 dong for unlimited slides. A dollar was still extortionate, but I really wanted to have a go. As soon as the money changed hands, the kids all fell into their roles.
A little boy lay the slide flat at the top of the slope and began shoveling sand onto the bottom half. Another kid led me by the hand to the slide, and the others stayed close by, to make sure I didn’t try to sneak any unauthorized slides.
“Sit,” said one of them. “Knees up.”
He grabbed my knees and knelt in front of them. One kid pushed me from the back as another pulled me from the front. I could see little white handprints on my thighs from where they had been manhandling me. I felt violated. It was weird.
The next thing I knew, there was a countdown and I was roughly shoved down the hill. My instinct said scream, so I did. For about three seconds, until my slide came to an abrupt stop.
“What the – ?” I stood and brushed myself off. It had to be the lamest slide in the history of dune sliding.
The kids, their job done, had all turned their backs on me and hiked back up the hill.
On the way back, one boy followed insisting that we go again, despite the evidence that the sliding was not actually fun.
“You want slide?” (innocent voice again)
“No,” Jared said patiently. “She just had a go.”
“Why you no slide?” (quick jump to angry)
“We don’t want to,” Jared explained. Not good enough.
“Why? Why you no slide?” (ranting, no trace of innocence left)
Jared actually stopped responding.
“Why you no slide? WHY YOU NO SLIDE?” (screaming)
He resorted to what was a very clear blue streak of a curse in Vietnamese, directed right at Jared. I am sure he was saying words that no eight-year-old in any country should be privy to, much less speak out loud.
When we arrived at the bike, there were two boys, each about four, sitting on it.
“We watch your bike,” they said. “You pay us.”
They pocketed the Vietnamese equivalent of two cents, but didn’t leave us alone until we had backed out. One of the boys even tried to stick his finger in the ignition to prevent Jared from inserting the key.
As we pulled away, the mantra of “WHY? WHY YOU NO SLIDE?” got quieter and quieter. We saw most of the kids skipping off towards a crowd of adults sitting under a palm tree.
It seemed like an awful lot of work and unnecessary rage for one dollar, split amongst five kids.
That probably would have been the time to reflect on poverty and the effect of tourism on places like Mui Ne. But I didn’t do that. I can’t get tangled up in those thoughts, about how the value of a dollar fluctuates depending on who’s holding it. Worrying about being socially responsible brings me down. Confession: I don’t think about my carbon footprint, either.
Instead, I suggested that we return the bike and go for some ice cream. It doesn’t save the world, but it sure makes me feel better.
By the time we left Mui Ne, we had spent a little more than expected on accommodation, drinks at Joe’s (excellent, laid-back 24-hour bar), fresh seafood and surfboard rentals, but we were still at a distinct advantage in the grand scheme of things. And I’m not just talking about being relaxed.