When the 4×4 jeep we were in rolled on the national highway we could see nothing else but a sky of midnight blue. Our driver, Vu, disturbed the morning with EDM music blasting on the stereo and all I could make out of the surroundings were hazy silhouettes of trees and a hundred tiny lights floating on the sea beside the road. It felt like a music video for Avicii except it was 4:30 in the morning and all four of us were still half asleep and shivering from early morning chills.
The day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we immediately boarded a sleeper bus that would take us to Binh Thuan province. After an uneventful 6 hours of travel time on top of a 3-hour flight after a 5-hour delay caused by an outgoing storm in Manila, the four of us decided to take things slow for the rest of the day. We only had exactly 24 hours to spend in Mui Ne but everyone agreed that a leisurely stroll around town, a few hours in the resort’s lukewarm pool, and a strong dose of Pho are exactly what we needed to get our energies back up in time for our half-day tour the following day.
Our alarms simultaneously went off at 4:00 AM, and as schedules, Vu was waiting for us outside the resort thirty minutes later. Today’s agenda: Mui Ne’s famous sand dunes.
The sky gradually transitioned to a subtle periwinkle. Light emerged from the horizon and poured itself over to the white slopes of wind-ssculpted sand which we saw from a far distance. Soon enough, we found ourselves driving ATVs across a great sandbox, destroying the peace with the rumble of our engines and swooping past people who decided to explore the dunes on foot.
Lines from Aladdin’s popular romantic ballad played on loop inside my head, an unavoidable thing to do when you are surrounded by what seemed to be an infinite amount of sand. We went over, sideways and under on three wheels, instead of a magic carpet ride. I drove my ATV to the tallest hill and watched as tiny strangers created patterns with their footsteps across the vast landscape. The coordinates of where I was standing can be traced with a flick of my finger, but the scenery tricked my mind into believing I was in the middle of nowhere. But regardless of my position, I was clearly in awe. It was hard to believe we were still in the same country known for streets overrun by motorbikes. There, it was just us and that enormous Saharaesque landscape.
What was supposed to be a 30-minute ATV ride extended to 60; but that single hour was all it took to make up for the stress we accumulated the previous day. The sun soon caught up with us and we decided to move on to the next spot in hopes of avoiding the morning rush of tourists. But in our heads we knew that was already the highlight of our day.
Unlike the white sand dunes, its much redder sibling is located just 10km away from the main resort strip of Mui Ne, making it more accessible to the public. And the more people it attracts, you are certain the more scammers flock the place.
It is populated by lady vendors making a living by balancing two plastic buckets of local delicacies on their shoulders, and a bunch of kids who are infamous for persistently offering plastic sheets to use for sandboarding. We avoided the pesky toddlers, because according to many online reports, they are notorious for stealing from tourists while pretending to assist them in the dunes. Instead, we approached one of the Vietnamese women who sold us their local version of taho, only instead of the sweet arnibal, it uses lemongrass and ginger syrup, which I personally prefer because of the play of sweet and tangy flavors on my palate.
With the day’s temperature quickly rising, the four of us wrapped things up and didn’t bother any further explorations of the place. Based on experience, the sand would be scorching our soles in a matter of minutes after being exposed to too much sun. Besides, compared to the one we went to earlier, the red sand dunes seemed like it’s only worth a half-hour visit.
Vu then drove us to the quaint fishing village at the north end of Mui Ne bay but the lack of activity in the area made me feel like he just dropped us off at a random dirty beach where empty shellfish and plastic trash littered the shore. It was a Sunday in Vietnam and the fishermen were probably having their day off, leaving the beach bland and boring.
As the day progressed, the beads of sweat forming around my head doubled. The heat started getting its way into my nerves, making me more anxious to get back to the hotel than finish the rest of our tour. That’s the problem when you have too much fun way early in the day. Everything else seemed to fall short and there was no way to get the energy back after the morning’s adrenaline-filled activity.
Our last stop for the day is a stream that winds its way through sand formations that resembled a mini Grand Canyon. Barefoot, we treaded on ankle-deep water and followed the tiny river while looking at the striking colors that accompanied us on the way. To our left, red and white walls of sand towered over us while vibrant green vegetation with an occasional pop of lavender can be seen on our right. Above us, nothing but blue skies.
The scene came straight out of a fairy tale which is probably why the locals named it the Fairy Stream, only, at the time we were there the only fairy spotted was myself. Even though it only took us half an hour to enjoy the scenery, I left the stream feeling refreshed.
Still playing his favorite club music at maximum volume, Vu parked his jeep in front of our resort around 10:00 in the morning. Glad that we still had a couple of hours left to burn before checkout, I quickly disrobed and jumped in the pool, recalling my satisfaction in the past day’s activities.
I liked Mui Ne and the fact that we didn’t have to rush despite the limited amount of time we had to fit everything in. 24 hours was just right for us at the time, but after coming back to Manila, I felt like I wanted to get to know the place more even for just another night. The place had enough sizzle. But it also has the ability to simmer you down like a lover that kisses you sensually after a hot, raunchy ride. It keeps you interested and curious for more. But you don’t feel the need for a second affair anytime soon.