I felt really cool overstaying my Cambodian visa - like a seasoned traveler that’s oblivious to Western calendars and clocks - but coolness comes with a price tag. In Cambodia it only cost $5 a day to overstay our visa, but Vietnam’s penalties are much pricier. Thus we need to adhere to our one-month Vietnam visa: we packed our backpacks and took off for Mui ne. Travelling the whole of Vietnam is quite simple with the “Open Bus” ticket – a $40 ticket book that lets you stop at every noteworthy town – Saigon to Mui ne, Mui ne to Dalat, Dalat to Na Trang, Na Trang to Hoi An, Hoi An to Hue, and Hue to Hanoi.
It should go without saying that I needed food before boarding the 4-hour bus. Anika and I found some street pho that was bomb.com. I snapped pictures like an overzealous Chinese tourist/my mother since I’m blogging about street food for Roaming Hunger while abroad. I backed up to get a good shot of the pho stand, getting a Vietnamese Kiss in the process.
Let me set the record straight: French Kiss > Vietnamese Kiss. A Vietnamese Kiss is when a motorbike’s motor scorches your leg. Although the bike was off and just chillin’, it caused a bubbling 2 inch x 3 inch blister to form on my calf. Ouch. Then I was the laughing stock of the pho stand, as I was flustered from the Vietnamese Kiss and put my chopsticks in the bowl upside-down! The ladies cracked up and passed me garnishes for my pho- mint, basil, chili peppers, fish sauce, and soy sauce. I overestimated my spicy tolerance, tossing in heaps of chilies, and soon my face looked like a sweaty tomato. I self-medicated by double-fisting ice cream and cold beer on the bus. The open bus rocks- there’s about 36 beds, free Wi-Fi, regular food/beer stops, and Mickey Mouse was plastered on the door!
Mui Ne doesn’t have much of a town, but something struck us right away: everything was in Russian. Communist red and yellow sickles are all over Vietnam, but in Mui Ne there seemed to be an especially large Soviet presence. We trudged past the Russian signage to Mui Ne Backpacker’s Village – the outside looks like a peaceful tiki hut but the dorm rooms were designed after a psych ward. Fluorescent lights brought out the cream and green tiled floors that perfectly matched the cream 50-thread count sheets. The only wall decorations were two yellow signs “Checkout at 11 AM!” and “No bags on bed!”
Tourists flock to Mui Ne for basically one reason: sand dunes that belong in the Sahara. For less than the price of a McDonald’s Happy Meal, we got an all-day “American Jeep” tour of Fairy Creek, a floating market, the white sand dunes, and the red sand dunes.
Our gruff driver told us we had 40 minutes to explore fairy creek. What is fairy creek? Why are we here? Is there coffee? Actually, fairy creek is neato! We walked about a mile up the ankle-deep lukewarm water, totally blending in with the locals with our Vietnamese conical hats (Non La). Well at least I thought we were until I noticed the Vietnamese visitors snapping photos of us. Fairy Creek’s banks sharply contrasted each other. To the left, we had Utah: reddish sandstone that eroded into hoodoos and cliffs. Sand and rocks tumbled into the river, turning it a muddy color. To the right, we had Southeast Asia’s thick and luscious jungle. Green vines entangled palm trees and fauna, camouflaging some riverside cafes that had plastic tables and chairs propped up in the middle of the stream. And for 300,000 Dong you could ride an ostrich, cause why not- you’re on vacation!
Anything is possible in Vietnam! The jeep took us past floating markets to Mui Ne’s famous patch of desert. In a country known for its greenery, we were ATV-ing over sand dunes! No waiver necessary, just 300,000 Dong. I hopped on the back of Nicole’s four-wheeler, trusting her since she raced dirt bikes back in the day. We soared past the silly pedestrian tourists, while I screamed, “YEEEEHawww! We’re in the Wild Wild West, better find some cattle to lasso for tonight’s chiliiiiiiiii!!!” Our stomachs dropped as we explored untouched sand dunes. From their peaks, we had a view of sand dunes, a lake, distant jungle, and the Pacific Ocean. I guess Mother Nature developed some schizophrenia when she reached Vietnam.
Speaking of things you wouldn’t expect to find in Vietnam, Mui Ne had excellente Mexican Food. I’m not sure if this was a blessing or curse, but our hostel was directly next door to “El Latino.” So we went 4 times in less than 48 hours. The French owner really went all-out in making El Latino feel authentic: rainbow graffiti, skeletons, loteria cards, giant margaritas, and even larger sombreros. I told everyone that if you wore a sombrero you’d get 50% off your meal, and it worked. Even if that wasn’t completely true, I swear wearing a rainbow floppy sombrero makes your food taste better. Sidenote: I may or may not have head lice. TBD.
Anyway, we had breakfast and dinner at El Latino two days straight. All part of a plan to really appreciate Vietnamese food, once we got around to eating it. We finally did on our final night in Mui Ne, eating spring rolls and bah minhs at Joe’s on the beach. The waves crashed against the restaurant’s deck, and we were treated to another lightshow sponsored by nature. Heat lightning illuminated the sky’s clouds and ocean’s whitecaps as half of us sipped 50-cent Saigon Beer, the other half enjoying antibiotics and bottled water.
Hasta la vista,