Resident Mui Ne writer Adam Bray takes AsiaLIFE beyond the tourist basics and offers a view of ancient and modern Mui Ne in threes.
Sailboats about to embark at Mui Ne Beach
Mui Ne is well known for its kilometres of white-sandy beach and flocks of enormous, brightly-colored kites overhead. Mui Ne is of course the top spot for kiteboarding and windsurfing in the country. All of these things you can read about in any guidebook. It’s all the other stuff that made me fall in love with the area.
Mui Ne is not a town at all, but merely the name (or rather the nickname branded by the tourism industry) of the beach resort district that belongs to a much larger municipality: Phan Thiet City.
The city’s rich culture and history has been largely unexploited by tourism officials, which is surprising because this riparian port city was not only important to French colonials, who left fine specimens of architecture along the Ca Ty River, but also appears to have been an inhabited city within the Champa Empire for more than one thousand years.
Phan Thiet therefore owes much of its complex culture and vast sense of history to a Hinduized, matriarchal civilisation that rivaled the Kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia. Had a few wars turned out differently, the Champa Empire, which controlled all of Central Vietnam, might have become Indochina’s fourth country.
Guidebooks tend to recount the mass exodus of the royal Cham court to Cambodia and the eventual dissolution of the kingdom by 1832. Unfortunately they usually fail to mention that despite hard times, the Cham who remain in their modern homeland of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces still have a thriving culture today.
The most obvious examples of Cham culture are their many temple towers and ruins. The best-preserved towers, though built in the eighth and ninth centuries, remain active religious sites—at least on festival days.
Thap Po Shanu is the only well-known tower trio in the province, perched on a hilltop above Phan Thiet. There are several other ruins near Phan Thiet, though in more remote areas. Thap Po Dam, another set of three towers, is a well-preserved temple, reachable as a day trip on the way to Ca Na Beach or Lien Huong.
Other ruins exist sprinkled across the province and are ready to be discovered by anyone with a sense of adventure and some time on their hands. A friend and I have discovered three undocumented tomb and temple sites on our own already.
Oars, clubs and wooden spoons
While Cham culture and ancient architecture can be fascinating, thankfully there are a few new leisure activities now available in Mui Ne as well. Our first cooking class, run by Liz Kaiser (she and her partner also own two kiteboarding centers: C2Sky and Fly), is held right on the beach at Sunshine Beach Resort.
The fun and informative class begins with the customary trip to Rang Market and then teaches local specialties like banh xeo (crepes with beef or seafood), goi hai san (seafood salad) and banh uot (spring rolls made with fresh, hot rice-paper-noodles). Binh Thuan’s cuisine has been a relatively unexplored subject until now.
It is different from other regions because of its sweetness and heavy reliance on seafood and pickled meats and vegetables. Much of the local cuisine can also be traced back to the Cham.
The idea of a few rounds of formal golf at Sea Links or Ocean Dunes may be intimidating to folks who haven’t played the game before. Thankfully Mui Ne now has the miniature version for amateurs at The Forester Spa and Mini Golf.
The nine holes are set in terraces made to look like rice paddies, meandering around a fish pond, palm trees and renovated highlands stilt-homes.
After conquering the East Sea, the guys at Surfpoint Kiteboarding Center—Adam Borys, Peter Kiss and Lai Phong—now also offer kayaking at Song Quao Lake. The new reservoir is perched in the mountain foothills on the way to Dalat, near minority villages of Cham, K’ho, Rai, Nop, Chu Ru and Raglai.
Gastronomy, gluttony and taxonomy
Mui Ne has a fair share of good foreign restaurants, namely Shree Ganesh (North Indian), The Forest (Vietnamese), Snow (Russian and Japanese Fusion) Sailing Club’s Sandals Restaurant (International), Chasseur Blanc (French steakhouse) and our competing Italian restaurants: Luna d’Antonio and Good Morning Vietnam.
It’s the local food, howver, that gets me excited. As a coastal city, Phan Thiet is famous for its nuoc mam (fish sauce) and seafood. A seafood dinner at a tourist restaurant can be the biggest expenditure of your holiday though. For dirt-cheap and quite frankly, much more tasty seafood, head to the beachside strip of food stands just east of Joe’s Art Café.
Platters of grilled clams and scallops are as little as VND20,000, while a bowl of steaming rice soup with scallops is just a pittance at VND10,000. The most popular stand—a long-time local favourite—is a few doors past Pogo Bar, beside the little bridge.
The dunes of Mui Ne are a harsh environment for farming, but one animal in particular thrives. Though smelly and obnoxious in life, Mui Ne’s billy goats are delicious when marinated and grilled or simmered with fresh herbs and sweet potatoes in hot pot. Mui Ne’s goat meat (thit de) alley is a collection of canteens further down the main strip, just after Rang Market, and interspersed with a few dog meat (cay to or thit cho) restaurants.
Back in Phan Thiet, Tuyen Quang is the city’s renowned food street,where most of the local specialties can be found, including banh xeo; xoi vit (duck with sticky rice and ginger sauce); mi hoanh thanh (Chinese wanton soup with egg noodles); and my personal favourite, bun bo xao at “Loan’s.”
Though this gastronomic delight is called bun bo xao, or beef with stir-fried vermicelli noodles, the featured flesh is not beef at all, but pork marinated in a mix of garlic, ginger, chili and lemon. Nhu Loan has refined the dish into a spicy, sweet and sour symphony garnished with fresh chili sate and laden with morsels of nem chua (pork pickled in banana leaves).
Before, after and a little in-between
Don’t spend the whole night in just one place—Mui Ne has finally come of age with a healthy selection of bars to keep visitors hopping all evening. While the livelier places comprise the main attractions, it’s the smaller, more intimate venues where Mui Ne’s expats tend to start and end their evenings.
In just a year, husband and wife duo Joe and Thao Springer-Miller have positioned Joe’s Art Café at the heart of Mui Ne. As the only viable 24-hour hang-out on the beach strip, it’s the best place to get a late snack after hitting the bars, or crash on the comfy couches and wake up to an early-morning “Bigger Canadian Breakfast”—great for a hangover. Joe serves up the best baguette sandwiches in town, with home fries and salad for VND60,000. Cuban pork, ham n’ cheese omelet, roast chicken, and SOB (tangy sausage and bell pepper with cheese and tomato sauce) sandwiches are all available round the clock.
The Docking Bar (next to the aforementioned mini golf) is the newest addition to The Forest Restaurant’s complex of Cham and hill tribe-themed dining and family entertainment.
Though open till midnight (or as long as there’s a crowd), this unique thatched-roof, adobe bar is most active early in the evening, thanks to its great burgers, fish and chips and shared menu with The Forest Restaurant. The friendly Cham staff also lures a lot of customers with the cheapest two-for-one draught beer on the beach.
Towards the east end of the beach, Living and Giving is more than a great custom furniture shop. Since Liz Kaiser and her partner took over management, they’ve breathed new life into the place. L&G serves great breakfasts and a fine selection of tapas in the evening, both available in the cozy restaurant or the beach patio across the street.
It’s the Saturday night football on the big screen and Sunday night card games that draw all the local foreigners.
Drinking, dancing and smoking
After a bit to eat, it’s time to head to the dance floor. Sankara is the place that everyone has been talking about, even months before it opened. Right on the beach and open-air throughout, the massive floor space has been creatively designed to provide a variety of seating and dancing environments. Revelers can mix with the crowd till the wee hours at the oceanside bar or retreat to one of the private pavilions for a more intimate setting.
A lit swimming pool sits at the middle of the outdoor patio, providing endless entertainment when guests and staff alike find themselves immersed. Sankara is unusual in that the management team comprises half-a-dozen foreigners; all who go out of their way to personally make guests feel at home. As manager Helenita Pistolas says, “It’s all about the love.”
Mui Ne’s previous top spot, Wax, has been knocked down a few pegs after a shake-up in management. András Miszori, the previous manager, moved into the nearly vacant DJ Station, further east on the beach, and re-invigorated the venue under the new name, Vagabond.
András is well known among both expats and kiteboarders, and draws a young and lively crowd with a professional DJ, cheap drinks and fire dancing by the moonlit surf.
Passing by DeJaVu, it’s easy to mistake the place for a simple roadside restaurant, albeit one with an enormous movie projector screen out front. However, anyone lucky enough to venture behind the restaurant will find an expansive garden with live music, fountain, games areas and lots of cubbies to relax and enjoy shishas or DeJaVu’s tasty menu of Vietnamese, Russian and Western fusion favorites.
When, how and with whom
Mui Ne is blessed with perhaps the best weather in the country. Even during rainy season we have long stretches of several weeks with no rain. However, our seasons do seem to swing on a pendulum which cycles over several years.
Last year the dry and windy seasons (the latter important to kiteboarders) came a few months later than normal—after the New Year. While the rains later returned on schedule in May, the wind was unusual and kept blowing into early summer.
Once upon a time, the bus from HCM City could reach Mui Ne in three hours. Now that the trip takes more than five hours due to increased traffic and police enforcement of the speed limit, the trains are not only the cheapest, but also the fastest means of travel.
If you do decide to go by bus, I recommend Tam Hanh or Phuong Trang. Both have a new fleet of comfortable, air-conditioned busses with spacious seating and offer free drinking water.
Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks for Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, DK Eyewitness, ThingsAsian, Berlitz, AA, Sky Publishing and Time Out. You can email him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.muinebeach.net.
DeJaVu 21 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
The Docking Bar
www.forestrestaurant.com, 7 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
Forester Spa & Mini Golf
www.forestrestaurant.com, 65 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
Joe's: The Art Cafe in Mui Ne
139 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
Living and Giving
www.livinggiving.com, 189 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
Loan’s Bun Bo Xao
84 Tuyen Quang, Phan Thiet City
Mui Ne Cooking School
Sunshine Beach Resort, 82 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
www.sankaravietnam.com, 78 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
Beach Break Bar 217 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
(Formerly DJ Station) 120 Nguyen Dinh Chieu
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