Sunday, March 11, 2012

Viet Nam's Baja California, From Nha Trang to Mui Ne

Glorious green in an oasis

Where the road runs by the sea it's lovely

Where not, less so.

Nuoc Mam Factories, sea off to your left out of sight

Nice little house in the desert

A small part of the fleet--Mui Ne

The "new" basket boat in La Gi

The lady leaning on her oars in a nice little pram water taxi.  Like most foot-rowers, she uses a backrest.  No straps on the oars and no suction cups on the feet.  Go figure!

Written from Ba Ria (getting very close to Saigon now) 3-11-2012.  Weather hot, dry, clear and very windy (coming at 30mph or better from the Northeast, and yes, that makes motorbike riding more interesting).

The route to Mui Ne used to run from Nha Trang all the way south to Phan Thiet, where, with a bit of poking around, you could finally find the much smaller road running back north along the beach (or to be more accurate, running along the fronts of the hotels and resorts) 23 km BACK to Mui Ne.  It's easier now.  About 60 km north of Phan Thiet there's a standard Blue and White sign with an arrow off to the left that says "Mui Ne".  If you miss it you can go ahead and ride into Phan Thiet and do the 46 km backtrack just like the old days.  But again, I've gotten ahead of myself.  Long before you have to worry about the turnoff to Mui Ne you leave behind the Viet Nam you've gotten used to, that green lush countryside (with or without some splendid mountains in the background), the endless rice paddy, the dense population, with villages everty little bit, or almost continuously along the road. . .and you come to the desert.  No doubt you could Google it and find out exactly why, but for motorbike touring all you need to know is that the land is bone dry.  Cactus is abundant, if a bit sparse. Sadly, it's not the big sagauros of the Baja, but a plain sort of prickly pear.  There's another cactus sort of thing that's carefully cultivated, trained to grow up a concrete post in the ground in tidy rows and columns.  It starts as a single 'leaf" at the top of the concrete, and eventually becomes quite a bushy Medusa's head of green spiky. . .er. . .leaves I guess.  That and there's scrub brush, though mostly not very much of it.  Population?  H'mm.  not a lot.  As the desert is just warming up, not REALLY dry yet, you pass through what must be a substantial neighborhood of displaced Hmong people, their women wearing long skirts and wrapping their hair in a fabric wrapper, and always, I mean always, carrying a packbasket with something in it.  My impression wherever I've seen them is that Hmong ladies in Viet Nam don't go anywhere without a basket to bring it home in.  Some of the loads look outrageous and the women bend to their work.  Other times there may be nothing more than a machete in the basket (actually, they don't normally go very far without a machete either.  H'mm)  Not that a man won't carry a basket too mind you. . .but not necessarily everywhere. 

After you leave the Hmong neighborhood behind (scratching your head and wondering how mountain jungle people came to be living in a lowland desert) the population drops off rapidly as the rainfall diminishes.  Such people as are living in this zone are mainly either catching fish or turning them into nuoc mam.  At least one town, Ca Na, seems to have no other business, just one nuoc mam factory after another. It's a natural solution, abundant fish in the sea all along the coast, and the heat. . .and with the heat, the ability to get salt out of the seawater.  Nuoc Mam, which is basically the brine from making salted fish and letting it go too long,  is the essential flavoring ingredient in most Vietnamese dishes.  It no doubt got started when somebody opened a barrel of what he thought was going to be some nice preserved fish in brine and found the whole batch had gone bad, the fish was just a purple mush in the bottom of the barrel and the rest of the barrel was nothing but fishy salt water.   Perhaps, having no fish for a while, they found that sprinkling the salty fishy water on rice made it seem like food. . .That's my guess anyway.  It's certainly what it is, a salty, slightly fishy flavored sauce (not all that slight at full strength), normally mixed with rice vinegar or lime juice and garlic, chile, ginger and sugar in various proportions, or ground peanuts and all of the above.  As a nation, the 82 million Vietnamese consume a lot of it.  Those of us living in the diaspora (can an ex GI be regarded as living "in the diaspora"?  H'mm) Anyway, those of us not in Viet Nam also manage to do our share and making, bottling and shipping the stuff is a big business.  Just as well, there wouldn't be much between Nha Trang and Mui Ne otherwise.  A few goats, one or two small oases (lush greenery and flowers are so wonderful in the desert) and the road going through. 

And if that whole stretch of desert sea shore and mountainside is the Vietnamese Baja, then clearly the beach stretching 23 km from Phan Thiet to Mui Ne is Cabo San Lucas. . .or even "Los Cabos".  The high class hotels are shoulder to shoulder nearly the whole distance along the beach side of the road.  The other side of the road is home to restaurants, massage facilities (of various levels of cost and respectability), tee shirt shops, motorbike rentals, surfing instructors, tour guides and their jeeps (Russian as well as American) and SUV's and smaller, much less expensive guest houses.  That's me.  My night in Mui Ne this year cost $8.00 plus 35 cents for a bottle of cold water.  I had a fan that worked, two windows that opened, onto a balcony (one floor above the street), a color TV (don't know if it worked, didn't have time to turn it on), hot and cold running water, two large fluffy towels, and. . .it was all spotless and tidy.  For $200 and up you could get a room across the road and step out directly onto the beach.  Okay.  The restaurants include, by the way, Korean-Vietnamese, Russian-Vietnamese, Vietnamese-dumbed down to European/American, American (pizza??) and real Vietnamese, though those are rare.

Mui Ne town on the othere hand is a purely fishing town.  There's hardly a sign of tourist facilities anywhere in the place.  The restaurants are small and there aren't any menus (heck, some of them just have chairs and a propane burner. . .no restaurant at all).  There IS one superb mechanic.  I save problems for him.  By the time I get down here from Hanoi there's always something.  This year it was the right turn signal had vibrated loose and was hanging by its wires, facing the wrong way.  I'd jury rigged it with some electrical tape, but to get at the mountings you have to take the back half of the bike apart.  He did it in less than an hour and charged me $2. 

The absence of tourist facilities does not, in any way, mean there are no tourists.  The beach access on the main road through town is without doubt one of the most photographed sites in Viet Nam.  Every tour bus stops here.  Every jeep tour, every bicycle riding kid from Japan. . .every body that gets even close to  here stops, gets out of their bus or jeep or SUV, off of their bike (or motorbike in my case) and takes a photo from the top of the cliff.  The more ambitious walk down the stairs to the water's edge.  It's stupendous.  There are over 300 fishing boats in fleets of various sorts and sizes all anchored out in rows and ranks clear across the bay.  The bulk of the boats are finished "bright" natural brown with highlights picked out in yellow mostly. . .but always sparkly bright (at least from a distance), colorful and artistic as heck.  Years ago I got a portrait of the place in early morning light that has been my best to date, but I keep trying.  You can't NOT take a photo.  It's sort of the Grand Canyon of boat-filled bays.

But things they are a changing.  For one thing, somebody invented the fiberglass round basket boat that isn't a basket at all. Worse, they got a heck of a buy on blue gel coat for their new invention.  And worse yet, the fishermen who can't afford a nice new plastic wash tub of a boat. . .have begun painting their pretty old brown baskets YELLOW, or GREEN (ugly, pastel mushy green to be precise) and BLUE, to match the hideous plastic tubs.  It's enough to make a traditional boat archivist leave town.  So I did. 

I didn't mention the board sailers and the kite surfers did I?  They've arrived too.  Sigh.

If you were headed northbound five years ago and you'd looked at the progress of the paving on the new road out of town to the north along the beach you'd have thought it might be worth trying.  That's how I know about the turnoff 43 km away.  You'd never guess otherwise, and that blue sign isn't very big unless you're looking for it.  That first time I rode this way the road wasn't open yet, the asphalt was still warm and I picked up the white stripe painter who was headed back to camp for the night and gave him a lift. . .with his bucket and paintbrush.  He tried to tell me I'd be better off making him walk, but. . .having offered I couldn't back down.  I was scraping white paint stripe off the seat of rhe bike the rest of the trip. But he really had a long ways to walk and it was hot. 

At that time there wasn't anything along the road but sand, goats and scrub brush, all studiously ignoring the stupendous beaches and seascapes that run for 30 km's until the road has to turn west toward the highway to link up.  It's still simply breathtaking, and though the hotels have begun to infest the place, they're going at it reasonably slowly and not making too much of a mess.  It may be fine, and it for sure will offer some better livings than chasing goats through the stickerbushes. 

But I was southbound, so this year I left Mui Ne by the civilized hotel stretch, and, just as I always do Southbound, got lost in Phan Thiet and had to cut through a neighborhood to get back to the highway.  I don't think it's me.  Somebody needs to put up a sign some place!  Once on the road out of town though the navigation is easy all the way to Saigon if that's what you want to do.  However, some helpful person, fearing I might fail to get lost, sent me a photo of a boat on the beach at La Gi.  Google it, there are some nice photos.  More to the point, it's easy to find, (ha) just past Ham Tan (that would be "La Yee" and "Hampton" close enough) on Highway 55, which turns off of Hwy 1 somewhere not particularly clear.  That's the way it shows on my road atlas, which I always believe. What else am I to do??  So, after what seemed like about the right amount of running time for the distance, I started looking at every side road to the left, expecting a Blue and White sign saying "Ham Tan--QL 55"  with an arrow pointing left.  I almost drove by the little sign that just said "La Gi".  Period.  No Ham Tan, no highway number. 

The approach was easy, straight south off the highway for 14 km or so, smooth road, pleasant traffic, a fine thing.  Then we came to a sign that said "La Gi Town".  Still no Ham Tan.  H'mm.  There wasn't any ocean in sight.  No River.  There was a nice temple under construction and later a big Catholic church (kind of ugly modern architecture, not the classic French countryside sort) and then the town sort of petered out and I came to a T intersection.  For which I was not prepared.  In the event, I guessed well, took the branch that had all the signs for resorts (at distances from 3 km to 29 km. . .but where there's a resort, reasoned I, there must be an Ocean.  I did find more town and I did wander enough to find the beach beyond the town and from that beach I could see the masts of a fishing fleet behind a breakwater back the way I'd come, and I did find  a path along the top of the beach that was motorbike-able and thus I came to the wrong side of the boat harbor and found the new sort of basket boat I was looking for.  Most of them aren't really baskets, but that's another story (check the boat website in a week or so).  So I got my photos and hiked up and down the wrong side of the boat harbor a while, astonishing the locals. By this point in time I was parched.  That is to say:  Dried out like a dead fish on the top of the beach.  And there was a blue tarp hanging from some scrubby trees with a wooden bench under it and a lady selling beer and soda sitting on that wooden bench, with that 30 kn breeze blowing the tarp like a sail and that tarp casting lovely blue shade (helped by the minimal leaves on the scrubby trees.  She had ONE bottle of mineral water (if she hadn't had the mineral water, there would have been a dead beer can shortly I can tell you).  So I sat and absorbed that bottle of mineral water and continued to entertain the locals, who definitely had not seen one like me all week.

Then I got on my bike and rode away into the sunset and left my day pack (think diary, road atlas, area map, and insulin) sitting on that wooden bench.  Not on purpose of course, I don't do that sort of thing on purpose, I just do it.  The last time I left that poor pack behind was in a boatyard cafe in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, but that's another story.    (Obviously, that one had a good ending or we wouldn't be leaving the same pack behind on a bench under a blue tarp behind the wrong side of the boat harbor in La Gi this afternoon.)  Well.  I wandered off down the beach and shot some photos of kids playing in the rough surf (30 knot wind, remember) and then I wound and wandered my way back to the road and headed for Ba Ria (where I am now, sitting in air conditioned splendor in the Hotel Galaxy, wondering how I'm going to fit this into my budget).  When I came to a difficult Y in the road (splendid, glorious countryside road I might add), I naturally got out the road atlas to see if it gave me a clue.  And of course, since it was on that bench under that blue tarp. . .I had a hard time opening it.  I was about 60 km down the road then, which wasn't too bad a thing, since it was only 2:30 in the afternoon, so I could still ride in some sort of light for another four hours, and anyway, there had been some perfectly nice looking hotels in La Gi.  So of course I turned around and started tryiing to remember just exactly how I had wandered from the time I started trying to find the wrong side of the boat harbor in La Gi.  I'd seen an awful lot of the neighborhood over an hour or so, most of the streets from both directions.  I could remember two bridges and that ugly church, but not where they were. 

I guess I should point out that when I'm out on the road, everything I have within 10,000 miles is strapped to my bike or my body.  I'm pretty intrepid under those circumstances, poke my way back into the darndest corners.  After all, wherever I get to, by golly there I am.  Now. . .once I check into a hotel and leave my baggage behind I become a very different sort of explorer.  Cautious.  Very cautious.  The idea of being loose in Viet Nam with no luggage, no passport (they keep that when you check into the hotel) and no idea where I am. . .doesn't suit.  But.  I'll cut to the chase.  I couldn't find the danged place.  Worse, I figured out I was following familiar landmarks in a circle.  Which meant I was getting increasingly familiar with the wrong place.  I knew I was within half a mile or so.  .more or less. . .but not WHICH half mile. 

I spotted two motorbike taxis taking a break in front of a coffee shop and pulled up onto the sidewalk with them.  I whipped out my camera and they both ran off.  Dang.  When they turned around to see why in heck I was trying to take a picture of them I managed to get them to come back and take a look at my pictures. . .of the boats about 200 feet from that blue tarp.  They started trying to tell me how to do it and I quickly figured out that wasn't going to work, so I whipped out my wallet and offered them 10,000 vnd (that sounds better than saying 50 cents, but it really is what a short ride costs).  Deal done.  It actually took a little extra effort so I doubled the paycheck when we finally managed it.  Not his fault that he took the job thinking I wanted to go to the RIGHT side of the boat harbor!  When I pointed across the water to where we could see my boats he pointed immediately at the little pram shaped water taxi leaning on her oars (er, that is the lady in the pram was leaning on her oars) I said no, we had to go by motorbike, so off we went and. . .well, there's more to tell, but it's late.  There were fourteen people sitting on and around that bench and a few others in the area and they had every single item out of the bag and passing it around with much hilarity  (what's so funny?  They can't read the diary after all??).  They gave me a rough time about the insulin (I need to learn how to explain that. . .) but, fortunately, I'd been polite earlier and all ended well.  Again.  So I got to ride most of the way from La Gi to Ba Ria twice and all the way once today and that's why I'm here now.


  1. Hi Ken,
    Happy you found the basket boats. I had no trouble, but then I had a local guide and family to take me there, (and back).
    Safe trip my friend

  2. My thanks to You for the tip, it's the sort of thing that makes these trips so much fun. I'm in Saigon now, hoping for a quick visa extension and then the beginning of the trek back North. Ken

  3. Your welcome, but if I follow your tracking, then you didn't actually go to the village I told you about. That one is almost exactly half way between LaGi and Nha Trang, give or take a kilometer. Best of luck with the visa extension, and have a happy trip north. Next time you get to VN I should be in Phu Quoc so you can come visit then. Like the photo at LaGi though