The morning of our sand dune tour we woke up at 4 am so we could be ready for the jeep by 4:15am. We waited in the lobby for fifteen minutes, careful not to wake the women working the night shift, but when the first bits of gray started to crack the black sky we became concerned about missing out on the “sunrise” component of our tour. We woke up the night clerk and explained the situation and she called the tour company. Words were exchanged in incredibly terse Vietnamese which implied that error in some part of the interaction.
Another fifteen minutes later, an beaten up jeep came to a halt in front of the guest house. “Go, go, go!” The night clerk ushered us. The jeep was well into its senior years. It had the drivers row, then a row of seats behind that which sat three, then behind that the trunk had been converted into to benches facing one another. We climbed into the back and occupied one of the open benches. The nigh clerk slammed the trunk and the jeep took off flying down the road. At which point Carly looked at me and said “Should we be questioning that we just got into a Jeep at 430am in a foreign country with no receipts or exchanges?” “No, of course not,” I said half convincing myself.
We then became with the six other persons on our tour group. Directly across from us in the transformed trunk of the jeep there were two elderly Taiwanese who’s English was limited to basic introductions. We did manage to learn that they were two old friends traveling on vacation together. Then there were two Korean women about our age who were relatively quiet. Finally there were two French guys traveling together in their mid to late twenties. One was living and working in Vietnam and the other had come to visit. The two elderly men seemed by far to be having the most fun, constantly giggling at jokes intimate to their friendship. As we exchanged introductions the jeep raced against the quickly rising sun towards the sand dunes.
As we pull up to the white sand dunes, the sky are caramel and quickly turning blue. Our driver tells us we have 50 minutes to explore and then we should meet back at the jeep. It’s a bit of a walk to the crest of the dunes and we can either ride atvs up for an extra six dollars or we can walk. The dunes are incredibly beautiful and even at 5 in the morning they are crowded. It looks as if someone transplanted a few square miles of the Sahara and dropped it in coastal Vietnam. Perhaps even more impressive than the view was the young Asian women we saw in full hair and makeup. There were a handful of different women with men (who I presume to be there significant others) doing photo shoots in heels, gowns, full makeup and complex hairdos. A little past 5 am the temperature was already creeping up on one hundred degrees and Carly and I were struggling in a shorts and tank tops.
After our meager equivalent of photo shoot and tourist picture taking Carly and I started to wander back to the jeep camp. We had given ourselves fifteen minutes of leeway time. We wanted to the site on our horizon to realize that it was an entirely different camp than the one where we had been dropped off. We looked around but we could not find evidence of other entrances. It is incredible how quickly everything in the desert begins to look the same. We found that our French and Taiwanese were in the same situation. Our group of six *tried* to walk methodically along the perimeter of the desert. We found two more jeep camps, neither of which were ours. One of the Taiwanese men had cleverly taken a picture of our license plate, so we fruitlessly tried to show it to other drivers to see if they were familiar with our vehicle. We decided to stay at the third camp and wait to be found, since we were the majority of the group and we were sure that the driver knew the terrain better.
Soon enough a man on a motorbike came over and said our driver was looking for us. The man on the motor bike urged “go, now, quick,” and our little group walked down what could only be liberally called a path in the sand. We found salvation and our driver, but he was considerably less happy to see us. He let off a stream of what I believe were unkind Vietnamese expletives and then in English said “I said 50 minutes, its been 1 hour and thirty minutes. I said 50!” We apologized profusely and got back in the jeep to head to the red sand dune. The two Taiwanese began giggling again and trying to communicate something to us via hand gestures. He took out his phone, plugged something into Google translate, and then handed us his phone which read “driver very angry!” We started nodded and this only made them giggle more, as if the drivers indignation was the best joke they had heard in years.
We arrived at the red sand dunes, which were less visually striking, but also populated by far more tourists and hecklers. We walked around and snapped a few pictures, when our Google translate friend came up and tapped us on the shoulder. “Picture?” He said. “Sure, we can take one of you.” I went to grab his camera and he said “no, picture” and gestured to the three of us. At which point he hailed another tourist and asked them to take a group picture of Taiwanese/American diplomatic relations.
After the red sand dunes, we waited by the jeep for driver to finish his cigarettes. Carly and I got a breakfast of ice cream to pass the time and watched a scene play our between our fellow tour participants. One of the Frenchmen and one of the Korean women had taking an interest in one another, but due to the language barrier the degree of flirtation was limited. Then the Google translating, group picture taking Taiwanese man pulled the Frenchman aside for another technologically aided conversation. When the Frenchman was handed the phone he looked slightly aghast. He turned to and in the most stereotypical French accent said “I believe he is teaching me ze art of seduction.”
After the lesson in romance, we all piled back in the jeep for the penultimate activity: a fishing village. It was advertised as a way to be exposed the old time charms of Vietnamese fishing culture, but from the moment we pulled up to the beach we were assaulted with the smells of chemical pollution and rotting animal flesh. The “village” was one of the main docks in Mui Ne and they were trying to expand the towns tourism. The smell was suffocating, but we were trying to remain open to the possibility of cultural immersion when the recently reeducated Frenchman told us that Mui Ne had recently been exposed for fishing scandal, since the fish had contained toxic levels of pollution. This was enough motivation to high tail it out of the area and back to the car.
Back in the jeep we bid our short-lived friends goodbye, headed back to the guesthouse where we took brief naps, and packed up. When our bus to HCM pulled up at the guesthouse we boarded without incident and no one asked to see our tickets. The ride back to the city was nearly identical to the first except that at the preset rest stop a number of passengers bought and then opened durian fruit on the bus. Back in HCM by 7pm, we had another dinner of pho (perhaps the best of the trip) and headed back to the hostel.
The woman who worked the desk at Luan Vu in HCM seemed to be permanently stationed there 24/7. We had left our big bags the hostel, since we had already paid for the rooms the night we were in Mui Ne. Nonetheless when we walked back in the door the woman with a raised eyebrow commented “You didn’t come back last night did you?” We went to Mui Ne, we replied, but she seemed unconvinced thinking we had participated in some seductions of our own.