Sand Dunes and the Art of Seduction

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.

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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.

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Sunrise during the jeep ride

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

One Way Ticket to Mui Ne

Our first bus in South East Asia created mixed expectations for the rest of the trip: it had AC and wifi, but it also abandoned us on the side of the road.. We went to the Mui Ne Bus office a little before 8am. We were given our bus tickets to go to Mui Ne and promised return tickets upon our arrival. Next we were rushed across the street to wait at an informal bus stop. Our crowd quickly grew to about twenty. Then a small 12 seater van pulled up, which we were told would take us to the main bus. Getting ourselves and our luggage (luckily we just had our day packs) turned into survival of the fittest and the smallest.

The van started down the streets of HCM and we prepared ourselves for a long journey with four people sandwiched into a space meant for two. But after a mere three blocks the van pulled into the bus terminal and we disembarked. This was the first indication that land transportation and logic don’t necessarily go hand in hand in South East Asia.

We were told to remove our shoes and board the bus. At which point we discovered it was a partial sleeper bus, meaning all the seats were at a 45 degree angle. We settled into our assigned bunk and started out of HCM. The bus driver and bus attendant promised our return tickets would be returned later on.

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Weird Sleeper Bus

An hour and a half into the journey the bus stopped for a snack and bathroom break. Most of the bus companies have tendered an agreement with one of the highway rest stops, where they only stop there and (I assume) they receive some sort of kick back. The chosen stop was open air fruit and food market. Carly and I from breakfast decided to stay on the bus since we were unclear on how long the stop would be. Let me tell you, the stop was thirty minutes. I know this because the driver closed the doors and turned off the AC morphing the bus into an oven. I thought the 90 degree weather in HCM had prepared me for the heat of the trip, but on during that thirty minute waiting period I started to truly understand what people mean when they say “South East Asia sweat.”

Carly and I fell asleep, waking up just outside out Mui Ne. The bus had promised to drop us off at our guest house. The bus pulled up to what we knew was the general vicinity of our place and we shouted for it to stop (thanks google maps). We grabbed our bags and headed for the exit only to realize in some impressive feat of witchcraft both the bus attendant and the driver were entirely different people. Somehow in the time we slept the entire staff managed to change. The new guys were not party to our ticket situation and not willing to discuss it. Our questions were met with a chorus of “not our problem” and we were ushered off the bus still barefoot. The bus attendant gave us the companies business card and commanded “call them.” It inspired little faith that we would get tickets back to HCM.

Mui Ne is known for being a seaside town with a random collection of beautiful sand dunes, so after settling into our guest house we went to speak to the proprietor about arranging a tour and finding tickets back to HCM. She was incredibly kind and sympathetic to our bus situation, I got the impression that this wasn’t the first time that this issue had occurred. We gave her the name of the bus company we used and she called them for us, but they had no record of our tickets. So we gave her the company card which the bus attendant had given us. She pointed out, which we had failed to notice that the card corresponded with an entirely different bus company. She called the second bus company, found a record of our reservation, and confirmed the pick up time for the next day. As it turns out there are two companies that run daily trips to Mui Ne and we had ended up the wrong (and far less reliable) company. We booked a sunrise sand dune tour for the next day at 4 am and then headed into Mui Ne.

The second biggest attraction in Mui Ne is called the “Fairy Stream.” It is a stream which runs through a beautiful and striking rock formation, surrounded by smaller red sand dunes. We walked to the fairy stream, cutting through brush to the neck of the stream. There there was a collection of middle aged Vietnamese men and worn down Jeeps. For the less adventurous traveler, you can hire a jeep to take you the mile length of the stream. We were going to walk, but we stood on the bank of the stream perplexed. The rock structures obscured any opportunity to walk on solid land. We were wearing sneakers and walking in the clay red stream seemed like something the travel docs at Mt. Auburn Hospital would not have approved of. The Jeep drivers pointed to our feet and mimicked the motion of removing our shoes. We looked at each other, shrugged, and sunk our bare feet into the mud of the stream.

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Fairy Stream, Mui Ne, Vietnam

The landscape of the Fairy stream was incredibly beautiful and unlike anything I had seen before.

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Fairy Stream, Mui Ne, Vietnam

Covered in mud, we headed back to the guest house and showered. We had a light dinner of pho along the ocean and took to bed early to prepare for our sunrise sand dune tour.

Good Morning Vietnam

Our first full day in Asia Carly and I woke up late and lazed into the day. Down the street from our hostel at Cong Caphe, I discovered the south east Asian trend of dark bitter coffee with loads of sweetened condensed milk (which I would grow to have a love hate relationship with). Our otherwise lovely hostel lacked wifi so over breakfasts of Bahn Mi and began to plan our time in Vietnam. Coming into the trip we had a plan for which days would be spent in which cities and a rough list of things we wanted to see in each place, but that was about it.

We had chosen Ho Chi Minh (HCM) as our starting place, since Carly had lived there for a summer in college so it seemed like a good place to get our bearings. We had budgeted four days in HCM and we decided to spend half of that time in Mui Ne, a small beach town about four hours from HCM. Before beginning hard core tourism our postprandial tasks were finding bus tickets to Mui Ne, and to Cambodia. We found relatively reliable companies and went in search of their offices.

Bus tickets cannot be purchased online in Vietnam. Therefore all the tourist and bus offices have been concentrated to Pham Ngu Lao. The buildings are conveniently unmarked and if you ask anyone for directions to a specific establishment, they try to bring into their business and explain why their price/trip is better. We found (or thought we found) the Mui Ne Bus company relatively quickly. We reserved seats for the bus the next morning and returning the day after. We were told we would redeem our receipts for the tickets in the morning. Next we went in search of Mekong Bus Company for our tickets to Cambodia. The office however was no where to be seen. We spent about thirty five minutes wandering up and down a four block stretch of street leading a group of loitering elderly men to become concerned for our wellbeing. Finally a woman took pity upon us and guided us to the offices (which we had walked by dozens of times) and we finally got our tickets.

With our business complete we headed to the Vietnam War Museum. The museum is huge and incredibly detailed. It was especially striking since the war is a portion of our countries history that has been relegated to memorialization and nothing else. There is no American Museum for the Vietnam War. The exhibits (were of course) biased, but also incredibly well thought out and informative. I was particularly taken by the exhibits on Agent Orange and the abuses of journalists during the war. The exhibit on journalism was co-sponsored by a small town in Kansas and detailed how the war was one of the first major instances where journalists were killed and abused by both sides. Photographs had been donated by dozens of war journalists from around the world and in closing the exhibit encouraged the just and lawful treatment of non-combatants in all war zones.

The mix of the museum population was also quite interesting. By my guesses the largest populations in attendance were Aussies, French, Americans, and other Vietnamese. The entire time we were there the museum was overflowing and everyone was incredibly respectful of the space.

Our somber afternoon was revitalized by a trip to Notre Dame church (not the original, but also built by the French) and the post office which is considered a major tourist attraction. By this time we were in serious need of food, so we stopped at “Tous la Jours” a French bakery and had apple turnovers and red bean doughnuts. We were back in our hotel by 6:30 muttering promises that we would go out again for dinner, but by 8:30 we were both sound asleep.

Dark Alleys and Happy Puppy Taxis

Like any good international adventure my arrival in Vietnam began rather ominously.   In the course of thirty hours I had flown from Boston to Detroit to Tokyo to Manila and finally Ho Chi Minh. By the time my Cebu Air flight landed in Ho Chi Minh it was 12:30 pm. It had been about a year since I had been in a developing country and my haggling skills were seriously rusty, so on the intermittent airport wifi I googled which taxi services were reliable and metered. The internet quickly taught me that the Ho Chi Minh taxi stand is a prime place to get ripped off. There are only two reliable taxi companies and you should never pay for than 150,000 dong ($6 USD) for a cab.

I exchanged my US dollars for Dong and walked confidently out the doors into an onslaught of young men waving taxi signs. My confidence started to dissipate when I walked towards the taxi stand and realized that neither of the two pre approved companies were an option. I was “good” offered prices ranging from 350,000 to 200,000 dong. I stood my ground and negotiated a ride into town with the ever-questionable “Happy Puppy Taxi Company” for 150,000.

The cab pulled out of the queue giving me a full view of the airport arrival area. It turns out I had exited the side door. A sharp turn to the right would have revealed a second well organized and metered cab queue which was exclusively populated by the two reliable companies. As if to mock me cab driver left the meter on during our ride. The first things I noticed about Ho Chi Minh is that it is extremely clean and a larger population than I expected, but there is also a large homeless population.

After about fifteen minutes the cab pulled to a stop on a small street. The bright neon signs advertising cheap beer, western food, and illicit nighttime activities told me that I was in the backpacker district. The meter on the cab read 120,000 dong, so that’s what I tried to pay. The driver in broken English explained that I had agreed to pay 150,000 so that’s what I would pay. You got me there Happy Puppy Taxi, you got me there.

I retrieved my bags from the back of the cab and the driver pointed down a darkened alley and kept saying “Luan Vu” the name of our hostel. I stood there and shook my head, trying to communicate “Dude, its 1am and I am a single female traveler and your asking me to go down a dark alley? Hell no.” I knew for a fact that gullible attitudes and dark alleys is always how the first girl dies in horror movies, but due to the language barrier I didn’t have many other options. I started walked and much to my surprise after half a block a bright yellow neon sign reading “Luan Vu Guest House” beckoned me in.