Nha Trang to Mui Ne via Dalat   3-7 August 2008

 Nha Trang is one of the most popular beaches in Vietnam, particularly with Vietnamese tourists. The beaches are long with white sand and palm trees and an attractive network of pathways with statues on them at intervals. We preferred some of the Thai beaches we’d been to on our travels, but it was a nice relaxing spot.

Whilst wandering around we were constantly approached by men on motorbikes!! These are the “Easy Riders” as detailed in the Lonely Planet. Initially based out of Dalat they seem to have spread!  They are guides who speak very good English (and sometimes a couple of other languages too!) and offer their services as tour guides with you (and your luggage depending on if it is a round trip) on the back of the bikes. After the recent experiences of bus trips it certainly sounded like a better way to get around so in the end we signed up for a 2 day trip (which we eventually extended to 4 days!) from Nha Trang up to Dalat in the Central Highlands back down to the beach town of Mui Ne.

So, after a real nice meal out in “Le Petit Bistro” in Nha Trang which really felt like being in France, we set off the next morning on the bikes with our guides Anh and Ng. Being with the guides really helped as we stopped and looked at things we might not have – a roadside stall selling dried lobsters, and family cottage industries producing incense sticks (rolled by hand in a mixture of Sandalwood and glue) rice noodles being made and hung out to dry, and even on one occasion a wedding party –bizarrely all walking down the side of the very busy main road! They invited us to come to the reception which would have been an amazing experience but sadly we had to keep moving!

Of all the cottage industries we passed and the one that really made an impression was the brick factory. Run solely by women (the men cut out the mud elsewhere which apparently was the “really heavy” work!) this was extremely hard work. Working 7 days a week the women cut out and move the bricks which are baked dry by the sun. They don’t work in the rainy season so when it’s dry there’s no time to be lost. They earn approx $150 USD a month! They are all absolutely tiny too and can’t weight more than 7 stone. A tough life!

That night we stayed in a small hotel in Buon Ma Throt (BMT). This is a hill town (elevation 451 metres) which is the capital of the Dac lac province. It is the wet season up here and we could definitely feel it by now! Previously on the trip as we drove by in the car we felt sorry for the poor devils driving motorbikes ..now we were with them! Thankfully Ahn and Ng had packed some spare wet weather gear and whilst it was not a great fit it did help stop us getting thoroughly soaked! 

BMT is dominated in the centre by the “Victory Monument” which commerates the 10th March 1975, which is when the VC “liberated” the city. It was this battle apparently which began the final collapse of South Vietnam and the VC victory.

 

The next day we went for a trip to see Dray Sap or “smoky waterfall” about 27km out of town in a hardwood forest. The 100m falls are pretty spectacular and we went for a lovely walk around (again a bit slippery for me!) The only downside was that there was quite a bit of rubbish tossed around which was a shame.

We continued to drive into the highlands passing some striking views. This area is “coffee” country and whilst not commercial enough to have tours or anything we saw the workers wooden shacks and the crops.

We also stopped at a mushroom farm up in the hills. Whilst the family’s main income was coffee they also grew mushrooms vertically on sacks filled with powdered sandal wood in the shed as my picture shows. We also met the family pet ..more for tourists than anything a huge 10 foot long Boa Constrictor! Sadly there were also lots of pretty little bunnies who are the snake’s dinner! They have to be fed to it live though or it won’t eat them. Thankfully we didn’t get to see this!  

In the afternoon we arrived at the home stay where we were to spend the night. It was in the Jun Village on the Lak Lake and we stayed in a longhouse of the Ede minority group.    It was very interesting a traditional longhouse where the animals (cows goats and the cute Vietnamese pot bellied pigs) all lived under the house which made for a noisy night! Thankfully we had sampled the local brew “gong” which is a rice wine drunk out of a communal jug from bamboo straws …so we all slept fairly well.

We went for a wander round the next day. The people aren’t as friendly as those in Sapa they are pleasant enough and I think they know tourism helps them as much of the proceeds are channeled into medical facilities for them which is great ..but maybe with a few coach parties a day they are a bit tourist weary!   The area suffered badly in the war and there is a strong anti America feeling so maybe we looked American! It is sad to see all the devastation of the war particularly the damage done by Agent Orange gas,  the vegetation still being totally destroyed. Sadly the   bad effects run much deeper. Ahn's wife was pregnant and a couple of times he talked about how worried he was that they might have an “agent orange baby” with the dreadful deformities the gas inflicted. Sadly these children are still being born, the gas having gone into the soil and the waterways and whilst it is now less common it is still not unheard of.

We drove on increasing in height and thus getting more wet! It was a very lovely view through the mountains out to the coast as we climbe  2000 metres. We stopped at a silk farm. This was a true “one stop shop” the silk worms were fed, then  the cocoons of silk were heated at 70 degrees. This loosened the binding and it was then unravelled    and whilst still in the hot water spun onto bobbins. Some cloth was then made into garments at the shop, so you saw the process from start to finish.  I bought a really nice blue dressing gown.

We also stopped at a handicraft village where ethnic minority children from a radius of 70km away were taught the traditional arts of spinning and weaving. The proceeds go to help  the villagers who are very poor.  Many of the children live there as their parents are too poor to have them at home, but when we visited very few were there as they were on home visits.

It was getting chillier as we rode on  so we were glad to arrive in the hill town  of Dalat. This is the French equivalent of the Cameron Highlands where the French colonials went to escape the heat. It is the number one honeymoon spot for the Vietnamese and some of the attractions – a replica of the Eiffel tower- are a bit tacky and not too appealing to most westerners! I thought the surrounding area was very scenic but wasn’t that struck on Dalat though the markets were interesting, and the area around the central lake quite pretty.   In fairness we were there in freezing wet conditions so Dalat didn’t get a good showing. From pictures it looked like it is a great place for hiking in the summer likened by the French to the Alps. We visited the night market and bought some local coffee. They also sell various cool weather fruit and vegetables- strawberries, asparagus- which we hadn’t seen for a while.

So, we woke up in Dalat on our last day as “Easy riders” and set off for our final destination Mui Ne on the coast. On the way we drove down the Ngoan Muc Pass. This highway snakes down affording lovely views of the ocean on the horizon. You also pass a couple of huge water pipes which link the large lake Dan Nhim (built by the Japanese as a war reparation)     to the hydroelectric project which supplies electricity to much of the South. As we drove down the temperature climbed back up so whilst we started off with teeth chattering in wet weather gear within a few hours we were stripping back down again to shorts and t-shirts.

It was quite amazing when we hit the white sand dunes just outside Mui Ne as the huge contrast – from wet green hills to hot tropical sand dunes - in just a few hours couldn’t have been more marked. We stopped first at the white sand dunes. These are less touristy than the red ones closer to town and are very scenic, especially as there was a herd of little ponies in the nearby lotus ponds. We drove on into town as it looked like the weather might change as the sky was darkening. The wind was really getting up too, which Mui Ne is renowned for being a big wind surfing centre, and as we drove along the coast road, seeing the little local distinctive round boats it was really blustery. We got the chance to have a quick look at the famous red sand dunes just before the storm broke. We were set upon by a crowd of local kids most of whom spoke very good English trying to sell us rides down on homemade sledges for sand slaying! The area is renowned for being a centre for professional photographers and one of the kids had had a few lessons from one as he grabbed our camera off us and was using functions we didn’t know existed! It is a very striking environment.

So, we booked into some really nice beach bungalows ($10 USD) and said a sad goodbye to Ahn and Ng who were back off to Nha Trang at 5am the next morning. We would really recommend this way of travelling to anyone – it was more like being in our own vehicle and we got to escape the “tourist circus” a bit and experience the country at closer quarters. It was a highlight of the trip. 

We had a pleasant evening in Mui Ne – having seafood on the beach and browsing around second hand book shops – before leaving the next day Friday the 8 August for the 3 hour bus strip to HCMC our final destination.