Monday, July 31, 2017

July 30 – Sand Dunes and the Fairy River

For our full day in Mui Ne we decided to do an organized tour of the nearby sites of interest. We hired a private jeep for US$30 that would take us on a four hour trip, and our driver arrived promptly at 8:30 am in a rugged, beat-up, but perfectly functional jeep. He was the strong, silent type and didn’t say much beyond…actually, he didn’t really say anything at all.

We drove all the way through Mui Ne, which is mostly a single road town, and it runs for a very long way - maybe 15 kilometres - and is populated on both sides by restaurants, hotels, bars, travel companies, and basic shops. We finally got to a break in the buildings where we could see beach and ocean and it didn’t look particularly appealing – the water was mucky grey and the beach was strewn with litter, so we didn’t feel too sad missing out on beach time. Further on we passed into an area where sand dunes started to appear, and in one spot there was a headland covered with sand and full of tall, strong pine trees, only a few houses, and a lovely beach overlooking a nearby emerald green island. Just beyond here I noticed the strangest thing. It was a cemetery and many of the grave markers (which are built above ground) were stamped with swastika symbols. I don’t know if that symbol has a different meaning here, but I assume it must. Between and around the graves, small white goats munched the green grass and weeds with gusto.

After at least a 30-minute drive we peaked a hill, and before us was a large lake walled in by a never-ending blanket of white sand dunes in the background, covered in little trails of ants (people) – an impressive sight. Our driver pulled the jeep into a compound that had a number of other parked jeeps and dozens of ATVs and then got out of the vehicle and walked away, leaving us standing there scratching our heads, wondering what our next move was supposed to be. We waited for a bit and another guy came over and started giving us the hard sell on renting two of the 90’s era quads to go ripping around in the sand. It was very expensive so we decided instead to walk and we headed off in the direction of the sand dunes.

The cloud cover prevented the sand from heating up too much and allowed us to walk barefoot across the dunes. Stella started to complain a bit, as she is not the greatest fan of long walks, which is strange considering she has the strongest legs of the lot of us. But once I pointed out her extraordinary leg strength, she took off running up the sand dune, happy to beat us all and full of newfound energy. On the dunes were many people, jeeps and a few ATVs. There looked to be a resort nearby that was hauling people up the dunes but, despite being offered a ride from an empty jeep, the Olsons persisted on, driven by human power and thrift. Any other way just seemed like cheating.

We made it up to the top of one of the smaller peaks and snapped a few pictures. A rather large American man and his wife came crawling up the hill on their underpowered ATV, barely moving, and got completely stuck in the sand. He was giving it full throttle while the back wheels sunk deeper and deeper into the sand. I motioned for him to get off and then Magnus and I lifted the bike out for him and got it on stable ground. As they took off, the wife’s hat was blown off by the wind, so Magnus ran across the sand and retrieved it for her. We should have asked for a tip.

By then we were quite thoroughly sandblasted, which felt pretty spectacular on the skin but less soothing on the pupils and whites of the eyeballs so we began our descent, along the way scavenging two hideous tourist ball caps emblazoned with a Chinese tourist company name,  logo, phone numbers, address, email, Twitter handle and UPC codes.

Our guide was napping in a hammock so we gave him a push, tossed the two hats on the table, and all got into the jeep and started back the way we came. Our next stop was the red sand dunes, a similar area to that which we just visited, but smaller, packed with more people and featured a hundred Vietnamese sand people renting waxed up Krazy Karpets for doing sand sliding. We rented one, climbed a large dune and let the kids go screaming down the red dune, at great velocity, leaving a wake of sand spatter and delicious cries of joy. Actually, the damn thing hardly moved at all, so it seems that sandboarding really doesn’t stack up to the classic Canadian tobogganing experience where speed is real and black eyes, fat lips and sprained joints are inevitable. The only advantage of sandboarding? No toques, snowmobile suits, or gloves required. But you do get sand in your gitch.

The third stop was to explore a small fishing village, located just a mile or two away from the sand dunes. In the bay were anchored hundreds of boats - all identical, small, blue fishing trawlers. The jeep pulled up to the village entrance where there was a dozen kids and adults sorting through large trays of minnows drying in the sun. The smell was…penetrating. Imagine wearing a sardine moustache, sitting in a tub of warm fish sauce, holding a mug of pike slime. That’s what it smelled like. We wandered down the beach and saw everybody hard at work sorting through fish, cleaning nets, loading buckets, crates and bags into the waiting fish vans, and also a number of vendors selling stuff from small beach stands. The entire beach was covered in garbage and there were village kids frolicking around in it, having fun, probably having finished their chores for the day. A very different reality, and one that did not go unnoticed by our children.

The final stop on the tour was the Fairy Stream, but when our driver pulled into this grubby, roadside truck stop, it looked anything but fairy-like. He walked us over to the edge of the parking lot and pointed to a path marked by a crude, wooden sign hand painted “Fairy Stream”. I felt like I could have been walking into a B grade horror movie, except that we were surrounded by a huge Chinese tour group, and that never happens in horror movies, so I felt much safer.

I’m not going to describe our walk up the Fairy Stream jammed right in the middle of an Asian tourist jam, except that at one point I said to Ana, “If we were here, walking alone, this place would be absolutely magical.” So I will skip to the walk back.

At the end of the walkable part of the stream was a small, shady, outdoor café that boasted a mini zoo and fishing pond. It sounded horrible, but since we were surrounded by tourists in the stream, we decided to take a break and see if the crowd would disperse a bit. We sat down on two of the giant, carved, wooden royalty seats and ordered drinks. The setting was surprisingly lovely – there was indeed a small fishing pond, shade trees overhead, and the min zoo which held monkeys, porcupines, many birds, a python and an extended family of rabbits. It was all very serene until we heard the tortured screams of a young girl, and watched her mother running in a panic to get her. Our kids witnessed the whole thing. The girl had walked up to the monkey cage, right beneath the “Monkeys bite” sign written in several languages. She offered the monkey her half eaten cup of ice cream and then pressed her face against the wire mesh cage to get a real good look. The monkey grabbed it, sucked out the ice cream, chewed on the cup, and then walked over and bit her on the nose. Fortunately, it did not bite off her nose – just gave it a little nip and probably taught her a valuable lesson about which of her primate cousins could be trusted (none of them).

Stepping out of the café and back into the stream, we were surprised to see that nearly all the people were gone, leaving it just to us. The stream was about ten to fifteen feet wide, had a perfectly sandy bottom with only the occasional rock, and just a few inches of water flowing through it, making for an easy walk along the stream bed. On one side of the stream was a wall of stunning red rock and small caves. Some parts were less steep and had red sand that you could scramble up. On the other side was tall grass and jungle. We continued walking downstream, taking photos as we went, and soon came to another section where the rock wall looked like something out of a cave and had stalactite protrusions running down the height of it. We continued walking and the stream began to narrow and the vegetation alongside began to thicken and soon it was like we were walking through a tunnel. Very cool and a little bit eerie.

We ate a reasonably good lunch back at the hotel and then spent a couple of hours at the pool and had some chill-out time in the room. Later in the afternoon we racked up the balls on the pool table in the lobby and played a game of doubles, which was slow, excruciating and painful to watch, as none of us seemed able to sink anything but the white ball. It’s funny how many pool tables we have seen here – nearly every hotel and bar seems to have one. Some are in pretty dreadful condition while others, like the one we were playing on, were fantastic.

It was time to try out the Vietnamese version of the foot massage, so we wandered down the street, checking out several of them, and then came to Dream Salon and were enticed inside by the owner who was smiley and eager. The kids and I went for the 30 minute foot and leg massage while Ana decided on the 45 minute facial. By now, Stella was a pro but this was to be Magnus’s first massage and he was a wee bit apprehensive. But once he laid back in the comfy chair and the girl started kneaded his legs and feet, he knew he was into a good thing. In fact, he enjoyed it so much he nodded off a few times, but Stella and I stayed awake to enjoy every minute. The bill for all four of us was about $22. I don’t think you could find a spa in Canada willing to crack your toe knuckles for that price.

We returned to the hotel in time for happy hour and a game of Magic the Gathering. Magnus is constantly asking us to play this game with him so we have to relent once in a while as he really does enjoy it so much. Ironically, Magnus was the first one eliminated, and Ana’s strategy was to get killed off as soon as possible so Stella and I ganged up on her and finished her off. I was enjoying my two for one Saigon green beers so was pretty happy playing, especially when I drew a great card and was able to kill off Stella making me the grand champion. I think I will be the only one playing from now on because Magnus noticed his mom and Stella bending the cards and getting drops of water on them so he has banned them from any further game play.

Instead of going out for a meal we decided on a backpacker dinner so Ana went out and got us some soups, baguettes, crackers, and cheese from the mini-mart and we ate those while sitting by the pool and then retired to our room to watch an animated film called The Red Turtle. The half that I managed to stay awake for was terrific.

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