Mui Ne, Vietnam, New Year’s Day 2020.
A strange place. At first I almost hated it. Palm trees yes, tropical paradise no. A 15 km strip of ‘resorts’ squeezed between a litter-lined beach and a busy main road, between discarded plastic and horn-tooting ‘open tour’ backpacker buses. Mui Ne is a curious mix of kite-surfers, Russian tourists, and traditional fishing villages. Our first meal was taken at a dusty road-side cafe. The waitress never smiled; sparks flew as welders on the opposite side of the road bent over long pipes, a terrible ear-splitting whir of metal upon metal. At least it drowned out the sound of traffic.
I felt like leaving. But there was one saving grace. The Gia An Hung Guest House. Spotlessly clean, with the twenty-six-year-old An, the girl with the Julia Roberts smile, at the helm. Her parents own the place but ‘I help them. I do everything’, she told me. And everything she did, she did with a gentle grace. ‘I give you this room because it’s the quietest I have. So sorry for the noise from the road’, she smiled gently. An made up for a lot and after a day or two I began to like Mui Ne a little more. And when we visited Phan Thiet, 10km up the coast, I liked it a whole lot more.
At Van Thuy Tu Temple, the Vietnamese worship the whale. ‘That’s strange for you right, you think it’s just a fish’, An told me, ‘but we believe he protects us from storms’. We caught the bus, and trundled past all those slightly sad-looking resorts and shops selling beach wear and inflatables. Russians squeezed on board, and quickly there was standing room only. A large lady almost smothered Jim as she edged every forwards into his space, first her backside, then as she turned around, her chest; but the bus emptied at the market. A local tried to tell me I should get off there along with everyone else, but we did not want to shop. We stayed on almost to the end of the line, within striking distance of the temple.
Unfortunately it was closed. We wandered down to the port. Row upon row of brightly-coloured wooden fishing boats gleamed in the midday sun. A few paltry fish on a plastic sheet, examined and poked by conical-hatted women, who squatted on their haunches; small gatherings passing the time of day rather than doing serious business. They smiled. Laughed. A brave few managed ‘Where you from?’ A boat pulled into port. Sailors swinging ropes to shore, lasso style, to moor. A procession of wooden hand-carts lined up on the quayside. Plastic crates filled with fish and ice passed hand to hand, man to woman to cart. Cart tilted, wheeled to group of crouching women and tilted again, so that all crates slid domino style into a neat row. Bingo. The market was in full swing. Boats pulled in thick and fast, jostling for space. Fish everywhere. Ice and water, and muck. Weighing scales groaned. Curiously there was no noise. No haggling. Just quiet contemplation. A couple of women with rolls of banknotes in hand, but little evidence of sales. A woman sold fish sandwiches from the back of a bicycle, a man mended nets, another slept, using his motorbike as a footstool. Others looked on, much as we did.
Hunger pulled us away. We walked down side streets. House doors open to reveal darkened interiors, TV’s blaring, bodies on hammocks. The sun was high, and no-one stirred. Except for the banh xeo lady, who expertly ladled batter onto her hot griddle and dropped in bean-sprouts, shrimp, squid and bits of fish. As soon as we sat, bowls of sauce were placed in front of us. We watched what other diners did – pancake, greens, everything dunked in the sweet sauce. Hot, incredibly fresh, crispy, salt and sweet. We ate five between us. ‘Did we want more?’, the old lady asked, and when we indicated we were full, she bought us tin cups of cold, iced tea and chuckled.
Time for the temple – reopening after lunch. We wandered around the skeleton of a whale, 19 m long, remarkably intact and oddly impressive. The creatures are revered and devotees pray for good fish yields, the return of souls lost at sea and safe passage. Behind the altar, in a dusty glass box, a huge pile of whale and strange fish bones. I felt a sense of awe. A sense of wonder. What must it have been like to encounter such a creature in a small wooden boat? No wonder that ‘Mr Whale’ is worshipped as a god. If only we all revered nature a little more, felt a sense of connection with the world and everything in it.
What a wonderful world it would be.
We stayed at Gia An Hung Guesthouse. Double room with bathroom Euro 17 per night. Breakfast Euro 3 p.p.
Bus 1 or 9 runs along the main strip to Phan Thiet. Flag it down anywhere. Fare around VND 16,000 one way.
Van Thuy Tu Temple seems to close for lunch. Reopens at 13.30. Entrance fee VND 15,000 p.p.
We saw a couple of tour groups at the temple, apart from that there seemed to be no tourists anywhere in Phan Thiet.