Resident Mui Ne writer Adam Bray takes AsiaLIFE
beyond the tourist basics and offers a view of ancient and modern Mui Ne in
threes. Mui Ne is well known for its kilometres of white-sandy beach and flocks
of enormous, brightly-colored kites overhead. Mui Ne is of course the top spot
for kiteboarding and windsurfing in the country.
All of these things you can read about in any guidebook. It’s all the other
stuff that made me fall in love with the area.
Mui Ne is not a town at all, but merely the name (or rather the nickname branded
by the tourism industry) of the beach resort district that belongs to a much
larger municipality: Phan Thiet City.
The city’s rich culture and history has been largely unexploited by tourism
officials, which is surprising because this riparian port city was not only
important to French colonials, who left fine specimens of architecture along the
Ca Ty River, but also appears to have been an inhabited city within the Champa
Empire for more than one thousand years.
Phan Thiet therefore owes much of its complex culture and vast sense of history
to a Hinduized, matriarchal civilisation that rivaled the Kingdom of Angkor in
Cambodia. Had a few wars turned out differently, the Champa Empire, which
controlled all of Central Vietnam, might have become Indochina’s fourth country.
Guidebooks tend to recount the mass exodus of the royal Cham court to Cambodia
and the eventual dissolution of the kingdom by 1832. Unfortunately they usually
fail to mention that despite hard times, the Cham who remain in their modern
homeland of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces still have a thriving culture
The most obvious examples of Cham culture are their many temple towers and
ruins. The best-preserved towers, though built in the eighth and ninth
centuries, remain active religious sites—at least on festival days.
Thap Po Shanu is the only well-known tower trio in the province, perched on a
hilltop above Phan Thiet. There are several other ruins near Phan Thiet, though
in more remote areas. Thap Po Dam, another set of three towers, is a
well-preserved temple, reachable as a day trip on the way to Ca Na Beach or Lien
Other ruins exist sprinkled across the province and are ready to be discovered
by anyone with a sense of adventure and some time on their hands. A friend and I
have discovered three undocumented tomb and temple sites on our own already.
Oars, clubs and wooden spoons
While Cham culture and ancient architecture can be fascinating, thankfully
there are a few new leisure activities now available in Mui Ne as well. Our
first cooking class, run by Liz Kaiser (she and her partner also own two
kiteboarding centers: C2Sky and Fly), is held right on the beach at Sunshine
The fun and informative class begins with the customary trip to Rang Market and
then teaches local specialties like banh xeo (crepes with beef or seafood), goi
hai san (seafood salad) and banh uot (spring rolls made with fresh, hot
rice-paper-noodles). Binh Thuan’s cuisine has been a relatively unexplored
subject until now.
It is different from other regions because of its sweetness and heavy reliance
on seafood and pickled meats and vegetables. Much of the local cuisine can also
be traced back to the Cham.
The idea of a few rounds of formal golf at Sea Links or Ocean Dunes may be
intimidating to folks who haven’t played the game before. Thankfully Mui Ne now
has the miniature version for amateurs at The Forester Spa and Mini Golf.
The nine holes are set in terraces made to look like rice paddies, meandering
around a fish pond, palm trees and renovated highlands stilt-homes.
After conquering the East Sea, the guys at Surfpoint Kiteboarding Center—Adam
Borys, Peter Kiss and Lai Phong—now also offer kayaking at Song Quao Lake. The
new reservoir is perched in the mountain foothills on the way to Dalat, near
minority villages of Cham, K’ho, Rai, Nop, Chu Ru and Raglai.
Gastronomy, gluttony and taxonomy
Mui Ne has a fair share of good foreign restaurants, namely Shree Ganesh
(North Indian), The Forest (Vietnamese), Snow (Russian and Japanese Fusion)
Sailing Club’s Sandals Restaurant (International), Chasseur Blanc (French
steakhouse) and our competing Italian restaurants: Luna d’Antonio and Good
It’s the local food, howver, that gets me excited. As a coastal city, Phan Thiet
is famous for its nuoc mam (fish sauce) and seafood. A seafood dinner at a
tourist restaurant can be the biggest expenditure of your holiday though. For
dirt-cheap and quite frankly, much more tasty seafood, head to the beachside
strip of food stands just east of Joe’s Art Café.
Platters of grilled clams and scallops are as little as VND20,000, while a bowl
of steaming rice soup with scallops is just a pittance at VND10,000. The most
popular stand—a long-time local favourite—is a few doors past Pogo Bar, beside
the little bridge.
The dunes of Mui Ne are a harsh environment for farming, but one animal in
particular thrives. Though smelly and obnoxious in life, Mui Ne’s billy goats
are delicious when marinated and grilled or simmered with fresh herbs and sweet
potatoes in hot pot. Mui Ne’s goat meat (thit de) alley is a collection of
canteens further down the main strip, just after Rang Market, and interspersed
with a few dog meat (cay to or thit cho) restaurants.
Back in Phan Thiet, Tuyen Quang is the city’s renowned food street,where most of
the local specialties can be found, including banh xeo; xoi vit (duck with
sticky rice and ginger sauce); mi hoanh thanh (Chinese wanton soup with egg
noodles); and my personal favourite, bun bo xao at “Loan’s.”
Though this gastronomic delight is called bun bo xao, or beef with stir-fried
vermicelli noodles, the featured flesh is not beef at all, but pork marinated in
a mix of garlic, ginger, chili and lemon. Nhu Loan has refined the dish into a
spicy, sweet and sour symphony garnished with fresh chili sate and laden with
morsels of nem chua (pork pickled in banana leaves).
Before, after and a little in-between
Don’t spend the whole night in just one place—Mui Ne has finally come of age
with a healthy selection of bars to keep visitors hopping all evening. While the
livelier places comprise the main attractions, it’s the smaller, more intimate
venues where Mui Ne’s expats tend to start and end their evenings.
In just a year, husband and wife duo Joe and Thao Springer-Miller have
positioned Joe’s Art Café at the heart of Mui Ne. As the only viable 24-hour
hang-out on the beach strip, it’s the best place to get a late snack after
hitting the bars, or crash on the comfy couches and wake up to an early-morning
“Bigger Canadian Breakfast”—great for a hangover. Joe serves up the best
baguette sandwiches in town, with home fries and salad for VND60,000. Cuban
pork, ham n’ cheese omelet, roast chicken, and SOB (tangy sausage and bell
pepper with cheese and tomato sauce) sandwiches are all available round the
The Docking Bar (next to the aforementioned mini golf) is the newest addition to
The Forest Restaurant’s complex of Cham and hill tribe-themed dining and family
Though open till midnight (or as long as there’s a crowd), this unique
thatched-roof, adobe bar is most active early in the evening, thanks to its
great burgers, fish and chips and shared menu with The Forest Restaurant. The
friendly Cham staff also lures a lot of customers with the cheapest two-for-one
draught beer on the beach.
Towards the east end of the beach, Living and Giving is more than a great custom
furniture shop. Since Liz Kaiser and her partner took over management, they’ve
breathed new life into the place. L&G serves great breakfasts and a fine
selection of tapas in the evening, both available in the cozy restaurant or the
beach patio across the street.
It’s the Saturday night football on the big screen and Sunday night card games
that draw all the local foreigners.
Drinking, dancing and smoking
After a bit to eat, it’s time to head to the dance floor. Sankara is the
place that everyone has been talking about, even months before it opened. Right
on the beach and open-air throughout, the massive floor space has been
creatively designed to provide a variety of seating and dancing environments.
Revelers can mix with the crowd till the wee hours at the oceanside bar or
retreat to one of the private pavilions for a more intimate setting.
A lit swimming pool sits at the middle of the outdoor patio, providing endless
entertainment when guests and staff alike find themselves immersed. Sankara is
unusual in that the management team comprises half-a-dozen foreigners; all who
go out of their way to personally make guests feel at home. As manager Helenita
Pistolas says, “It’s all about the love.”
Mui Ne’s previous top spot, Wax, has been knocked down a few pegs after a
shake-up in management. András Miszori, the previous manager, moved into the
nearly vacant DJ Station, further east on the beach, and re-invigorated the
venue under the new name, Vagabond.
András is well known among both expats and kiteboarders, and draws a young and
lively crowd with a professional DJ, cheap drinks and fire dancing by the
Passing by DeJaVu, it’s easy to mistake the place for a simple roadside
restaurant, albeit one with an enormous movie projector screen out front.
However, anyone lucky enough to venture behind the restaurant will find an
expansive garden with live music, fountain, games areas and lots of cubbies to
relax and enjoy shishas or DeJaVu’s tasty menu of Vietnamese, Russian and
Western fusion favorites.
When, how and with whom
Mui Ne is blessed with perhaps the best weather in the country. Even during
rainy season we have long stretches of several weeks with no rain. However, our
seasons do seem to swing on a pendulum which cycles over several years.
Last year the dry and windy seasons (the latter important to kiteboarders) came
a few months later than normal—after the New Year. While the rains later
returned on schedule in May, the wind was unusual and kept blowing into early
Once upon a time, the bus from HCM City could reach Mui Ne in three hours. Now
that the trip takes more than five hours due to increased traffic and police
enforcement of the speed limit, the trains are not only the cheapest, but also
the fastest means of travel.
If you do decide to go by bus, I recommend Tam Hanh or Phuong Trang. Both have a
new fleet of comfortable, air-conditioned busses with spacious seating and offer
free drinking water.