Christmas in Vietnam: Mui Ne and Saigon

For our vacation this year, we picked Vietnam: Christmas in the touristy region of Mui Ne, then New Year in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). This post is a short travel log with pictures, highlights, travel costs and tips from our stay there. My hope is this may help someone planning a similar trip.

Don’t expect any machine learning in here! (for my regular crowd)

Why Vietnam?

During our past travels through Asia, we never got to visit Vietnam. I’ve always felt regretful about that. The truth is, we love Vietnamese food. It’s the “phos” and “buns” we miss the most here in Korea, BY FAR. They have this weird thing they call “Vietnamese barbecue” here, which has nothing to do with Vietnam (and which is called, of all things, “Korean barbecue” in Thailand).

Pho bo. Interestingly, our 2nd favourite Vietnamese dish, Bun Bo Nam Bo, is completely unknown both in Mui Ne and in Saigon. The locals never heard of it! It must be a North vs. South Vietnam thing.

Also, there’s a surprisingly strong Vietnamese community in Prague. This is a by-product of the communist partnerships between the two countries a long time ago, and the Viet families are at their second or third generation now. I’ve always found the community in Prague culturally intriguing (if impenetrable), so the choice for this Christmas was clear!

Getting to Mui Ne

The first leg our trip, the flight from Busan, South Korea to HCMC, Vietnam, was pleasantly uneventful. I had arranged for a “fast track immigration” at the HCMC airport with the company through which we applied for our visas.

Most European nationals still need a pre-arranged visa approval for Vietnam, even as tourists! There is no visa “on arrival”, unlike most other SEA countries.

This “fast track” cost us an extra 15 USD (on top 20 USD for the regular one-month single-entry visa), but turned out to be unnecessary. There were no queues at all (this was around noon). Ah well.

Still, the visa company was very professional and reliable, I can only recommend them: visa-vietnam.net. They arranged everything, so we didn’t have to bring any US dollars or withdraw Vietnamese dong at the immigration hall at the airport, which I read could be problematic (no ATMs).

The motorbike culture of HCMC (not to be confused with MCMC) immediately brought back memories of Thailand :)

While still at the airport, I bought a “tourist SIM card” for something like 10 bucks. It included an unlimited data plan as well as free local calls, which both came in VERY handy later.

Having a data plan = priceless for GPS phone navigation.

You can probably buy them anywhere, and possibly even a dollar or two cheaper, but this was our first taste of what was to come: the ever-present, bumptious feeling of not having to haggle. It made us feel royal, and slightly guilty… is this how west Europeans feel when they visit Czech Republic and Romania?

Anyway, we took a taxi from HCMC airport straight to Mũi Né (I’m gonna write the local names with their proper accents from now on, to show off), which cost us about 90 USD and took ~5 hours. The road was fairly unpleasant (dark, raining, aggressive buses causing numerous dangerous situations). More on traffic later. This prompted us to consider using a train on our trip back to HCMC, ten days later.

Our train even had aircon and a dining car… in retrospect, the taxi may have been an overkill.

Mũi Né and Coco Beach resort

Mũi Né is a tourist region in the far south-east corner of Vietnam, the Bình Thuận province. It’s most famous for its beautiful beaches, sand dunes, steady wind and Russian tourists.

The former three make Mũi Né one of the world’s foremost destinations for kite surfing. The main beach bristled with kites!

…and something for the Russians. Nu, pogodi!

We stayed in a bungalow at a resort called Coco Beach. It was quite nice — good location on the beach, smack in the middle of the Mũi Né strip of shops and restaurants, French owned (one of the very first foreign establishments in the region, apparently).

Bungalows at Coco Beach.

Hearing the waves crash against the shore at night makes for perfect sleep. We loved it!

Overall we had no issues at Coco Beach, apart from a snobbish lizard who liked to shit all over our veranda at night. On the other hand, the resort was nothing special either. A bit overpriced if you ask me, but I can’t blame them for that… the location does call for a premium.

The shitmonster.

Things to do in Mũi Né

I immediately rented a small bike from one of the (many) rental shops around. The cost is around 100,000 VND per day, which you could probably bargain down a lot, if on a tight budget.

This is what “Vietnamese Dong” (VND) money looks like. For Czech people, the conversion rates are super convenient: 100,000 VND = 100 CZK (you just scratch three zeros!) = ~4.5 USD. Go buy your momma a house!

US dollars are generally accepted, but we never used them (and didn’t have any). We withdrew VND directly from ATMs, which are everywhere, even in fairly remote places, along the roads and such.

On that note, Vietnam is one of the countries where you’re supposed to bargain for everything. The people were so nice and the prices so cheap that we generally didn’t do that. We just payed the “tourist prices” with a smile (with an occasional grumble from Oana; women take discounts much more personally!). We were very thankful everything was so cheap.

The only time I got into serious haggling was when we were stopped by the bribe-hungry Vietnamese road police. I ended up paying 20 USD, though their asking price was almost 70 USD — beware! (photo unrelated; I didn’t dare take one in that situation)

Having a mode of transportation, and not being the beach type, we rode around the region visiting various sightseeing places. Since a picture is worth a thousand words:

Fishing village and the fairy stream

Fishing village in Mũi Né (~5 min by bike). Note the cute little round “fishing boats”.

Legend goes, these boats (washtubs?) were originally used to avoid taxes while under the French occupation. Since a washtub didn’t qualify as boat, the locals didn’t have to pay as much in taxes!

The famous “fairy stream” of Mũi Né.

The entrance to the stream looks muddy and smells foul (there’s a fish farm nearby). When initially though it was a sewage outlet!

You’re supposed to walk barefoot. The sand is velvety and very pleasant to the touch.

A little uphill expedition (fairy stream in the background).

Photo-bombing some Korean tourists. We decided against sand-bombing, despite positional advantage.

Funky sand formations.

Some of the scenery around the stream was downright surreal.

There’s a tiny resting place midway up the stream, with an one-armed war veteran selling coconuts for refreshment. They had the cutest puppy ever!

The very end of the fairy stream ((technically speaking, origin) is rather anticlimactic. You climb up this ladder and voilà… a garbage dump.

Red sand dunes, white sand dunes

Another attraction: red sand dunes. Just around the corner from Mũi Né (15 min bike).

The entrepreneurial locals are “renting” a piece of plastic to tourists, to slide down the dunes on. We couldn’t resist, of course :)

En route to the white sand dunes. These are farther away (~1h by bike) but much larger than the red sand dunes.

Animal-shaped shrubs decorating the highway median strip… cute.

The trip along the coast to the white dunes was almost better than the destination. Beautiful, deserted beaches along the way.

At the white sand dunes… how do you reverse?

The cheeky boy renting the buggies was showing off, riding them with his feet.

The entire area around the white sand dunes is undergoing massive development. The new, huge, barely finished roads were absolutely deserted, which triggered a “Need For Speed” mode. Or, as much speed as our 125cc allowed :)

A tropical storm hit us on the way back… it was like a wall of cold, icy ropes coming from the sky. Visibility ~2m. Not pleasant.

Christmas in Mũi Né

Since we stayed in Vietnam over Christmas, we got to experience the annoying, commercial atmosphere with tiresome “festive decorations” that touristy destinations invariably put up.

Luckily, the Christmas decorations inside the Coco Beach resort itself were done decently and looked rather beautiful.

Unfortunately our phone cameras were rubbish at capturing the colours at night.

Champa towers

Right next to the city of Phan Thiết (the province capital, ~15 min by bike), where we frequently went for shopping, are the ruins of the ancient Champa civilization.

This was the period of the new Star Wars movie craze, so we decided to get it over with, at Phan Thiết’s shopping centre (Lotte Mart, just like in Korea).

The temple ruins themselves, dating from 9th century AD.

OK! Sounds like a reasonable trade-off.

The Champa culture has a specific type of beauty standards (flat wide nose, big lips, curvaceous), also reflected in the pottery.

There used to be another relic, the Prince’s palace, on the top of the Champa hill. Demolished during the Indochina wars, there’s now only a monument commemorating Vietnamese victory over the French here (slaughtering the French garrison in the process, and capturing a prized Vickers machine gun).

There’s not much historical info at the site itself, so we filled our curiosity about the Champa culture only later, while visiting Saigon’s history museum.

Eating in Mũi Né

As stated, food was one of the main reasons for our trip to Vietnam. And Mũi Né didn’t disappoint.

Though some establishments looked a little creepy.

We took an embarrassing number of pictures stuffing ourselves like pigs, but these are too boring for a blog. Suffice to say, being a touristy region, Mũi Né offers both a variety of local, Vietnamese dishes as well as a solid foreign choice: Indian, Italian, Korean, steaks & burger (American?), Russian…

Local specialty: shrimp (or octopus, or crab) in tamarind sauce. Yum!

Saigon beer (drank by Oana; I’m not a fan).

Oyster, clams and cockles! Arya Stark would love it here.

When in Rome…

Tacu mountain, Buddha and cable car

Tà Cú is a mountain near Mũi Né, known for its cable car that takes you up to a massive, 49m long statue of reclining Buddha, apparently the largest of its kind in SEA.

You can get to Tà Cú on bike (about 1.5 hours), though the road is super boring (nothing like the exciting trip to the white sand dunes above!). It was a scorching day, so we covered ourselves in sun screen and set off. The police tried to stop us again around Phan Thiết, but I just pretended I didn’t see them (they were hiding in the shade at a bend) and rode on. Luckily they didn’t follow us. Too hot.

Please meet: concrete Buddha with several layers of white paint; Radim with several layers of sun protection (top to bottom).

The cable car offers a nice view of the region.

There were a few more unfinished statues along the way.

Overall, we were rather unimpressed with this Tà Cú expedition. Or maybe we were getting too tired of all the travelling.

On our way back, we paid a visit to the Mũi Né cemetery, at the very south-east tip of this south-east region of south-east Asia. It is a serene, quiet place, very beautiful.

By now, we’d been in Mũi Né for a week. For the remaining two days there, we just relaxed, reading books, lazying around the resort, getting massages, pacifying my email inbox, tending to github projects etc.

Working hard.

Happy wife, happy life!

We experienced some of the kitschiest sunsets in existence.

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon

On our last day, we took a cab to the train station of Phan Thiết and from there a train to HCMC. We had bought our train tickets on one of our trips the days before, because we weren’t sure what to expect. I wanted to see the place first.

The train station near Phan Thiết

The trip was fine, Vietnam Railways proved to have a surprisingly good standard of comfort (at least on this line): aircon, dining car, stewardesses distributing complimentary snack & water. Each car even had an overhead TV.

Their marketing is awe-inspiring, too.

Saigon turned out to be as busy as everyone said it would. The traffic looked completely bonkers. We got around Mũi Né on our bike with ease, but I wouldn’t attempt using a motorbike here.

We don’t often take pictures at random roundabouts, but when we do, it’s in Saigon.

But after a while, I started to appreciate a certain beauty to it. With practically no traffic rules, the flow is very organic. You’d think there would be havoc, people dying everywhere, and while I’m sure there are accidents (just statistically, from the sheer amount of bike traffic!), we didn’t see any while in Saigon. Nor did the drivers seem upset or anxious or stressed about the general mayhem. People honk, but it’s not the aggressive “get out of my way”, but rather “I see you have no mirrors on your bike, I’m right behind you, don’t do something stupid please”. The traffic was amazing to observe, in a scientifically-philosophical way, like watching the sea.

During peak times, the bikes filled every last empty space on the road (and, often, pavements too).

In a way, the flow was calming to watch, I imagine you could get used to it. Drivers generally pay more attention to what others around are doing, rather than the rules and regulations, which is more common in Europe.

Anyway, we arrived on New Year’s Eve, checked into our hotel (Japanese-run), and had a look around the city.

We ended up having dinner at a Japanese place called Ichiban Sushi. Possibly the best sushi we ever had.

Blog readers who don’t know us probably don’t appreciate the gravity of that last sentence.

For the past ten years, ever since I met my wife, sushi has been our favourite dish, sort of our “couple meal”. We just love it and have it all the time, everywhere we go — probably every single country in Europe, plus most in East Asia. Close to a thousand individual sushi meals, if I had to guess.

So to say this was the best sushi ever says a lot. It was better than the sushi we had in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka!

Something about the combination of the place’s ambience, the high quality of the meals, its presentation, cheap prices (by western standards), great, attentive service… We were in paradise!

After that exquisite meal, I looked up a Go place and went to play some games. Go is “cờ vây” in Vietnamese, and the place I found (after some struggle) was very cozy and friendly.

I played a couple of games with the salon owner, a cute Vietnamese girl, amateur 2 dan.

After that, though our eyes were closing, we went to the centre and waited for midnight. Time for Saigon’s New Year celebrations!

Some loud music, some fireworks, then off to bed. We’re old people.

Again, the bike traffic congestion at the centre is the memory that stands out the most, from that night. “Normal” Saigon traffic squared, if you can believe that.

The following day, we did the usual sightseeing round, being the good tourists we are. We wanted to visit the “War Remnants Museum” (officially called “Museum of Atrocities of USA And Its Puppets” until recently), but the queues were humungous, so we skipped that. Oana wasn’t too keen on the war stuff anyway.

On that note, I found it fascinating how relaxed the Vietnamese people are about this (recent!) history of theirs. Millions died as a result of the Vietnam war (called “American war” in Vietnam; like Americans, they fight all the time, so “Vietnam war” would be too ambiguous). Most nations, after being subject to much less than an unprovoked full-scale war, hate the aggressor’s guts for generations. Not so here. The country feels incredibly tough and resilient as a whole.

This is how they view themselves (from the Saigon history museum).

We learned that Vietnamese people still die from the chemicals Americans deployed during the war (Agent Orange), children are born disfigured. But surprisingly, there’s little animosity on a personal level. The people don’t necessarily love the US government, but they seem to be able to draw a clear distinction between the US government and US citizens. From what we could see, they are very civil and welcoming even to Americans (French, Chinese etc).

Instead, we visited the zoo.

The zoo is very popular with the locals. Perhaps it was just the New Year, but it was full of people.

Zoos are sad places in general, and this one was no different.

Right next to the zoo is the national history museum. Well worth a visit, especially the sections on prehistory and early dynasties.

In Saigon, we were reminded again of how nice Vietnamese people are. People came up to us randomly in street, just to say “Happy new year”, kids, elders, without any expectation of selling us something or getting tips. It was very sweet.

In the evening, we went to the Go salon once again. This time I won all my games, killing large dragons.

…which called for another visit to Ichiban Sushi to celebrate :)

After that, we quickly picked up our luggage from the hotel, a trip to the airport (110k VND, 30 min), a 3h wait for our flight back to Busan, and home! Good-bye Vietnam.

Costs, overall impressions

As usual, we kept a close tab on all expenses. Long story short: everything’s super cheap. We spent like 700 USD there, including all our princely meals, transportation, tips, bribes, entrance fees and so on.

A normal meal is 1-2 USD; you’ll have a fancy, high end dinner for 10 USD. Motorbike 4 USD/day, gas less than 1 USD per litre. The cost of our Vietnam stay was therefore massively dominated by the airplane tickets (return flight from Korea) and the accommodation (Coco Beach, T.Espoir).

TL;DR highlights and summary:

  • Friendly, helpful people.
  • Expect little English from the locals (even in Saigon, and even from taxi drivers).
  • Culture of haggling: always negotiate price in advance (if you care).
  • Internet no problem, wifis widespread, mobile data plans cheap. Some international sites blocked though (incl. twitter) — get your proxy ready.
  • ATMs everywhere, no issues withdrawing.
  • Amazing traffic: Mũi Né’s oversized roads, Saigon’s organic flows.
  • The typical SEA “four people on a bike” sandwich. Tiny tot in front basket asleep, lady in the back doing her nails…
  • Beautiful girls on bikes. Graceful and elegant. For Viet women, the bike feels like an accessory — they wear their Honda Air Blades like western girls wear Louis Vuitton bags.
  • The Saigon Go club. If you’re into Go (baduk, weiqi, cờ vây…), pay them a visit. They have loads of other games, too (Oana played the Settlers of Katan).
  • Ichiban sushi in Saigon.
  • Taxis even cheaper than in Geoje-do. Reliable, dressed smart, GPS tracking a norm, accept international credit cards.
  • Did I mention everything’s cheap? We really didn’t mind paying the proverbial “double prices”, as long as they were not smug or arrogant about it.
  • Prague pho bo > (south-)Vietnamese pho bo. Weird.
  • Vietnamese sushi > Japanese sushi. Weird.
  • Finally learned how to pronounce “phở bò” properly. In case you’re wondering: first “f?”, as if asking about the letter “f”. Then “boh”, with voice dropping down sharply.
  • In case you couldn’t tell, we had an amazing time in Vietnam! We’ll be back for sure :)

    And we want to explore North Vietnam too!

    Hopefully this blog post will help someone in the future. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.

8 Comments

  1. Joris February 20, 2016 10:44 pm  Reply

    No machine learning you said!

    • Radim February 21, 2016 3:14 am  Reply

      Was there any?

      • Joris March 9, 2016 10:28 am  Reply

        MCMC ;-)

  2. Ben February 22, 2016 3:57 am  Reply

    Looks like a wonderful destination, and thanks for sharing the information about getting the Visa beforehand. We will be going soon!

    • Radim February 22, 2016 5:30 am  Reply

      No problem :) Let me know if you have any questions, before our memories fade.

      Btw you’ll get the actual, physical visa there in the immigration hall, but you need to *arrange* for it beforehand (=this “letter of approval” I took a picture of above).

  3. GIa-Hung July 4, 2016 12:17 pm  Reply

    I am a vietnamese fan of your gensim, and quite interested when seeing this post about vietnam.

    • Radim July 4, 2016 12:22 pm  Reply

      Nice to meet you! We truly love Vietnam :)

      Where do you live?

      Sorry about any inaccuracies in this post… it is just my tourist perspective, from two weeks of stay.

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