(No.10, Vol.1, Dec 2011 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)
On the eastern, or windward, side of the headland from which the fishing village Mui Ne derives its name, on a wide sweeping bay with a mile or so of sandy beach and standing in well tended gardens, you will find the Muine Bay Resort, which celebrates its first birthday this month. Whilst the fishing village cum suburb of Phan Thiet city is beginning to earn a reputation for brash mass tourism, the Muine Bay Resort is a place to escape crowds and luxuriate in peace and tranquillity with first-class-cuisine, at a reasonable price.
Unless you have access to a helicopter, getting there from Ho Chi Minh City will not be quick. For me, however, thanks to the services of Sinh Travel, it was at least made easy. When I was told I would be travelling by minibus an image of my sitting wedged with zero leg space between two old ladies each with a basket full of chickens on her lap and cigarette smoke from the driver wafting into my lungs came into my mind. Thankfully Sinhâ€™s spankingly new and bright twenty-five-seater was a small, rather than a mini-, bus. Service both on and off board was impeccable. There were boarding announcements and a pre-departure check to make sure exactly where you needed to be dropped off. The fare, at just VND100,000 ($4.76), was amazing value for money.
At a pit stop on the journey I got chatting to a pair of middle-aged Dutch women. They remarked how dismal the scenery was. True, we had been passing by the dark satanic mills and dull townlets of the city suburbs and Dong Nai Province. â€˜It will be worth it when you get there,â€™ I assured them, â€˜and we will soon be in the green pleasant and hilly land of Binh Thuan Province.â€™ By then sadly night had fallen but I was able to please the ladies by pointing out the sight of fields of dragon fruit (pitaya) lit up by electric light bulbs to encourage early maturation.
After six-and-half hours we rolled into a very long, glitzy street with an endless row of restaurants, hotels and shops with neon lights that were predominantly in Russian, for Mui Ne was already famous in Moscow. A look of horror came on the face one of the Dutch ladies and she blurted out the single word â€˜Benidormâ€™, a synonym among Northern Europeans for tasteless, over-developed tourism. Secondly she said â€˜Stripâ€™, in reference to vulgar Las Vegas. I left them for something completely different on the final leg of my journey, a ten-minute taxi ride to the Muine Bay Resort.
Soon I was being shown my room. The de-luxe, brightly whitewashed sea-view room ($145 per night) was finely furnished with carved, darkly polished furniture in the Cham style. [Champa is a civilisation that existed in present-day Central Vietnam into the middle of the second millennium AD. Nowadays the Cham people are one of Vietnamâ€™s many â€˜ethnic minoritiesâ€™.] On the sea-facing balcony there was a small ladder. â€˜Wellâ€™, I exclaimed to the room boy, â€˜this is hardly going to help in case of fireâ€™ and I dangled it over the side to demonstrate the inadequacy of the object. The general manager laughed when I told him about this the following day. It was not a ladder, he told me, but a drying-rack. The local people in particular needed something to hang their smalls out to dry on.
The room boy left a little perplexed and I looked out on the balcony in awe at the star-spangled heavens. Invisible in the city but here in greeting were long lost chums: Orion, the Plough and Polaris, the North Star; and I spotted, right above my head, a â€˜starâ€™ that did not twinkle, Jupiter maybe. Strong, fresh sea breezes were blowing healthy ozone into my lungs. Out in the wide and beautiful gardens the palms were swaying. It was now the windy season and for these three days I was to experience the exhilaration of a high wind, or a number seven on Mr Beaufortâ€™s scale. Whole trees were in motion and a moderate amount of spray was being thrown over the barrier bushes by the sea at high tide the following day. Very special atmospheric weather this was! It put me in mind of the slogan for the English seaside town of Skegness, exposed as it is to the North Sea winds, â€“ â€˜So bracing!â€™
There was a restaurant in the main building but everyone was taking meals at the thatched Beachside Restaurant. I tried both Vietnamese and Western dishes and found them all delicious and very reasonably priced, given this is an isolated, high-end hotel with a captive clientele.
I ate a very fine seafood pizza (Neptune) with a rather crunchy, thin crust, for VND185,000 ($8.81). I created my own fusion food by mixing Phan Thiet fish sauce into a Russian salad that comprised peas, carrots and potato covered in mayonnaise. Quite interesting. I had a cream of tomato soup concocted to perfection (VND125,000 ($5.95)) and for the first time tasted fillet of black king fish â€˜a la florentineâ€™, which is baked with a cheese crust in a cream sauce with spinach. It was, as they might say in Firenze itself, â€˜Perfetto!â€™ (VND355,000 ($16.90)).
The Vietnamese food came at lower prices. The two dishes I tried were the braised tuna in a clay pot packed with the flavour of a black pepper and chili sauce and the ginger chicken in small pieces on the bone. I had both accompanied with plain white rice and my favourite vegetable, morning glory.
Whilst the wine list was extensive, only three canned beer brands were available (from VND30,000 ($1.43) a can). I long for the day when fresh draught beer becomes more readily available in Vietnam. There was, however, a list of nineteen cocktails and a few mocktails, including â€˜Phan Thiet Mocktailâ€™, a mixture of dragon fruit, papaya and mango juices. Feeling adventurous, I tried a â€˜Golden Dreamâ€™ consisting of Galliano, Cointreau, orange juice and cream (VND85,000 ($4.05)) â€“ A fine drink and one I am sure the ladies would appreciate.
I had a long talk with the general manager, Mr Nguyen Van Khoa. He explained that one of the aims of the resort was to introduce guests to Cham culture. This is reflected in the architecture, in the clay pottery ornaments in some of the rooms and the laterite stone carvings of apsaras (dancing girls) on some of the walls. Excursions to a Cham village and the famous Cham towers of Phan Thiet, with a cultural show thrown in, can be arranged. On certain days Cham cuisine is served in the restaurant.
Mr Khoa also commented that the explosive expansion of tourism in Mui Ne had not been accompanied by an adequate growth in available trained staff. The English-language level of the staff was, overall, quite low. The staff are also sometimes not quite used to the quirkiness of Westerners. I tried to get mustard for the bacon and sausages at the buffet breakfast and even though I used the Vietnamese words â€˜mÃ¹ táº¡câ€™ I ended up with wasabe. This is a perfectly acceptable substitute for an Englishman but maybe not for the French and Germans, who like their mustard sweet. All this is more than compensated for, however, by the natural friendliness and helpfulness of the staff. Moreover, if, like me, you are concerned that your tourist dollar will go to the benefit of the local people, this is the place for you. The resort is owned by the Ben Thanh Tourist company and the personnel is 100 per cent from Binh Thuan Province itself, with many recruited from the nearby village.
For my second night I transferred to a Seaview Bungalow ($235 a night). This came with its own verandah, a spacious bathroom and even a small garden featuring bougainvillea, stretizelia and cacti. I was also shown the family rooms. The Family Seaview Room ($215) had a private sleeping area for the children upstairs. The Grand Family Room converted the downstairs into a salon and had an adjoining room for a second couple.
Apart from relaxing in a deckchair there are plenty of activities at this resort. Firstly there is the beach. In the calm season you can go kayaking or take a short boat ride out to Lao Islet (HÃ²n Lao). There is a shrine temple on it which commemorates a hero who saved people from a shipwreck. Now, in the windy season, with white horses cantering to shore, conditions were ideal for wind- and kite-surfing. I watched as devotees leaped ten metres into the air. Unlike the skateboarding fraternity, they never seem to fall into the water.
Anyone for tennis? The hard courts here even have high chairs for umpires. If you do not like to swim in the ocean there is a huge kidney-shaped pool. If you need a drink there is no need even to get out of the water as there are stone chairs in it alongside the bar. A spa was due to open in the near future, Mr Khoa informed me. I also enjoyed just wandering in the landscaped gardens. By the pond, the electric blue bolt, unmistakeably of the common kingfisher (Alcedo alcedo), shot by me. I took this as an omen that I would look back on my time here as â€˜halcyon daysâ€™, the halcyon being a mythical bird [â€˜charming the wind and waves into calmâ€™ â€“ Oxford] as well as a real tropical kingfisher.
Enveloped in warm and natural Vietnamese hospitality and surrounded by nature and grounds lovingly tended by man, the Muine Bay Resort is both â€˜So bracing!â€™ and â€˜So embracing!â€™
Top: The Muine Bay Resort aims to introduce guests to Cham culture. This statue of an apsara (female dancer), in the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture, is believed to have been made in the 7th or 8th century AD
Photo: Nguyen Anh Tuan
Right: Thatch roofs battened down against the bracing sea winds at Muine Bay Resort.
Photo: Pip de Rouvray