I ate one of the best soups of my life in Mui Ne. I have absolutely no photographic proof of its existence, but I will never forget the soup’s perfectly balanced taste. Rich pork and beef broth. Chunks of tender meat perched atop a nest of fresh rice noodles. While the noodles soaked up the liquid, a mountain of herbs added new tastes. Freshly-squeezed lime provided a subtle but perfect punch to the flavourful broth, cut off by the urgency of the chili oil that followed. My tastebuds led me back to this tiny soup stand several times during my 6-night stay on the beach, but every time I thought to photograph my meal, it was too late. I had already polished off the bowl.
Mui Ne is a Strange Place
No, really: Mui Ne is a strange place. For starters, what we call Mui Ne is not Mui Ne at all, but rather Ham Thien. Mui Ne proper is a fishing village that lies at the edge of the concrete resorts and up-and-coming bungalows, a quieter place with morning markets and no resorts and a lingering fish smell. When Vietnam formally opened its doors to tourism in the 1990s, Ham Thien became an increasingly popular weekend getaway from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, a relatively reasonable few hours away and accessible by bus or train. Its climate is at once insanely dry and unnervingly sunny, the red and white sand dunes surrounding the village giving way to the rough waves at the water’s edge.
It is overwhelmingly trendy for Russian tourists, with many resorts sharing ownership with Russians. (No, really: it is packed with Russians.) The rest of its tourism seems to come from a hodgepodge of adventure-seeking backpackers, travellers making their way from North to South — or the reverse — on an open tour bus, weekending expats or family vacationers from England. Kitesurfing is hugely popular, as is sandboarding. With one main road that traces the length of the bay from Phan Thiet through Ham Thien and onto Mui Ne, everything is easily within reach if you rent a motorbike. Even the dunes are hard to miss, despite the lack of signage or available maps. For background and history of Mui Ne – and influence of the Cham Kingdom – see here. Also, anyone who tells you it is a mere 4 hour trip from Ho Chi Minh City has not taken the trip recently because worsening traffic has stretched the trip out considerably.
What made the town so strange to me was that each of these activities and cultures seemed to exist on a wholly separate plane of existence. At times it felt like I was wandering around in a bubble of one-way glass, my version of Mui Ne different from any other group of people in town. The Russians tended to flock to one end of the beach, the part closest to Phan Thiet town. Riding a motorbike to that end of the bay, dozens of Russians were thronged on each side of the road, crossing when they saw fit and heeding no one. Midway down the beach was the big backpackers hostel, full of kitesurfing aficionados and solo travelers. A little farther down, the seafood barbecue “bo ke” restaurants, fish and lobsters in tanks lining the road. Farther still from Phan Thiet was the cheaper, one-off resorts, tinier restaurants and – of course – the best soup in town.
Back to That Soup…
It was a tiny soup stand made up of corrugated iron sheets and old, huge metal pots, locked up during the day with its benches folded in like a turtle hiding in its shell. Around dusk, the smiling woman who ran it started to unpack her stand methodically, unfolding the metal sheets, popping out the table legs and separating the herbs and meat and noodles into easily-accessible rows. A friend asked her once if she was open for lunch and she said no, that during the day she cooked at one of the resorts but at night she and her husband came to their tiny stand, making extra revenue – and lots of soup.
I should note that I didn’t see one tourist at this soup stand. I walked by every night and ate there several times. It was packed with taxi drivers instead, their cabs driven halfway onto the sand, tipping at awkward angles while they slurped up their meal. The tourists that walked by would stumble awkwardly when they saw me in the midst of ravenous taxi drivers, one or two stopping to ask warily how the soup fared. “Oh it’s the best in town,” I would respond enthusiastically. “Easily the best I’ve had in my weeks in Vietnam too.” Hearing my words but ignoring my advice, they’d nod absently and continue their trajectory along the beach in search of eats. (This genuinely confuses me. If the place is packed with people, smelling fabulous and there’s a tourist there also telling you it’s the soup to end all soups why would you keep going?) Baffled, I’d drown my questions in pork and beef broth, the soup lady cackling softly at my failed attempts to lure others to partake in the fun.
The last night in town, I brought my friend Hung to dinner. Fluent in Vietnamese, he was an ideal conduit for all my soupy questions. From the tenderness of the meat (“it’s because I don’t remove it from the soup!” she said with a smile. “It’s tender because it’s in the soup!”) to questions about the herbs she served with the soup (“no fish herb, no no no”), I left town secure that not only did I eat the best soup in town, I learned quite a bit in the process.
To make matters more fun, her husband was a connoisseur of coconuts, talking to us about why certain trees grew better-tasting ones than others (“they need salt water as they grow – it makes them sweet”) and eventually taking his motorbike to their home to fetch some of his prized young coconut for us to try. I ended my trip drinking sweet coconut water, messily scooping out the pulp with a soup spoon when the water was gone.
Ducks at Dusk
I noticed the ducks first. They were gurgling and clucking softly, waddling in a twosome at the side of the road. Their movement caught my eye, peripheral to my concentrated efforts not to fall into one of the many cracks in the sidewalk. To prevent myself from stumbling in the dark, I froze in my tracks to turn their way. I know nothing about ducks, but these two looked as happy as any ducks I’ve ever seen, whirring around in a rhythmic, sand-kicking frenzy.
It was my second night in Mui Ne and I was on my way to a seafood dinner, tracing the length of the water until I found the restaurant I wanted to sample for tamarind crab. Lost in thought about what food adventures awaited me during my week in town while trying not to fall off the road, the ducks were a strange interjection. In the shadow of giant palm trees and in filthy roadside sand, they were shifting from foot to foot in perfect unison, swirling their way through the one of the few empty lots on the beach’s strip. I looked down to see a trail of duck shells littering the small sliver of rocks at the edge of the sand, just before the sidewalk began. The ducks were most certainly not there during the day, so who brought them to the beach at dusk?
It turned out that the woman who gently wrapped and fried delicate fish spring rolls was responsible for the ducks, loading them on her tiny motorbike and releasing them at dusk when she set up shop. Happy ducks meant more eggs for hot vit lon, a fertilized duck egg that is a hugely popular nighttime snack in Vietnam. Like the soup stand, the woman’s tiny plastic tables were only populated with locals, all of who stopped eating to stare when we ordered a plate of fried fish spring rolls as an appetizer for our soup. We didn’t try the duck eggs, but the spring rolls were fabulous, crispy and filled with tender pieces of fish with the skin still on.
Despite the beach and the soup and the many kite-surfers dotting the horizon, when I think of Mui Ne, I think of those ducks.
Bamboo Fishing Rafts
Of course, any time in the region should include a visit to the fishing town that gave Mui Ne its name. A short trip out of Ham Thien and the resorts fall away, replaced by motorbike repair stands and minimarts overflowing with sample-sized coffee and bottled water and piles of fresh fruit. Café culture is big, brown signs marking the tiny places where one can get a cà phê sữa đá (sweet milk Vietnamese iced coffee), mostly frequented by men. Further out, the paved roads branch into smaller and smaller filaments, dusty gravel leading down to the water’s edge.
Abandoned buildings are a fixture, many filled with schoolkids hanging off concrete pillars, legs swinging as they sang their hellos. The fishing techniques in Mui Ne and elsewhere in Vietnam differ from anything I’ve seen. Instead of larger fishing vessels (or even the smaller boats I’ve seen when I lived in El Nido, in the Philippines), tiny round rafts are used. While the larger boats exist, dotting the harbour in Mui Ne and the fishing boat “parking lot” near Phan Thiet, a good amount of fish are caught in tiny, circular bamboo rafts that are coated in a waterproofing agent. I asked many people to try to understand how these developed and why they are used. Two men can fit in them, cramped and facing each other, rowing and spinning out to the main boats with a net of fish.
I was told that it was because the French levied a tax on boats when they governed Vietnam, so some enterprising Vietnamese people invented this mini-sized boat, called thuyen thung, to avoid the levy. Too small to be considered an actual boat, they were free to use it to fish without paying the French. I’ve tried to verify this story now that I’m back in HCMC, but all I can find is the occasional article about how a “famous legend” says the French taxes were what led to the rafts’ development.
The boats are made by stripping bamboo into thin ribbons and drying it in the sun. The dried bamboo strips are then knitted into a crisscrossed round base and coated in a waterproofing resin. They make for a very different view of the shoreline, but I would be interested to get the full history of how they came about.
A Seafood Treat at the Ocean’s Edge
I couldn’t leave Mui Ne without trying some of its famous seafood. One of the dishes I’ve loved here in Ho Chi Minh City at the many “snail and beer” joints (street side snails and other shellfish, where you point at your raw seafood and it is cooked and delivered with a class of brew) is scallops. But not just any scallops: tiny scallops flash-fried in pork fat, put back in the shell and topped with green onion, lime and peanuts. The dipping sauce? White and black pepper, mixed with lime juice. Simple and fabulous. I had to try this same dish in Mui Ne and I was not disappointed – it was better than I could have imagined, especially since I was able to pick out the scallops myself, straight off the day’s catch.
I wanted tamarind crab. I couldn’t possibly leave Mui Ne without tamarind crab. And so after roaming the shoreline’s many bo ke restaurants, I chose a smaller place called Chi Em, with metal tables at the edge of the concrete wall that ran the length of the bay.  With a group of four, it was easy to get a nice sampler of what they had to offer. I chose the tamarind crab, the rest of the table ordered grilled fish, grilled shrimp and a crab fried rice dish. Note: I’ll be doing a “crash course” to Mui Ne next, with all the restaurants, and where I stayed in town.
As with many of the stalls I’ve frequented in Vietnam, someone’s child was roaming the grounds, causing mischief. In this case, he started out friendly, but quickly turned a little less so, terrorizing us with an empty aluminum foil package that he used to hit us all repeatedly.
The women who ran the restaurant were happy to have me running around taking photos and asking questions about the preparation of our meal, laughing at my interest and showing me each ingredient before they threw it into the wok.
With a full table of tamarind-coated napkins, every (messy) bite was worth the effort.
A goodbye sunset
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Mui Ne; I was tired from my travels in the fall and thought the best thing to do was to stay put. Lesson learned: it was an extremely last-minute decision to go and join friends on the beach for Christmas, but a wise choice in the end!
Part 2 to follow, a practical crash course of where to stay, what to do and where to eat.