There are loads of options for short getaways from Saigon. Word’s monthly travel column Daytripper features easily accessible day trips out of the city by road. Vietnam’s improved air services mean you can be sipping cocktails halfway up the coast by sunset.
Phong Nha, now taking centre stage as a must-see destination in Vietnam after last month’s Hollywood premiere of Kong: Skull Island, is between Hue and Vinh. It’s a quick hop by plane to Dong Hoi, but not everyone has the time and money to get there.
One alternative for a quick escape from Saigon is the Mui Ne Loop by motorcycle. It’s no land of the dinosaurs, but a visit to the land of the dragon fruit in Phan Thiet offers affordable, hassle-free fun close to Saigon for time-poor travellers.
Motorcycle road trips can be taxing, especially on machines not made for tackling long windswept coastal routes. One answer is to break up a road trip with a train ride — one where you can take your motorcycle with you.
One such trip starts with a train to Phan Thiet, then motorcycle to Mui Ne, Ke Ga, La Gi and Ho Tram before closing the loop back in Saigon. Expect to add around 300kms or more on your speedometer and take at least four days to complete.
Chasing the Dragon Fruit
The Doi Moi Express rattles its way to Phan Thiet station in just under four hours. There are some interesting sections of track, like the eastern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City as you snake your way out via Dong Nai and Binh Duong and across the Saigon and Dong Nai rivers, but for the most part, you can snooze and miss little. The seats are comfortable and the air-conditioning works well, something of a revelation.
The landscape outside gradually morphs from the tropical aspect synonymous with Saigon and the Mekong Delta, to a more arid zone. Large, rocky volcanic outcrops and boulders begin to emerge — some look as if they’ve been placed into their precarious positions by hand.
About 20 to 30 minutes from Phan Thiet, dragon fruit farms begin to materialise and it soon becomes evident why Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers of dragon fruit. Exports of dragon fruit — mostly to China — have reached 1 million kilograms per year.
End of the Line
The drive from Phan Thiet Station to the Mui Ne tourist strip should take about 20 minutes, but a few wrong turns can easily stretch it out to longer. Still, in under five hours after departing Saigon, you can be at your hotel checking in. One hotel worth considering is Mui Ne Hills Budget Hotel (69 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet) approximately 200m off the main tourist strip of Mui Ne, up a small hill.
For a standard double room with all the basics and a pool, expect to pay VND500,000 per night. For something more upmarket, try Mui Ne Hills Bliss Hotel further up the hill. Popular among ‘flashpackers’ who don’t mind spending a little more and being seen doing it, Bliss Hotel is perched on the side of a dune and offers sweeping views of the ocean. It also has dormitory accommodation, but book in advance, as it’s popular.
For lunch, Joe’s Cafe (86 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet) is a good option. A Tiger bottle costs VND40,000, and at happy hours around lunchtime, a Saigon Green costs VND20,000. The vegetarian burrito (VND100,000) is good value for a light lunch. The café is on the water, so when the beach wind gets up in the afternoon, their plunge pool beckons. Joe’s also offers accommodation.
For dinner, there are plenty of quan options along the main strip. Quan Bo Ke Nam Y (120 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet) is a large open-air eatery by the beach that serves typical Vietnamese cuisine. Two large Tiger bottles and dinner for two will tally up to VND200,000. When the weather is fine, it’s as good a place as any for dinner.
Mui Ne isn’t the hottest ticket in town for nightlife. Anyone looking for a big night out will have to get creative. An alternative is to ride out to the dragon fruit farms under the stars. From 10pm most evenings, farmers turn on the lights along the rows of dragon fruit to quicken the fruiting process. Typically the fruiting season runs from May to August, but this artificial source of sunlight allows fruiting to take place most times of the year. The thousands of light bulbs create a romantic ambiance beneath a sky full of stars.
Kiteboarding, swimming and a trip to the dunes are synonymous with Mui Ne. However, the back roads beyond Phan Thiet offer motorcyclists an opportunity to get away from the tourist traps and create tours of their own. Pin your GPS at Phan Thiet’s Central Market (Nguyen Hue, Phan Thiet) and after a banh mi op la and ca phe sua da (VND30,000) for breakfast, head northwest in the direction of the hills and get lost for the morning. Some of the scenery is stunning.
La Gi Land
Southwest of Mui Ne on the coast lies next stop La Gi — home to one of Vietnam’s largest fishing ports. The 80km coastal road (DT719) between Mui Ne and La Gi has some of the best and worst road conditions on the loop. The 50km leg between Mui Ne and Ke Ga offers a contrast of beautiful natural scenery — ocean on one side and towering red sand cliffs on the other. Failed resort developments ghost the shoreline.
Despite strong evidence their resorts will probably never make it to opening day, developers remain steadfast in building more. Quaint beachside fishing villages in between are a reminder of the powerful force of nature as they get buffeted by ocean winds on one front and threatened with suffocation by sand dunes on the other. Things look beaten here.
The first glimpse of the gaudy Ke Ga lighthouse on rocks offshore signals your arrival into Ke Ga — another small windswept fishing village where the main road doubles as the local market and the sellers are too preoccupied with stopping their things from blowing away to notice you passing through.
Apart from a five-kilometre stretch just outside Ke Ga, the journey becomes a tedious one of dodging potholes and corrugations. A brief respite for the kidneys comes with the town of Tan Hai approximately halfway (17km) between Ke Ga and La Gi. By now, the terrain has opened out into windswept plains where the last of the dragon fruit farms have petered out and the salt fields make you feel even more exposed to the elements, adding to the loneliness that this stretch of road evokes.
By the time you hit La Gi, you’ll be in need of some comfort. La Gi Farmstay, about 6km southwest of La Gi, is a family-owned homestay with double rooms including en-suite starting from around VND400,000 per night, including breakfast. La Gi Farmstay is a timely layover on the loop and is two kilometres from the busy Coco Beachcamp resort famous for its beach parties and weekend family gatherings.
Closing the Loop
The final leg home to Saigon — approximately 150km — is the most daunting of the loop due to QL51, the main highway to Vung Tau.
But the coastal road to Ba Ria beforehand is a highlight as you pass by more sand dunes and resorts. Here the road comes closer to the ocean than at any other time during the trip.
The Ven Bien road takes you past the massive Ho Tram Grand Strip and The Bluffs golf course. Further along you cross the delightful Ray River before passing through the charming farmlands on the outskirts of Ba Ria — the ideal place over a bowl of hu tieu to contemplate the awaiting chaos of QL51 before closing the loop.
Hit the Train, Jack
The Doi Moi Express departs Saigon Station for Phan Thiet Station once a day at 6.40am. Purchase tickets in-person at Saigon Station at least 24 to 48 hours in advance of departure to ensure there is space for motorcycles on the train. Take your passport. Soft-seat tickets including the fee for a motorcycle to Phan Thiet Station are VND315,000 one-way per person. No motorcycle? Buy tickets online at vietnam-railway.com with a credit or bank card. Print them out for presentation prior to boarding the train. Tickets can also be bought at the Vietnam Railway Office (275 Pham Ngu Lao, Q1, HCMC).
Photos by Mike Palumbo / March 2017