Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Recap of Short Return to Vietnam

It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since my last blog post. I intended to take a short break, but it seems my break has last more than four months! Twitter and Twitpic is much less time-consuming, especially now that I’m back in Japan and working a lot.

At the end of October last year I decided to leave Japan because my job in Akita required far more hours (60-70/week) than were specified in my contract (40-45/week). It was a difficult choice to make, though I knew I’d try to come back at some point. Where did I choose to go? As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I returned to Vietnam, which has always been a great safety net for me.

I intended to live in Saigon for a while, as I thought I’d lined up work and a place to live in District 2. Unfortunately, the job fell through and my prospective landlord sold me a false bill of goods. Rather than move into the apartment I’d placed a $740 deposit on, I backed out immediately after entering the place and finding it completely filled with mud, rotting food, and different furnishings than what I’d been led to believe came with the place. I lost the money and had to start my apartment search all over, but then an old Vietnamese-American friend, and ex-landlord, suggested that I rent his villa in Mui Ne, a beach resort 5 hours north of Saigon. He offered me an incredibly affordable rate with the condition that I volunteer to teach English to the groundskeepers at the private complex where his villa was. Having been to Mui Ne many times in the past, and having seen his villa several times, too, I readily agreed. It made the loss of my deposit, as well as the Vietnamese post office’s confiscation of three boxes of personal belongings that I’d mailed from Akita in October (and still haven’t gotten back as of this writing), easier to swallow.

Ah, Vietnam. There’s always something you force me to deal with…

Near the entrance to the complex of villas where I lived in Mui Ne.

The lane where I lived. And no, that's not my shiny SUV.

I hadn’t been to Mui Ne since January 2009, and in the intervening 33 months I couldn’t believe how much had changed. Not only were there far more hotels and restaurants, but the number of Russian tourists had exploded. I’d say that almost 90% of the tourists I came across in Mui Ne were from Russia.

The place where I lived was set off from the main strip, though by motorbike it only took me a few minutes to get there. I would go into town every day for meals, or for coffee, or to shop for fruit or other small items, or to walk along the beach. I didn’t take my camera with me very often, which explains why there’s not a great deal of variety among these photos.

The front gate to the villa where I lived. The scaffolding in front was for the people weatherproofing the shutters.

Second floor guestroom where I stayed.

One of the great things about Mui Ne is that it’s relatively quiet and the traffic is manageable. It used to be quieter and had even less traffic, but despite its rapid development it remains a pleasant break from city life. And where I stayed was incredibly peaceful…most of the time.

When I first arrived at the complex, which has about 120 villas, only about five of them had anyone living or staying in them. This situation, which was great, lasted from November 12th, when I arrived, until December 1st, when the place started to get overrun by Russian tourists. They were generally nice, but they also liked to drink—all day and night, it seemed. There was a group of 30 that stayed for two weeks, and when the sun went down they liked to race their motorbikes around the complex, go swimming (and shouting a lot) in the middle of the night, and break things—which one often came across in the morning, usually around the pool area.

Large kitchen that I mostly used to brew coffee. A favorite place for frogs to gather, though I never figured out why.

Living room full of patio furniture (foreground) waiting to be weatherproofed.
Photo of the villa from the fence in the back yard.

This is the distance between my back yard and the complex's pool area.

25-meter pool in background, and a shorter, shallower pool connected to it.

There were also tennis courts...
And a badminton court...
And a cafe with pool tables at the far end...
One of the many frogs I constantly saw inside and outside my place.

View from my bedroom window as evening approached.

I had access to a motorbike (and two bicycles), which was bigger than any two-wheeler I’d ridden before, and which seemed to be missing a top gear—a bad thing when locals followed me home up the unlit road at night.

My motorbike on scrub grass beside the ocean. That scrub grass is now pavement, by the way.
My Bonus motorbike...
Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, in Mui Ne. Lazy morning with little traffic to deal with.
I have memories of the food in Mui Ne being better than it was during my stay this time, though I can’t complain about the greater range of options. There were far more street food options in Phan Thiet, about a 15-minute motorbike away, but in Mui Ne there wasn’t more much than carts selling sandwiches, boiled corn, and steamed buns, and of course fruit, which was everywhere.

One of my favorite places to eat was Hoa Vien, a Vietnamese-Czech brewery whose restaurant specialized in seafood. (Of course, most places in Mui Ne specialize in seafood.)

Hoa Vien's outdoor seating area and infinity pool beside the sea.
One item that Hoa Vien offers, which I’d never had before, was goi ca suot.

Goi ca suot is a dish of small, half-translucent sardines mixed with a peanut-red chili sauce and served with various herbs and rice paper embedded with sesame seeds. A sweet, peanut-based sauce is provided for dipping. This was one of the cheaper items on the menu (less than $5), and with an order of boiled or stir-fried veggies it easily serves two people.

Another place that served incredibly cheap, always satisfying food was Lam Tong.

Lam Tong is NOT fancy.
Despite the shoddy service—perhaps the worst in Vietnam—but then what do you expect from a group of teenage boys who would surely rather be out having fun with their friends—I kept coming back here.

But their food is tasty and insanely cheap. This is a huge tomato salad, dish of rice, and lemongrass-and-chili-fried barracuda on sliced cucumbers. Total cost: about $2.

It’s a popular place and can get crowded at night, but if you come at the right time you can enjoy your food with an unimpeded view of the ocean.

The beach from Lam Tong restaurant.

There are surprisingly few cafes in Mui Ne, especially when considering how many cafes one finds pretty much everywhere in Vietnam. Close to Lam Tong was a place called Sankara. There’s a little bit of everything here, including yoga classes, a indoor bar and lounge, an oceanside bar-café, a swimming pool, and open-yurt-like sitting areas.

Passionfruit shake at Sankara.

The coffee here is about $2 per glass, but it’s worth it for the ambience.

Yoga classes are held on the second floor of the main building, under the white tarp.

I used to go to the oceanside restaurant at Victoria Resort most mornings to get my writing done, but once one of the young cooks working there decided that I was to be his best friend and job-hunting helper, I stopped going. The resort is one of the oldest ones in Mui Ne, and also one of the most charming. The lounge area between the restaurant and pool is spectacular in the evening as the sun is going down.

Phan Thiet is worth exploring if you find yourself getting bored with Mui Ne’s limited options. There’s a lot to see, if not a lot to do. Mui Ne is an old fishing village, and Phan Thiet is famous for the fish sauce it produces.

Driving from Mui Ne into Phan Thiet, one comes across plenty of evidence of fishing’s importance to the local people.

I spent three months in Mui Ne before deciding to come back to Japan. I was ready to leave after three months, mostly because I got bored being there on my own, but now that I’m in Snow Country in northern Japan and freezing my tush off, I definitely miss Mui Ne. I’m already making plans to go back, though perhaps not for such a long stay next time.

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  1. Going to Mui Ne this Saturday! Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Hi HDD: Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I hope you have fun in Mui Ne. I miss it there, perhaps because it's so cold and gray where I am now. :) Enjoy the seafood!

  3. Trying again...don't know why I would not be able to post when I AM a blogspot person and I just connected here from my account. Your blog makes me desperately hungry for Asian and Vietnamese in particular...

  4. JG: I don't know why you've had trouble posting to my account. I have my ideas, but they reek of conspiracies...Here in Akita, my blog makes me desperately hungry for Vietnamese food, too. What, there's no Japanese or Vietnamese food in Istanbul? Can you make your own?

  5. There is overpriced and largely mediochre Japanese (Yakisoba at one place for 18 dollars) but absolutely no Vietnamese...sadly, and not many Asian grocery stores and none with any variety...

  6. JG: I don't know if it makes you feel any better, but I had Vietnamese food in Tokyo last week. Nothing fancy, mind you, and yet for two people it cost US$70! In Vietnam the same meal probably wouldn't even have cost $7. Maybe you need to start a garden full of Asian herbs and veggies. Then you can make your own Vietnamese and Japanese food. And if I ever get back to Istanbul you can cook for me! Yes, I like that idea...

  7. Thx for connecting with me on foodbuzz. I just subscribed to your blog feed and can't wait to see what your next post will be!

  8. I have no idea how I ended up on your blog, I really don't know, but I am definitely glad - Please keep posting.

  9. CJ: Thanks for subscribing to my blog feed. And yes, I can't wait to see what my next post will be, too!

    Anonymous: Thanks for stopping by and enjoying my previous blog posts! I hope I can keep posting soon. My work is keeping me from doing anything but work, however. Argh, work...