A Few Days in Phan Thiet/Mui Ne

By: Rob van Driesum

By Rob van Driesum

Our family – Jan, myself and five-year-old Matilda – was long overdue for a short holiday at the beach. The plan was simple: book four nights in the off-season at the Sunsea Resort in Phan Thiet/Mui Ne, Wednesday to Sunday, and take the train from Ho Chi Minh City (the most hassle-free, comfortable and quickest way to get there). What could go wrong?

Well...

I tried to book train tickets online but the options were confusing. There were several websites with different trains, different schedules and prices, and click-throughs that didn’t seem to work. I knew there was one train a day in each direction, and I just wanted three simple soft seats on the standard train for the four-hour trip. Why was that so difficult

On Monday morning I went to the ticketing office at Ga Sai Gon (which would have to be one of the world’s most cunningly hidden central train stations), took a number and awaited my turn.

“Seats to Phan Thiet on Wednesday are no problem,” said the lady behind the counter in impeccable English, “but we only have two tickets for Sunday return. We have plenty of seats on Saturday.”

Oh dear! I should have realised that August may be the off-season for foreigners, but it’s also the Vietnamese school-holiday season when HCMC locals descend en masse onto the lovely beach between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne during the weekends. An expat in Phan Thiet told me later that it’s wise to book train tickets to/from Phan Thiet one month ahead during the school holidays.

So, we had to return on Saturday, which meant three rather than four nights at Sunsea. That was not the end of the world of course, but still a bit of a disappointment.

Sunsea Resort

Fortunately Sunsea Resort itself was far from disappointing. I had already investigated it during an earlier visit to the area, and knew to expect a recently renovated, wonderfully quiet resort with tasteful stonework imported from Italy. I admired the round, private cottages near the beach that were works of art, incorporating beautiful, local timbers and furniture custom-made to follow the curves of the rooms.

The Pool View Rooms at Sunsea Resort face the ‘inner’ pool
 

Instead of a private cottage, however, we booked a more affordable Pool View Double Room for $80 a night including service charge, taxes and breakfast. There was no extra charge for our daughter because she was still under six years old.

The room exceeded our expectations. It was tastefully appointed with all the mod cons (although the DVD player refused to accept our Europe-coded DVDs), and the “Pool View” moniker lived up to its name – we could walk straight into the pool from the private patio.

Sunsea Resort’s infinity pool at the beach, with the bar and Sukhothai restaurant to the left
 

Matilda could not have been happier. We kept an eye on her from the comfortable couch on the patio where we caught up with a few books we hadn’t got round to reading. Bliss!

Sunsea has a beautiful infinity pool at the beach as well, next to its beachfront bar and Sukhothai restaurant, which serves a range of Vietnamese and Western dishes as well as excellent Thai specialities (the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Sukhothai in central Thailand was the capital of the first kingdom of Siam back in the 13th century). The restaurant would have to be one of the most pleasant spots along the beach strip for breakfast in the gentle, morning breeze. Lunch is on offer as well, and coloured lighting creates a magical and stylish ambience for the evening meal.

Off-Season

The Phan Thiet-Mui Ne beach is quiet in the off-season, especially during the week. In the high season (roughly from October to April), it’s a mecca for kitesurfers and windsurfers when scores of them catch the consistent breeze. Some resorts – including Sunsea – have high poles on the beach to keep the kitesurfers at a distance for safety reasons.

In August, however, you don’t see any of them. There’s the odd wave-surfer and jet-skier, and a few people try and fly recreational kites in the fickle breeze until the afternoon showers set in. Perfect for rest and relaxation, in other words.

Sorting the catch on the beach at Mui Ne fishing village.
 

There are, of course, other attractions in the area – see here.

If there was a downside to staying during the week in the off-season, it was the fact that Matilda had no-one of her age to play with. This changed on Friday when families with kids began to arrive from HCMC, but unfortunately we had to return to HCMC on Saturday morning.

So, if you plan to follow our example with a child in tow, book your weekend train tickets a month in advance!


Phan Thiet's Government Master Plan Working?

By: Steve Raymond

Last year Binh Thuan online published an article entitled “Strategy for Development of tourism in Vietnam to 2020” and “Master Plan for tourism development Vietnam to 2020 and vision to 2030”. The article concerned the government’s plans to boost tourism into the area, and to cooperate with the tourism officials in Ho Chi Minh City and Lam Dong (Dalat) to set up a “tourism development triangle”.

The goals sound lofty, but the reality is a long way from that ideal. The government officials who created these plans start with a number of premises that show a lack of understanding of the needs or desires of foreign tourists who visit the area, as well as the needs of tourism establishments outside of the Ham Tien/Mui Ne core area. For example, they have held what they refer to as “cultural events”, such as a hot-air balloon festival and two food festivals that have had no effect on the advancement of foreign tourism. I was one of only a handful of foreigners who attended the balloon festival and the most recent food festival was held in the center of Phan Thiet. It attracted many locals but few tourists.

Rather than informing tourists about everything that Phan Thiet area offers and giving them choices of where to stay, the plan exacerbates the misunderstanding of both tourists and tourism companies that think Ham Tien and Phu Hai are part of Mui Ne. This adds to the confusion of tourists, concerning the actual location of their hotels and the establishments they wish to visit and does a disservice to the rest of the Phan Thiet area.

Additionally, the plans do not address or even mention the most glaring deterrent to future tourism into the area; The article talks about an investment in cultural events, road construction, signage, parks, markets, cable television, training of workers, an airport, promotions and trade shows, yet not a dong for cleaning up the area so that it is a pleasant oasis for visitors.

Since the plan was written, tourism into Binh Thuan has dropped significantly. Some of that drop can be attributed to the deterioration of the Russian ruble and the riots against the Chinese in 2014, but much of it can also be attributed to the internet posting of tourists who come here and are disappointed by the amount of garbage at the sand dunes, the fairy stream, Taku mountain, along the sides of the roads and most disturbingly, on Binh Thuan’s beaches.

As for the programs that are mentioned in the plan, little has been done in the past year. After an initial burst of activity, construction of the new airport has either slowed or stopped altogether. Improvement along Nguyen Dinh Chieu, the main street through Ham Tien, has consisted of filling in some potholes usually about three months after they appear. The plan to build an oceanfront park and promenade at the Bo Ke area of Ham Tien consisted of the police tearing down some of the makeshift structures which have since reappeared and multiplied. 

Binh Thuan has yet to promote tourism at any major tourism fair. They have finally, however, attended ITE in Ho Chi Minh City, but have not yet gone to the ASEAN Tourism Forum, or to ITB; the largest tourism fair in the world. However, the authorities are very good about sending out directives and printing banners in Vietnamese. They also produced a promotional video, also in Vietnamese.

If the first year of the program is any indication, tourism growth into Binh Thuan will either stagnate or deteriorate, while private investment in the area waits for a government that understands the priorities of international tourists and acts to address them.


Top 5 3-Star Hotels and Resorts in Phan Thiet

By: Steve Raymond

Tourism in Phan Thiet is growing so rapidly that the number and types of resorts, hotels, guest houses and vacation rentals here have more than doubled in the past ten years. But when it comes to accommodations for travellers on a tight budget, tourists need to be careful and do their homework, or they may end up in a dilapidated resort that is badly in need of repairs.

On the other hand, there are some great bargains to be had for very little money.

The most popular resort for budget-minded international tourists is Mui Ne Hills. Although the eclectic group of buildings that make up resort are not on the beach, they are located in the very centre of Ham Tien’s tourist strip and within walking distance of many of the best restaurants.

resortsImage source: agoda.com

As the name implies, the resort is on a small hill, so guests enjoy stunning views of the entire Mui Ne Bay from both the public areas and some of the guest rooms.

Mui Ne Hills is actually a collection of four different hotels and hostels, which cater to both budget travellers and to those who enjoy a little more luxury. Each of the hotels has its own private swimming pool, creating a vibrant atmosphere for guests to socialise. With prices for beds in shared accommodations starting at US$5.00 per night and prices for private accommodations starting at US$20.00 per night, it is extremely difficult to find a better bargain anywhere else in Phan Thiet.

Another bargain for budget travellers is Longson Mui Ne Campgrounds on Suoi Nuoc Beach in Mui Ne ward. Although there are a couple of rooms on the property, almost all the guests stay in open-air dorms for US$5.00 per night or tents, complete with mattresses, pillows and blankets either on the beach or in the campground, for US$4.00 per night.

resortsImage source: booking.com

There is also a very large restaurant onsite that serves some of the best Vietnamese cuisine in Phan Thiet, plus a large bar with plenty of space to lounge the night away. There are a number of different activities arranged during the day, such as volleyball and football, as well as nighttime activities, such as poker, movie screenings, bonfires and competitions. Plus, the property organises regular pub crawls to other beach bars, mostly in Ham Tien ward.

The Nam Chau Boutique Resort - Mui Ne Passion is an older resort that has just recently changed its focus from targeting only the budget Vietnamese market, to budget international travellers and active adults.

The resort’s beautifully landscaped grounds provides a large area for activities in the gardens, on the beach and in the ocean. Daytime activities at the resort include kitesurfing, windsurfing, SUP (Stand-Up Paddle) boarding, jetskiing, dune buggy riding, beach volleyball and beach football. On Saturday evenings, the resort runs beach and/or pool disco parties.

The rustic accommodations with thatched roofs and bamboo furniture include private rooms and bungalows starting at around US$25.00 per night with breakfast and cottages with shared accommodations for around US$12.00 to US$15.00 per bed with breakfast. In addition to shared accommodations for straight couples and individuals, the resort is the only one in Phan Thiet that also has shared accommodations specifically for members of the gay community.

resortsImage source: booking.com

One of the friendliest little bed and breakfasts in Phan Thiet is the Xin Chao Hotel. Located in the very centre of Ham Tien, this little hotel is very clean and well located. It is within walking distance of most restaurants and beach bars. The owner is a British national, so the English ability of most of the staff is quite good. Even though it is not on the beach side of Nguyen Dinh Chieu, it does have a nice pool, a good restaurant and a small garden. A private room with breakfast costs around US$20.00 per night for single or double occupancy.

resortsImage source: xinchaohotel.com

Although a number of guest houses in Phan Thiet offer private rooms for around US$10.00, they are often dirty and/or not close to shops and restaurants. However, the Delight Hotel is an exception. For US$10.00, guests get clean rooms at a hotel that is right in the middle of Ham Tien, surrounded by lots of good restaurants and shops. Even though it is only a room and doesn’t include anything else, this hotel is a real bargain for the budget traveller.

resortsImage source: tripadvisor.com

Banner image source: booking.com

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