[Last Updated: Dec 2020]
Did you know that Southeast Asia has its own desert? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. I’m Southeast Asian, and I had no idea we had a desert until I was in my mid-twenties. And that was only when one of my friends told me about it.
Although less of an experienced traveler than I was, she seemed to know a lot more of the must-visit places in the region, or more specifically, ‘the most instagrammable’ places in the region. So, I let her plan the trip for us.
The desert in question is located in the south coast of Vietnam, in a beautiful fishing village called Mui Ne.
Mui Ne Sand Dunes
“How can there be a desert in a fishing village?”, you might ask.
The phenomenon is actually not as rare as you might think. It is caused by beach sand that is transported inland by a combination of high winds and gradually forms sand dunes. These dunes continue to accumulate sand, and over time, become larger in size. Plants then start to grow in some parts and act like anchors to keep the dunes in place.
Sand dunes serve as a natural barrier against coastal storms and beach erosion. They lessen the impact of storm by preventing or delaying flooding of inland areas. On top of that, they also provide habitat for flora and fauna, including a few rare endangered species.
Mui Ne has a number of sand dunes scattered throughout the area, but the most impressive ones are the White and Red Sand Dunes.
Best Time to Visit Mui Ne
Mui Ne has a tropical monsoon climate with a rainy season from April to October and a dry season between November and March.
The best time to visit Mui Ne is from November to March, when the skies are sunny and the winds are strong, providing the optimum condition for surfing and other wind-dependent water sports. The average temperature during this period is about 27 degrees Celsius.
Mui Ne is the driest region in Southeast Asia, receiving very little rain compared to other Vietnamese cities. However, during the rainy season between April and October, the coastal town has an average humidity of 79%, with hour-long rainfall in the afternoons and evenings. Flash floods and extensive erosion are known to occur around September.
My friend and I went in November — much too hot for my liking, but it was better than a flash flood.
How to Go to Mui Ne
Mui Ne doesn’t have its own airport. The nearest airports are Lien Khuong Airport in Da Lat (130 kilometres away), Cam Ranh Airport in Nha Trang (191 kilometres away), and Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (200 kilometres away). Most people go to Mui Ne from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
We went by tourist bus because that was the cheapest option. If you choose to travel by tourist bus, remember that you need to book the ticket at least a day before you plan to travel. This can be done at most travel agents and hotel receptions. To be safe, I suggest booking at your hotel, as there will be less risk of getting scammed.
The cost is around $6 – $10 and travel time is between 5 to 6 hours. They usually pick you up and drop you off in front of your hotel or close by.
There are two types of buses available: the daytime ‘open buses’ and nighttime ‘sleeper buses’. The open buses come with usual bus seats, whereas the sleeper buses have a special type of double-decker seats where you get to stretch out.
It was quite comfortable for me (I’m 165 cm/5’5″), but I imagine it would feel a little cramped if you’re bigger or taller than the average Asian. If you have any experience traveling on the Vietnamese sleeper bus, let me know in the comments below.
There are also public buses that stop in Mui Ne, but it may be a little difficult to figure out the schedule and where to take the bus (travel agents will not be too eager to help you out as they won’t get a commission out of it). On top of that, you will need to know where to stop or arrange your own transportation from the bus stop to your hotel.
The train is the mid-range option as it costs around $16 – $18, and the journey will take approximately 4 hours. However, it should be noted that you will have to arrange transportation between your hotel and the train station on both ends of your journey.
The train from HCMC will not take you to Mui Ne itself, but only to Phan Thiet, which is 5 kilometres away. If you’re traveling from Hanoi on the Hanoi-HCMC line, you will get off at Binh Thuan station (37 kilometres away). Click here to check the latest schedules and fares.
By Private Transfer
If you’re traveling in a group and want the fastest and most convenient way to get to Mui Ne, your best option is to get a private transfer. It will cost you anywhere between $70 to $100 per car. There are a few toll roads between Ho Chi Minh City and Mui Ne, so before agreeing to the fare, be sure to ask your driver if it includes all the toll charges.
Where to Stay in Mui Ne
There are three major spots in Mui Ne where you can easily find places to stay:
Mui Ne Beach
Spanning 15 kilometres, this is the most popular coastal resort town in the region. The northern part of the town is home to a traditional fishing village, but as you go south, you will see many beach resorts, hotels, shops, and restaurants, as well as a lively nightlife. This beach has the perfect wind condition for a wide range of water sports, including kitesurfing. The sand dunes are easily accessible via taxi or motorcycle from here. However, it can get very crowded during weekends and holidays.
We stayed at Cocosand Hotel, which was one of the cheapest guesthouses on Mui Ne Beach, but decent enough and most importantly, clean. The sandy courtyard was shaded by trees and provided a nice hangout spot.
Phan Thiet City Center
For those who prefer a more authentic Vietnamese experience away from the touristy beaches, Phan Thiet City Center is a good choice. It is only 30 minutes away from major landmarks, such as Po Shanu Cham Towers, Van Thy Tu Temples, the sand dunes, and Mui Ne Beach. Food and accommodation are much cheaper here, and the nightlife quieter.
Tien Thanh Beach & Ke Ga
Tien Thanh Beach is one of the most secluded beach areas in Mui Ne. Room rates and dining options are also cheaper than on Mui Ne Beach. However, it is quite far from the other tourist attractions. This place is a good option for budget travelers who only want a quiet beach holiday without any other sightseeing.
How to Go to the Sand Dunes
The Red Sand Dunes are situated about 3 kilometres northeast of Mui Ne, while the White Sand Dunes are 37 kilometres further in the same direction. You have a few options to get to the sand dunes from the town center.
Motorbike rental in Mui Ne can cost you as little as $6 per day, so if you know how to drive one, this is definitely a good option. The biggest advantage is the freedom to go at any time you like and wander wherever you want. Do be careful though, as there have been quite a number of nasty accidents involving tourists.
For more challenge, you can even go on a bicycle. However, it might not be very enjoyable unless a good workout is what you’re after. The coastal road is quite steep in some parts and the wind can be pretty strong.
Private Jeep Tour
Jeeps usually depart at 5 a.m. for sunrise or 2 p.m. for sunset. The jeep tour will take you to both Red and White Sand Dunes, the Fairy Stream, and sometimes the fishing village. It can be booked at any travel agency or hotel reception. Again, to avoid scams, book with your hotel.
We chose to go with a group tour because… yes, you guessed it — it was the cheapest (roughly around $4). On this tour, just like most regular tours, you will be transported in a bus or van and dropped off at each location, where you will explore the place on foot and meet up again at an agreed time.
The drawback to joining a group tour is, of course, the lack of freedom and having to join the crowd. But it is very convenient, requiring very little planning on your part. And did I mention it’s also the cheapest?
What to Expect
The group tours typically offer two options: to catch sunrise at the White Sand Dunes, or sunset at the Red Sand Dunes. We went on the sunset tour. Our driver picked us up after lunch, at around 1.30 p.m. and we started off the tour with the furthest location first: the White Sand Dunes.
The White Sand Dunes
The White Sand Dunes were exactly what we imagined a desert to look like — fine white sand as far as the eyes could see. The surface wasn’t as smooth because it was criss-crossed with tire tracks, but it still looked like a legit desert to me.
If you climb up the more elevated parts of the dunes, you could see the beautiful Lotus Lake. The jeep tour should be able to take you right to the water’s edge, but as we were on foot, we didn’t want to venture that far, for fear of not making it back in time for our ride. We did get a glimpse of it though. As the desert is continuously growing, it is likely that one day the entire lake will be covered by sand.
There were kids selling food and sleds, which were basically thin sheets of plastic that you were supposed to sit on while sliding down a slope. Being the cheapskates that we were, we didn’t buy any. Instead, we took one that was abandoned in the sand by a previous visitor. In our defense, it’s important to reuse and recycle these days.
If you plan to buy/rent one, make sure you check the price and agree on it beforehand. There were stories of tourists having unpleasant experiences with those kids.
It was just as well that we didn’t buy any, because the thing didn’t work. We sat on the edge of the highest and steepest slope we could find, tilted forward, and hoped gravity would pull us and we could merrily slide down.
We edged forward and still we were stuck there. So, we got rid of the sled and tried to slide down on our butts instead. The sand was pretty damn hot.
We didn’t know what we did wrong, but there was no fast, exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing slide down the hill that we had hoped for. We wondered if it was because we were too heavy. (A Google search later told us that we were supposed to stand instead of sit on the sled, but we were already home by then).
But we did enjoy jumping around on the sand dunes, like a couple of cats in a giant litter box. We also experienced a mini sandstorm when the strong winds from the sea blew.
Other things you can do at the White Sand Dunes include:
- Renting a quad bike (ATV), which you can either drive by yourself, or hire someone to do it for you.
- Go on a hot-air balloon over the desert. Mui Ne is the only place in Vietnam that offers hot-air balloon rides.
As we were walking back toward our van, a buggy driver gave us a free ride:
Our next stop was the Fairy Stream. On the way there, we stopped at a viewpoint on top of a hill where we could see the fishing village down below.
The Fairy Stream
The Fairy Stream is basically an ankle-deep stream surrounded by small canyons on both sides. We were given plastic bags to put our shoes in while we waded in the stream barefoot. Alternatively, if you don’t want to get your feet wet, you could take the steeper path on the right. I made a new friend there.
Despite its enchanting name, the Fairy Stream didn’t really have much to offer other than a few interesting rock formations.
The Red Sand Dunes
After we put our shoes back on, our minivan continued to take us to the red sand dunes. These dunes are much smaller than the white ones, and are located close to Mui Ne Beach, so this was to be our last stop before the end of the tour.
Having just come from the much bigger and more pristine White Sand Dunes, the red ones failed to impress us. Due to its smaller size and proximity to the main tourist strip, this place felt more crowded with people loitering about and local vendors selling street snacks, drinks, and even bowls of pho.
The sun was about to set by then, but we didn’t feel very excited about it. It felt more like an anticlimax. We wished we had stayed in the White Sand Dunes for sunset.
Tips for Visiting Mui Ne Sand Dunes
- The sunrise tour offers excellent views, as the sand is still untarnished by tire tracks. Imagine fresh snow in the morning. The sand is also much cooler at this hour, so you can walk barefoot and sit more comfortably on it.
- If you’re doing the sunrise tour, bring some snacks and drinking water with you, as most of the mobile vendors wouldn’t arrive that early, and you may not find food until the end of your tour.
- Renting an ATV/dune buggy saves you from having to slog up and down the sand dunes. You can also try going all the way to the lake.
- Although it is fun to go crazy on the ATV, bear in mind that doing so in the early morning can spoil the experience for other visitors around you who may be seeking a quiet sunrise.
- If you want to rent a plastic sled from the local kids, make sure you agree on the price beforehand.
Are the Mui Ne Sand Dunes worth visiting?
Visiting Mui Ne sand dunes can be a very exciting experience if you’ve never been to a desert before. For Southeast Asians who have never had the opportunity to travel outside of the region, this is as close to a desert as we can get.
But it’s nothing like the Sahara or the Kalahari, so if you’ve been to any real desert of that proportion, then you won’t likely be impressed by Mui Ne sand dunes.
As for us, the White Sand Dunes truly fulfilled our expectations of what a desert should look like. But we felt rather disappointed with the Red Sand Dunes. Aside from their smaller size, the red hue somehow reminded us of the many dirt roads we had in Malaysia.
It was also the same color of soil/sand typically used in construction sites all over our country. So, even though many other people said the Red Sand Dunes were prettier than the white ones, they only looked like a big construction site or an eroded cliff to us.
Here’s a picture of a construction site in Malaysia for comparison.
Have you been to Mui Ne Sand Dunes? What did you think about them? Share your experience in the comments below.