This was a submission on the theme ‘desert’ that didn’t make the cut. An essay on Mũi Né.
“This is a valley of sand – a fantastic farm where sand grows like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens…”
From the moment you enter the sandscape surrounding Mũi Né, this mildly bastardised sentence from The Great Gatsby sticks in your mind.
After hours trundling down through the forests of mountainous Da Lat, you turn a final hairpin bend to confront the barren scene. Dramatic plains give way to rising dunes, flanked by miles of beach laid out before the sea.
The desert is all around you.
The landscape is dramatic, awe-inspiring; you can’t tear your eyes from it. A strip of road is all that separates the dunes from both the plains and the beaches.
The stark lines of the tarmac, softened by sand eroding its edges, are a contrast to the ever-moving, ever-changing landscape of curves and softness that sit either side of it.
Surrounded by desert you can only feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the Martian terra firma. This is Vietnam, but not as you know it.
Were it not for the pulsing sea, crowned with the occasional foamy wreath, it would be near impossible to keep track of movement and time. The desert is in suspended animation, never moving, but ever-changing. While the beach is alternately consumed and rebuffed by the sea, the plains lie unchallenged. The dunes are mighty; yet immaterial.
Houses are smaller, and they look different. There are weather-beaten huts; haggard and wooden, roofed with salvaged branches, perched unsteadily, built on sand. As you get closer to town these clusters give way to the polished villas and resort blocks, where a distinct European style permeates the too-clean, too-perfect veneer.
But in between these habitats of the locals and the tourists lie the skeletons. The shells of never constructed condos. The empty spaces enclosed by tall metal fences. The towering grey blocks that never made it past phase one.
The people are skinnier here. Fewer children wear school uniforms. Police stop tourists on motorbikes to fine them, for laws known only round here. Litter lies at the side of the road and on the beaches. No one picks it up.
Phan Thiet was built on fishing, a watery oasis by the desert. Then a lunar eclipse brought tourism, and resorts named after local village Mũi Né. Speculative investment was promised, but the money has yet to arrive.
The desert is smothering, but you can’t tell if it’s trying to harm or help you. Surrounded by sights of such decay and poverty, what right have you to be here?
Craters carve out angry wounds at random intervals along the highway. You can’t tell if they’re from war, wind, or abandoned projects. Ragged scrub clings to the sand, futile, its roots an image of struggle against the overpowering force of the desert. Still they keep searching to anchor themselves deeper, still the desert winds tug them up a little more.
Where once was free access to bountiful seas, overfishing and overcomplicated property laws sees whole swathes of land fenced off, and locals left in limbo. Unable to sustain themselves, unable to sell their homes, they stay, sat out on their porches, waiting.
155 tourism projects have been approved, but not started. Until all titanium has been exploited, they can’t be. There is no visible evidence of mining.
Until then, stasis.
The first tourists to arrive en masse were the Russians. Mũi Né became Moscow-on-the-Mekong. But even the Russians have gone now, leaving empty restaurants with Cyrillic menus.
The landscape feels just as desolate.
The sand varies, from picture-perfect white, through to scorched umber, with every variety of grubby grey and mucky yellow in between. At midday the sun beats down so harshly on the famous Red Dunes that you cannot distinguish depth or distance.
You keep dragging your feet up until you see life in the desert. Locals sell sled-rides down the slopes.
The sand is soft and unsteady, like wading through jelly in a dream. The sun and wind beat patterns into it; ripples like angry stretch marks. Dry veins in a lifeless body. They bear testament to the anger of the desert, the eternal suddenness of its growth spurts.
You ride, seeking the White Dunes. You can’t work out where they start and the other dunes end. You’re chasing a moment, a picture – the sunset. You choose a dune at random.
The thing about sand dunes is that you can never know what they’re hiding. You expect an expanse of white. You find yourself at the top of a sandy red cliff. Two black tubes drop over the edge, one spewing out murky orange-brown water.
At the bottom of the cliff there are pine trees. Buried almost entirely in the sandy mud, coated with a dusting of white sand, like a nightmarish Christmas nativity. Dozens of drowning trees, reaching up for rescue.
The gritty mud gives way to red sand, which leads onto white dunes in turn. In the distance you still see sea, and a stretch of beach. Clusters of green dot the landscape, their familiarity accentuate the alienation of the desert.
You walk around the precipice, then onwards, your footprints the only evidence of life.
You hear a noise, some shuffling. Goats. Their plaintive bleating hide any human herding them, and the kids were comfortable coming up to pose for pictures. They live in two sheds, thrown together rather than constructed, of sticks and chicken wire, topped with corrugated iron sheets.
There is no sunset; the hazy smog of manufacture that envelops South East Asia leaves the sky white until the light is no more. Another goal, unfulfilled.
You go back to sleep, on a bed of sand. Even though you shower, it is still there. The sand has enveloped you. Even as you leave, you can still feel it there. Permeating through your mind.
The desert has staked its claim on Mũi Né.
Sand always wins.