Rolling pale hills stretch out into the distance as I stand on the peak of a sand dune, watching as fingers of wind whip up loose grains and weave them through the strands of my hair. If I was more shortsighted, I might see only what is immediately in front of me, the sweeping sand dunes that curve like the humps of some mummified dragon sleeping forever in a desert sea. But instead, with eyes almost wishing to be blind to live in my daydream, I can see the distant green, hear the rumble of traffic on rural roads and the roar of quad bikes lumbering up these hills.
I am in Mui Ne, Vietnam. A manageable 4 hour or so drive from Ho Chi Minh City (depending on how many times your bus driver needs to stop to buy energy drinks or pee), Mui Ne is a coastal resort town and our second stop in Vietnam. We’re once again travelling in the wrong season to make the most of the coastal atmosphere, and recent rains have made the sea less than enticing despite the muggy weather. So, we decide to head over to the other local attraction in Mui Ne, the Red and White sand dunes.
Having found a 4WD tour at our accommodation for USD$7 (following a unanimous decision that the muddy road were definitely not motorcycle friendly) we head off around 2pm with a motley collection of other backpackers and travellers. Dean and I are lumped in the back seat, and spend the bumpy ride looking out the window. Our first stop is Fairy Creek, a small but beautiful waterway surrounded by cliffs that are actually red sand dunes. Of course, the creek is overrun with tourist touts and scams ranging from mandatory shoe storage to child guides. We pace ahead of the pack we arrived with to better enjoy the scene. The creek is shallow, but the water runs clear and surprisingly cold.
There’s no one walking in front of us at first, and we make tiny little underwater dust storms with each step we take. The further up the creek we travel, the more the red sand cliffs dominate the atmosphere. They appear almost comically out of place, and remind me at first of a common red and ochre coloured rock that comprises of some of my hometown’s foundation. Of course, they do not support like rock, and a single step in the redness finds my feet sinking below the warm grains into a cool scarlet grip. We wander for a moment up the hills, aiming for the peaks to get a better view of these magnificent monuments stretching on to the horizon. But they are only a temporary blip in the landscape, and around them modern life and human development continue.
On the way down Fairy Creek washes away the red dust, leaving a fine powder of rouge settling on the bottom of the creek bed before being swallowed up in the flow. We walk back slowly, knowing that we have a limited time (the annoying nature of tours) but not really caring if we hold anyone up. The touts swarm around us, and upon finding no appropriate reaction move on to other more susceptible prey. We find ourselves feeling very separate from our tour buddies as they laugh and joke watching one of their number undertake an ostrich ride. The whole affair makes me feel sick and sad at the pattern that tourism and the travel market has created, but at this point there’s nothing I can do but disagree and make a point when asked if I too want to participate. I couldn’t think of anything less appealing that crippling such a unique animal. It is a waste I cannot condone.
Still, the day isn’t done yet, and the white sand dunes of Mui Ne await our bare feet and adventurous attitudes. We move along.
On a red mud road we begin to see signs of the approaching white sand dunes. Around us, the green hills show signs of their skeletons, sandy stuffing leaking from their insides and coating the surrounding land in a grainy haze. The deafening roar of quad bikes precedes our arrival. I look to Dean in shock as we pull into the carpark of the white sand dunes to the cacophonous symphony of several quad bikes warming up to tackle the dunes. Once again, we strike out away from the crowds on foot, wanting to get as far away from the bikes as possible. As we’re walking the ostrich rider revs past on a quad and immediately stalls. A pre-teen comes sprinting out of the sidelines and yet more money is exchanged before he takes over the drivers seat and she moves to the back for the ride. I spend a moment thinking about the changing face of backpackers in South East Asia, but that perhaps is another story.
For us, experiencing the white sand dunes at Mui Ne involves a few short run ups and long leaps. We glide momentarily above the landscape and then crash, falling into the soft embrace of the sand. Gravity acts as our own adrenaline rush, without the need for motorised transport. After the magic of those sandy leaps has left us (well, never altogether) we wander the sand dunes in what I can almost pretend is silence. The air is thick with humidity and the promise of rain, and my bare feet on the dunes feel the hints of absorbed water sinking to the depths of the earth. I think for a moment about just how these sand dunes got here to Mui Ne, each grain lifted up in the grip of some strong wind and thrown towards the horizon. And what are the chances that all that sand would end up right here, piled like a hoarder’s refuse in the corner of antiquated houses. Almost like they belong here, but nobody can remember why.
In the not so quiet moments of the afternoon, I pretend that we are two weary travellers lost in some expansive mass of desert, with nothing around us but the endless roll of the dunes. I close my eyes and realise how dry my throat is, how thirsty I have become. I can feel thousands of tiny grains of sand pushing through the fine hairs on my arms and settling on my skin, caking it with earth. For a moment, the world of the white sand dunes seems impossibly big and impassible, a place where few have come and fewer have emerged alive.
It is a daydream shattered by the passing of yet another quad bike. I feel momentarily shaken, but perhaps it is not the sort of daydream I would want to end up in anyway, drying out in some desert far from home. The clouds are rolling in on the horizon like dunes of thunder and rain. They look oddly surreal, but I could blame the over-daydreaming mind for that.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.