No 3, Vol.8 ,July – August 2015

A lonely tree on the way to Bau Trang

Once, during our visit to Mui Ne of Phan Thiet City, a local friend told us, ‘If you want to sleep in a desert, you can go to Hoa Thang Commune, about 30 kilometres from here. They have a few very cheap inns near the White Sand Hill tourist area.’
We departed at once, anticipating a story worthy of Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights.
Leaving Mui Ne, our road was lined with the vast blue sea on the right and endless heaves of sand dunes on the left. Occasional gusts of wind from the sea stirred up whirls of sand.
We came to a small fishing village, but saw no inn at all. The road looked like a grey trike of brush over a pale pink sand canvas. Red sunset added a touch of myth and loneliness to the whole picture.

Some chopped trees on the way to Bau Trang

The view was panoramic, like in a Western cowboy movie. Finally, we found a ‘room for rent’ sign. The host, a grocer named Chau said, ‘This is Hong Lam village of Hoa Thang Commune, Bac Binh District, Binh Thuan Province. A double room here costs VND120,000/night.
The 60-year-old man told us, ‘I lived my whole life here. This place used to be completely desolate. Since this road was asphalted and the tourist area nearby was opened, people began to come this way. I built these six rooms for hire five years ago. From time to time, I have a Vietnamese guest. Foreigners are very rare, all seem cautious, some even scared. Perhaps being in a desolate place abroad is quite uncomfortable, but the reality is that the folks here are absolutely harmless.’

White Sand Hill. Photo: Dang Khoa

8 p.m. We took a walk outside. It was pitch dark. ‘It’s so quite. So great! Truly an oasis in a desert,’ my companion exclaimed.
In the morning, we went to the only place in the village that served breakfast, just a few houses down the road. The fish noodles were exactly like those made in an oasis. Surprisingly, it cost only VND10,000.
We approached old people we found here and there to learn more about Hong Lam village. It had about 500 households that dwell on the south of the fresh water White Lake, which is 150 m wide and about 2 km long.
The villagers earn mostly by planting lotus, beans, and rice and fruit trees. The lush green around the lake was so bright on the dry, sandy background. An old man told us that Bau Trang (White Lake) was about 20m deep in the rainy season. A long time ago, it was divided into two; the bigger half was named the Grandma Lake, and the smaller, the Grandpa Lake. In summer, it’s so beautiful with lotuses that they call it the Lotus Lake.
On the dam separating the lakes there is a temple, named the Temple of Hong Lam Lady. The temple keeper, an 81-year-old man named Mr Sau who spent his whole life in the village, told us many tales about the temple. The most interesting was as follows:
‘Over 200 years ago, there was a princess named Lu Phung Cong, beautiful as a fairy, who possessed the power of commanding heaven’s forces. Once, as she and her entourage journeyed past Hong Lam, a big storm raised a cloud of sand and hid the sun. To protect the village and her followers, she used her power to quiet the storm. After she died, the villagers deified her and built the temple to worship her. The temple was almost in ruins, but the worship never ceased. In 2010, people contributed to rebuild it.’

Water lily bloomed on Bau Trang

At 11 a.m., the innkeeper served our ordered lunch, which included rice, fish-and-sour soup, at VND25,000 per ration. Filled, we took a siesta. Outside, Hong Lam was baked in a gigantic sand oven.
Learning that we would go see the White Sand Hill in the afternoon before leaving, Mr Chau said, ‘Nobody can bear the heat of the hill in the afternoon. It’s best to go there at sunrise, when it’s beautiful and cool. People come here from far away only to see the sunrise.’
At 4.30 a.m., we rode about two kilometres to the White Sand Hill, a 100 ha desert within the desert, also called the White Lake Hill because it was on a bank of the other White Lake.
On the lake bank, there were three food shops that also lent off-road vehicles and boats.

A boat on Bau Trang

There were hundreds of domestic and foreign tourists. The moment the rim of the sun came over the horizon behind the sea, all eyes and cameras turned eastward.
Seen from a high dune top, the White Sand Hill stood out amongst colourful surroundings; blue sea in the east, peaceful Hong Lam village in the south-south west, reflected in the dark blue water of the lake, and pale pink sand dunes spotted with dwarfish dry bushes in the north.
Some people hired cars and off-road vehicles to roar up the dunes; some others hired little boards to slide down 20 metres high dunes.
Only then I understood why the White Lake was not only a tourist attraction, but also a source of inspiration for artists and photographers.n

In Phan Thiet City many hotels, inns and cafés have motorbikes for rent at VND150,000 -VND180,000/day.
Many hotels in Mui Ne have Jeep transport service to White Sand Hills at VND400,000/Jeep (3-4 persons).
At White Lake the off-road vehicle rent is VND450,000/30 minutes.

Text by Dang Khoa; photos by Nguyen Dinh Thanh