Last updated October 2016 | Words, photos and film by Vietnam Coracle
Get off the beaten track from Mui Ne for a couple of days, by renting a motorbike and heading northeast up the coast on this short, scenic, easily navigable, and rewarding road trip. A new, deserted highway leads beyond the famous white sand dunes of Mui Ne, through desolate swathes of arid landscape, towards Lien Huong, where there’s a long stretch of good beach. Continue to Ca Na and spend the night on the beach before heading back to Mui Ne the next day.
GUIDE: THE SAND DUNE HIGHWAY
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 200km (return)
- Duration: 1-2 days
- Route: Mui Ne to Ca Na on quiet, scenic coast roads [MAP]
- Road Conditions: excellent new highways, good paved back-roads
- Scenery: sand dunes, beaches, fishing villages, arid hillsides
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
On this page, I’ve written a description of the road trip from Mui Ne and Ca Na, including directions, a route map, and suggestions of places to stay, eat, and see along the way. Although the total distance is only 200km (including the return journey), it’s best to take two full days to complete this route: one day there and one day back. Anytime of year is good for this route. Renting a motorbike from Mui Ne shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t leave your passport with the rental company as you will need this to stay in any accommodation on the road. Be aware that traffic police are often on the prowl for foreigners on the coast road between the Red Dunes and the White Dunes (see map). If you’re stopped, be polite and patient, and have 200,000vnd of loose change in your pocket, ready to pay the fine (assuming you don’t have a Vietnamese driving license). Or, if you want to avoid the traffic police altogether, you can take an alternative road (marked in red on my map), but this is a shame because it bypasses the coast road. At the end of this road trip, you can continue north from Ca Na on the fabulous coast roads to Nha Trang (for more information, take a look at my guides in the Related Posts at the bottom of this page).
The Sand Dune Highway: Following the coast from Mui Ne to Ca Na:
View in a LARGER MAP
Mui Ne to Ca Na: (Note: this video was made before the opening of the new highway)
Watch on YouTube
THE ROAD TRIP:
Head east along the coast on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, past all the resorts on Mui Ne beach, and turn left onto Huynh Tan Phat Street just before reaching Mui Ne fishing village, near the tip of the peninsular. Before this turn-off there’s a lovely (and much-photographed) view over a crescent bay, where the entire Mui Ne fishing fleet is anchored in shallow, calm waters; their blue-painted wooden bows nodding gently in the surf.
From here, follow Road DT716 past the Red Sand Dunes, along the coast, and all the way to the White Sand Dunes. This road is still relatively new and in good condition. As the resorts fade away, so too do most of the tourists and traffic. This is a glorious stretch of coast road: salt and sand in the air, waves breaking on one side, sand dunes on the other – it’s what motorbike road trips on the south coast are all about. However, the traffic police are out to spoil it. Ride slowly and carefully; stay in the bike lane at the side of the road; and make sure you’re wearing your helmet. The cops are usually positioned between Hon Rom Resort and Long Son Campgrounds (see my marker on the map). If you get stopped (and it’s highly likely you will), there’s not much you can do other than smiling, being polite and patient. It’s a good idea to carry the phone number of the place you rented your bike from and giving them a call if/when you get stopped: perhaps they’ll be able to help. If not, at some point you’ll probably be shown a list of fines to pay. After fumbling around in your pockets, take out some notes that add-up to roughly 200,000vnd ($10) and that should cover it. Then, hopefully, you can get back on your bike and hit the road. (If you want to avoid the police altogether, try taking the longer, alternative route instead, marked in red on my map).
After encountering the traffic cops, it’s a beautiful ride along more deserted coastline, onto an arid, sandy plateau covered in cassava plantations, and then a sharp left turn (due north) up a steep hillside, before reaching the turn-off (due east) for the White Sand Dune Highway. Just a couple of years ago, this road was nothing more than a red-dirt track (as seen in the video above). But now, it’s a brand new, gleaming, four-lane ribbon of black asphalt, stretching into the distance.
You’ll see the impressive White Sand Dunes on your left, rising behind a cobalt-blue lake. You can walk and slide on the dunes as much as you like, which is great fun. (Note: the sand gets very hot during the middle of the day; but the dunes get quite crowded in the late afternoon). Sadly, you are now also allowed to drive on the dunes on quad-bikes. Personally, I’d advise against this, because the tyre tracks are starting to ruin the aesthetic appeal of the once smooth contours and undisturbed sand that the dunes are (were) famous for: I can’t believe they were allowed here in the first place.
Stay on the White Sand Dune Highway as it leaves the dunes behind and drops off the tourist radar altogether. From here to Phan Ri Cua fishing village it’s 20km of smooth tarmac through uncultivated, dry, desert-like terrain. In the soaring temperatures during the middle of the day, there’s something thrilling about this burnt, thirsty landscape, with the ocean and the curving coastline always visible to the east.
The new highway ends when it hits a bridge over a river and enters Phan Ri Cua. If you need somewhere to stay for a night, there are several cheap, OK guesthouses here: Nhà Nghỉ Thêu Thanh (0917 387 533) and Nhà Nghỉ Bốn Côi (0916 222 066) are both around 200,000vnd a night. Like most out-of-the-way fishing villages in Vietnam, there’s a rough edge to Phan Ri Cua. However, it’s an exceptionally lively place for its size. There’s usually a good cluster of street food vendors around the busy and fascinating central market, where you can find snacks, drinks and meals for a couple of dollars. I always enjoy a brief lunch stop here, soaking up the frontier-like atmosphere of this town.
Take Ha Ba Trung Street south through Phan Ri Cua and turn left (due east) onto Quang Trung Street. For a few kilometres this road follows close to the shore until it meets a rocky bluff that is completely covered with ramshackle fishermen’s dwellings: it looks like a barnacled rock. The road works its way around to the other side where a curving bay stretches out before you. For 10 kilometres Road DT716 runs along this excellent beach, with not a hotel or tour group in sight. Stop for a swim in the glistening sea, and some food and drink at the shacks at the far end of the beach.
This is one of those roads that are built with tourist development in mind, but resort construction is still a long way off. However, as is so often the case with undeveloped beauty spots in Vietnam, this beach road has become a popular weekend picnic spot for locals. You can see why: small sand dunes in the shade of whispering casuarina trees, and the ocean just a few metres away. But, sadly, many picnickers neglect to take their rubbish away with them: plastic bags, empty beer cans, and polystyrene boxes have completely ruined much of this amazing stretch of coastline. I hope that local awareness of the consequences of littering will soon improve. (Read more about the problem of trash in Vietnam’s beauty spots here.)
When the road reaches the end of the bay, turn left (due north) on Vo Thi Sau Street. This is a dual carriageway which, after a few kilometres, leads into Lien Huong. It’s a hot and dusty town, but there are several places to eat and drink on Le Duan Street, and also a few decent guesthouses if you need a place to stay. Nhà Nghỉ Phong Ngân (0903 044 345), Hotel Đào Nguyên (0623 951 800), and Hotel Hương Nam (0623 851 286) are in a row on Vo Thi Sau Street as you enter town; they all offer clean rooms for around 200,000vnd.
From Lien Huong, head north on Le Duan Street, then turn left when it joins 15 Tháng 4 Street. After a couple of minutes you’ll hit Highway 1. Take the highway (which, thanks to recent upgrades, is now in excellent condition) due north, as it ploughs through an arid landscape of rocky hills and giant salt fields. After 10km the highway bears east, passing the enormous site of Vinh Tan coal power plant. The last few kilometres to Ca Na is a beautiful ride: the deep blue East Sea on one side and a parched landscape dotted with cacti and arid mountains on the other.
The highway meets the sea at Ca Na, where there are several gas stations, roadside restaurants and places to stay on the beach. It’s a good spot, but the highway and the train line run close the beach, making noise pollution an issue. I usually choose to stay at the Ca Na Hotel (068 3760 922), which has seafront bungalows from around 300-400,000vnd. Although the accommodation is nothing special, the beach is very pretty and it’s a good place to relax for a night before heading back to Mui Ne. (Note: watch your head on the bathroom doors at this hotel; they’re quite low). Alternatively, if this ride has whetted your appetite for deserted ocean roads, extend your road trip by continuing north along the coast from Ca Na to Phan Rang, and from Phan Rang to Cam Ranh and Nha Trang.