vietnam curls around the south China Sea like a sensuous ribbon of silk. In fact, as the coastline meanders from the cool north to the sultry south, it's crossed by an ancient trading route called the Silk Road to the Sea.
Once known as the retreat of emperors from the Champa Kingdom, the area around the Silk Road has a long legacy of offering respite from the travails of travelling in Asia. The opportunity to glimpse that royal retreat of centuries past drew me to the heart of the region - a small fishing village called Mui Ne.
Located 200 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City, it lies amid violet-hued hills and Doi Cat (sand hills), an expanse of undulating sand dunes.
Nearby are desolate stretches of creamy white sand and clear blue water. Although the region's beauty is reason enough to visit, my plan was to hike into the hills and locate Suoi Tien, or Fairy Stream, the ancient hunting grounds of the Cham dynasty.
Although I had few directions, I hailed a motorbike driver wearing what appeared to be a military pith helmet, and we were soon zooming down the highway. At an unmarked bridge, he pointed to the river below and took off, leaving me alone to follow it upstream.
Cool water eddied around my feet and left whorls in the fine, burnished ochre sand. Dunes like soft mounds of cinnamon waited around the river bend, so despite a few misgivings, I decided to take a quick peek. The stream flowed over clear amber sand that was completely devoid of slime despite the jungle canopy above.
As I hiked, I recalled the ruins at My Son, where I had learned that the Champa culture had ruled the central highlands of Vietnam from the second to 15th centuries.
Inspired by commercial and religious contact with India, the Champa borrowed elements of Hinduism, incorporating them into their architecture and dedicating many of their temples to Shiva.
Although the My Son ruins were heavily bombed by the Americans, enough remained of the sandstone stele to see elaborately carved fairies, water lotuses and scenes of men riding elephants through a jungle much like the one I was in.
I had indeed arrived at the place where emperors from the Champa kingdom had hunted tigers and celebrated the mysterious relationship between spirits and living beings. Orange birds of paradise, creeping vines and feathery ferns whispered into the canopy overhead. I was in a magical fairyland where the trickling sounds grew louder the deeper and farther I walked.
The sun was now setting, yet I pressed on. At the next bend, the trickling sound became a loud torrent, and a waterfall lay before me. It bubbled into the stream at my feet, its mist swirling upward.
Suddenly, a bell tinkled and a small barefoot boy appeared, startling me from my trance. He led a team of doe-eyed humpbacked cows of the same cinnamon colour as the watery sand. As the sun set, I followed their swaying tails through the dusk back down the river to the bridge where my driver was waiting.
As I headed back to my own bungalow retreat, I reflected that Mui Ne is much more than just the sum of its natural beauty. It's a special place where, with a bit of imagination, you can catch a glimpse of the royal lives of centuries past.