Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Last few stops in Vietnam: Nha Trang and Saigon

As March begins, we find ourselves at the end of our time in Vietnam.  We've spent about 3 weeks in a country cursed by perpetual war and substanceless noodle bowls.  How the people have survived such a history is unknown to me. 

Our first impression of the country was of the people and climate in the north, both cold.  The attitude towards foriegners seemed to be 'get in, buy something, get out and don't complain'.  We felt anonymous (which was a little comforting after Laos where we were stared at everywhere) and unwanted.  The cities were harsh and the countryside was cold and dirty.

I must admit that our experience of the north was extremely limited and that, in our recollections, we seem to naturally focus on the few challenges rather than the exciting new frontiers.  For example, in Hanoi we were nearly run over by scooters, caked in air pollution, and harassed by street merchants, but we really enjoyed the big city vibe: traffic, malls, movies, nice bars, high-speed internet.  On Cat Ba we were soaked to the bone and got kicked out of our hotel room because we wouldn't book a tour, but we got to see incredible and unique limestone cliffsides jutting out of the ocean all throughout the bay. 

As we moved south, we began to warm up to the country.  By central Vietnam, the merchants were saying hello and smiling before they tried to take all of our money.  Hotels didn't kick us out or even threaten to and the landscape really smartened up.  Tourists and locals interacted more freely and it was easy to see the Vietnamese as they lived.  This is especially true because they often live behind their shops and eat outside.  Their living rooms are clearly visible from street.  Their private lives are on display for whoever would care to watch.  Some of the more touristy spots were set up really nicely with lamp lighting, good restaurants, and street performances.

Now that we are on our way out of Vietnam, it feels like there is so much left unexplored.

But this is not what I'm here to talk about! There's so much more to say!

Hoi An --> Nha Trang --> Saigon

The last destination we wrote about was Hoi An, a lovely little tourist town with access to empty beaches and a popular river.  We left the city on a night bus, our second attempt at this mode of transportation.  The first time we took a night bus, Jevin was cramped in a bed about 1 foot too short for him and spent 9 hours tossing and turning while the local sleeping on the floor next to him snored and coughed up nasty bits.  Robyn and I assured him that he just had a bad spot and things would be better this time.  Not so.

When we got on the bus, a stalky Vietnamese man immediately started yelling at us, pointing randomly to beds and kicking up quite a fuss when Robyn and I, husband and wife, attempted to locate ourselves within talking distance of eachother.  He got into a yelling match with a 6'4" tourist that he stuck in a 4'11" bed when there were plenty of longer ones available and he did a lot of throwing things around.  It was all very entertaining, but I tried to stay out of his way. 

It turned out that this crazy man was also the bus driver.... the crazy bus driver.  I'm glad I wasn't able to see much during the trip because I would've been stressed out and the only thing worse than being dead is being stressed out and dead... or so I've heard.

There was no sleep to be had that night.  In the heat, my skin stuck to the hard vinyl bed making readjustment difficult but necessary.  Like the last bus, this one was stuffed to over capacity with locals curled up in on the aisle floors.  Turned one way, I stared right in the face of a timid young girl but turned the other way, my evening flatulence became the nightmare of an unfortunate man.  I dripped sweat all night but would not drink water.  Navigation to the bathroom over piles of bodies would be difficult enough, but I could imagine what the toilet in a cramped, bumpy bus would look like at three in the morning. 

Come morning, we were dropped off on a street in Nha Trang, Vietnam's most famous party town.  Our trio wandered towards the beach in search of cheap digs.  After about an hour of searching and a breakfast stop, we were lured into an alley by a young girl who, as fate would have it, managed a clean, out-of-the-way hotel for which we would pay $7/night.  Exhausted from the sleepless night, we crashed.  When we awoke, each of us felt like we had spent the night drinking or had heat stoke.  We must have been dehydrated after the bus ride.  The rest of the day was a write-off.  We did manage to find the beach though.  We sat before it that night and allowed the crashing of the waves to fill the tired silence between us. 

For the next day, we followed our guide book's advice and joined a boat trip.  For $5, we thought we were getting a great deal.  Nha Trang is a resort town.  It has a beautiful 6 km stretch of beach set against the South China Sea from which you can see numerous islands poking out of the ocean mist and the boat trip promised to take us to four of those islands. 

It turns out that you get what you pay for.  We hopped on a rickety old boat with 37 other people and headed out on the sea.  The first stop was a small aquarium.  There were some reef environments set up, not much we hadn't seen while snorkeling except for some small sharks, sea turtles, a giant fish with eyes poking out of its head, and moray eels (think Little Mermaid).  We got back on the boat and went to a snorkeling spot which turned out to be kind of a joke.  The equipment could be bought at the Dollar Store and the reef was tiny.  Our company ran two boats. One was billed as the 'party boat' and was filled with people that like to get drunk and do stupid things.  The company thought that it would be a good idea to rent seadoos to the people on this boat which made snorkeling in the region all the sudden very risky business. 

The third stop was a little more stange.  Our boat and the party boat were tied together and the crew set up a little stage.  They grabbed instruments and put on a little concert for us which was very interesting but very bad.  The first song was about the singer's day job as a bicycle taxi driver and how difficult it was for him because he always had to drive around his obese girlfriend.  The whole thing was so bizarre and so poorly done that it became entertainment enough.  After the show, the crew set up an impromptu floating bar which was very effective in getting everyone off the boat.

The last stop, and our only true island stop was to a tiny beach which we had to pay for access to.  Robyn and I chilled out in beach chairs while Jevin tried to stand on his head.  This got the locals at the beach very excited.  The had tons of fun trying to stand on their head and failed quite miserably.

Jevin showing off his yoga moves on the beach
While the boat trip wasn't of the highest quality, it was nice to get out into the water.  It was enough to convince us that the next day should be spent on the big, beautiful, free beach.

Beach babe!!!!!!!
The crashing waves are absolutely mesmerizing.  They are so powerful and each crash is different.  Jevin and I found playing in them irresistable, almost as irresistable as Robyn found her beach towel and novel. 

It is quite something to be faced with a turbulent wall of water as high as one's self and to have nowhere to go.  Can't go under it.  Can't go around it.  And there's definitely no outrunning it.  It's so powerful.

Jevin and I attempted body surfing, riding the wave crests into shore.  Sometimes, before you caught the wave, you could feel all the water from around you get sucked into it.  Where you were once waist deep, you were now down to your ankles. This, you realize, is not a wave you want to be pushed around by, but it's too late.

One moment, I would be on top of the wave, two meters from the sea floor and suddenly the sea floor would get a lot more familiar.  I'd be trapped under swirling sand and water, unable to resist the downward drag.  Eventually, it would loosen its grip and I would run for the shore to escape the next crash.

We survived the beach and went to check out the National Oceanographic Museum.  This was a pretty cool place where we saw pools of starfish, octopi, sharks, angelfish, eels, rays, sea urchins, sea horses, and a whole bunch of other sea creatures. 

Coral Exhibit at National Oceanographic Museum, Nha Trang

Humpback Whale Skeleton
In another room, there were over 60,000 pickled specimens.  Some small as sea horses, or as large as sea cows.

National Oceanographic Museum's Collection of Pickled Sea Creatures
That night, having learned from our previous experience on the bus, we opted for the night train.  As it turned out, this was a very good choice.  We had comfortable bunks and Robyn and I shared a cabin with two local women.  We all slept pretty well considering that our cabin-mates played music from their cellphone's tinny loudspeaker all night. 

We arrived in Saigon just before 8 in the morning and decided that instead of getting right into the city, we should start with a coffee.... or two.  We spent the next hour slowly coming back to life in the train station and I discovered (too little too late) the extraordinary beverage that is Vietnamese Coffee.  Hot water is slow-dripped through fine-grained roasted beans right into your cup.  It is kind of like esspreso except that the water flows by gravity instead of by force.  The liquid is thick and rich.  The flavor and texture are in your face right away and it is wonderful.  There's nothing subtle about it.

The slow process of waking up after the train ride.  My coffee apparatus is in the foreground.
Having no idea where to look for accomodations, we hopped into a taxi and basically just pointed to the map.  We ended up in a district full of 3-star hotels and booked the cheapest room we could find, $30 for the three of us. This is the most we've spent so far this trip.  The room is nice, but it seems like you have to shell out a lot of cash for minor improvement in aesthetic and service.

Thanks to our good sleep on the train, we were able to spent the day exploring the city.  We discovered a new food and then the Reunification Palace.  The latter is the site of the last stand in the Vietnam-American War.  We wandered the halls of this great structure soaking in all of the Vietnamese-side war history that we could.  The following shots are from the palace:

Our trip through Vietnam has taken us to some interesting war sites and has definitely expanded my knowledge of the conflict.  It has been good to get the official Vietnamese perspective of the war and we've even been able to see some of the war-time propaghanda posters used to gain support and boost morale. 

Action!  Adventure!  It's all here but there's more to come.  It's time for bed and tomorrow we'll close the chapter on the war by visiting our last Vietnamese museum.

Good night,
  David J Parker

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