Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Vietnam: Grey Skies Over Nha Trang

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It was on my bus out of Ho Chi Minh that I realized I had been living on a relatively small island for the past two years. The bus just kept going and going and never seemed to be going anywhere; it took us thirteen hours and around 450 kilometers to reach Nha Trang, and I kept thinking… where’s the water? Are we going in circles? On Panay Island, where I lived in the Philippines, 450 kilometers would have been sufficient to cross the entire landmass several times over. In fact, a list of land-routes in the Philippines exceeding 450 kilometers would be short indeed – crossing Luzon north-south and Mindanao both ways, and that’s about it.

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This was my first “sleeper bus,” though it was a day trip and I didn’t sleep. These buses basically have seats that recline almost to horizontal, which is great, but there’s no place to put luggage, which is not. Everything has to go in the compartment under the bus or, if you must carry it on, behind your seat… which prevents it from reclining all the way. I had my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I wasn’t about to let it leave my sight.

Even so, the sleeper buses are more comfortable than regular ones for long trips. I would much rather have taken a train, but I managed to time my trip to coincide perfectly with the two weeks before Tet, when Vietnamese all over the country are returning home to celebrate the holiday. The tourist scene has been relatively tame – I’ve had no problems at all finding accommodation and frequently I’ve been stuck with half a dozen restaurant staff staring at me as I eat, being the only patron in the place – but transportation has been a touch more complicated. I had hoped to ride some trains in Vietnam, but they seem to have been booked solid for weeks.

So buses it has been. I would say my sleeper buses (which cater to tourists) have been roughly two-thirds foreigners and one-third Vietnamese. I was seated next to one of the latter group for much of my trip to Nha Trang. We attempted to converse, and after a lot of scribbled notes and gesticulating we were still a long way from understanding each other, but it was an enjoyable way to spend several hours. Hai was a college student in Ho Chi Minh returning to her home in Phan Rang for either the weekend or the holiday. She asked me to help her with English, which I did awkwardly and inefficiently, and in return she taught me some Vietnamese phrases that I still can’t pronounce. We shared some food and laughed together at the sleeping Russian kid next to me – his tongue lolling and eyes rolling – and she made the usual comments about my hair.

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Nha Trang itself was different from what I’d expected, probably because the only really developed beach-resort-area I’d been to in Asia was Boracay. Boracay was a beach, with lots of hotels and resorts and restaurants and stalls thrown directly onto that beach. Nha Trang seems much more intentional: the beach is contiguous with a substantial city, but most of the structures are built off the beach itself and separated from the sand by a road. And the beach is more park-ish, with walking paths and playgrounds and whatnot.

The place was less raucous than I was led to believe – no doubt thanks to the time of year; Nha Trang certainly contained enough tourist infrastructure to host a Little Paris, Germantown and other suchlike transient international communities – and I saw nary a patch of blue sky during my entire stay. That was fine – it never got too cold, and the ocean was pretty in the greyness even if I didn’t swim in it. Mostly what I did in Nha Trang (this is going to become a tiresome refrain, I’m afraid) was eat.

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I stayed four nights – I hung about for a long time here because I wanted to relax and recover from a lingering illness – and I managed to avoid ever going to the same restaurant twice. Including coffee breaks and dessert stops, I probably hit at least twenty-five cafes during my time there, and almost all the food was good. Actually, the only thing that disappointed me was the pho, which was much inferior to what I had gotten in Saigon.

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I did explore the town to some extent and found some lovely winding back alleys. I was a bit skeptical as always about the foreigner-friendly market with its brand-name t-shirts. Sure, there were also rows of bottled and preserved scorpions for sale, but in context they seemed about as exotic as jars of pickles at a grocery store.

On a positive note, I also visited a photography gallery exhibiting the work of a local Vietnamese artist named Long Thanh. It was marvelous. His photos – which he takes on black-and-white film and develops himself – are stunning scenes of daily life in Vietnam. They’re exactly the kind of photos I admire most: the kind that recognizes the beauty in something mundane – the kind that shows the photographer’s love and admiration and respect for his subjects.

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My next destination was Hue, but I didn’t make it to Hue. After twelve hours or so on the road, we had to switch buses for the last stretch. As I and my fellow passengers stood in the drowsy early-morning air, waiting for the pickup, I looked around at the pleasantly old buildings and and thought… Actually, this looks good. And so I trudged off to find a place to stay for one night in Hoi An.

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