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Published: March 21st 2011
This wonderful shot was taken by our Vietnamese friend Truc. Just a flat out great picture.
She arrives at the beach every morning at 5:30 sharp. She’s bowlegged. Probably has been since childhood. The long bones permanently knitted into empty parentheses. Her limp is substantial. She uses a cane to paddle herself across the soft sand. It’s one of those telescoping brushed aluminum things with a black foam grip. The bright modern design contrasts sharply with the rest of her attire. An ancient dirty-yellow cone hat that used to be white. Dark drab purple pajamas with the pants cut off just below the knees. Her beach outfit. As she moves across the sand her free hand is extended outward like a tightrope walker’s. In it she clutches a small plastic shopping bag containing a change of clothing and a towel. Reaching her customary spot she drops the cane and plants herself with a well practiced fall.
She takes off her hat and uses it as a bowl to hold her few personal items. Her hair is close cropped and graying. She could be a hundred years old or fifty. It’s so hard to tell around here. Some went through so much they aged in dog years. She’s not a beautiful woman. She may have been pretty
It always amazes me that we can travel to the other side of the planet and find places and people again with pinpoint accuracy even in our advanced years.
at one time. Under the lines you can still see the child.
She advances on the water without her oar. Swimmers see her and help her into the surf. Two to a side, they hold her arms high, nearly lifting her off the sand. The frothy waves are strong and substantial. She moves through them slowly, carefully. She immerses her body in the seawater like a pilgrim on a last chance visit to Lourdes. Drenched, she heads back to her hat, scrubs her hair with the towel and slips on her dry clothes. For a moment her breasts lay bared as her head emerges and the fresh pullover pajama top comes to a bunched rest on her shoulders. She catches me looking at her and laughs, her head thrown back, her mouth open with rediscovered joy. I was wrong. She is beautiful.
We’re staying just outside Da Nang on China Beach which means, of course, we’re staying at Hoa’s place.
Hoa’s is a backpacker legend. A weather-beaten, two-story, masonry building with an open restaurant attached. The quarters are cheap and they look it. The downstairs rooms share a hallway. The upstairs rooms open onto a sunny gallery with
views of the beach. There are 5 rooms to a floor. Singles go for $5 US, doubles $7 and trips are $9. Prices haven’t changed since we were here two years ago. On that visit it rained and blew miserably our entire stay. The sun peeked out for a bare 15 minutes while Karen and I just happened to be on the sand. It was a beautiful, albeit, short-lived sight and we promised ourselves a return here when the weather turned.
Hoa is an ex-ARVN Marine. He opened the place with his wife Giao in 1994. From its simple beginnings it has evolved into a scrappy little hotel surrounded by high-priced competitors who all want Hoa's gone. All of the land around Hoa’s has been sold to developers who immediately tear down any buildings standing on their purchases. As a result, Hoa’s now looks like it’s in a war zone. The old police academy across the road is a heap of rubble. The row of buildings to the west that once housed small shops and family homes is also a pile of bricks. Hoa holds out against the odds and people keep coming. Not once or twice but multiple
Our favorite room because of all the electrical outlets.
times. There’s a Danish family staying here now with three daughters. Lars and Anne came here before the kids, after the kids and with the kids. They have a three month old doll of a baby named Selma. Selma will come back too. She told me so. US Vets like David E. who served with the US Marines in Da Nang return year after year. Jeff, an Army Vet from Boston, returns every year. Kids just out of school show up daily to see what the fuss is about and they eventually return. Every day around noon taxis start pulling up with passengers looking for a place to crash and reconnect with themselves and others. Students, young married couples, old married couples, widows, widowers, divorcees, people so old they shouldn’t be allowed on planes, they keep coming. A bloody phenomenon it is!
There are clotheslines outside the rooms where residents hang their bathing suits and sink laundered personal items to dry. Yesterday I saw a nursing bra hanging next to a pair of Billabong brand surfer’s shorts. There’s a communal dinner every evening at 7 PM. All you can eat for 70,000 Dong. Rice, noodles, fish, egg rolls, pork,
vegetables and more. After dinner the conversations start in earnest with people from all over the world exchanging views and information, hopping from table to table with a bottle of beer or a Da Lat red wine in their hand. Enthusiastic debates have been known to go till the morning staff appears to prep the dining room for breakfast at 6 AM.
Surf boards lay innocently against the wall. A siren’s call to any guest gutsy enough to do battle with the saw-toothed waves just down the road. Karen and I prefer to sit on the sand and watch the kids try to drown themselves. A lonely lifeguard gives an occasional half-hearted blow on his whistle to warn swimmers of the powerful undertow just off the beach. Usually a futile gesture on his part. There’s a police dog training facility nearby and the trainers will sometimes bring a police pup posse down to the surf for training in open water fun. Mother hens corral their chicks along the beach road scratching for insects and thin cats lurk under seaside restaurant tables hoping to cadge a meal. Every morning before the sun rises dozens of Vietnamese of all ages come
Hoa's Younger Brother Holding Selma
I have always been touched by the love the Vietnamese express for children of all nationalities.
to the beach to exercise and take a quick dip in the bracing waters. All are gone within an hour only to return at sunset for a game of volleyball or a seashell safari.
The two seafood restaurants at the end of the road are still going strong. Great meals for two can be had for less that $10 US total.
Marble Mountain dominates the landscape. Five small peaks that were home to the VC during the war. David E. was stationed near the landmarks and stared at them everyday of his tour here in ‘68 wondering what promises they held besides that of death. Now he summits them every morning at 5:30 before the hordes of bus borne tourists pepper their heights. Karen and I have walked up with him many times to enjoy the sunrise and the fabulous 360 degree views of the beach, Da Nang, the northern mountains and the old US airbase just a few miles away. No secrets here anymore. Only soul satisfying beauty.
Since we were last here in 2008, dozens of huge resort operations have opened along China Beach offering thousands of high priced rooms to few takers. The north/ south
roads between Da Nang and Hoi An have evolved from bumpy two-lane affairs into wide boulevards with public bus service. Vietnam has invested billions of dollars in foreign capital hoping to turn the Da Nang area into a Mecca for visitors. A large sports complex was built just south of the city with Olympic scale proportions but no Olympics.
The writing may be on the wall for the hotel but as Hoa told me; “It could be next week or it could be ten years from now but I’m still going to go on as usual until they drag me out of here. Take it easy man!” As of today; March 21st, 2011 it's business as usual at a the small hotel with the big heart. Come on by. It's still all good!
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