Edit Blog Post
Published: December 24th 2008
After a solid eight days in Saigon we decided that it was time to make our way north. We booked an overnight train to Nha Trang, one of Vietnam’s premier beach resorts. Our train left at 11 PM. We reserved a soft sleeper with the hotel’s travel agent. The difference between a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ sleeper is that there are only 4 berths in a soft sleeper versus 6 in the hard. In addition the soft has a thicker mattress hence the use of the term ‘soft’. We arrived at the train station at 10 PM. Our taxi had a hell of a time forcing its way through the insane Saturday night scooter traffic. Once aboard, we quickly found our compartment. Karen had the lower bunk while I had a short climb up. We shared the place with two Vietnamese. An English speaking businessman on his way home and a girl who spent her time quietly looking through fashion magazines. I had picked up a bootleg copy of Neil Sheehan’s masterpiece, ‘A Bright and Shining Lie’ in Saigon. I figured that it would be the perfect read for a trip to the DMZ. I was not wrong. It’s a popular
Nha Trang Beach
Not a great area for swimming but it sure looks pretty.
item with the street booksellers in the city at $6 US per copy. The problem lies in the fact that the books are Xeroxed and sometimes the pages aren’t in their correct order. As the train left the station we all settled in for the 7-hour ride.
At 5:30 AM the conductor woke us. We all managed to collect our gear from the cramped space in the short time allotted before the train pulled into Nha Trang. It was still dark when we walked out of the station. It was a five minute ride to our hotel, the Dong Dhoung; Indochine. We were in our room in less than 5 minutes. A tidy lodging with hot water, balcony, fridge and cable TV for $15 US a night. Karen had barely slept on the train so while she grabbed a nap I walked around town. The beach is a beautiful sunny 4-mile long crescent of white sand. I counted a dozen new hotels under construction. In the distance are 4 large islands. A cable car anchored to the South end of the beach crosses over the water to a hilly island with a huge sign constructed of large white boulders
Memorial building on the Promenade.
reading: VINPEARL. It’s a resort complex offering an amusement park for day-trippers. On the beach a few Vietnamese in motorcycle crash helmets fished the surf with long poles and hand held spools of line. They weren’t catching much while I was there but given those crash helmets they must have been hoping for something really big. On the streets I found an incredible number of hotels, travel agencies and lots and lots of bars. There were also dozens of beauty salons and barbershops. Barbers who couldn’t afford a shop set up chairs on the sidewalks with mirrors hung from wrought iron fences. Most of the chairs were occupied by newspaper reading barbers. The Nha Trangians have an affinity for snooker. Large pool halls are to be found on every corner with young cocktail dressed females standing by to rack your balls and chalk your stick. At the ‘Sunshine’ travel agency near our hotel I booked a four-island tour for the following day. The price of $8 included a ‘Sea Party’. Sounded too cool.
I retraced my steps with Karen after she awoke. We grabbed lunch at a street-side eatery popular with the locals. We shared a table with a
Nha Trang Artist
Lots of good galleries in town with unbelievably low prices. Original work of good quality can be had for $40 US.
group of uniformed elevator maintenance workers who studiously ignored us. We bought a painting at one of the town’s galleries and headed back to our hotel for a rest before dinner. There was a serious lack of tourists in town evidenced by the storm of restaurant flyers on the streets offering free cocktails, soft drinks and desserts to anyone buying a meal. That night we had chicken curries with a couple of Limocellos thrown in as well as a brace of Cokes and a fruit platter. That night, suffering from Coke induced insomnia, I stood on our balcony and watched a hundred fearless rats make short work of the curbside trash. The street-wise neighborhood kitties gave them a wide berth.
The next morning a mini-bus picked us up for a ride to the port and our four-island tour. Joining us in the van were 11 twenty-something Canadians, Aussies and Brits who all looked slightly haggard. When we arrived the dock was full of people who had booked the same excursion. A mini-flotilla of tour boats waited to take us away. Our tour guide was a heavy-set bald Vietnamese man with more than a passing resemblance to the acne-scarred guy
One of the more ambitious decorating jobs that we've seen here.
who played the evil Indian in ‘Last of the Mohicans’. It was overcast and chilly on the dock. Each boat held approximately 80 people. While we cooled our heels on some benches our group swelled with every minivan that arrived. A hung over Australian girl lay groaning on a cold concrete bench. A Vietnamese girl in a peach-colored party dress and high heels sat nearby with her suit-attired boyfriend. We figured they wouldn’t be joining us for the snorkeling portion of the tour. After a half-hour delay we were allowed to board our vessel. The crew looked like the cutthroat Burmese pirates in the latest Rambo movie. Every seat on the boat was taken as we set out on a choppy gray sea. Our Mohican guide spent 10 minutes on a microphone linked to four rock concert sized speakers telling us what we had to look forward to on the tour, liberally using Vietnamese accented F-bombs at every opportunity. The PA system suffered from so much reverb that for a moment I flashed on Lou Gherig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium. The twenty Vietnamese tourists in our group, thankfully, didn’t understand a word he said. Our first stop was Mieu Island
Ready To Cruise
Fully equipped for my 'Party At Sea'
where we were invited to visit an aquarium for an additional charge of 25,000 Dong. The 3-story aquarium’s exterior looked like a gargantuan wax wedding cake that had spent more time in the oven than the recipe called for. On closer observation we determined that the original concept was intended to be a ship. Karen and I decided to remain aboard during the 1-hour stop. The Mohican played ‘American Pie’ through the giant speakers. The day brightened as Karen and I sang along.
When everybody returned from Fish World the boat headed out. It was now about 10 AM and the wind was picking up. The crew waded through the group with coolers of Tiger beer in cobalt-blue cans for sale at 15,000 Dong. The hung over Aussie girl immediately came to life. As the kids sipped their breakfasts I spoke with a few of them. I met a girl from D.C. who had just finished seven years with a non-profit organization there. She kept saying how rewarding her time in Washington had been. She was on vacation before heading to Thailand to work in a refugee camp. There were two guys from Melbourne, Australia who had just graduated
Everything is F'ing Excellent.
with Bio-Medical engineering degrees. I met a very large Brit girl who had finished her nursing degree. Really intelligent kids with everything going for them.
Our next stop was a bit of snorkeling on a small reef off Mun Island known for its lobster farming. ‘Farmers’ who reside in tiny little shacks affixed to the tops of the pens, tend to lobster cages about an acre in area. The Mohican told us that it was OK to dive off of the top deck if we wanted to. The lads shed their shirts and headed topside with beers in hand. I took note of the fact that in modern Western cultures it is now possible to attain a forty year-old body in less than twenty-five years. The boys cannon-balled into the water and the resulting splashes chased the party dressed girl and her beau to the starboard side of the boat along with the rest of the fully clothed Vietnamese passengers. Vietnamese men in round glass-bottomed boats offered rides to those interested in viewing the ‘reef’. While the chilly waters were very clear there was little reef to see which is just as well as most of the diving masks
provided by the tour company were irreparably fogged. The resurrected Aussie lass tossed cans of brew to water-treading lads who cried for more. I walked to the rear of the boat to change out of my wet trunks. In the ‘galley’ I spied Styrofoam plates of cold noodles and bowls of food stacked like poker chips. I wondered how long the grub had been sitting there.
The crew lowered a metal ladder into the water to collect any straggling snorkelers. The large British nurse fell badly when it became clear that her arm strength was little match for her girth without the assistance of buoyancy. Two crewmen hauled her in. Her pasty wet flesh gave a Melvillian sheen to the scene. A huge blood blister graced her right shin where she had dragged her leg against the ladder during the fall. Her intoxicated Irish girlfriend assured us that all was well since the victim was a nurse and knew what to do. By now the consumption of beer had reached the point where the crew began relying on the drinkers to keep tabs on themselves. People wrote their names on a piece of cardboard and made a strike every
The scene as the group slipped even further into ethanol dementia
time they had a beer. The tally sheet looked like a Hanoi Hilton cell wall. The Australians were leading by a healthy margin but it looked like the Canadians were good for a late push. At one point the crew formed a rock band on deck. Sort of a live music Karaoke bar. They actually weren’t too bad. The drummer did his chops on a drum kit made of pots and an old 30-gallon oil drum. A honeymooning girl from Hanoi sang a beautiful Vietnamese ballad. A pearl before swine
After a community lunch of which I ate only rice it was time for the much vaunted sea party. One of the crewmen entered the water wearing a round flotation device from which he dispensed fortified orange fruit punch, which he ladled from a built-in ice bowl. It looked like a giant lifesaver with cup holders on the outer edge. Like rats to a piper the kids jumped in, forming a human spiral around the ‘bar’ until they looked like a group of skydivers in free fall formation. I spied Ms. Non-Profit in the outer ring making a move towards the center. The first bowl of ‘punch’ emptied quickly.
'Party at Sea' comes with all the bells and whistles that you'd expect.
The Mohican tossed 2 liter plastic bottles of mix and head-sized chunks of ice into the water for re-fills. By now ‘American Pie’ had been replaced on the booming stereo with a new ditty that consisted of a single verse; “Fat Boy Slim Is Fu*king In Heaven”. The kids seemed to know this one well as they all lustily joined in on the chorus. The bewildered Vietnamese looked on from a dry deck.
The boat made a pit stop at Mot Island for some time on the beach. The strand consisted of six-inch rocks dotted with thatch shaded concrete pads. You would have needed combat boots to sunbathe. To take advantage of this inviting area you had to part with 10,000 Dong. I noticed that Ms. Non-Profit was rocking a little more than our tied up boat warranted. She made her way off of the vessel and found refuge on a low bench where she continued her autistic movements until the intoxicated Irish girl abandoned Nurse Hematoma and led her to the ladies room with stumbling haste. (It’s always best to have expert assistance when you find yourself in these circumstances) By this time the Frat boys had become
10,000 Dong Beach
Bring an extra thick towel to lie on.
bored with simply drinking their beers and decided to ‘shoot’ them en masse. Shooting a beer involves modifying the can by punching a hole in the side near the bottom. Once this is done you clamp your lips over the hole and open the top with the pull-tab. The beer then rockets into your innards and elevates your mood without the hassle of having to swallow. (So many beers, so little time.) The group decided that this had the makings of a great photo opportunity. The problem was getting every intoxicated body to do it at the same time. The technique used to punch the hole in the can engendered a great deal of discussion. There are cultural issues involved here that I cannot begin to understand. While the Canadians swore up and down that their beer-swilling forefathers had made the original breakthrough it was finally decided to leave the technical aspects of the procedure to the Australian Bio-Medical engineers because they had a Swiss Army knife. After the Australian girl had been persuaded to point her camera in the proper direction the deed was done with varying degrees of success.
Ms. Non-Profit got back to the pier and
Hue, Nam, Karen and Mike
Remarkable times produce remarkable people.
decided that re-entering the boat would be best accomplished by falling over the side and cushioning her surprisingly quick descent with a trash can full of cobalt blue cans. By the time we had pulled back into port the Mohican had foolishly turned the microphone over to a Canadian who regaled us with ‘Oh Canada’ more times than I can forget. When Karen and I left the minivan at our hotel the kids were discussing where they were going to meet for ‘Happy Hour’. We booked train tickets to Danang for the next morning.
5 AM found us sitting in the train station waiting room being served tea by an ancient woman who wandered around with a plastic bag full of day old baguettes for sale. A large flat-screen TV featured ballroom dancing. A middle-aged German woman nervously held her bags tight. Her body contracted whenever a Vietnamese walked by. Her brave looking safari-jacketed husband stared straight ahead. As we boarded the train she asked if we had ridden the line before and if it was safe. We assured her that all was well and asked where they were headed. Mr. Bwanna told us that they planned to cross
A husband in political prison. Three boys to care for. Branded as a traitor by her own government. And still she persevered. Gives a whole new meaning to the word 'Mom'.
the border into Laos from Hue. Karen and I had briefly discussed doing the same thing until a bit of research revealed this route to be one of the dodgiest in SE Asia. Bwanna’s jacket had loops for shotgun shells. Accidental foresight.
No sleeper today. Instead we were given broken airplane seats with dubious mechanics. While mine was set to recline permanently, Karen’s stayed bolt upright. The train hadn’t been cleaned in a while. I collected food wrappers and empty water bottles to enhance the limited legroom. Behind us sat a Vietnamese family. A middle-aged mother and father accompanied by a young woman. After the train clanked out of the station we introduced ourselves. The girl’s name was Vy (pronounced VEE). Her parents were from Vietnam originally but they now lived in Orange County, California. They were headed to Danang for a family wedding. Her father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. After the VC took over, her father was sent to a re-education camp for seven years. Catholic Vietnamese families were singled out for extra special treatment as they were considered to be the most vehement of the Anti-Communists in the South. Re-education camp is a
Vy and her Dad
The kid is a class act. Intelligent conversation makes long journeys end way too soon.
nice term for what was actually a forced labor camp. Somehow the curators at the ‘War and Remembrance Museum’ failed to cover this particular chapter in their history lesson. While Dad was in prison Mom was left to care for three sons with no husband and no money. Somehow she and he survived and reunited and conceived Vy. For the next seven years he made what money he could by sewing. His political status made it impossible for him to gain better employment. After seven years of waiting and sewing they received visas and migrated to the States. He told us that he thanked the American people for the help they gave the South during the war. On sidewalks in every Vietnamese city you will see men with sewing machines doing whatever work they can for a few Dong. Karen and I pay them more attention now than we had before.
The train passed through the city of Quang Ngai. In the late 60’s the US Marines with Naval and Air support fought a pitched battle here against a VC regiment. The VC tore out the railroad tracks and used the ties to construct bunkers. Navy destroyers blanketed the
Good company and plenty of tasty food at the right price.
area with 5-inch shells destroying most of the coconut trees, which the population depended on for food and income. Seventy-percent of the city’s structures were razed by heavy bombing. Defoliants were used unsparingly to expose VC supply lines. In the end the VC melted away into the hills. The citizens were left to pick up the mountain of pieces. 12 kilometers to the East lies the hamlet of My Lai. That was later.
Just North of the city the train passed though the largest cemeteries we had ever seen. Thousands of Chinese styled tombs lined the rail banks. Vy’s father called them ‘Cities of the Dead’. There were at least a dozen that we saw. As the train chugged along we dined on grilled pork cutlets and rice. The waiter appeared with a local delicacy for our consumption. A gift from Vy’s parents. We pulled into Danang right on time. Vy’s family arranged for a taxi to take us to our hotel. We exchanged hugs and farewells before we went on our separate ways. Unforgettable people that we will probably never see again. Hearing stories like theirs is why we travel.
We headed 12 klicks South to China
Hoa and Giao
Hoa served in the ARVN Marines in a mixed US combat unit. His wife is his commanding officer now.
Beach. Near our destination the driver pointed to the East and called our attention to the old US Airbase. This was the first real evidence we had seen of American military presence. The Danang base at one time was the entry and exit point for most of the US troops in Vietnam. Now all that is left are a half-dozen dirty-gray concrete hangars. The remainder of the base has been cut up and developed for business and housing.
Our cab pulled up at Hoa’s Guesthouse. 215/14 Huyen Tran Cong Chua St. Ngu Hanh Son, Danang Tel:0511.3969216 E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Hoa’s is well known among backpackers for it’s low cost, good company and proximity to China Beach. For $7 a night you get a bare bones room with hot water, Vietnamese soap opera TV and a Gawdawful excuse for a mattress. A mere 50 meters down a sandy path lies China Beach. The finest stretch of sand that we have seen to date. Once a major R&R site for US troops, China Beach is nearly deserted today as most of the action has moved 12 klicks South to Hoi An. China Beach is populated nowadays by fishermen who sail the seas
Landing spot for the first US Marine troops in 65'. A beautiful stretch of sand.
in small round boats woven from bamboo strips and coated with tar. The surf here is impressive. Breaking waves roll onto the beach in rows like shark’s teeth. Popular with surfers, the area adjacent to Hoa’s is a churning cauldron. Most surfers enter the water at points to the North and South.
Hoa is a friendly guy who constantly admonishes his guests to, ‘Relax, take it easy’. His wife Giao is the brain behind the operation and keeps things running smoothly. The kitchen runs on the honor system. Help yourself to any beverages that you like and enter them in the guest book. At the end of your stay the bill is totaled. Dinner is served at 6:30 in a communal setting. Eat all you like for 50,000 Dong ($3 US). Hoa’s is usually full and the crowd friendly and young. Across the street is a Vietnamese police-training academy, which cranks up early by ringing a gong at 4:30 AM. After that things settle down. There’s an Internet place 2 doors up the road, which is usually full of noisy kids, but they’ll make space available immediately for paying customers. The cost is 8,000 Dong per hour. There are
Morning On China Beach
Police trainees get an early game on.
a couple of small stores on the road that sell necessities and munchies. It is a very quiet place. Unfortunately it was also a very wet place while we were there. Over three days we saw the sun once. There was a constant mist and on occasion, heavy rain. We warmed ourselves with hot coffee in the communal dining room but things were decidedly damp. It’s like Venice in November or Paris in February or Seattle any day of the year. It’s soggy.
To get to Hoi An you can take a taxi for 130,000 Dong or the public bus for 20,000 Dong. The bus is cheaper and far more interesting but it’s a 15-minute walk to reach the stop. Hoa’s rents scooters if you’re of a mind. There’s little to do at Hoa’s except chill. The only local attraction is ‘Marble Mountain’ which is hard to miss. There is a stone stairway to the top and a half dozen caves, which can be explored. At the base of the mountain there is a winding street full of marble shops and carving operations. The marble used is trucked in from out of town. The stone cutters are big on
Entrance to Marble Mountain
It's about 2,000 feet vertical to the top.
lions, eagles and crypts. Most of the pieces are so large and heavy that you’d have to charter your own freighter to get them home.
Hoi An is the most touristy place we’ve seen in Nam. Lots of tailor shops and shoe stores. Lacquer painting galleries, Western food restaurants and Euro-trash tourists abound. Buses pour into town. Lines of people snake around led by Vietnamese tour guides waving numbered paddles, “Follow me please!”. The architecture is made up primarily of Chinese shop houses, which line a large canal. Ancient Vietnamese sell one hour rides in their little Sampans. There is a funky little market that sells lots of produce and household goods. We ate a great lunch of Vietnamese food at the ‘Quoi An Bo Bo Café’. Our bill came to $4 US. Shopping is the name of the game here and there is a healthy line of Westerners at every ATM. It’s a good idea to bring US dollars. The surcharge on credit cards averages five percent. There is a one- percent commission on travelers’ checks and they only want to see American Express. ATM withdrawals will cost you on average 3.5 percent and you can only take
out 2 million Dong at a time (about $112 US). Everybody accepts US dollars and you’ll get a slightly better exchange rate than what the banks offer. In Nam cash is King, Queen and Duke. Be advised.
As great as Hoa’s was, the constant damp became too much to cope with. Hoa made arrangements to have us picked up by a bus going to Hue the next day.
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