(Continued from Vietnam by rail IV: Hoi An to Nha Trang)
Day 8: A full day in Nha Trang
One good thing the Khanh Duy hotel had was its breakfast room. It was sitting on the top floor of the building and offered a great panoramic view of Nha Trang – the sea, the mountains and the high-rising mammoth hotels. After arriving late at night, this was my first proper sight of Nha Trang. And what a sight!
Nha Trang is Vietnam’s near unrivalled top beach resort, whose popularity with international and Vietnamese tourists alike only ever seems to grow. The city’s current population measures to about 300 thousand inhabitants, and is expected to double by 2020. Just don’t quote me on that, please.
The walk towards my second hotel ran along the South China Sea, and the sound of the waves crashing forcefully on the shore played an interesting symphony with the noise of the roaring traffic from the parallel Tran Phu road. Endless hotels were propping up Nha Trang’s famously long 6-km seafront, including the usual package tourism suspects of Novotel and Sheraton. Mine wasn’t anything near the 5-star league, but definitely a treat: the room offered a stunning sea view, was big enough for three anjčis to share, and equipped with free wi-fi. And what else would a girl need? Besides, anything would look effortlessly superior to that 19-hour rail journey I took from Hanoi to Danang on the last day of 2010.
A sea-deprived Londoner, I spent the day in Nha Trang strolling back and forth along the waterfront – first south to meet some visibly bored fishermen and discover a well-hidden fishermen’s village, and then north towards the (rather contrasting in their lack of personality) hotel blocks. The sea felt warm enough to swim temperature-wise – at least for a Baltic soul like me – but was sadly a little too rough with its waves splashing viciously onto the beach. It was wintertime in Nha Trang, after all; conventional swimming was close to impossible, but some brave characters in the distance were dipping in and out of the water. Most turned out to be fluent Russian speakers at a closer glance.
After getting my sea fix, I visited the Cho Dam market in the north of Nha Trang. I had certainly seen a few Vietnamese markets before – including the ones in Hanoi and Hoi An – but this one beat the others by a margin with the amount of seafood on offer. I spotted many dried products of the sea, of which the shrimp tasted particularly yummy. Also the selection of fruit had broadened to include some more tropical kinds, including jackfruit, sweet-sop, corossolier, guava and even some durians. You will not believe it, but, unlike most Europeans, I adore durians. The smell is absolutely divine. Or I am just insane.
The locals were very positively natured towards us foreigners wandering curiously around the market. As I passed one of the wholesale coffee shops, its owner Nam insisted that I tried his family blend. For free, which was most unusual for a country like Vietnam – where the people (having been through the war and all) tend to be very meticulous with money matters. Nam’s wife sat me down for the entire family to eye – as his youngest son rushed upstairs and brought a Vietnamese-English dictionary for us to communicate. In the meantime, I was sipping the most amazing “moka” coffee I had ever tasted. It had a strong chocolaty flavour and came with a generous serving of condensed milk – a local definition of “white coffee”. I don’t think I will ever be able to have Starbucks again after tasting coffee in Vietnam. And I used to love Starbucks, folks. It’s a new era.
Overall, it had been one relaxing day in Nha Trang – just what it should be on a large-scale seaside resort. I ended it with an evening stroll along ceaselessly busy streets of the inner city – coming over many more Russians, discovering localised fruit markets and watching local boys play football on the beach. I cannot say I would absolutely dream of a beach holiday in Nha Trang (especially in low winter season), but the place had a lovely, chilled atmosphere on offer – as well as numerous excellent seafood joints, massage parlours and souvenir bargains. Let alone being much more affordable compared to, say, Thailand’s prime holiday destinations.
The choice of getaways out of Nha Trang is pretty standard – the most popular one being to the outlying nearby group of small islands. I will not exaggerate to say that every tourist company in town offers one or another island trip. I picked mine randomly and, at 8:45am the next morning, was already awaiting a pick-up in front of my hotel.
The people inside a small tour bus heading to the boat pier turned out to be exclusively of Vietnamese origin. Besides, they were all travelling in groups and looked puzzled when Trieu – the tour guide – loudly announced that the only foreigner onboard was making a way through Vietnam on her own. I was immediately assigned a “Number One” tag and tasked to respond each time my number was called out. Just like in the army, then!
On the way to the first island, we sailed under the world’s longest oversea passenger cable, the Vinpearl crossing. Described lovingly by the guide as “the world’s most reliable cable car – designed by the French, materials built by the Germans and operated by the Vietnamese”, it was completed in 2007 and today takes hundreds of visitors from Nha Trang to the Hon Tre island’s biggest attraction – the Vinpearl amusement park. The cable car journey is 3.3 km long and takes 12 minutes. The maximum capacity per car is apparently 10 “Western people”, equivalent to “as many Vietnamese as you can fit in”. Or Trieu was just having a laugh with me.
The first island of four we visited that day – Hon Mieu – had little more to sport than a recently built Tri Nguyen aquarium. I escaped the rest of the endlessly congregating people to the quieter end of the island, towards a deserted beach complex. It was quite obviously not the peak of the holiday season. I then returned to the aquarium, which thankfully turned out more than just a tourist trap. The variety of sea fauna on display included huge water turtles and massive snapper fish. I especially enjoyed the ceremony – no less – of the feeding of the sharks. The hungry species were seriously attacking the small silvery fish thrown into their outdoor pool. I would not have liked to be inside.
Our second stop was Hon Tre, the largest island off Nha Trang. We did not really get off but were given a full hour for dipping in the sea instead. The water was too rough – and blurry – for serious snorkelling, but I enjoyed some blissful swimming moments instead. What most of the other passengers immediately dismissed as “too cold” was perhaps the best water temperature we Latvians could ever hope for as far as our very own Baltic Sea was concerned. I stayed for the whole hour and was sad to leave.
My sadness was short-lived though; our boat crew had a very special programme prepared. I have to step back here and mention that I had by that moment not yet seen a drunken person in Vietnam. This has partly to do with the fact that I go to bed extremely early (at least that’s what all of my friends say) and thus fail to catch the time of the day (or night, rather) when people tend to get all jolly and inebriated. I used to explain the impressive number of flashy karaoke places in Hanoi and other large towns with tourist demand. Indeed, I assumed that the Vietnamese people were a quiet, Communism suppressed lot whose top entertainment was summarised by a morning exercise with a hundred other like-minded individuals.
Yes, I actually thought that.
But our little boat trip opened my eyes on the reality. The disguised party animals were the Vietnamese themselves! First a swift motorboat delivered a “boy band” on board. Out they took their instruments and started singing a catchy pop song in Vietnamese. Then the sitting benches on our boat were miraculously turned over to create a “stage” where our talented performers duly climbed on. And then the “diva” came out, too. The “lady” looking strangely familiar, it did not take me long to realise “she” was in fact our (otherwise very male) tour guide – the only difference being fake breasts, a beach skirt and a long-haired wig. Oh wow – all that included in a 6 USD tour?
What followed then was an uncontrolled, orgy kind of event. The Vietnamese turned out a keen singing bunch and threw quite a party. Each time Trieu called out someone from the audience to sing, there was barely any resistance; the “victim” happily stood and sang in front of everyone. Mostly in a very decent voice, too! Singing must be a nation-wide talent. We finished off with a few bottles of cheaply sweet rose wine from Da Lat – Vietnam’s quasi “wine country” – by which time I was laughing through tears. That karaoke improvisation was a seriously entertaining cultural experience.
Continuing to burst into random laughter, we sailed to our next stop. Hon Mot island best resembled a bunch of raft-like platforms hastily put up offshore. This one was famous for its water sports. I was passionately wishing I had someone to join me in paragliding, but most fellow passengers have come in couples. As much as I love travelling alone, I admit that there are some disadvantages to that.
Our final stop was Hon Tam, which was a bit of cheating – we not only had to pay an “entrance fee” to come ashore but were also limited as far as where to go in the hour designated for the island. Only a small patch of the nearby beach was walkable, and most of the tourist targeting facilities were shut for the season. I ended up collecting seashells on the pebbly beach and discovering some truly interesting examples. Collecting seashells is something I find infinitely hypnotising – left to my own devices, I would probably have missed the boat back to the mainland, so engrossing an activity it was.
The weather was unfortunately rather overcast the whole day, with rain drizzling on and off from the low hanging clouds. It was the first sight of real rain I had seen in Vietnam. I will not complain, as the whims of the changing weather made sure all the passengers on our small boat mingled cosily together under a covered area – which gave me an opportunity to get to know a very nice person. Chieu left Vietnam more than 15 years ago and was living in California, USA. She originally came from a village in the very south of the country and had brought over several family members for a holiday by the sea before heading back to the US. Now that I think of it, several other people on the tour were ethnic Vietnamese residing in the US and visiting family in Vietnam during the longish winter break. It must be a popular thing to do.
Later in the evening, I joined Chieu and her family – grandmother, aunties and brother – for dinner. The venue (“Phiếu Thanh Toán”) was apparently picked by “a friend of a friend” and specialised in a local Nha Trang dish, thin DIY spring rolls. The rolls came with a variety of fillings, including, quite literally, “beef burn”. Huh? Chieu smiled as she “translated” from “Vietglish”. The “beef burn” was of course nothing more than the good old “grilled beef”.
The food was constantly replenished as soon as the plates emptied, making sure that nobody would walk out hungry. Nevertheless, one hungry customer there was – Chieu’s grandmother turned out to be Buddhist and could not eat meat on that particular day. Since the restaurant offered close to none decent vegetarian options, she just sat quietly in the corner. I found it most puzzling that none of her family even thought of changing the dining venue.
At the end of the meal, my new friend refused to let me cover even a fraction of the bill. “You’re with the family”, she kept saying, “And it is nothing, anyway”. I looked at the gross amount and surrendered. Vietnam was the place to get full. In our case, six hungry people were easily stuffed – for under 40 USD.
(Continued and completed in Vietnam by rail VI: Saigon)