Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nha Trang: the Vietnamese Riviera

The lovely curving bay of Nha Trang, Vietnam

The Pacific Ocean from the Other Side

I reached Nha Trang at 5.30am having decided to brave a ‘sleeping bus’ from Ho Chi Minh city. The bus was brand spanking new, with two tiers of sleeping pods equipped with little trays and a seat adapter so that you could lie virtually flat in your little pod. I was very impressed as I set off with a group of Vietnamese people (very few foreigners would brave the bus, the mistaken consensus being that the trains, even though you’re sleeping four to a cabin, are better than the buses) in air-conditioned comfort.

Thing is, you can have a fantastic new bus but if the road is bad the journey turns out being not great. There is only one motorway (and I use that term very loosely) that links southern Ho Chi Minh city with Hanoi in the north, the Reunification Highway. It is a two-lane highway that sometimes turns into just one lane in each direction, with no barrier between the traffic going in opposite directions so that it becomes necessary to draw the little curtain so you do not see the screaming lorries flying by, seemingly missing the bus by split centimeters. And there is the constant honking of horns as in Vietnam a driver uses the horn to indicate everything, from ‘get out of my lane’ (cars do this to the millions of mopeds & motorbikes in a kind of highway hierarchy), ‘don’t (insert expletive) move into my lane’ and then just for the sheer joy of hearing their own horn joining the cacophony of others.

Two joggers on the beach, Nha Trang
The road was extremely bumpy, there apparently being no money in Vietnam for road renovation and improvement. My main concern was toilets as there wasn’t one on the bus, but they stopped three times, once for forty minutes when they turned off the engine and we all nearly suffocated because there was no longer any air-conditioning. All in all it was pretty ok as a journey, I’ve experienced much worse (including my ‘first-class’ train journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani) and I was happy to arrive at Nha Trang, a sea-side resort about five hundred miles from Saigon on the beautiful pacific and my hotel was right on the beach front, the huge curve of the bay reminding me very much of the Croissette in Cannes minus all the posers and ‘exclusive’ beaches).

Fabulous ginger and lemongrass margarita I had at a beach side cafe

Lined with huge palm trees the sweep of the bay was impressive encircled as it is with huge mountains, the jade grey pacific studded with early-morning fishermen. Local people were out on the beach and on the walkways that lined the beach doing tai chi, or jogging, or just hanging around. I liked the place immediately, not least for the fantastic breeze that blew in off the pacific. And then I realized that it was that great ocean I had to cross to get to my final destination on this trip, San Francisco. I had never been on this side of the pacific before and I was suddenly aware of its great immensity and power.

The view from the first hotel I stayed in (which was the best thing about it!), Nha Trang

I was disappointed with the first hotel having paid twice what I have been paying, wanting a bit of luxury after my bus ride. Rated officially as a four star I could not understand why it had been given that accreditation as it seemed just a bit seedy and unraveling at the seams. There was also another giant skyscraper being built right beside it and the noise of machinery was intrusive.

I booked another hotel at half the price down the other end of the bay and it turned out to be fantastic, the best hotel I have stayed in yet, less than a year old with great staff and a beautiful room. I had a swim and then went for a Vietnamese massage with a girl who told me her name was Ah, and how appropriate, she was so sweet and small I was concerned she would be able to have any strength to give a decent massage, but I needn’t have worried. Vietnamese massage seems to be a cross between Thai and oil massage with little Ah jumping up on my back and using her full weight to prod and massage my aching muscles. With her limited English and my non-existent Vietnamese we had a halting but reasonably effective conversation.

View of the colourful buildings from the second hotel I stayed in (the Sun & Sea Hotel!), Nha Trang
The feeling I had the whole day was one I hadn’t experienced in a very long while. Maybe it was because the air shifted, clouds rolled in and a strong, though warm, breeze whipped up cresting the waves and billowing the palm trees and bougainvilleas. Could have been the number of negative ions in the air but I had that exquisite anticipation of something truly beautiful, like Christmas, only Christmas where everything is perfect. It is something about the quality of the light, it can’t exist in full sunshine, which by and large I’ve experienced since I’ve been here in Asia. Pre-storm, electric, where everything is cocooned in a penumbra of soft ease. 

Beautiful dish of sea bass on mustard mash I had at a beach-side cafe, Nha Trang
I’d wander from the ocean up the the swimming pool and sit, my body exposed to that amazing breeze, so full of life and promise. I had a fantastic lunch with wine for under ten dollars and watched an old black and white Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery with Margaret Rutherford on tv in the afternoon, completely enjoying it. It was a day of soft indulgence and complete contentment.

Strange Gaudiesque church on the 'croisette', Nha Trang
One thing I have realized is how much I dislike being a tourist. After the Mekong Delta trip I swore it would be the last. I have to find other ways of travelling as this way I’m cocooned from the real life of the country I’m travelling through. I wanted to visit the islands out in the bay, but later that day the wind whipped up, the sky turned molten steel and the sea became choppy with white-capped waves.

Man fishing from a round coracle, Nha Trang

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