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Nha Trang

VIETNAM | Monday, 26 May 2008 | Views [982]

Well hello again everyone.  After going to a number of cafes with WIFI and even signing on to a few of the networks to no avail, I have finally bitten the bullet and entered one of the many internet cafes scattered about this touristy beach town of Nha Trang.  Its only a dollar for 3 hours so I really don't know why I spent so much of the day surveying the different cafes looking for a connection that would actually allow me to sign on using my own computer.  One thing is for sure, however; the next time I do an international backpacking trip I will be packing only my hard drive rather than my laptop as it seems internet access is now available anywhere and everywhere, even the remote hill tribes in Sapa offered internet at reasonable prices.

So here's whats up:  I've spent the last two nights on a sleeper bus, the first one from Hanoi to Hue, where I had about 3 hours to check out the Citadel, which was a really incredible place, a crumbling relic of a once mighty empire.  Well, almost.  I'm sure Ankor Wat will put things into perspective, as this complex of buildings and the massive wall that surrounds it are all merely 200 years old, and the architecture appears rather western in nature.  I still enjoyed wandering its empty streets in the overbearing heat, pausing often to shoot a photograph or to sit under the shade of one of the many banyan trees to enjoy a cold drink or a chat with one of the locals selling their wares. 

The citadel consists of three major areas, each one encircling the next, with the forbidden purple city in the middle.  Sounds enchanting doesn"t it?  The forbidden city is the place where the royal concubines were kept, where the only men allowed were eunuchs so that the relative chastity of the fair maidens that lay within could be kept for the emperor alone to do with as he pleased.  Fortunately, things have changed and I was not required to leave my testicles at the gate.  The buildings inside, however, were much the same as the rest of the citadel, with what appeared to be squatters living within the ruins.  A number of times I would walk through a door to find a lone man laying on the floor, one leg bent with the other crossed over it like a mix between the reclining Buddha and the contemplative Buddha with one leg resting on the other, parallel to the ground.  Rather than stir them from their meditative slumber, I quietly backed away from the doorway and moved on to the next ruin.

But the overall vibe of the place was truly that of decay, with the once brightly painted yellow walls flaking and even crumbling in places, the majesty all but ground to dust and taken away by the wind and the heat. 

Then, three hours later it was time to head back to the bus station, where the first cyclo driver I passed by offered me a ride at ten times the normal price.  I smiled at him knowingly and continued walking, without even granting him a response.  Immediately he dropped it to half of his normal offer.  Again, I smiled and gave him the universal motion with my fingers that means "Thanks, I"ll walk."  This went on for a couple more minutes until finally I offered him 10, 000 dong, a number that appears to be immense at first glance but actually equals out to less than a dollar.  We settled at 15 and rode off across the bridge where I jumed immediately on the bus that was to bring me to Saigon.

The first part of the bus ride was in daylight, and while the other passengers dozed off or listened to music, I put my ear buds in and listend to a couple of poetry readings I had downloaded by Robert Hass and Ted Kooser, and was then inspired enough to write a few pages in my moleskine and watch Vietnam pass me by in the window, with its chickens and yellow houses, its beaches and mountains dropping off into the ocean.  We stopped at Hoi An, where most of the travellers from the first leg of the journey got off and a wave of new faces appeared.  Hoi An is the place to go for cheap tailored suits and silk shirts, and appeared to be quite a nice little laid back tourist town as well.  The group that got on the bus appeared to have already gotten quite friendly with each other and sat just in front of me chatting away until after the lights were turned off. 

A quick note about the sleeper buses here.  There are beds, and the nicer ones can be lifted up into a seat or reclined almost fully so that the ride is quite comfortable.  But last night, a combination of bad roads and steep hills, and of course the "anything goes" system of driving here actually jolted me awake a couple of times throughout the night and I prayed to my guardian angels who I had not thought about since childhood.  People here are all over the road, often zooming around cars in front of them, laying their hands on the horn and then somehow sliding back into a space that has miraculously opened up in traffic just nanoseconds before the truck screaming in our direction at full speed passes us by with an audible and immense burst of air that shakes the bus not to mention the bowels of the passengers up like a bottle of champagne after the tournament has been won.  But experiencing this, if nothing more, at least makes one appreciate the quite times, the times like today where you can sit on the beach under the shade of a palm tree and read a book, drink beer and munch on a baguette with fried egg and meatballs that alltogether cost about a dollar and a quarter.  Yes, the breakneck speeds and fear invoking rides lead in the end to a quiet spot of beach, a nice breeze, and perhaps a group of young kids in the distance splashing around and enjoying (though they don't yet realize it) that time before responsiblity hits when they will be pushed out from under the wings of their parents and reqired to fend for themselves.

Which brings me to the present moment; I myself not much more than a little bird still staring at the sun from time to time and waiting for its light to be blocked by the head of what was for so long the only god I knew, but the head does not come anymore, rather it is there constantly, and grows translucent; allows me the option of where I choose to focus my vision.  And then I remember having left the nest, having taken flight; the double edged sword of lonliness and respnsiblity, that first leap which brings with it the empty road and the houses that line it, the laughter and wailing that emenate from the families who live inside. 

After getting into the beach town of Nha Trang at about 5:30 AM And finding a hotel where I could have a shower and talk with my beautiful girlfriend Kanae for an hour online, I headed back to the bus station where I dropped off my pack and then began wandering the streets of Nha Trang, a name I had heard about only in movies about war and betrayal.  

The Nah Trang of today, however, seems as though it could be Beachtown Anywhere; cafes line the street where red faced tourists talk excitedly with one another about the dive they just finished over beers that cost more than triple what the locals pay around the corner.  For me, I prefer the quieter islands, the places as of yet untouched by the greedy fingers of tourism, which is of course an exaggeration; as tourism has had its hand up everyone's skirts at least once, as it is both a blessing and a curse in this nation where people still make homes of leaky ruins and die from simple illnesses.  Toursim brings money, and money brings medicine, food, shelter. 

But something is lost in the eyes of the people here, rather, I find myself projecting loss into them, for perhaps it is only that we like to see ourselves in a better light than those around us.  Perhaps this infatuation I have with the grit and decay of these places deals more with the knowledge that at the end of the day I can walk away from it all and head back to my soft mattress, my warm showers and if anything serious were to happen, my hospitals with clean white sheets, with doctors who wear gloves and don't spit on the floor, that unlike the old man I saw in Hue yesterday, little more than flesh hanging loosely to his bones as he lay on the bed there in the middle of the tourist office, as his family busied themselves with package tours and bus tickets, waiting for him to quietly slip away, that unlike that man I have the luxury of western medicine and the false sense of security that comes with it.

So this is Vietnam, a place where men die on cots in tourist offices and foreigners come to watch the sun go down over the water, a place where one can share a motorbike cab with the town butchers who smile kindly at you one minute and beat the sacks of whimpering dogs that lay at their feet the next, a place where you can barter with the locals as a kind of game, while each dollar you talk them out of could feed their families for a week or give thier children a new pair of shoes for the upcoming school year.  But Vietnam is also a place where you can lose yourself, a place where the setting sun shimmering off the ocean illuminates those massive karsts that rise up like dragons and blisters your face in a momentary, eternal state of bliss.

And now the sun is at its zenith, and I have no desire to leave this cafe and wander the streets until my bus comes in a few hours, so I will sit here in this quiet internet cafe where I am the only customer and the owner has pointed the only fan towards me so that it whirs away, visibly toiling in this immense heat.  Sit here and watch as the locals across the street gaze out at the cars passing by, at the street which itself seems to be plodding of to somewhere cooler, one wave at a time.

Tags: nha trang, overnight bus, vietnam


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