Day 18; Ho Chi Mihn to Nha Trang.
Michael Palin once wrote that the compulsive urge to travel is a recognised physical condition. It is called Dromomania by the select few who have heard of it or suffer from it, and like Mr Palin, I’m glad to say that I suffer from it.
Being a self-diagnosed dromomaniac, I wake early keen to start moving again after three days of sedentism in Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC). Downstairs for breakfast at 6:45am, omelette, bread and tea for me. Twenty minutes later, bags packed and crevices of our room deeply inspected for things we may have missed. Receptionist at Blue River Hotel overcharges us by about $30. We both ponder the price and hold our receipt in custody between finger and thumb as we we glance between the words “final price” and the receptionist. Finally realise the extra charge and we sort it out, much to the embarrassment of the receptionist. It occures to me that this may not have been as accidental as claimed (this is Vietnam after all) but we smile with the benefit of the doubt and file into our taxi for the railway station twenty minutes drive away.
Our taxi driver, like many in South East Asia, is one of only a few short, sharp words and is keen to beep his horn at every animate and inanimate object around us. The lamp posts and fire hydrants glare at us with profound confusion as we drive past beeping at them. Seatbelts must come at additional cost or upgrade as they are as absent as always. We cling on as we are whisked through the unimaginably chaotic traffic that is ever so common in this part of the world and arrive after one or two near misses at Ho Chi Mihn Station.
8:30am. Our train, the SE6 service, is a 14 coach relic. Like our overnight train to and from Chiang Mai, it is a re-commissioned Japanese carrier from yesteryear and has to be the widest train I’ve ever used – more like a passenger plane in scale than terrestrial train. The engine itself is a large red 20 tonne machine and is one of 8 used on this 1300km line between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Mihn in the south. The guards, two to a coach, stand proudly beside each carriage door wearing sharply ironed navy uniforms and holding, atleast while the remaining passengers scatter around the platform looking confused, an information sign with the coach number on. The facilities inside the train are basic but charming and modest and add to the sense of rustic and uncertain travel deeper into this most mysterious of countries. 9am, We settle into our seats, 41 & 42 in coach 10, and feel a guttural, seismic-like, tremble as the train engine 4 coaches ahead of us lunges forward under the pull of 14 carriages lined up behind it like heavy bricks in a wall foundation. I walk to the noisy compartment where two coaches meet and pass a toilet which I am yet to brave and no doubt measure against previous experiences. I take in one last deep breath of the warm Saigonese air through a pull-down window and watch the events of the Saigon streets as we negotiate them at a stately pace towards the countryside. The houses soon become stouter and more expensive, the roads less busy and better kept, and the trees more numerous and greener. Before too long we have broken free from the gravitational pull of the city and emerge into quite an unremarkable countryside with its scattered grey buildings, construction yards, deserted machinery and mountains of litter all capped by aggressive looking grey clouds. This isn’t what I was expecting. We smile at the train attendants as they busy past us behind a trolley of snacks. Coffee (pronounced ‘gah-feh) is on offer but they don’t seem to have ever heard of tea. Abbi brightly suggests that we can get a tea when we get to Nha Trang in 8 hours. I sip my water cencoriously.
10am, The blank televisions above us flicker into life and a flurry of colourful Vietnamese adverts are played, many of-which are played several times within a few minutes of eachother or, in one case, where the same advert was played three times consecutively. No locals raised a brow to this. 11:30, Lunch of pate, ham and cheese baguetts, brioche and fruit. Still no tea.
The scenery is changing now to a more picturesque and engaging landscape. We pass a mountain range on our left dressed in extensive lush green forest and half obscured by cumbersome clouds and mist. Wide rice paddies and jumbled agricultural fields furnish the flat basin through which we pass, disrupted only by the occasional road or cluster of buildings. I see lots of birds in motion on the wind and wish I could put names to them.
This area of Vietnam suffered abhorrently during the American occupation and it saddens me when I remember (from our visit to the war museum in HCMC) that 5000 civilians a year still die or are injured every year from standing on American land mines and that the ecology still hasent, and won’t for a long time to come, from the liberal American use of ‘agent orange’ chemicals. Agent orange is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest tragedies and war crimes ever committed by one country on another (although it has been used prior to the Vietnam conflict in much smaller quantities by the Brazilians, Americans and even the British). It’s destructive force as a defoliant to obliterate thousands of square miles of pristine marshland, forest and coastline has all but ruined every water source and habitat to this day, and has, as a result, caused the most obscene deformations, disease and suffering to millions of Vietnamese civilians. As I sit pondering this while I look out towards the deceptively attractive countryside I feel a desperate pang of dissapointment and resentment towards the American military. In particular the generals who would have organised and promoted this ecological disaster. If you feel the need to know more, and have a strong stomach, I urge you to google Orange Agent or Dioxin and make your own minds up. The Vietnamese response is one of unification, forgetting and forgiving and this both inspires and comforts me to let the graphic images of napalm and chemical wasted corpses from the museum go.
Fidgeting increases as we get closer to Nha Trang than we are Saigon, and the landscape changes again from open agricultural landscapes to dense jungle and waterfalls as we enter the Khanh Hoa Province on the east coast. Outside there are rain clouds in the sky as we pull into our third station. A cluster of teenagers wave at the train while, closer, a troop of train guards adjust their crisp uniforms in the reflection of a train window.
As the train heaves its way from the platform once more I decide to brave the toilet. I am met with a small closet devoid of everything except a hole for a squat toilet. The bulky metal window frame has been wedged down so warm, floral air from outside makes the process slightly less toxic. I am, by now, seasoned in this area but this in no way makes it any less intolerable, particularly on a fast moving train that seems to bounce about like a novelty fairground ride. Hand washing facilities are in an adjacent closet and include both a cold and hot tap. Not surprising, the hot water tap has been bolted tight off so I use the sporadic stream of water from the cold tap that smells gently of the musty interior of a warm caravan.
4:35; The final few hours pass and we are finally huffed and puffed into the station at Nha Trang on time. My backpack seems heavier every time I pick it up and I question if maybe Abbi is secretly filling it with rocks to watch me struggle. 5pm; after a spot of tea and another forgettable taxi ride with the least talkative driver to date (not a single word from the moment we stepped in to the moment we stepped out), we arrive exhausted at Tabalo Hostel in the backpacker hub of Nha Trang. Tabalo is a brand new complex of just three months and is eloquently simple and unashamedly modern. Our room, named a ‘cabin’, is a modern wooden panelled box cabin in which our sleeping area is located a short ladders climb above the en suite.
I have become more accustomed to cold showers now than hot so I was not surprised (although I was disappointed after such a long journey) to step into a waterfall of Icelandic proportions. The receptionist explained apologetically that their water system relies both on solar and electric, and blames two weeks of persistent cloud cover for my Arctic experience. We unpack our bags, not a rock in sight, and head out into the neon lit streets of Nha Trang in the dark. Dinner at a local Vietnamese restaurant is nice enough but I had to push to one side most of my fatty chicken which I told myself probably looked like dog meat because it probably was. We leave, still a little hungry, and eyeing up the dogs tied up outside with sympathetic expressions before we are ushered into an attractive looking bar complete with extensive neon lights, downtempo house music and a free Pool table. We order a Saigon beer for me and a rum for Abbi and settle at the pool table. We laugh and joke with eachother between shots before i overhear Australian accents to my left. I head over and invite the group of 4 guys to join in. They accept in honest Australian tradition “sure mate, we can spend twenty minutes beating you I suppose”. Abbi, scrappy as always, replies “bring it on, Kiwi” unaware that, aside from being a fruit, a Kiwi is infact a New Zealander. This actually makes the threat more potent so we begin play. We all greet eachother and spent the next couple hours exchanging stories and joking about before Clint suggests we have a round of beer pong outside the front of the bar in the street. We call our team mates – I’m with Abbi and Bret – and laugh and drink the next few hours by in a demonstration of very ineffectual play. It transpires that they are all friends at different stages in their travels. Jake, from Tamworth New South Wales, still has another six months left. He is a fellow rock climber and we talk about our regular climbing spots back home.
After much drinking we wander the street in search of a tattoo parlour for Clint, who is certain in his intoxicated state that he must have a tattoo of an elephant on his arse right now. Unfortunately for the rest of us they are all closed, but we do discover a secluded elevator behind large cement mixers and building rubble at the far end of a pitch black, half constructed building. As one of them jokes over my shoulder that we should have a look I find that Ive pretty much already ran over to it and slammed the ‘going up’ button. I spot a small sign saying “Bar” and a mysterious arrow pointing up stuck to the closed doors of the lift. We file in anxiously and start to move upwards – what’s the worst that could happen? We alight the lift into darkness and I push my way through some heavy velvet curtains at the end of a cement corridor into what I would repeatedly refer to as “the coolest bar I’ve ever been to”. It is expansive and exquisitely furnished in absact wooden tables, African and Asian ornaments, large Buddhas, soft plushings, Middle Eastern rugs, cushioned sofas and I fall in love with it almost immediately. The network of rooms are lit only by red lamps, large candles and lanterns and a DJ plays mellow cafe del mar house music while people smoke shisha pipes and sip cocktails. I feel like I’m in a sophisticated party scene in the TV show ‘Don’t trust the bitch in apartment 23’. There are no windows on one side of the complex as the walls are all open to the warm evening air supported by beams wrapped in fairy lights, and we all sit smoking a shisha pipe and talking behind a backdrop of the city lights. Paradise is found. Abbi and I find our way home after saying goodbye to Jake, Bret, Clint and Will and climb the ladder into bed. Realise i had a lot more to drink than I thought and sleep heavily.
Day 19; Nha Trang.
6:20am, wake suddenly and shield my eyes from the sunlight seeping through the blinds by my pillow. Feel awful and brush my teeth very slowly and ineffectually and hold onto things for balance. I estimate, while I examine my gaunt reflection in the mirror, that I only had about 5 or 6 drinks last night. Abbi later doubles this figure. Two aspirin, tea and breakfast. 9am, still feel worse for wear but slightly more human now. Cold shower number two deflects off me as I barely notice it. 9:30, Dressed and out into the sunlight to explore Nha Trang by daylight. The streets are narrower than HCMC but familiar and easier to navigate. Traffic dodging is slightly less perilous here but one still has to be alert. Motorists, like those in HCMC, have the indefatigable ability to bend their vehicle around you regardless of speed. The rule, I soon discovered, is to walk steadily and slowly and they simply move around you like a school of fish around a larger predator. I joke to Abbi as we are halfway across a road that as a test, even a blind man could walk from one side to the other Scott-free. Could be a risky study though.
11am, We stop at “iced coffee” coffee house, a large western style cafe on Nha Trans main high street and with the friendliest staff of any cafe I’ve been to yet. I realise when I come to pay that I don’t have enough money (Dong) and nip across the road to an ATM. For some reason the ATM eats our only bank card and I’m left standing in the small vestibule with a look of confusion and horror on my face. Run back across the road ignoring the road-rule and tell Abbi – who quickly turns even paler than me. The staff hurry over gingerly with their usual vietnamese eagerness to help, and within minutes we are walked across the road by manager and into the bank itself where we plea without recrimination. We are asked to come back at 4:30 by which time they will, God willing, have it waiting for us. Travellers depend so much on people and invest a lot of trust in them and we find ourselves saying a massive thank you to Tony the coffee house manager for his swift performance.
walk for 4km northwards along Nha Trang beach in light rain and overlooking green islands shrouded in mist and low hanging cloud. The water in a deep turquoise green and the powerful break and dark sand makes it look more like the Pembrokeshire coastline than tropical Vietnam. Navigate a bridge and finally another faceless taxi experience before arriving at Thap Ba spa to have a mud bath and lounge in a mineral pool. The resort, packed to the rafters, has a happy-go-lucky feeling and the rustic, dated appearance and rough edges add to its charm. It’s a bit like re-visiting the chrismas Santas grotto in your local town square years later as an adult and noticing all the plugs, wires, spare Santa beards and the elves clustered around the back of the plastic lodge smoking and bemoaning about kids and Christmas.
The mud is warm, viscous and gloopy as we lower ourselves into our small mahogany tub for two perched on a stepped hill. We talk, laugh and try to use our body weights to anchor eachother. Humans, it seems, are very buoyant in mud. Walk back down the steps to a warm mineral pool where we sit surrounded by Russian accents for the next thirty minutes. The Kremlin and Vietnamese have recently opened new routes between several Russian airports and Nha Trang and the result is a huge volume of Russians. Even menus and street signs have swapped English for Russian. I note later that my hangover has been miraculously cured and celebrate with a beer.
Our card is waiting for us at Vietcom bank as promised and we walk back to our boxy hostel, looking and feeling spruced up. Street food and a smoothie each and spend our evening blogging and reading. Sleep fantastically and wish that all our beds over the next three months can be this comfy.
7am, Stir from a wonderful sleep. I remember elbowing Abbi on the head in my sleep and apologise resolutely to no one in particular. Cold shower number three. Realise how much time seems to have passed already since we gathered round the waterfall in Chiang Mai and promise myself to really make the most of the next three months. Eggs, baguette and green tea before we leave Tolabo and walk three or four minutes down the road to our next stop, CR Hotel. Our room, number 301 on the third floor, is sumptuously modern and clean and has a balcony and working shower complete with warm water. Much later; We decide to go to the cinema as a good old fashioned response to the bad weather. The Platinum Cinecomplex is located on the third floor of the very department store-like Nha Trang centre. It looks as you would expect any cinema complex to look and I forget momentarily that we are in Vietnam. Night At The Museum 3 was as you would expect of any Ben Stiller film – easy humour and easy to watch.
We had booked a table earlier in the day at a local vietnamese restaurant called ‘Lanterns’ – the name (‘dinloy’ in vietnamese) – comes from the 100 or so orange paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and casting a warm golden hue across the exposed brick walls and dark mahogany floorboards. Tofu, coconut and potato curry with a glass of Merlot for me, and a tofu lemongrass stir fry with a rum for Abbi.
9pm, Sit out on our balcony playing cards and topping up our teas with hot water until I embrace a defeat of 6-4 with a chivalrous nod and we turn in. Bed is soft and feels a little like a waterbed as it wobbles and rises and falls every time I move. Dream I’m floating in the ocean on a Lino.
Day 21 – Sunday
Sunday 7am. Wake with the noise of the city finding its way through our balcony door. The weather outside is a cool 16 degrees and the sky sighs down at me with low hanging grey clouds that cling to the mountains in the distance. People below me go about their livelihoods selling fruit, mending motorbike engines, selling cigarettes and tours and animals while tourists stroll around looking lost. A cool breeze filters through the narrow streets and spaces between the high rise buildings and I see people silently gesture to one another that it’s chilly. Much later; We walk at a stately pace along the beach southwards towards the pier. The beach opens up to a wider, less developed expanse and it strikes me that this is the neglected portion of Nha Trangs beach. I joke to Abbi that it looks malnourished before we decide to turn back towards the more luxurious stretches of beach with its rows of palmtrees, boutique restaurants and white sand. It seems that quality and priorities are concentrated to specific areas here – where uniformity, design and control are rarely diluted with the troublesome, chaotic or neglected. Ironically this misrepresents vietnamese culture which promotes inter-mingling of people and ideas. We purchase a lonely planet Vietnamese language book from a local student called Hugh who is stood by the beach side supporting his frame with two wooden crutches. Sit in a beachside coffee house called ‘The Sailing Club’ for several hours and become excited every time a ray of sunlight penetrates the thick cloud to cast light onto the marble floor. I find myself really looking forward to the warm beaches of southern Thailand. 4pm, back at our hotel. Turn aircon off. Read, shower and exercise in our room and watch as the sunset is reinforced by the dark clouds gliding in from the South China Sea. Soon the city lights flick on replacing natural for neon and we turn in early again with heavy eyes.
Day 22, Monday.
Alarm wakes us at 6am and for once I am first out of bed and rearing to go. Breakfast on the 6th floor is stifled by the lack of chef. Receptionist checks us out and orders us a taxi while we wait the cooks to arrive. After breakfast and a series of goodbyes (“Cam-ern”) and thankyous (“dam-biet”) we are directed to a taxi outside. Taxi driver is a little more animated and responsive than usual so I’m both surprised and delighted when he mutters the word “okay” when I direct him to the train station. Talkative bunch, the Vietnamese.
We are sat at platform 4 by 8am as directed by a grunt and a nod from a member of the station staff. Communication on even the most basic level seems a challenge for the Vietnamese this morning. The wind changes direction and the air changes sharply and soon it begins to rain. The clouds seem to groan and creak with relief as our train rumbles into the station and comes to a jolting stop. Passengers disembarking battle with those trying to embark and the usual beautiful chaos of Vietnamese travel commences. We stand back and allow the battle to fizzle out and climb up into coach 7 of the massive train. Find our seats 10 & 11 towards the rear of the wide coach. My seat is broken and it means that I am to spend the next 8 hours in a fully reclined position while others have a choice of either upright or reclined. I soon adjust myself to my new position in the world and take the time to look around the carriage. The coach is traditional and reminiscent of an old Victorian train with dark mahogany panelling, golden curtains, wide windows and rows of orange-ochre lights down the spine of the ceiling. It feels more comfortable and better kept than our last train (with the exception of my seat of course) and is almost full to capacity. The train springs to life only five minutes late and we are away.
Our service is the southbound SE7 and I find out that all SE services with an even number are northward bound while all those with odd numbers such as ours are southbound. The attendants are turned out in crisply ironed uniforms and finely polished shoes but look a little travel worn and deflated after what has already been a 23 hour journey from Hanoi in the far, much colder, north. I find toilets in better condition than our northbound journey four days ago (a toilet bowl now occupies the space of the squat-hole) and while there is no hot water, the cold tap provides water of a more natural colour and consistency. We are out of Nha Trang within minutes and into the same lush landscape we came through from Saigon. The countryside seems greener now and I notice that the clouds are thinning and allowing sunlight to spill out and flood the valleys with a warmth and energy. It is Monday morning and agriculture seems to be the priority for most Vietnamese. We are running past extensive field systems populated by women – easily identifiable by their pointed Non La (leaf hats). As we pull into our first stop a woman strides along the track throwing small rocks at a herd of non-compliant donkeys who responsively scatter sharply downhill into the valley. Large pelican-like birds stand tall among the reeds of the water-logged fields while smaller, more wind-efficient birds pass overhead in formation.
4pm and 6 hours in our train comes to a very sudden and jolting stop causing everyone to lunge forward. As with almost anything in Vietnam getting information is almost impossible as no one speaks English and the few that do wave me away like an irritating child. Over an hour of sitting in the same place I am told, not by a Vietnamese girl, but by a Cambodian, that we had collided with a car twenty meters up the track. She reassures me and the other english speakers that no one was hurt and it was more superficial than anything. Later. The train grumbles with objection back into motion as the huge engine pulls on the 14 carriages. 6pm we roll into Saigon an hour and a half late and battle to get a taxi as we are again met by grunts and hand waving. Finally secure a seat and arrive at sunflower hotel after a taxi journey with a very one way conversation – “nice evening”.. No response. “You’re a man of few words I see, it’s okay – I bet you’re right laugh after a Saigon Beer”.. Not so much as a glance.
The hotel is eloquently fitted with marble floors, arches and floor to ceiling mirrors and our room is large, clean and bright. Dump bags and go to a local Vietnamese restaurant to recover from our nine hour journey. 9:30pm, Blogging becomes impossible as I struggle to keep my eyes open any longer. Tomorrow we head to Bangkok to catch our connecting flight to Krabi in the tropical South of Thailand. Filled with excitement and impatience as I think about the great experiences I had there earlier this year with my brother and feel excited to share this wonderful place with Abbi.