Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nha Trang

The ride to Nha Trang was not bad at all. The reclined seat-beds made sleeping and relaxing much more comfortable than on a regular bus, even though they were perhaps a bit small for the Western-sized person. Our first rest stop of the trip introduced us to an interesting bathroom experience. There was an attendant who controlled strictly the flow of traffic into the restroom, only letting you in once you had slipped on one of the pairs of community slippers. There weren't enough slippers for everyone to go in at once, so we had to wait our turn. Once I was up, I slid out of my shoes and slipped into a pair that had just come off the feet of some random stranger. It was kind of strange, but it seemed to keep the bathroom quite clean. The whole place was bright white, the floors and stalls shining with water from a recent spray down. It's much nicer when they spray the bathroom down like that because you at least know the water on the floor isn't just urine. I've gone into a squat toilet many a time to find the floor covered in water, never sure how much is pee and how much is spillage from the process of cleansing your bottom with the water bucket. Gimme a freshly sprayed bathroom any day. After going potty and handing our shoes off to the next toilet-goers, we grabbed some snacks (Mom got a kilo of rambutans for something like $0.50) and hit the road again. Another stop was made a while later for lunch and at some point after sunset we finally arrived in Nha Trang. Our bus dropped us off right in front of a hotel they had colluded with, leaving us to fight off their advances as we collected our bags and got our bearings. We decided we could walk to our hotel, having spotted it on the way into town. It ended up being further away than we had thought, but we made it without any problems. The lobby was a big, dimly lit room that opened like a garage onto the street. As we checked in, the receptionist told us that the power was out until 10:00 PM; that they had to ration the power due to droughts (they used hydroelectric power), so their power was turned off every other day. This was a strange, yet sensible (if you're a socialist) practice that seemed to be popular throughout Vietnam. We were fine with the inconvenience and happily hauled our bags up the 6 flights of stairs (no power means no elevator) to our rooms. The combination of hunger and heat sent us back onto the streets pretty quickly. We walked all the way back to where our bus dropped us off and beyond, to a great looking local restaurant that we had spotted as we came in to town. It was packed full of Vietnamese folks and the World Cup was playing on a few big screens around the perimeter. Their menu was impressively diverse, making it hard to choose. We settled on some curry, morning glory, fried boar, and stir fried bull penis. Chuck and I chose that last one - Mom wasn't so keen on it herself. How can you pass up a chance to try bull penis?? Come on! It ended up being... strange. It was very chewy, almost like gristle. Not very flavorful. But, at least I can say I've tried a bull penis. The morning glory was the best dish of the meal. It had little chunks of garlic that oozed deliciousness with each bite. We got so much food though, that we couldn't finish any of our dishes. We asked for three rices (one for each of us) and they brought us each a huge plate piled with white rice. I don't know why they didn't warn us that their rice portions were so huge. Maybe they figured us Westerners like to eat huge amounts of food? Or maybe that's how much a Vietnamese person can eat. I don't know. But we ended up leaving a ton of food on the table, even after stuffing ourselves full in an attempt to lessen it. We waddled back to the hotel, where we were happy to discover that the power had been restored a bit earlier than expected. We hung out for a bit, planning our activities for the next day, then headed off to bed.

Mom woke up early on the 23rd, where as we woke up comparatively kind of late. Mom had seen the sunrise and had eaten a Western style buffet breakfast hours before we opened our eyes. So by the time we were ready to go, she was getting hungry again, which was perfect because we were hungry too. So we walked back towards the place we had eaten at the night before, looking for something good along the way. We found a pho shop that had a good selection, giving me the opportunity to order something new: seared beef pho. It was like a fried noodle pancake topped with stir fried beef and veggies. Pretty good. Once full we grabbed a taxi and set off to our first destination, affectionately known as the Big Buddha. This was one of our must-see sites in all of Vietnam, but not because the Buddha statue is anything fantastic. It's because my Dad has a photo of himself in front of the statue from when he was stationed there 40 years ago, during the war. Both Mom and I were pretty thrilled to visit this place that Dad had stood, with photo evidence, 40 years ago. When he was practically just a young kid, thrown into a crazy situation. The town of Nha Trang and that Buddha were a little part of some of the biggest changes in his life. Changes that were always so far removed from our family life when growing up, but always so present just because they had shaped him into the person he is. And here I was going to get to stand in that same spot and look at the same statue, just the way he had. Why do people like to do that? Visit places that those who are important to them have been? I guess it's just another way to relate to those experiences of theirs that you never got to share in. So yeah, I was looking forward to the Big Buddha. I had even printed out a bad quality copy of the photo of Dad from those many years ago to take with us. So, we pulled up to the temple complex where the statue was located, pre-haggled with the taxi driver on a price to our next destination, and went into the courtyard. It was a hot, hot day and everything looked bleached white thanks to the blinding properties of the sun. The temple courtyard had a lovely dragon mosaic surrounded by a variety of potted plants, but I could hardly see them thanks to the glare (perhaps I'm exaggerating just a bit). Wandering up the stairs we came to the temple itself, which was closed just then. As we were peeking through the slats on the door an old man greeted us and kindly advised that I cover my shoulders (I was wearing a tank top), which I did using my handy-dandy shawl I bought way back in Turkey. That thing has been so useful. He spoke a bit of English which he then used to ask us if we would like to see the laying Buddha, which was supposedly also closed, like the temple, but he could show it to us using his special temple privileges. We figured he was looking for money, but since the visit was a special occasion for us, we went along with the ploy. He led us around the side of the temple and up some stairs to a little gated area. Just inside was the laying Buddha, the soles of his/her feet decorated with a star burst swastika. The old man whipped out a pack of incense and tore it open. Before accepting the proffered scented sticks I asked him how much it would cost. He claimed there was no charge. The incense was free. I had my doubts, but whatever. It ended up being a neat experience, and worth the $5 he asked as a donation for the temple in the end (see, the incense was free). He lit and gave us each three sticks of incense which we were instructed to hold between our palms, with our hands in a position of prayer. He led us to various points around the Buddha and had us make three little bows at each spot. Once we had bowed enough, he led us to a bowl of sand into which we stuck our incense and said one last prayer. Or pretended to do so at least. Even though I felt pretty silly the entire time, I thought it was worth the few bucks to be led through the mildly religious experience. After that he sent us on our way, up the remaining steps to the big Buddha. As it came into view over the last set of stairs I realized that I had slightly underestimated it's size. It was definitely big. And white. So white that it kind of hurt to look at him. To add annoyance to my awe, I noticed that there were quite a lot of people all crowded around the base of the statue looking rather relaxed and settled in. This meant that all of our photos had a rag tag group of random people huddled in the background. And we took a lot of photos. I took a picture of the picture of Dad, held up in vague alignment with the real-life statue, and I had one taken of myself posing the same way in the same spot as him. Then there were photos of me and Mom, just me, just Mom, me and Chuck, and just the Buddha. Too many pictures. And it was too hot. We stayed for about an hour before deciding we had adequately experienced the big Buddha. As we made our way back down the steps to our waiting taxi we discussed the sense that Dad's "presence" was no longer "there," if it ever really had been. It was neat to see one of the distant places he had been to, but it wasn't as profound an experience as one might have hoped. Even so, we were happy to have gone. Our next stop was the Oceanographic Museum, aka: the aquarium. The entrance fee was steep at a whopping $0.80 a person. Nearly broke the bank on that place. It was a somewhat run-down, basic aquarium, but surprisingly good and entertaining. They had a nice variety of interesting fish and creatures, and the tanks were clean and clear, if not a bit small perhaps. It was bigger than it had appeared from the front entrance, so we kept being surprised at finding another row of tanks, or a sea turtle pool, or the sea lion. The sea lion was great because we weren't expecting him at all. We had just finished looking at row of aquariums and turned the corner to find the little guy bobbing up and down in his outdoor pool, staring at us as if he had been expecting our arrival. Mom and I hung around staring back at him for a good 15 minutes before moving on. The last bit of the aquarium was a room chock full of ocean specimens, preserved in rows and rows and rows of glass containers. They were stacked floor to ceiling and wall to wall with small aisles breaking it all up into a semblance of order. They even had a giant glass case that contained a preserved manatee. I was impressed. It was actually quite a good aquarium. If you're ever in Nha Trang, I recommend a visit. We made our way back to our waiting taxi and headed back to the hotel. We had been out for a good few hours already, so it was about time we took a break. We paid the taxi the agreed fare, but as we made to walk away he told us that we hadn't given him the right amount. "Fifteen," we told him. "That's fifteen, right there." He shook his head and spoke with punctuated pronunciation. "Fif-ty." I got pretty annoyed at the mix up, and to this day I can't figure out whether the guy had done it on purpose and had actually told us fifteen to begin with, or whether we misunderstood him due to his accent, and he really wasn't trying to swindle us. The more I thought on it, the more I suspect he was an honest guy. He hadn't tried to swindle us during the rest of our rides, and when I looked up the general pricing for taxis online, 50,000 dong would have been about right for the distance of that last ride. So then I felt bad about getting out of the taxi in a bit of a huff and not even thanking him. And to make us look like even worse butthead tourists, when Chuck shut the car door he managed to break the little plastic rain guard thing that ran along the upper edge of the window. It wasn't that he slammed the door or anything - he just managed to press on its weak spot as he shut it. But still. I have lingering guilt. We relaxed in the AC of our hotel rooms (luckily, we had power that day) until close to sunset, when we decided an ice cream was in order. A little cafe down the road and across from the beach satisfied our cravings. Mom tried the durian ice cream which was just as pungent as it is in its natural state. I could smell it from across the table. The beach called to us as the sun dipped below the horizon, so we went to sit on the sand and people watch for a while. I took a ton of photos of the unsuspecting Vietnamese beach goers as they played in the water or picnicked on the shore. Sunset must be the time to go to the beach, because it seemed like practically the whole city was there. I guess it must be nicer at sunset because you avoid all those intense noon rays. Vietnamese folks are much smarter than many people in the States in this regard. I also noticed that most women wore shirts and shorts into the water, just like in Thailand. There were some ladies in two-piece suits, but mostly they liked to stay covered. The impending darkness eventually convinced us to seek out food. Mom and I stopped into a Vietnamese embroidery shop we came across while searching. They had some really lovely pieces of work in there, all stitched in fine, shimmery thread on delicate fabrics of different colors. The tiny stitches blended together to make a beautiful, shimmery scene similar to one of those etched metal pictures that catch the light on all their angles as you move it around. Mom ended up getting a smaller piece for herself that depicted a cluster of bamboo. Finished with shopping, we all headed to a street we had passed by the previous night that was lined with street cart restaurants. It took us forever to choose one, but it was worth it because the food ending up being quite good. We were also lucky enough to be serenaded by a Vietnamese boy. It all began when Chuck decided to wave at the kid when he noticed him watching us. The boy's parents saw this and came to say hello and ask us where we were from and all that. The kid was all shy and smiley as we chatted, but when his parents told him (yes, they didn't give him much option to decline) to sing us one of the English songs he knew, he sang with confidence and gusto. The song he chose was the one typically played at New Years: Should old acquaintance be forgot, la dee da dee daaa. He was pretty good. Can you imagine a Vietnamese family visiting the States or Australia and having some English-speaking kid sing a Vietnamese song for them? Granted, English is spoken much more widely, but still. It was really nice that he sang us a song. Very sweet. After dinner we meandered back to the hotel, stopping for some tapioca tea, or sugar cane juice, or a couple of beers along the way. I fell asleep pretty quickly that night.

The 24th was another big day. A big day of snorkeling. We were going with a small tour group, so the first 30 minutes of the day were spent driving around town picking up other group members. Once everyone had been collected we headed to the docks and aboard our boat. It was a well used, 30 to 40 foot long vessel made of very sturdy looking wood. I thought she and her captain were well suited for each other as he also looked well used and sturdy, but always with a smile on his crinkled face. He hustled everyone aboard and we set off into the bay, along with the other numerous boats that were also running tours. We puttered past floating villages and small islands as we made our way out to the where the reefs were most beautiful. The captain pointed out the local theme park on one of the bigger islands, and some swallow caves where the nests used in birds nest soup were harvested. At one point I turned to look at the cockpit and saw that there was no one inside. No one was steering the boat. We weren't in any danger of course, but I got up to investigate. I poked my head inside, and sure enough, the tiny room was empty. Then one of the crew members came by and saw me being all curious, so he encouraged me with a wave of his hands to go ahead and steer. I sidled nervously into place behind the big wooden wheel and pretended to know what I was doing. He gave me vague directions in Vietnamese, which I didn't understand, but he seemed to be happy with my course and left me to it. Luckily, we were far enough away from anything crash-able that I wasn't able to endanger anyone. When it came time to actually steer into position at the dive location, one of the crew took over again. We were given masks, snorkels, and flippers, and were set free to explore the waters as we liked. I think I was the first in and the last out. I spent a good long time snorkeling around the little reef. It was just so amazingly beautiful! There was so much life and color. Blue, purple, green, and yellow coral. Angel fish, parrotfish, pufferfish (they're so cute with their little smiley face and huge eyes), needlefish. Hermit crabs, giant clams, sea cucumbers, starfish, spiral fans that pop into the rock when you get too close. Who knows what else was out there that I didn't manage to spot. I could have spent hours poking my nose around the rocks and corals, chasing fish, and picking up starfish. But instead, after an hour or so I was called back to the boat for lunch. It was a feast, with tons of food, but we barely touched it. I found myself reluctant to eat too much because the group of skinny, cute girls on our tour barely ate anything and I didn't want to look like a pig. So I ate until I was just full and then acted as though I didn't want anymore. It's good that I didn't stuff myself, but it's silly that I let their actions influence me so much. Oh well. It happens. As we were eating we were being driven over to another snorkeling site where we hopped back in the water for some more reef explorations. Once again, it was lovely. After that we motored over to an island and went for a swim near one of the many floating villages. No snorkeling this time, just swimming. They had these round boats in the shape of a plastic kiddy pool, with glass bottoms. You could pay to hop in one and paddle around the island with a guide. We didn't do that, but some other girls on our tour did and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. Back on the boat we were served some more food - a nice assortment of fruit. I felt more inclined to indulge this time around and ate my fill of bananas, watermelon, dragonfruit, and pineapple. The fruit feast signaled the end of the tour, so we gathered our stuff together and put our dry clothes back on over our wet bathing suits. We headed back to the docks and back into the van to be dropped off at our respective hotels. It was during this ride that we began to notice that our backsides were feeling a bit tender. Worries about sunburns entered our minds, but only time would tell whether we had been afflicted. So we retired to our rooms and took a short rest during which bright pink sunburns bloomed into place on our backs. Despite having liberally applied sunscreen at the beginning of the day and touching up once after lunch, we had all three managed to get nicely burned, especially around our lower backs. We were supposed to make the 10 hour trip to Kontum the next day, but with the onset of painful burns, we would have to rethink that. In the meantime, we wanted to check emails and such, and with our hotel's power being out that day, we walked down the road until we found a snazzy looking hotel with a cafe that offered wifi. We ordered expensive drinks and did the internet thing. Mom and I were finished before Chuck was, so we decided to head back to the hotel without him. It wasn't until we stepped into the lobby that I realized Chuck had the key to mine and his room. I had been hoping to sit on the patio balcony outside our room to watch the beach from up high and hopefully get a breeze. But that wasn't a possibility without the key. So Mom invited me to hang out in her room where we both sighed a lot and commented on how ridiculously hot it was. No AC and no balcony kept the heat at the forefront of our minds. After an hour Chuck showed up with a guilty smile and the key. We kept the rest of the evening very simple. Dinner was eaten at a seafood joint just around the corner from us - Chuck had some really good clams. As soon as the power came on back at the hotel, we switched on the AC and settled down for the night.

I had asked Mom to wake me up for the sunrise (since she was always up at that time anyways), so I wasn't surprised when I was woken by a knock at the door before it was bright outside. I managed to drag myself up to let Mom in and we went out to the patio balcony to watch the sun come up over the water. It was similar to the other few sunrises I've managed to wake up for - pretty with pinks and oranges and yellows. While enjoying the sight Mom told me that her sunburn was probably not so bad that she couldn't travel and we decided to see if we could go ahead and book a bus for later in the morning. Then I went back to bed. Long story short, we woke up too late for the bus and decided we may as well just go the next day instead. This gave us a day to sit around and do nothing, which was pretty nice since we'd been hitting the sites pretty hard for the past four or five days. We all went out for some breakfast around 9:00 AM, I got some blogging done for the rest of the morning, Chuck and I went to a sushi place for lunch, got some pictures sorted on my computer, etc. We went back to the seafood place from the night before for dinner. We got a small feast that included tuna, tiger prawns (they were huge), cockles (a type of bivalve mussel), and some crab-that-was-not-crab. I call it that because I swear, it was crab. But the waiter kept insisting that it was not crab, although he couldn't remember the name of what it was. It was crab. I'm quite sure. And it was pretty good, although I was missing the melted butter sauce that goes so well with the crab flavor. The cockles weren't that great - the clams from the night before had a much nicer flavor. But all in all, it was a pretty good seafood meal. Mom and I headed down the road in search of snacks for our long bus ride the next day. Pringles were a must as I do love my travel Pringles. Not sure now I developed this mild obsession with Pringles, but it is what it is. We found a few more things in an actual grocery store - you know, like with aisles and a refrigerated section and a cashier. The lining-up-to-pay process must still be a new thing in Vietnam. I had been waiting in line for five minutes perhaps when a Vietnamese woman finished up shopping and came to check out. She went straight up to the cash register rather than wait at the end of the line. I've experienced this lack of line-mentality before and realize that it's nothing personal, and it wasn't as if she was trying to be rude because she's some kind of mean spirited person. It's just a cultural thing. So working in that same mentality, I rushed her to the register and plunked my stuff on the counter just as she was setting her basket there. The cashier was versed in the art of "line" and told the woman that she would have to wait in it. She rang me up as the woman looked around and suddenly noticed that, holy cow, there was a line. She didn't seem to have much problem with waiting her turn once it all clicked in her mind. I find the cultural differences in waiting your turn (or not waiting) to be pretty interesting. It's one of those things that you don't stop to think about, and can be so offensive to others who may not be aware that there are differences. To me, the line system makes a lot of sense, but I'm sure to many others around the world it doesn't. I pondered all this on the way back to the hotel. Then I slept.

We all woke up early on the 26th. We packed and checked out. A taxi took us to the bus station where we had to exchange our receipts for the actual bus tickets. At the ticket window a man was talking to someone on a phone that had been stretched through the little hole in the glass. So I waited. After a few minutes, another woman came up and just stuck her receipt through the window, past the guy on the phone. They helped her out with no problem, so I did the same. See - that whole concept of waiting. It's very different to different people. Tickets in hand, all we had to do now was wait for the bus to arrive. Chuck and I got a banh mi (a baguette, or sub as we like to call them in the States) while waiting. When the bus showed up we were surprised to see that it was not a bus, but a van. We climbed in and took our assigned spots in the very last seat. The van quickly filled up until there was a body in every seat. Thirteen people in all. The trip to Kontum looked like it would be an interesting one to put it kindly.

1 comment:

  1. i've been drinking bird nest soup every night (i only get the homemade kind back at home). the only reason why i drink it is because it's supposed to be good for complexion.

    i’ve been taking the store-bought kind online (e.g. of famous branded only of course) which is directly mailed from Hong Kong. this would be at a more affordable price.