Thursday, January 20, 2011

Naw, Trang

Stop #4 on the Trail: Nha Trang, a popular, touristy beachy party town, a Vietnamese Cancun, if you will. And like Cancun, it is not really a place where anyone in a sober state of mind would want to stay for too long. Perhaps I say this because it was raining during most of my time there; it was the wrong time of year for scuba-diving; I already live by a beach and/ or, this may have been a big contributing factor, I contracted a pesky stomach bug that left me not really feeling up for the Spring Break-like bacchanalian spirit that prevailed.

Initially, I was pretty excited about the multitude of restaurants, bars and galleries around the corner from my hotel, the fantastic Ha Van. I spent an hour taking in the surroundings, both on the beach and off, before checking back in at the hotel and asking if perhaps there was something else that I should be doing.



They pointed me towards the Po Nagar Cham Towers, ancient Hindu temples dating back to the 7th-12th centuries, which were built by the Cham People (the same minority group I had visited earlier in the Mekong Delta). The four remaining towers are in varying states of disrepair, but the photo- impeding scaffolding indicated that preservation work is underway.





After watching a Cham cultural performance, I ventured back out of the complex to find the same cabbie I'd had earlier, eagerly waving his arms in my directions. In a flash, he had maneuvered a u-turn and was holding the door open for me. I should mention that before stepping foot in Vietnam, I'd read plenty about the very prevalent taxi scams, and was wary of anyone with a phone number written on the side of their vehicle and particularly anyone not driving for Mai Linh (aka the one reputable taxi company), which this guy was not. Since he had stuck to our agreed price for the Cham Towers and I knew he had a working meter, I willingly jumped back in. I then received a very comprehensive tour of the city and its surroundings. $2 scam aside, it was actually quite interesting to see how different the "real" Nha Trang was from my cloistered neighborhood of happy hour specials and t-shirt sales. We were still in a dodgy neighborhood when we finally arrived at my intended destination, the Long Son Temple. The reason to visit is to climb the 150 steps up to the massive 24 meter (or 78 foot) Buddha on a hill overlooking the city. All along the climb there were beggars and postcard salesmen but at this particular time, there were also plenty of worshippers and boy scouts running amok. Somewhere around the 100th step, I began to wonder if defibrillator training was part of the Vietnamese scout curriculum.



Not the Big Buddha, this one is about midway up the steps.

This is the Big Buddha: the photos are of  7 Buddhist martyrs who set themselves on fire to protest discriminatory policies in S. Vietnam. 

Against all medical likelihood, I made it all the way up to the Buddha and back down, only to find the same cabbie waiting. This time I made my terms a bit clearer, he complied and I am happy to report that this was the extent of my taxi problems for the entirety of my stay. With a bit of caution and research, it is not as bad as a lot of blogs and articles would have you believe.

Back in familiar territory, I hit a couple of the two-for-one beer specials and visited a few galleries, including one that takes on custom works, but was back in my room way before the party kicked off in earnest sometime around midnight. The reason was that I was booked on a boat tour the next morning.

It was that next morning that I woke up with not an upset stomach, but with a furious one. I considered canceling the boat trip, but ultimately decided that sitting in a hotel room (even a really nice one) on my only full day in town would be worse. I also figured that, due to the deluge that was coming down, they might cancel it and then I would not feel guilty about wasting the day. No such luck. They boarded us on a boat that made Gilligan's SS Minnow look seaworthy and after rolling down the tattered plastic windows, shuffled us off to the first stop, an aquarium on Hon Mieu Island. The aquarium itself looked like it must have held a lot of promise at one time, with four stories of exhibition space and what were once colorful underwater motifs, but now it is just a faded shell of misery with some sad looking fish, a handful of turtles and lots of empty tanks.




Things only went downhill from there. Our next stop was billed as the snorkeling stop. We pulled up to a cove, along with every other tour boat in the neighborhood, and spent the next ten minutes exchanging glances with each other, checking to see if anyone was foolhardy enough to brave torrential rain, cold water and questionably cleaned gear to jump into water with zero visibility. My money was on a group of Brits who had been drinking heavily since before I joined them at 8am, but even they opted to stay put and single-handedly support the boat's beer operation. Of four boats' worth of passengers, I think I only saw two hapless snorkelers bobbing around the water.

Lunch followed. I picked at some white rice and gaped at the now fully inebriated Brits complaining about the food. Not to stereotype, but these are not people known for their culinary acuity. If you can't please shit-faced soccer hooligans, things have gone horribly horribly wrong.


They were less critical of the next activity, the floating bar. In better weather and in much better health, I could see where this could be fun (as opposed to everything else that had preceded it) but as it stood, the majority of us stayed aboard and watched the Brits, who were now pouring wine directly into their eyeballs for quicker absorption (not an exaggeration for comedic effect, this is what they were actually doing) and wondered which one would drown first.

The bartender enjoying a moment of peace before the onslaught. 

By the final stop, at an uninspiring beach with a cover charge, I was thinking I could take the night bus and get the hell out of town. Good riddance Viet-Cun with your tricky cabbies and stag party ambiance. It was a fondness for my nice hotel room and an accompanying reluctance to undertake a 13 hour bus ride in my present condition that convinced me to stick around.

Good thing I did, too. After regrouping at the hotel following the boat trip that wouldn't end, I returned to the art gallery that accepts commissions. I spent time chatting with the artists, watching them work and trying to decide what I could ask for (because with such obvious talent, I knew I had to ask for something). I decided upon a photo my friend, Laura had taken of me in India. The result, which caught up with me a week later in Hanoi, is now one of my favorite souvenirs, ever. A painting done in Vietnam of a photo taken by my Romanian friend in India...throw in the Cuban-American subject and this is a five country painting. I love it!!


The following morning, after being woken at 3am by an atonal rendition of Oasis- the fricking drunken Brits were at it again- and what sounded like an exploding transformer around 6am, I stayed in listening to the rain. By the time I roused myself, I still had about ten hours to kill before my night bus. The front desk, who had probably seen my stressed state following the boat trip, suggested I head to the thermal mud baths for a day of pampering. I heeded their advice and went in for the full package, which alternated between incredibly relaxing and day at a Gitmo torture camp re-enactment center. It started off nicely enough with 30 minutes submerged in a tub of warm, buoyant mud. This was followed by a stroll through a narrow passageway with high-powered jets to rinse off in a scene somewhere between a car wash and a 70's movie prison admission sequence. Once I was deemed sufficiently clean, I was led to a jacuzzi set to scald. It was so hot I found myself light-headed. My only Vietnamese at this point consisted of "hi", "thank you" and "I'm a vegetarian" (or so I thought, turns out what I had been saying was really "vegetable rice" while proudly pointing at myself), there was nothing in my vocabulary to indicate "I think I am going to pass out now." I signalled for water and this resulted in my being taken to another tub with a bobbing sachet and water hotter than the surface of the sun. I am assuming all these extremes are meant to somehow shock the body and be ultimately therapeutic but they did nothing but turn me into a dizzy, foul-mouthed Goldilocks, unable to find the right temperature, and murmuring "Now, this is just too fucking hot." and "No, NOW this is way too fucking hot". Seriously, I got out of the second tub and laid on a chaise lounge watching steam come off my shins (the only part I was able to keep submerged for any length of time) for a good 5 minutes. I did this submersion/ run to the chair/ try not to pass out routine at least three times before a woman appeared with a small oil dish and a strong determination to give me a massage. She did a fine job, despite the occasional mosquito-killing slap. Sometimes I saw the mosquito carcasses, others I just figured she was working out some unresolved issues. Overall, it was very soothing...and then she tried to redirect me back to the first jacuzzi-cum-witches' cauldron. I stuck one leg in, looked to make sure she was gone and made a run for it. I had seen photos of a swimming pool on the property and I was determined to find it. Within minutes, I had found not only the pool but also a refreshing man-made waterfall to soak under. It was heavenly.






By the time the hotel driver came to pick me up, the sun was out, I was soft-skinned, relaxed and no longer felt sick. I celebrated all of the above at a micro-brew right on the beach, thinking how lovely it all was, yet delighted that I was soon going to be getting the hell of Nha Trang.

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