Dirty beaches, rough waves, and Mama Hanh in the good ol' days of spliffs and surf
We reached Nha Trang and headed straight for the beachfront road where many of the hotels are located. Prices carry a negligible premium for beachfront location so I got a clean safe room for $8. I settled for the appropriately named Hotel 78. Located at 78 Tran Phu Street. I had the rest of the afternoon and two more full days to spend in Nha Trang.
While Ha optimistically went off to wander the streets of Nha Trang hoping to find a foreigner that might be willing to givehim a few dollars for a ride to Saigon I went to the beach hoping for a nice swim. Forget it. It was a windy afternoon with the strong breeze coming in directly off the South China Sea. Most of the waves were coming in at around five to six feet in height. I cautiously walked in, no further than up to my knees, but just to the spot where most of the waves were breaking. I did reasonably well to hold my balance against the waves. I got knocked around a little bit, but just enough to be fun, and managed to stay on my feet for about ten minutes before finally getting knocked down by a good seven-footer. But no sooner do I stand up and shake the sand out of my shorts that I turn around to face a sheer eight to nine foot wall of water. As quickly as I could mouth "Ohhhh, shit!" I'm knocked head over heals, spun this way and that and deposited with a resolute 'thud' on the beach; my mouth full of sand, my shorts at my ankles, and the wind knocked out of me. I decided it would be a better idea to lie on a beach chair and wade up only to my ankles. Maybe I could find a kiddy pool.
Nha Trang has what could be a spectacular beach if they'd clean the place up. Not only is there an excessive quantity of garbage on the beach, there's quite a bit floating in the water, too. There's nothing like getting tossed around in the waves only to then have to remove pieces of plastic bag that have wrapped themselves around your legs. The people working at my hotel in Dalat had recommended I do not go to Nha Trang for this reason and had suggested Ca Na, some seventy miles to the south. I saw Ca Na on the way back to Saigon and it is indeed a very clean quiet place. On the other hand, Nha Trang is becoming one of Vietnam's premier resort towns, and it looks like tourist growth is outpacing infrastructure. If you don't look at the trash, it's a nice wide beach with the added view of the mountains coming right down to the shoreline. It's lined end to end with palm trees, so it's get predictably chilly after about 4:30 p.m. when the sun is blocked from the beach.
I was supposed to meet Ha for dinner, as I was going to treat him as my tip, but at 6:00 p.m. he couldn't be found. So I had my own meal at an overpriced beachfront restaurant with an army of beautiful waitresses in colorful ao dais. I returned to the hotel about 7:30 p.m. and found Ha waiting for me, so we went to a cheap Vietnamese place and he had his noodles. We then hit a local pool hall for a few beers and a few games. The following morning he was gone at sun-up, when I saw him three days later in Saigon he told me he did the whole 270- mile trip in one very long day.
One of the things you're supposed to do in Nha Trang is take a boat trip to some of the outlying islands. These boat trips really aren't sightseeing trips, but rather an excuse to party. There are several operators with Mama Hanh's being the best known. The boats leave around 9:00 a.m., two boats filled with about 70 people set off for the first of four islands. After an hour the boats anchor offshore the first island and snorkeling equipment is handed out. About twenty feet below is a decent reef. An hour later and the boats are off to dock at another island and the sightseeing part of the trip is pretty much over. At noon we set anchor again and lunch was served. Here's where you get your $7 worth. Plates and plates of a variety of fantastic seafood cooked uncountable different ways are laid out. Seventy people couldn't come close to eating all the food they provided. Then the floating bar is opened. Attached to a rope, a Styrofoam cooler filled with drinks, including Mama Hanh's homemade wine, is set afloat and Mama Hanh with the help of a couple of foreign staff pass out drinks. Everyone is provided a life preserver. After the drinks Mama Hanh passes out joints. Regular payments to the police and that she's providing smoke to foreigners and not Vietnamese keeps her from losing her business. However Mama Hanh was quite irate when the Australian version of Penthouse magazine reported about the police payoffs in a feature article on her boat tours. She tells anyone and everyone who'll listen about this, usually while showing off the laminated version of the article she keeps. Apparently a few Nha Trang police officers also read Penthouse.
Mama Hanh is certainly a colorful woman. She's 39 years old (so she claims) but looks like the far side of 50. She has a good command of English, especially all the four letter words that she serves up as easily as she serves up drinks. She brings along a generous supply of beer and sodas that she offers at very reasonable prices. I think she was getting something like 10,000 dong a beer (about 75 cents). Needless to say quite a few people were thoroughly drunk by the end of the day, including Mama Hanh. Once the floating bar is shut down the boat moves along to another island for no other reason but to lay out about a hundred plates of fruit. Amazing fruit, many of which were varieties I'd never seen before and all local to the area. Vietnam puts out some really good fruit. One such local type is dragon fruit. It's about the size of a grapefruit but closely related to the kiwi. It has a purplish-pink skin, with white flesh and black seeds. I could have eaten them all day. After the fruit feast the boat stops at one more island if for no other reason but to stop at one more island. A nearly toothless thirtysomething woman and an entourage of children await the boats to beg for handouts of uneaten fruit and whatever else they can get. The boats remained docked for about thirty minutes and a somewhat inebriated Mama Hanh admonishes everyone to remember their belongings or, "fuck you, you leave I keep it, maybe you get it my office, or maybe I like it, you don't, so fuck you." Thus is Mama Hanh. Acridness aside, she's a nice woman that'll never let you take yourself or anything else too seriously.
I spent most of my other day in Nha Trang on the beach. I started the day with a walk through the town. Nha Trang (pop. 200,000), like the other tourist centers of Cantho and Dalat, is a healthy city, a lively resort sprouting new high-rise hotels along its beachfront. My only complaints with the place were the beach garbage and the number of beach vendors.
I started my beach day at the north end of the beach. That was near the bank, I had to get money. It was about a mile back to my hotel, and I took the beach route. The surf was noticeably lower than when I had arrived the day before last, coming in at about three to four feet. Walking along the beach I was accosted about ten times to rent a beach chair on that tout's particular beach. I had planned to do so anyway, but was going to do so in front of my own hotel. For 10,000 dong (about 75 cents) you get the privilege of a nice beach chair on your choice of beach and the opportunity to talk with scores of vendors all day long.
I planned to buy my lunch from one of these vendors, but I had no desire to buy a book, a postcard, a t-shirt, chewing gum, cigarettes, or who knows what else was offered to me. By mid-afternoon I turned robotic, saying, "no buy" without even bothering to look up from my book to see what I was 'no buying'. I didn't have to wait long for lunch. A pleasant woman in a conical hat came along carrying two large pots on a bamboo stick across her shoulders. She put her heavy load down beside me and started sticking crabs and shrimp in my face. After choosing a collection of crabs and shrimp it was bargain time. She asked for 35,000 dong ($2.60). I got her down to 25,000 dong ($1.85). As she's preparing my lunch she kept repeating, "very good, very good, and cheap price, oh, very cheap price." So I knew I paid too much. But considering what I was eating would have cost about ten to fifteen dollars in the USA I hardly cared. Very quickly two more food vendors sat down alongside my beach chair. One is selling fruit and I certainly wanted a few dragon fruits and pineapples and whatever other exotic fruits she was offering. Thus another ridiculous bargaining process ensues, and again my indifference to haggling over the equivalent of about fifty cents no doubt resulted in another overcharge. I then notice my seafood vendor happily telling her friends she was getting 25,000 dong from me for my meal. Her sign language gave her away. Now I really knew I paid too much. And I really didn't care, except I did notice one of the shrimps disappeared. I pointed this out and she feigned carelessness and the missing shrimp was miraculously found.
The vendors collectively spoke enough English to have a very basic conversation about all the usual topics, where I came from, was I married, how much money did I make, etc. Despite these women weaseling a few thousand extra dong here and there they still live a poor life. When I eat crabs I tend to stick the pieces, shell and all, in my mouth and remove the crabmeat however I can. With almost every shell I'd throw away, shells that had just been in my mouth, the vendor would pick it up and put it in her own mouth removing whatever crab meat I might have missed. She wasn't letting anything go to waste. When she got ready to leave I asked her if I could see how heavy her pots were. She gladly let me try balancing the pole on my shoulder. This 95-pound woman was carrying 40-50 pounds on her shoulders. She then pulled her dress back to show me her shoulders. Heavily callused with raised red ridges, the result of years of walking miles up and down the beach every day. Suddenly, I cared even less about the eight thousand extra dong or whatever I paid. If anything, I was kind of glad for it.
Of the many vendors who stopped by my beach chair, there was one in particular I actually put my book down and listened to for a few minutes. An older man, maybe in his fifties, he sat on the edge of my beach chair and introduced himself. He was very well mannered and spoke very good English. After the usual inquiries, most notably my origin, he proceeded to tell me what I had already guessed. He, like the souvenir vendor I met in Cantho, had been American- educated and a South Vietnamese military officer. Thus, following reunification he was 'reeducated' and like all the surviving officers, stripped of his citizenship. He now made his way by providing one-day tours into the surrounding countryside, his native area. Somehow, I had a feeling he would probably provide a pretty good tour and no doubt would have had some interesting stories to tell. But I was returning to Saigon the next day, so I gave him a sincere apology and he thus excused himself.
Throughout Asia one often encounters unusual translations of the English language. At my hotel there were a series of warnings in regards to potential problems should you choose to rent a motorbike. Perhaps most interesting was this, "Please lock it carefully in order to be stolen." You figure it out.
Early the next day I took the tourist van back to Saigon, a relatively painless ten- hour drive that included a nearly one hour wait to get across the bridge that carries National Highway 1 traffic into Saigon city. Once in Saigon, I ran into Ha who was already in bargaining mode. He knew I was going to Cambodia by land the following day. Although there is a bus direct from Saigon to Phnom Penh there is an interminable delay at the border as you wait for every passenger to clear immigration and customs. I had no intention of taking that option. So Ha and I agreed on 110,000 dong, (about $8) for him to motorbike me to the border. From there I'd walk into Cambodia and then get a car to Phnom Penh hoping to find another traveler or two at the border to share the expense to Phnom Penh.
We left shortly after 7:00 a.m., again deftly negotiating the insane Friday morning Saigon traffic. By 9:30 we reached Moc Bai, the border village. Knowing that from time to time, visas have 'problems' that can be either 'fixed' with a payment or perhaps just to display the unquestionable power of the Vietnamese border patrol, it may be required that you return to Saigon and resolve the 'problem' there. Therefore, I wouldn't let Ha leave until after I received my exit stamp. I was delayed for about thirty minutes as a bus full of German tourists had arrived ahead of us. There was only one person working the counter who had no intention of hastening his work, nor did he see any reason to process a solo traveler or two ahead of the stack of German passports that lay before him. So with a few Cambodians I waited and waited. Finally I was processed. I turned to Ha and pulled out the agreed price of 110,000 dong, but that wasn't the limit to my dong. I still had about 35,000 dong in my pocket and Ha saw it. Vietnamese dong is not convertible. You can't even legally take it out of the country and if you do you can't change it anywhere. Ha knew that. I knew that. So I start laughing, look into his expectant eyes, and hand him the crumpled wad of dong. "Thank you-ou-ou-ou-ou!" And he gives me a big bear hug and a slobbery kiss on the neck followed by a lot of laughing. Strange guy, that Ha.
Ha left to return to Saigon and whatever else, while I had one more hurdle to cross: customs. Land crossings to and from Vietnam can be excruciatingly painful. Getting through customs requires filling out a form, having the form signed off, assumedly after having your bags searched, then returning the form to another officer who will check it along with your exit stamp. Then you are free to walk into Cambodia where life gets a whole lot easier. Most bags are thoroughly searched or perhaps less thoroughly searched in exchange for a small payment of cash or cigarettes. On this day, luck was on my side. As I reached the customs end of the building the German tour bus had just been unloaded, dozens of bags lay strewn about the room while several customs officials gathered around, no doubt calculating how many dollars and cigarettes they'd get. Several bags were already opened, their contents spilling out all over the place. Behind them the few Cambodians I waited with earlier were also being similarly treated. After properly filling out my form, I was pointed towards the two officials now finishing with the Cambodians. He did not see from what direction I had come from, and maybe he assumed I had been with the Germans and thus already searched and bribed. But whatever he was thinking he promptly signed off my form without so much as a second look at my bags. I passed the form off to the next officer who checked that I had my exit stamp from immigration. Free. I was now officially out of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and now free to walk across the no man's land to the Kingdom of Cambodia. I never so much as had to touch the zippers on my bags.