Travels in Nha Trang

Backpacking around Vietnam and getting down with the locals

A pack of Craven A's sits on the tiny table in front of us, surrounded by a group of robust, aromatic Vietnamese Coffees, which stood next to their respective iced green tea partners. We all sit pensively, sipping our coffees and staring out into the Rung Duoc Bay at the sporadic marine activity. The group of Thai men sitting next to us are playing a competitive game of cards - a scene that we are specifically instructed to politely ignore - while the small alleyway that surrounds us provides for a popular means of transportation for many townspeople.

At first glance, the skinny pathway seems to serve only as a tranquil, one-way route, but you'd be surprised at the abundance of traffic and the sharp shrills of motorbike horns that fill the area. Constant commotion has become a common nuance to my ears, but this is a rare occasion where these sounds work surprisingly well with the bay and the company that surrounds me. At this time, I have nothing on my mind except what lies right in front of me and all I can do is sit back in my tiny, plastic chair and smirk. Slowly, the smirk hoards my expression, leaving no trace of anything, but sheer satisfaction.

Stiffly stepping down the large, awkwardly-spaced-steps, reiterates the notion that uncomfortable night buses are something I will never get used to. Unlike Thai sleeper buses, the Vietnam version gives you a bed to sleep in, but unless you take on the stature of an oversized child, you may have to adjust your sleeping positions once or twice throughout the night. It is also very important to note that the style of driving is quite different from virtually anywhere else in the world.

You may find yourself slowly slip-siding away off into a fantasy-land of dreams. Maybe you're spending a romantic evening in the Hollywood Hills with Brad Pitt, sipping on wine as he woos you with his handsome features and his boyish attempts at reviving chivalry; it's even possible that a fire-breathing dragon has kidnapped your loved ones, and justice can only be achieved by slaying the ungodly beast yourself. Right as things start getting good in your dream world - SMACK! - your limp body smashes up against the window as the driver wildly swerves into the other lane, narrowly avoiding a catastrophe. It is near impossible to get a decent night's sleep when traveling on these overnight buses, but at least they get you where you need to go!

I have to personally thank the group of Vietnamese kids who swam with us on our first day in Nha Trang; if it weren't for them, we would have been very close to packing up and heading out to our next destination the following day. You see, many places on the Southeast Asia travel circuit have become fallen prey to corporate bullies. These bullies come into pristine, aesthetically mind-warping locations and decide to lay their heads down for the long term. In these places, tourism, although great for the region's economy, hogs the overall physique and personality of the destination.

So, I found myself walking around Nha Trang getting pestered by tour salesmen, bombarded by over-priced restaurant owners, and staring up at a colossal Sheraton. Meanwhile, every food stand in this area selling authentic Vietnamese cuisine was virtually abandoned. Yes, everybody needs to make a living somehow, but it is disheartening when it is at the expense of a culture of people. A bit discouraged, Emily and I decided it was time for a refreshing dip in the waters of the South China Sea - which if you refer to the beginning of this paragraph, was the wisest of choices.

As we were doggy-paddling around, winding down from the sleepless night and the painful sights of foreigners outweighing the Vietnamese population, we were happy to find a group of Vietnamese boys cheekily swimming closer to us. Intrigued by what appeared to be a white woman in a bikini and an overly skinny, miniature King Kong, they decided to engage.

Instead of wasting time attempting meaningless conversation, they decided to show us a trick - a trick that consisted of them sprinting from about 20 feet out on the beach into the water, ending with a precarious, yet impressive flip into the oncoming waves. With these stunning flips, the boys inadvertently entered us into a trick competition. To counter, I decided to go with the Westernly cliché "handstand," swaying my feet forward and back to jazz up my maneuver a bit. Emily, my partner in crime, decided to go with the "underwater somersault;" some would say this move is also cliché, but when you pull off 7-flips without coming up for air, you impress not only your foreign audience, but the remaining onlookers as well.

The tricks from both parties loosened things up a bit - we were basically best friends at this point. Competing against each other eventually lost its excitement - now that we were friends and all - so that evolved into a session of friendly swim races. Then once they figured out that compared to their Vietnamese kin, I was practically the tallest man in the world, naturally it was time to see who I could launch into the air the highest. They took turns standing on my shoulders as I elevated my thumbs out of the water for balance and support. With a quick count of 3; 2; 1, I stood up quickly and instantly they were soaring high in the sky, flailing their arms and legs before splashing down into the choppy, blue sea. Although a majority of the jumps were impressive, I was informed that one boy managed a back-flip, which ended up winning the gold medal for the day.

There really is nothing like a little friendly competition against the younger generation. It was also a great reminder about how there will be annoying, plastic people wherever you go, but a majority of people are awesome. To support this claim, on our walk back to our hotel, we were directed to a local area by some random motorbike driver. He asked us if we were lost, and after expressing our somewhat urgent interest to get as far away from this tourist time-lapse as possible, he told us about a great "Bia Hoi" joint a kilometer or so away.

Bia Hoi is a local, draft beer, brewed daily in Vietnam. It is a very cheap, light lager, with a low alcohol content (3-4 percent) and no preservatives, making it incredibly important to consume the batch as quickly as possible to ensure freshness. These Bia Hoi establishments can be found scattered all over Vietnam, usually located in local areas. They typically are restaurants that serve local food and therefore attract a local crowd, creating an incredible people-watching atmosphere. The Vietnamese men love to party and will often hang out at these places for hours, resulting in an eatery filled with chain-smoking, beer swilling Vietnamese men, rambling on about who knows what. Talk about an amazing place to be.

For us, it was a little early to get the drinking underway, so we settled for another phenomenal Vietnamese pastime: drinking coffee. Since cafes in Vietnam are comparable in abundance to Starbucks in New York City (although the coffee experience is nothing alike), it is always important to find a coffee shop that is comfortable for you. In this particular day's case, we stumbled upon a cool, little art café named "Let it Be Café."

Inside, on the wall behind the cash register, lay the lyrics to Paul McCartney's, "Let it Be," swiftly painted in cursive. The walls that surround are blotted with various paintings of influential classic rock artists and works, including a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, and the screaming face from Pink Floyd's "The Wall." All of the work is creatively canvassed on the walls of the café, the bricks on the outside section, and the glass on the windows and doors, making for a chilled-out environment to relax while buzzing on a strong cup of filtered, robust java.

It wasn't until we politely told the waitress at the café that she had not misunderstood - we did indeed take our coffee black - that we met Khanh. Evidently impressed with our tolerance for the bold beverage, he came over and began to chat with us. The conversation was comprised of two main elements: Simplicity and Awesomeness. There was no need to fill the conversation with anything mundane or unnecessary - it seemed as if we had already met before and got the whole friendship thing underway.

We talked about music, photography, and Vietnam. Since Em and I thoroughly enjoyed cool art; good music; Vietnam; and clearly, strong coffee, it appeared as if we were all destined to be pals. As these thoughts were perusing through my caffeine-filled brain, Khanh asked us if we would like to go "take pictures" with him the following day. Without hesitation, or eye contact between the two of us, we called out, "Yes," in unison.

We arrived at the café the following morning at 8:30 AM sharp; it was not an option to show up late to our date with Khanh. Not only did we have to make sure we were on time for our Khanh date, I had to personally make sure I got us there alive. It was the first time I had operated a motorbike in Vietnam and anyone who has seen how the Vietnamese traffic system works will understand it can be a bit unnerving to say the least. From a distance, pandemonium is an accurate word to describe it - it's a circus.

A road with two lanes is crammed with anywhere from 4 to 7 motorbikes all the way across. There are horns honking constantly, people walking across the street paying no mind to the oncoming freak-show, and motorbikes stacked with items making them off-balance and too wide for the road - anything from refrigerators, to cases upon cases of beer, to crates of livestock, to piles of firewood towering over their heads. A bit shaky, but determined, we set out into the concrete jungle.

As I pulled out into the road, I began to realize there was indeed a method behind all of the madness that I saw as a common bystander. It looks like utter chaos, yet when you become a part of it, oddly there is a cadence and harmony to it. Once you find a comfortable speed the rules become quite simple: just drive. Be aware of what and who is around you and only stop if you really need to. Once I slowly realized all of this inside my feeble head, driving a motorbike in Vietnam turned from frantic to fun.

It was a good thing I took to the motorbike quickly because there was no time for a tutorial in Khan's schedule. After accidentally sleeping in, Khanh and his friend Elvin showed up for our tour around Nha Trang. Friends since they were 12, Elvin and Khanh had an interesting dynamic; Elvin was a bit more vocal than Khanh, but seemed to divert as much attention as he could to his life-long friend. Back in the early years of their friendship, days were spent scouring the land of Nha Trang and scaling mango trees. As they've grown older, their knack for adventure still thrives as we drive around the city and watch as they point out fun facts we should take note about.

What a great day it was. We followed Khelvin (Khanh and Elvin) around on their vintage Honda and explored the vast farmland that surrounds Nha Trang. Outside of the Sheratons and nightclub scene lies a virtually unaltered Nha Trang with villagers living their day-to-day lives simply and unfazed. In their world, dinner will not be on the table unless the rice crops are harvested and fish are caught. Everybody has a job whether it's tending to the farmland, preparing traps for the fish farms, crocheting clothes, or even building something. It's fascinating - coming from a material culture - to see the happiness and sustainability of a culture that strives on simplicity.

We spent our lunchtime snapping photos, drinking tea, and eating at this nearly indescribable establishment. We walked into the main kitchen area where the proprietary family was going through the motions of their daily lives. The matriarch was caring for their newborn baby, the patriarch was scaling and preparing freshly caught fish from the pond the restaurant stood upon, and the various siblings and cousins were running the "customer service" end of the restaurant.

The area was unique, in that it consisted of various bridges and bamboo islands that served as the dining areas for the customers. Each island was in an octagonal shape, well equipped with a chalkboard menu and bamboo matting strewn across the floor for a comfortable dining experience. We spent our time there chatting about Vietnamese and American cultural differences and taking in the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounded us.

For lunch, we had a fresh serving (caught from the waters that our bamboo island stood on) of "Jah Kah" with "Mom" Sauce (please keep any snide remarks to yourself). They prepare Jah Kah by mincing up a heaping pile of fish, then pan-frying it into a patty-like form, and then slice it up into bite size pieces. The Mom Sauce was a sweet and satisfying version of fish sauce with sugar. Although it looks a bit odd - taking on an intimidating spongy texture - Jah Kah was a brilliant snack to pair along with our time on the bamboo island.

After a bumpy exit, our tires spun their way across the dusty trails leading back to the main road. I alternated my attention from the road to the stunning landscape around me and constantly found myself lost in the moment. Throughout my travels, the people I meet and the culture I encounter have always been the most exciting thing for me.

As we pulled to a stop at a railroad crossing, I found myself enclosed by motorbikes. Male riders, female riders, and full families were all waiting along with me as the train was passing by. Throughout the loud clamor of the train against the tracks, it turned into a momentary social gathering. People were smiling, laughing, and chitchatting in their quick, Vietnamese cadence - with nobody showing any urgency to keep moving. Everyone was satisfied with the moment and in turn, embraced it. At that time, I had nothing on my mind except what was right in front of me and all I could do was sit back on my motorbike and smirk. Slowly, the smirk hoarded my expression, leaving no trace of anything, but sheer satisfaction.



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