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Vietnam 2008 -- Nha Trang

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On the morning of the 17th of September we boarded our train from Hue to Nha Trang. Since the train passed along the most spectacular part of the Vietnam coastline, we took a day train instead of an overnight train.

Despite a kind of unsettling incident (see On the Trains for details), we managed to relax for the most part and watch the coastline roll by, until later in the evening, well after dark, we rolled into Nha Trang.

Nha Trang is a premier beach resort city, with an extremely long white sand beach, terrific snorkeling and scuba diving

Nha Trang Beach
(or so I'm told; I didn't get –-- didn't take -– the chance to do either while we were there).

Because it was late, our hotel didn't have anything for us to eat, and it turned out that there were no restaurants within easy walking distance that were open, so we ended up taking a taxi to an outdoor seafood café populated almost 100% by locals. As is usually the case wherever I go that's at all off the beaten track, they were really ... interested in what I was doing there.

But I always go abroad armed with a friendly smile and an outgoing attitude, and that has served me well wherever I've gone in the world.

As I say, it was a seafood restaurant, but what I hadn't realized walking in was that the tanks and tubs of water on both sides of me held tonight's dinner. I was expected

Nha Trang Beer
to walk back out, find a victim and tell them "off with his head"… I started calling it Death Row and, big pussy that I am, couldn't actually get to the point where I was the one fingering the fish for death, dismemberment and digestion.

So yeah, I'm a big hypocrite. I have no problem eating dead things; I just don't want to be the one doing the killing, either directly or semi-directly; indirectly, though, that seems to be okay.

I ended up telling them to "surprise me" with one of their house specialties. And surprise me they did. The brought me an order of shrimp.

Okay, in the US when you order shrimp, you usually get a platter of breaded shrimp tails, and the only shell part left on it is down at the very end, which you can use as a handle to dip the shrimp in the sauce. And I don't even order "peel-n-eat" shrimp in America because the hassle of peeling the little bastards far exceeds the satisfaction in eating them.

However, in Vietnam when you order shrimp, you get this: Whole shrimp. Whole large shrimp, which means all of the shrimp: Head and brains and guts and intestines and shit and the whole works come slabbed onto your plate, all still neatly wrapped in that pink crustacean carapace, their little tiny feet dangling off the underside.

Jeez. But when in Rome, etc., so I managed to choke down a portion of it, until Minh noticed what was going on, laughed a little bit at me, and offered to take the remainder of the shrimp off my hands. So I handed him the plate, but I still had shrimp juice, guts, brains, etc., on my hands, and would have for several more days until the smell finally wore off.

As much as I love seafood, I decided that I would forego the Vietnamese shrimp for the rest of the vacation. But I made up for it by eating tons of squid, clams, mussels, etc., the rest of the trip.

Nha Trang is a beautiful seaside resort city, and an indication that Vietnam is finally catching up with the rest of the world is the fact that the 2008 Miss Universe contest was

Gondola to Vinpearl
held there in July. We missed it by only a couple of months. Of course we also missed "high season" for tourists. Apparently September is the perfect month to go to Vietnam's tourist destinations if you want to avoid the crowds. At Nha Trang they were nonexistent, and when we went to the Vinpearl Resort (over the longest gondola-car cable crossing in the world, or something close to it anyway) it was a little like being at Disney World on the morning after an all-state Florida anthrax/radiological weapons scare. There was almost nobody there. In fact, it was kind of spooky, in a Stephen King/Dean R. Koontz kind of way.

Nevertheless, it was also great since we didn't have to wait in line for food or beer, there weren't a lot of splashy-sloppy little kids at the water attractions, and we got great seats for the nightly water-light show. That in itself was worth the trip over.

The first part of the first day was taken up with lounging around on the beach, which was about five blocks away from our hotel, not a huge distance and easily walkable. The beaches in Nha Trang are especially nice and clean, and the vendors are required to stay on the sidewalk, which is a ways from the beach. So consequently we weren't bothered by the Big Sell or the "Hue Hustle", which was good in that we could relax and drink beer, but also you miss a lot of the interaction with the locals that makes a visit to a Third World country so unique and memorable. But that distance was remedied in Vung Tau, where we found ourselves literally surrounded by vendors – see story.

The next day we took a "fun cruise" on the bay with a bunch of crazy people on an excursion boat, where we were "entertained" by our

Uncle Ho Jr & the Floating Bar
fellow cruisers doing karaoke, and also by the floating bar, at which a spittin' image of a younger version of Uncle Ho acted as the bartender on a floating innertube set up with drinks. You had to swim out to the innertube where Uncle Ho would chant something or other while he was filling your mouth up with tequila from a hose. You can get really drunk really fast that way, you know...

On this cruise we met Marieke Braun, a 24-year-old opera student from Germany who was traveling solo in Vietnam. (I don't know what it is with Germanic women, but the only

Us with Future Opera Diva Mari Braun
other solo female traveler we met was a woman from Austria that we met on the trip to Cu Chi and Tay Ninh.)

Anyway, Mari was surprised to learn that not only was I the first American she'd ever met who had actually seen an opera, but that my wife and I have season tickets to the Seattle Opera.

So naturally, I made her sing a few bars of my favorite aria, O Mio Babbino Caro, just to "prove up", and I will say this: She has an extraordinary singing voice and I predict that she will go far in the world of professional opera. Of course I also took a video of her performance in the karaoke contest, and let's just say that I have threatened to, without monetary consideration to the contrary, make it public right before her grand debut as a diva…

Part of the full day on the water included taking a small round "basket boat" with a local fisherman to look at the floor of the bay through

Fisherman's Hut W/Television
a clear plexiglass bottom. He took us close to his "house" -- in actuality a primitive hut perched on the water's edge, but he was quite proud of the television antenna sticking up from the roof. He didn't even have electricity, but he had a television set. I asked how he powered it and he said that he had a hand generator that charged up his batteries.

While we were at Nha Trang we also stopped by a local brew pub, the Louisiane for a snack and, of course, some beer. I was surprised to learn that the brew pub movement had arrived in Vietnam, and even more surprised at how good the beer actually was. And the location, right on the beach, was everything you could ask for. I wanted to stay for several more days, but we had only three weeks and new destinations calling us.

The problem with a short (even three weeks) vacation is this: If you're moving around at all with the goal of seeing and doing everything you can, it's still impossible to see and do everything you want to. That was the case in nearly every place that we went in Vietnam -- with the notable exception of the Tunnels of Cu Chi, which I immediately started calling "Cong World" -- see story. So it was with some regret that we left on the night train for Saigon that evening.