I wake up to a traditional anthem of some sort blasting out of the trains speakers. It’s 500 am. Sounds like opera. Possibly propaganda? I slept terribly, jostled in my little bed built Vietnamese sized. Even diagonally I didn’t fit. My head was just below the wooden housing for the window curtain and I knocked it a few times on some of the larger, late night train bounces. Dismount from the bunk with Spiderman like grace and meet the boys in the hall. Everyone is pretty groggy.
The train announces that Nha Trang has a population of 200k and is home to the earliest sunrise in Vietnam, which we’re witnessing now but are in a valley and it’s not really picture worthy.
We get off the train and Rich negotiates a deal with a local cab driver who had an SUV. He’s going to drop us at Rich’s hotel and then meet back up with us after breakfast to take us into the countryside.
Through the cab windows we get a glimpse of Nha Trang. It’s situated along a lovely white sand beach. The waves roll in large and a number of islands are nearby the shoreline. It looks like there is a cable car it to them. Actually it looks like there’s a castle on one of them. I’d read that there was a water park here. Rich confirms, saying that the Russians and Chinese are pouring a lot of money in here, turning it into Disney land.
There’s an odd structure along the road by the beach, “No one really knows what it is. But they finished it. At least they finished it.”
We get dropped off by a little alley with a couple of ’boutique’ hotels on it. Rich has a semi permanent room in one of them that he uses as a base of operations (he’s retired but I believe he teaches English now). We drop our bags and he goes up to his room to clean up, says we’ll grab breakfast at the spot around the corner in a bit and the driver will come back to get us around 8.
It’s about 6 am now and we’d like some coffees to kill off the night Train fog. We take a walk around the block looking for a coffee shop. None seemed to be open. There were a lot of Russian businesses. Lots of signs in Cyrillic, some in Chinese. And actually a lot of white people out and about already. All speaking Russian.
Down on the beach is a hilarious exercise montage. There is an area with exercise equipment and it makes people do the most ludicrous movements. One we dubbed the wax on wax off machine. Another you just sit in and it swings your butt out like a pendulum. The actual exercise value of these machines seems pretty low. The making you look like an uncoordinated manic idiot value is through the roof.
There’s also a sunrise Tai Chi session going on. Drisdelle and I watched it for a bit and were just cracking up. I’m no Tai Chi expert but this looked like a flash mob routine put on by all the world’s most uncoordinated people. Fatboy Slim’s praise you video puts it to shame. And they all went into this belly bump move where they just smacked their bellies with both hands. This went on for way too long. We had to walk away. Looked back after 20 paces, still doing it. 20 more, so doing it.
Come back and meet up with Rich. Do we want rooms? It’d be nice to wash up and do laundry, put blog posts up and whatnot. We get a room each at Bili’s hotel and get ourselves cleaned up. Come back down and grab breakfast next door.
Rich seems to know everyone in the area. He introduces us to the little daughter of the restaurant owner. She’s super cute. “She speaks excellent English. Say hello”, she’s shy.
I go with something called a Bo Ne for breakfast. It’s a thin slice of beef sizzling on a platter in some tomato sauce with veggies and a fried egg. I cut open the French bread and dump it all inside, making my own Bahn mi style sandwich. Delicious.
The cab driver is back. We pile in and are off to the countryside. Rich kicks right in to tour guide mode, “Now we begin our scenic journey. On the right is a fucking Chinese tour bus. Clogging up the road and unloading 50 Chinese people to take a picture and get right back on the bus.” Haha this is gonna be a good day.
We leave the center of the city and Rich starts telling us about how he lived in the neighbourhood we’re driving through back in 1969. No doubt a lot has changed but there are a few landmarks he points out and tells us stories about from that time, like a shared house (no longer there) he briefly stayed in until he discovered the owners were associated with the South Vietnamese secret police. Not wanting to be implicated as part of that mess he got out ASAP. We drove through a couple of old fortress-style gates as we left the city.
We drive up away from the city into the lush green mountainside. The scenery is beautiful as we traverse beside a river in a jungle valley past rice and sugarcane fields.
We pass by locals on bikes and motorbikes. There isn’t much traffic up here, not much population to speak of. The people seem darker, Rich describes that it’s mostly tribal people up here, not Viet.
We get to a little wood and brick house beside some papaya plants and pull over. Apparently this is Rich’s friend Paul’s wife’s mom’s house. The mom is outside cooking on a stone pot over a fire. There are a couple kids ripping around, I kick a soccer ball back and forth with one for a second.
We grab some mini stools and sit with Paul’s wife’s mom who grabs us some beers. It’s only 8:30 or so but sure. Not the earliest I’ve had a drink this trip.
A few minutes later and Paul shows up. He’s a tall, thin, wiry Brit with scraggly hair. Him and Rich get into some good ol ribbing right away. This is the way with most Brits it seems, verbally poking and jabbing, expecting it right back. Maybe that’s just the way with guys in general, just the Brits are particularly good at it.
Paul joins us for a beer, says he loves living up here. He’s got a place with the wife a few houses down, “An absolute mansion, you’ve got to see it to believe it.” He describes how everything is brown here in the summer. Right now is after the rainy season and it’s all lush and green. Not so in summer.
He takes us around the back of the house where there’s a small rice paddy. “In between harvests now. You can get three a year. Usually two though. Everything is done by hand and then the government comes with a thresher and threshes the rice for you. Puts it in 50 kilo bags, leaves you some and then you sell the rest to the government.”
Paul and Rich inspect the rice. There are some pink pods of some sort in some of the stalks. “Snails”, offers Paul, “The locals eat them. Pretty good.”
Paul isn’t too sold on the rice trade here. He worked for 3 months, in the muck everyday, at the end of the harvest the government came. They kept a few sacks and sold the rest. Got about 200 American for it. “Rice isn’t a profitable thing. It’s like a bank. Plant and in a few months get a bit of profit. Government set the price. People just make enough to eat because it isn’t worth selling. Not worth the labor.”
Paul gets down in the dirt and draws a little diagram on the ground with his finger. “Government pumps water from the river for 3 days. You take your hoe and break your dyke. Let the water in. Government shuts off the water and you fill your dyke back in. Once the rice gets so high the stink bugs come in though. Little fuckers.”
He’s not making it sound too easy, that’s for sure. Drisdelle asks when the government comes to run the irrigation. “When do they turn on the irrigation? When they stop playing cards.”
Paul takes us to the irrigation duct. This is a simple concrete waterway. Paul says his son will surf down it on his stomach when they’re pumping water haha.
Paul tells us a bit of his back story. He used to live in Nha Trang. He owned a place called shorty’s bar (which was on the shirt he’s wearing). Hated dealing with drunk Russians. Left the wife and bar and moved up here. Got a new wife here and a place.
We spot a set of old speakers on a pole, “What are these for”, “5 o’clock, get out of bed you lazy cunts and get to work. Sometimes propaganda.”
He takes us down the road to his ‘mansion’. Up the driveway he’s pointing out the plants. “Eucalyptus is a good cash crop. Used for paper. Grows quick and easy. That’s a Guava tree. Here’s more Papaya. That tall one is dragon fruit. I was growing corn. The missus brought 50 mango trees and said plant them. So i did. This is all mango now. Good plant, good shade.
Paul’s mansion is a modest little home only in slight disrepair. We go around back and he shows us a pineapple plant in a pot “they don’t grow on trees you know.” A little kid rides up on a scooter, “Ahh this is my step son, Anne’s boy.”
The boy is about 12. His name is Ding, “Say nice to meet you”, “Nice to meet you”, “Not to me, to them.” Ding stands quietly just smiling. Paul says he rides that scooter to school 8 km away.
Paul decides to join us for the ride. We get some more beers and jump in the cab. In the car an interesting conversation starts between Rich and Paul.
“Is Anne still working nights?”, “I don’t want to think about it, Rich”, “Well she’s got to make some money somehow. For the kids. Coal miner’s don’t like being in the mines either, but they’ve got to make money.” There’s a pause and Paul starts telling Jamie how the river flooded recently. Rich tries again but Paul continues to talk to the boys in the back. Rich looks at me, “There’s no work. Has to make money somehow.” No comedic eyebrow raises after that one.
Up the road a but we hit a small crossroads. “These shops used to do well but they’ve put a new road in. Too bad really.”
We take a left and down the way we stop at a coffee shop. It has a great outdoor seating area right on the edge of some jungle. We get some more beers and relax for a while. Rich continues to drop hilarious Trump bombs. Paul mentions, “You can’t talk to the Vietnamese about politics. Maybe in doors. I miss talking about it.”
I ask about Shorty’s Bar and what happened to it. Paul tells us a funny story from the bar. There were a bunch of kids they’re one day, running around getting in the way. He told the parents to keep them under wraps but to no avail. A delivery truck came and his 2 dogs got excited and ran through the bar. Kids were in the way and one of the dogs jumped up and naked him in the chest, laid him right out, while the other jumped over him.
“It was fun for a while. But the Russians came in and rent prices tripled. Started coming to the bar all the time too. The wife changed. Didn’t know her anymore. Don’t know who that is. Filed for divorce. Spent a year doing nothing. Divorce went through. Started partying and met the new wife. Came up here and got a house.”
Rich livens things up with some more old fashioned cha cha cha and then picks up the bill. We’re back on the road, dodging a ton of cute pigs.
Paul used to raise pigs, “Bred white and black pigs. Happy fucks. What I really want is a goat. Expensive though. Sheep, now they’re the most expensive.” He tells us a story about when he first started raising pigs, since they’re all free to roam and unbranded he asked how anyone knew whose pigs were whose. The locals gave him a look like he was a moron and told him the pigs that belong to you are the ones that come home at night. Seems slightly allegorical.
We arrive at the place Rich had described to us on the train the day before. It is a beautiful place nestled in the jungle with the river coming through and splitting down several arteries. The water tumbles down the rocks to form mini waterfalls all around us and large jungle plants create a canopy of shade. There’s some thatched huts, Paul tells us locals fill the place and have drinks and BBQ here. There’s no one here now. It’s serene really.
The owner comes out to greet us. He’s 78. He clearly recognizes Rich and rushes over to shake his hand. They have a brief exchange in Vietnamese. “Oh he says it’s busted. Oh no. The whole reason we’re here”, “Oh no worries, this place is gorgeous.”
We go check out the bell system anyways. The owner pantomimes that a flood came through and snapped a lot of the vines keeping the contraption together. He’s been trying to fix it. He goes to one of the little waterfalls and flips over a piece of metal. This starts getting hit by the rushing water down the rocks and in turn that pulls on vines attached to the metal. The vines run up to some rocks, also bound in the vines, and it pulls the rock back which then sways forward again to hit another suspended rock and forms a repeating bell sound. It’s quite ingenious. Ding Ding Ding Ding in quick succession (my detective’s perfect pitch tells me the note is an A).
Only the one ‘bell’ is ringing though. We walk back along the river and see that there are a number of these bells set up but unfortunately the vines attaching them are snapped. I can imagine it would be a beautiful cacophony of notes if it were all in motion though.
“Here, pull on that vine”, I grab the vine and pull. The stones hit and a different note rings out. Rich gets a video of me pulling the vine to work the contraption. To everyone’s amazement I bust out the entire intro to YYZ.
We walk around snapping pictures of the place, it’s just stunning and unique. The thatched huts scattered around the diverging river in the jungle. What a spot. We get some beers from the owner and enjoy it.
He then takes us under his main hut and shows how he uses the river to run through a car’s alternator, creating a trickle charger of sorts, which powers the lights around the place. Ok this guy is actually a genius.
And in one of the rooms there are pictures of him in uniform and standing with ranking offices to the revolutionary army. Who is this guy? We’ll have to ask Rich at some point.
Under the main building we notice a little cage with a critter in it. Upon closer inspection it looks to be a civet. We try to figure out what it’s there for but something is lost in translation and we never really get a good answer.
We hang for a bit and then make for the exit. Each of us chips in some Dong for the old genius in support of the amazing thing he’s done here. He’s very gracious and comes around to shake each of our hands.
Back to the cab and our cabbie is sleeping in the front seat. Pretty incredible that you can just rent a driver off the street at the train station for an entire day.
We start making our way back to Nha Trang. Stop off at a place by the river for some lunch. All of this and it’s just after noon. I order some pho and it rocks. We chill on the patio and continue to shoot the shit with Rich and Paul. We’re having a great time just chatting with these guys the whole time. Fun, funny, worldly, clever, super fucking interesting.. what more could you ask for?
Paul really wants us to have a night out in Nha Trang. Says it’s super fun at the Sailing Club and some rooftop bar. He’s warning us of lady boy pick pockets that just come up to you on scooters and then hug you. Next thing you know your wallet is gone. “Yeah, don’t bring anything with you but cash. Leave your phone in the room. And definitely your passport.”
It sounds like a blast having a night out here but it’s a tough sell on a couple guys who just drank for literally 2 days straight. We were more feeling a chill time.
“Oh we could call Anne. She’d take you around”, “Oh I hadn’t thought of that, that’s a great idea.” And Rich is calling Paul’s wife and trying to set up a night out with her. Thankfully for our livers there was no answer. (On the way back Paul clarified that she’s not a working girl as we had all assumed but she facilitated nights out for crews and could find us some girls to party with.)
Just before wrapping up lunch Paul has a sentimental moment, “Well boys, I’ve had a great day chatting with you. Don’t get many English speakers up here. Great company. Good travelers are few and far between. It’s been really enjoyable, I must say. Thanks for having me along.”
We reciprocate the sentiment. It has been great hanging with these two, getting the lay of the land, sort of speak, learning about the culture here and seeing the countryside and how people live. It’s definitely been a major bonus to get out of white guy tourist trap zone for a while. Way to easy to get sucked in to that stuff and have that feeling like you’re not really seeing the place properly. We describe as much to them and thank them both in earnest.
Shortly after we dropped Paul back off at the mansion. We get the abridged version of his appreciation, a smile and a wave and Paul was off.