Nha Trang, some beach time


This'll be great, I thought. The bus fare will serve as my hotel bill for the night, and I can sleep all the way to the beach.

Nice theory, but it didn't work out in practice. My night on a "sleeper" bus turned out to be anything but. To my recollection, I didn't sleep a wink, and I arrived exhausted in Nha Trang at 5am, in no shape for anything but sleep.

Nha Trang is a picturesque beach resort city about 440km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. I'd decided to spend a few days there, partly to escape the heat of HCMC, partly to work on my tan, but also because many people have had such good things to say about it. So it seemed like a good place to spend some time in Viet Nam, post-Reunification Day.

(Nha trang is pronounced something like "ni jang," though I can't say for sure because I've yet to hear two Vietnamese people pronounce it the same way. In general "nh" at the beginning of a word is pronounced "ny," and "tr" like the "j" in "jello." Vietnamese vowels often don't come out the way they're spelled.)

HCMC to Nha Trang is a fair distance—440km—but I didn't want to spring for plane fare. The overnight bus, I thought, sounded like a good way to get a fair distance without spending waking hours doing it. But as it turned out, I've never been so bored—not only was I awake for the whole trip, but I didn't get to see any of the countryside, either. The seats were comfortable enough—they were like small hospital beds—but only if you're asleep. When awake, they're torture.

Going anywhere on Viet Nam's roads takes a lot longer than we're used to. Large buses are the fastest vehicles on the road (which creates obvious safety problems), but even they never reach 100km/hr. If you're doing 60, you're lucky, and it won't last long.

The guy below me to the left was obviously a pro. He was asleep as soon as the bus started moving, and didn't wake up till we pulled in to Nha Trang over 10 hours later.

Once I got there, though, all was forgiven. I was met at the bus station by a motorcycle taxi guy who'd been waiting for me since 4:30am, and he took me to my hotel, where an employee met me and set me up with a room. (Unusual in itself, as check-in times at hotels is usually not before noon. But Nha Trang's a special case—many tourists arrive in the wee hours on overnight buses, so I guess early check-in has to be part of the business model.)

After a brief nap (which didn't involve much sleep—still pretty wired!), I went downstairs, rented a motorcycle, and it was off to the beach.

Which marked the start of a fairly indolent three days in a beach resort, much of which is not weblog fodder because of its very nature. Coffee, beach, naps, food, beer, pool, ahhhhh...

It is a beautiful place, though it's clear the authorities there and Big Money are on the road to ruining it, making it into a slightly kitschy playground for the rich. The beaches are wonderful, and, as it turned out, you can get away from the tourist area to beaches where there are more locals than tourists (though those beaches are, if anything, more crowded).

Some highlights:

  • Found a pretty nifty seafood restaurant in the centre of town that appeared to be popular with better-off locals, and some, but not an overwhelming number of, my fellow tourists. Food was great, and the gal at the next table who was throwing her spent crab-shells on the floor around her was pretty entertaining as well.

  • Went to a beach south of the tourist area at 6:30am to try to get some early light for photos. Astonishingly, the beach was already full of Vietnamese, playing volleyball, doing tai chi, parking their motorcycles on the boardwalk, etc. I wonder when they ever sleep! (And, as it turned out, the light was already pretty harsh at 6:30am, the sun having already risen for over a half-hour, but that didn't inspire me to try for earlier, shamefully.)

  • The same morning, pilots of the Vietnamese Air Force were doing landing-taking-off exercises at the nearby air base, which involved them flying single-wing, propeller-driven airplanes very close to the beach, then taking back off and flying over the hotels and out over the bay. Quite entertaining.

  • Riding around on the motorcycle, I decided to have lunch on one of the street cafes that are everywhere in SE Asia. Great confusion ensued, as I tried to get some food, but the proprietor thought I was trying to buy some crabs to take home. Out of sheer, unadulterated luck, I managed to move a couple of meters over to a different area of the establishment, which looked in many ways exactly the same as the other part, but there was a document on one of the tables that said "menu." Once the proprietor understood I wanted to be served lunch, the experience was saved for both of us. Had some delicious clams, and didn't get sick.

  • Demonstrating how bereft of ideas I was, I signed up for a tour of the city. One of the stops was the National Oceanographic Institute, where they keep some pretty impressive imprisoned ocean wildlife. A 100-year-old sea turtle was the saddest, apparently maniacally searching for the way out of her tank (though perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing).

  • Saw some other cool stuff on the city tour, including the Cham Towers temple and the Long Son Pagoda (see photo gallery).

  • Then, having gawped from the beach at the gondola system that runs from the mainland out to Hon Tre island, where a private consortium runs Vinpearlland, an amusement-park/shopping mall/waterpark development, I arranged to ride it. Cool ride, but once you got out there, the amusement park was a bit on the sad side, lacking punters, even though the rides were free for those who'd managed to make the trip. Same with the shopping mall, which was beautiful—little shops, big tropical trees, nice designs—but which didn't sell anything you couldn't get for half as much on the mainland. The liveliest area was the waterpark, which was alive with (rich) folks having a good time. Was sorry I hadn't brought my swimsuit, but I'd had no idea what was out there till I was out there.

My experience on the overnight bus to Nha Trang convinced me I didn't want to repeat it when returning to Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately the day bus back, at least the one arranged for my by the folks at my hotel, was ... the night bus on its return trip. Only the seats on this one weren't even adjustable. And it was the worst bus ever, stopping often, picking up teams of guys on their ways to one thing or another and stopping again for them to disembark, making a side trip to Mui Ne, another beach resort several dozen kilometers off the Highway 1, not stopping anywhere we could get some lunch till after 2pm (after starting at around 8am), not stopping at the lunch place long enough for everyone to get something, and even stopping for repairs at one point.

The return trip took 12.5 hours—2 hours longer than the very painful ride to Nha Trang. And in seats that were inherently uncomfortable—I was awake several times the following night with a sore back.

Wouldn't do it again.


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