Nha Trang – To get that feeling again

Sorry for the delay in posting this, it’s long overdue. By the time I reached the beach resort city in the south called Nha Trang, my trip had changed quite a bit. I’d seen much of the country already and I suddenly had a big non-travel writing project to work on that would pay quite a bit more than my daily expenses, so I decided to hunker down in Nha Trang to do it in a comfortable place.

I ended up spending exactly six weeks in Nha Trang, nearly completing the project, and otherwise living almost like a local. I had the nicest room in a small hotel about half a mile from the main tourist district, and it cost a whopping $9 per night.

One of the key lessons I learned, which I carried over from my stay in Hoi An, is that staying outside the main tourist zone, even by a bit, can save money and also preserve one’s sanity. As I’ve mentioned before, the roaming merchants in Vietnam are similar to most other parts of the developing world in that they are fearless and relentless.

If you are staying in the heart of the backpacker district in any major tourism city in Vietnam you’ll be approached or pitched at least 4 or 5 times on every block. Often this will be xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers who seem to beg for your business and then will try to rip you off by quoting you 5 times the normal price for the trip.

Since I was staying in a district a bit north of the main backpacker district in Nha Trang, I went days at a time without being hassled, and it was really nice. I continue to wear ear buds while listening to my iPod nearly every second I’m outside, partly to drown out the traffic/honking and partly to be able to tune out all the salespeople, but it’s even nicer when there aren’t any around.

Impressions of Nha Trang

I’d read that Nha Trang is Vietnam’s premiere beach resort city, which was one reason I wasn’t too thrilled about going in the first place, but I wanted to check it out and it’s right on the main train line. When you spend months in the tropics you’re usually trying to hide from the bright sun, so sitting on a beach in the sun isn’t all that appealing.

Anyway, the city was pretty much what I expected, both good and bad. The quality of the food was a noticeable step down from Hoi An and Hue, but in exchange there was a much greater variety of Western dishes on offer. The whole city, or at least the main backpacker area, seems mainly aimed at catering to Australian budget tourists, since it’s incredibly cheap once you get there, and the weather is warm even when it’s winter in Oz. So it really feels like the city is set up as a “cheap beach holiday” place, which just happens to be in Vietnam.

The beach itself is quite nice, probably about 20 to 30 meters wide in most places and miles long, but again this reminds me that Huntington and Newport Beaches, where I grew up, are far nicer and are easily among the best beaches in the world.

In Nha Trang you can rent a padded lounge chair in the sun (or under an umbrella) for $1.50 per day, and then have $1 beers delivered to you as you bake away. You can also get a massage without even getting up for well under $5 for an hour. If I had just come from a cold place then all of this would have been wonderful, but instead I’d been sweating and burning up for 6 weeks straight already, so the novelty didn’t add up to much.

Most of the restaurants did seem to have some Vietnamese dishes on their extensive menus, but usually they called themselves Italian, or Indian, or Hamburger restaurants, and even one was a Mexican restaurant, which turned out to be rather disappointing. The food was always decent, but rarely anything special like up north. I had quite a good and filling sushi meal at an outdoor café for $5, including 3 pints of beer.

Highlights of Nha Trang

Honestly, during the 6 weeks I was there I would barely leave the street my hotel was located on for 3 or 4 days per week. I’d often walk the two long blocks to the beach late in the afternoon to go for a walk after I finished work, but that’s about it most days.

On two different occasions I rented a motorbike for $5 per day and it was wonderful, as it had been in Hoi An. I ended up having a flat tire when I returned the bike on the first time, and I felt a bit bad that when they fixed it this would be a hassle and also wipe out what I paid, but I later learned that it happens all the time, and they can patch them quickly for next to nothing, and even a new inner tube costs only $2 or so.

I learned this all when I got a flat tire early on in my second rental, riding through a street filled with rocks where locals don’t go. It’s a long story, but the bottom line is I paid to have it patched once and then replaced after the patch broke, and none of the people I dealt with spoke a word of English. It was a bit stressful and this time the second rental ended up costing more than $5 extra just to get on the road again, though in the long run it was easily worth it.

Monkey Island

The main highlight was driving down to where you catch the ferry for Monkey Island, which is about 10 miles north of Nha Trang. I wrote about it for my other website (on the link just above) so I’ll only briefly sum it up here. It’s a private island that features a nice beach area and a weird dog and monkey circus-type show, and there are supposedly over 1,000 monkeys living freely on the island.

I’ve been to other monkey areas before and this one was a bit different. Most of the day there are no tourists there at all feeding the monkeys so I was there alone with the tribe. A guy I met earlier at a café told me you can give them beer and they’ll get a bit drunk, and to be honest this was my main goal of going. The woman running the little concession stand near the monkeys assured me that they do like beer, and in fact they like everything that humans like.

The first time I went the “king” monkey wouldn’t let anyone else near the food or the beer cans, and he wanted the beer but hadn’t mastered the use of cans. He couldn’t get a drink properly so he ended up pouring it out on the rocks, only getting a few drops when he tried to slurp it up from there. The second time I went back I poured some beer into an empty and clear water bottle, but none of them could figure that out well either.

They aren’t dumb though. On my first visit one of them jumped on me in a surprise attack and he ended up unzipping both zippers on my backpack in far less time that it’s ever taken me, but his reward was an empty cookie bag that he’d seen me put in there before so the joke was on him. I was worried they’d take my camera or something and hold it hostage, but luckily that never happened. On my second trip one of them snuck up behind me and swiped an unopened cookie bag out of my hand while I wasn’t paying attention. He then took the whole thing and climbed up to the top of a nearby palm tree while a couple of attendants fired rocks at him with slingshots. Fortunately that lesson only cost me 75 cents in cookies.

Monkey Island itself was pretty cool, but honestly the scenery on the empty road that goes there was amazing, as was the scenery in the fertile valley just north of the ferry landing. Both times I rented the motorbike I mostly just cruised around soaking in the scenery. On the busy roads it can be hectic since huge trucks are passing very regularly, with oncoming trucks often using the entire oncoming travel lane, so motorbikes have to ride in the “bike lane” sort of thing to the far right. Still, it was fabulous.

The Seated Buddha

As far as I could tell there are only two historic tourist sites in Nha Trang, and one of them is a Seated Buddha on a hill near the train station. I walked over there with low expectations, and those expectations were met. One problem with a long trip like this is the sites tend to repeat from one city to the next, so it’s hard to get excited about the prospect of seeing the 4th largest Buddha I’ve come across in the last week.

Anyway, I had plenty of time so I headed over there, and I was met out front by a group of students who claimed they were orphans who lived at the adjacent school as well. Two of them, each about 10 years old, decided to be my volunteer guides, and they began telling me about the orphanage. I told them that it sounded much nicer than where I grew up, since I knew they would soon be asking me for money, but it didn’t phase them a bit.

They explained a few things in surprisingly good English and then guided me halfway up the long staircase to a new Reclining Buddha, which is made of concrete to resemble the famous golden one in Bangkok that I’d seen 5 years before. I think they could sense that I wasn’t a softie with an open wallet, so they cut things short and gave me the pitch how their orphanage and school only operate on donations, with their hands out, of course. They assured me that they had to scurry back to a class right away.

I appreciated the information so far, so I gave them 10,000 dong, which is about 50 cents and quite a bit of money in this country, but they seemed almost offended by my meager offering. I guess the orphanage angle is good for at least 20,000 or 50,000 out of many tourists, but I figured they were lucky to get anything from me, and I was tempted to snatch it back based on their reaction.

I then headed alone up the rest of the steps to the Seated Buddha, and it looked just like other Seated Buddhas I’ve seen seen. The best part was the almost 360 degree views of the city, so I took quite a few photos from up there before I headed down again.

Halfway down the stairs there was a woman selling drinks and some souvenirs right next to the steps. I bought an enormous coconut that she carved up so I could drink the bland water inside. Unexplainably, she was also selling sombreros, which I haven’t seen before or since here in Vietnam.

Speaking of these mobile merchants, it’s one of the many things I love about this country. In spite of this being a nominally “communist” country, it’s more like there are no permits or regulations or rules of any kind. From what I hear it’s just a matter of a regular bribe to the local police and you can do anything you want. The upshot of this is you can walk no more than 100 feet in most areas and you’ll find someone selling cold water, sodas, beers, snacks, and sometimes even vodka. A cold beer usually costs around 75 cents whether it’s in a nice restaurant or from an old woman on the sidewalk out in front of the restaurant.

When I got all the way down I wasn’t at all surprised to find those same two kids who guided me working on some other tourists who’d shown up. They lied about having to go to class, the little bastards. I’m sure they make way more money doing that than taxi drivers do in a day.

The Cham towers

Those same people who built the My Son ruins that I saw near Hoi An also left some structures behind in Nha Trang. I decided to walk over to them before I knew I would later rent motorbikes, and there was some lovely scenery, and more lessons learned about Vietnam.

It was about 3 miles each way, and even though the weather was hot, I was in the mood for the walk. The real problem is that the sidewalks in this country are treated like something their grandparents once needed, but which are now crumbling and/or parking lots for motorbikes.

Even after four months in Vietnam I still can’t get used to it. The locals never walk anywhere. With the exception of a few older women carrying vegetables around on those scale-style basket things, the only people walking around are tourists. And since the sidewalks are crumbling and/or filled with parked motorbikes, you have to weave out into traffic maybe half the time. All of this makes a 3-mile walk feel like a 20-mile death march.

Nevertheless, I made it and it turned out that these Cham towers are at least as nice as the ones in My Son, and way easier to reach too. They were also larger so even if tourists were leaning against them you could still get a good photo. It also rained like crazy for part of the time I was there, but fortunately there was some shelter available, so the timing actually worked out fine since both long walks were rain-free.

The expat community

The only other somewhat interesting thing I came across was a very pleasant and small community of expats, mostly Brits, who seem to live in Nha Trang for 8 or 10 months per year, if not permanently. There are two bars, both called Guava, which are both owned and run by two Canadians from Vancouver. Since I was there for so long I actually became friends with many of the regulars and I am still tempted to go back at some point.

It’s a cheap and pleasant town with a nice beach so there is a lot to like as long as you don’t rely on the local economy to earn a living. You can rent a nice, furnished apartment there for around $400 per month, including broadband internet and other amenities. If things in Thailand get crazier then I might head back to Nha Trang for a couple months, or even just to break things up.

One small motivation for returning is that I have a bottle of Absolut vodka that literally has my name on it. The last Sunday I was there one of the Guava bars was holding a big BBQ to celebrate the opening of a local skateboard shop, and among the activities was a hot dog eating contest. When I first heard about it I predicted I would win, but later I wasn’t even sure I wanted to enter. As the huge American tourist I felt like the person written into the movie that you are meant to root against.

The BBQ itself was crowded and a lot of fun. I purposely hadn’t eaten anything the whole day, so I was a bit unhappy that the contest wasn’t until around 5pm, near the end of the day. I was still unsure I would even enter the thing, but next thing you know I heard Quinn (one of the owners) booming over the loud speaker that the contest wouldn’t start “until Roger was seated with the others.” So I made my way through the assembled audience toward the last empty seat at the table for 7 in the center of the main area. When I was getting close Quinn announced that I was “Roger, the ringer, from California.” Later on he told me he was pretty sure that a local guy was going to beat me, so I think I was meant to be the villain, but I sat down anyway.

Each contestant had 6 hot dogs of dubious quality and oversize buns in front of us. We had five minutes to eat as many as possible, and the one who ate the most would get the bottle of Absolut, which is like a $30 value even in Vietnam. I was introduced to the only local competitor, a guy named Nguyen, who was an average sized Vietnamese guy who evidently had won this exact contest every time they’d held it before. The other 5 competitors were a mix of expats and tourists, with only one of them being a large man.

I was hungry but I’d never practiced this before. The countdown was on and we started. The hot dogs actually went down really easily, but (as they say on the July 4th show) the buns are a bitch. Fortunately they gave us each a big glass of water, and I kept drinking a gulp between each bite, as this is the only way of getting the bun down quickly.

With less than a minute to go I was starting number five, and I looked over at Nguyen who was sitting next to me. He was eating as fast as he could, but he was also staring at me with eyes wide open as if he’d never seen anything like it before. Only later was I told that this was his first defeat, so I guess that’s what he was thinking about. I finished five and a half dogs, while he didn’t even finish his fifth one in time. So I won my first and probably only competitive eating competition.

Nguyen and everyone else were great about all of it, and it was a lot of fun, but I was leaving town soon so I left the bottle of vodka behind, and perhaps the bigger bummer was that I was now too full to eat any of the excellent barbeque that they’d prepared. Quinn even said that I could eat free BBQ as the contest winner, and I definitely could have eaten some, but I probably would have regretted it later.

Still, I am looking forward to coming back to Nha Trang at some point, and hopefully my bottle will still be there waiting for me.

2 Responses to Nha Trang – To get that feeling again
  1. […] Nha Trang, travelers who started in Hanoi and are going west have three main choices. You can continue on the […]

  2. Laurens
    March 17, 2012 | 7:19 pm

    Glad I found your blog… Leaving Australia on the 29th to spend 2 months in Vietnam with our first stop in Nha Trang… We are going to Lanterns Restaurant which supports local orphanages and trains orphans.. They are holding a big Shindig on April 1 with a very special event….
    I have not been in Vietnam since early 1969 and would love to explore the country including Hanoi…

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