Thursday, April 29, 2004

Nha Trang and Hoi An

It has been rather quiet the last few days. I spent most of them on the beach, and, oh yeah, recovering my passport from a bout of extreme self-stupidity.

There was an election a few days ago. If anyone voted I didn’t notice.

I left Saigon for the beaches of Nha Trang. The train ride was uneventful, except for the ancient Vietnamese lady I shared a train cabin with smacking at my hands over dinner. Apparently I have terrible table manners.

Nha Trang is beautiful. Turquoise water, white sand to the horizons, and NO ONE on the beach. It is considered horribly ugly for Vietnamese to get a tan so they are nowhere near the beach. And even the girls selling things are wrapped up like mummies. So, except for some tubby Germans in thongs and whiter than white Englishmen, the beach was largely deserted.

The next day I went to the spa, or, to be exact, the Thap Ba Hot Spring Center. I was swayed by the very convincing line in the brochure, which said, “Soaking in Mineral Mud is Very Interesting.” For $4 you get round trip transportation and a day at the spa. I went with this nutty Canadian couple. He was this big guy who did road construction when he wasn’t backpacking--funny as hell--and she seemed to keep him from hurting himself with pointy objects. We had been in the spa for all of 20 minutes, hadn’t even made it to the mud yet, before he appears with 3 beers. First, I hit the mineral mud. Soaked is probably a generous term for what I did. Wallowed would be less romantic but more accurate. Then on to the hot mineral pools. We stayed there until we were dizzy, which didn’t take too long when you are slugging beer at 10 am. Then we walked through the “Massage by High Pressure Spray.” It was pretty much how it sounds, a toned down version of mid-60s Alabama crowd control. Then into the hot mineral pools: a pair of gorgeous swimming pools, with water too hot and thick to swim in.

That night I left for points north.

Here is where I get stupid. In order to leave my bag at the hotel for the day, I had to leave my passport. I picked up the bag on the way to the train, but not the passport. And the clerk, who was staring at my passport as he gave me the bag, said nothing. I didn’t realize I didn’t have it until I arrived in Hoi An. But for a small fee and a couple days delay, they were happy to arrange to send it to me. Apparently this happens fairly often.

I poked around Hoi An for the day, cute little tourist trap with traditional Chinese architecture. And stupid expensive. I had some clothes made though by the “world famous” tailors. I have to admit, they were pretty good. The seamstress sewed her own tags into the clothes for god’s sake. The touts were unbelievably aggressive. I actually hid out in the housewares section of the market for a while just to get some peace. You wouldn’t believe how cheap rice pots are! That night I took a cooking class. It was a little expensive and turned out to be more a demonstration than actual cooking, but I achieved my goal. I can now make a spring roll. Ever seen a white girl of indeterminate European origin attempt to roll something in rice paper and deep fry it? Here’s a tip for all the kids at home: Stand Back.

Next day I hit the beach. In Hoi An you have a choice of two beaches, China Beach, where the US Marines landed in 1965, or the “boat people” beach, where, for 10 years, refugees took off heading for the Philippines. I chose “Boat People.” It was a pleasant 5 km bike ride outside of town. It was quiet. I sat in the sun. Traded baseball insults with a couple of guys from Detroit. Flirted with a cute Irish boy. With emphasis on the boy part. He and I ended up going out for drinks that night. Wow (I thought) what a dumb rich kid you are. He loved to hear himself talk. His stories included things like the night he and his buddies were at Chris de Burghe’s (ßSpelling?) house when he was out of town, partying with his son; then, you know, they got really drunk and put on his scuba gear and jumped into the splash pool. And then there was this time when he was visiting his Dad who lives in Nice, and Dad had to buy him another motorcycle because he wrecked the first one trying to show off to some girls outside a club. The vast majority of these stories ended with something truly witty like, “and then we made him drink a bottle of our piss…” Like I said, cute—had I been five years younger and recently had a frontal lobe lobotomy. I decided not to sleep with him.

The following day, I finally got the passport and was ready to leave this god-forsaken rip off central. I go to the corner to eat yet another bowl of noodle soup (comprises roughly 75% of my diet) and wait for transport. While I am waiting and happily munching my ’Pho, I get into a nice chat with a moto driver. He offers to drive me the 30 km to the train station for the same price as the pickup truck, but he is faster and more comfortable. I agree. I am finishing my soup when the truck shows up. The helper jumps off and grabs my bag and throws it up top of the truck. I quickly pay for my soup and begin protesting. They conveniently don’t speak English and the moto driver gets involved. I am not really sure what was said, but the pick up diver jumps out of the truck and clocks the moto driver upside the head, who is 15 years older and cross-eyed. The two of them start tussling on the ground like a pair of schoolboys. I am not really sure what to do. The soup lady intervenes by throwing me physically into the truck and scolding the two men. And off I go in the truck. I guess in the end it was for the best though. Who knows what fate would have befallen me on the back of a moto with a cross-eyed driver that had recently suffered some head trauma?

After a quick stop at the Cham Museum, which houses the art of the Cham people that we didn’t blow to bits in the late ‘60s, I got on my train to Hanoi. Which is where I am now. Today is Reunification Day and tomorrow is May Day, so it should be a rip roaring time up here.

Confidential to EG : I finally saw a creature of note. I was hanging out at the old Chinese drinking house night before last and there was this HUGE spider chilling in the ladies room. He was smaller and thinner than those monster porte-a-scorpions in Burkina, and without those big digging legs, but he was big and had this mid-80 GAP stripey pattern. Layed out, he would have been a bit bigger than the palm of your hand. I’ll be on the lookout for anything else. (Physical descriptions like this are really cool. You might think of adding a bit more visual images throughout. This is “literary non-fiction” after all so you can add lots of stuff if you want, though just a little might be appropriate. For example, not just “moto” but “green and black moto.” Or, maybe not.).

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