Sunday, January 15, 2006

NHA TRANG to HANOI: One too many massages, and a thousand miles behind...

I arrived in Nha Trang after a fairly uneventful flight from HCM and was immediately being outrageously ripped off by a taxi driver. At least, I thought I was. He wanted 170,000VND (about $17) to drive me into town, which according to my Rough Guide was about 250m away from the airport. Being a street-smart traveller I guffawed in his face and showed him the map in the book, making sure he understood not to mess with me BECAUSE I KNEW NHA TRANG, BUDDY. As it turns out, I didn't know Nha Trang and neither, it seemed, did my Rough Guide, which even though is only 2 years old was already out of date. He guffawed in MY face and said "No no... is OLD airport. This NEW airport. 35km to Nha Trang."


So I hopped on a minibus instead, which cost me the princely sum of $3.50 and turned out to be a taxi anyway as no one else got on and they drove me straight to my chosen hotel on Biet Thu Street, Nha Trang's backpacker strip. Actually, they drove me to the place next door, assuring me it was much better. Sigh. As I pulled up I tried to explain to their enthusiastic doorman that I actually wanted to go NEXT DOOR but he didn't seem to hear me as he lugged my heavy bag up the stairs to reception. Souble sigh. So I was forced to look at a room, which was actually quite good for $12 - air con, TV, fridge, swimming pool AND A BATH! I was most excited. But all in all the place felt a bit sterile and soulless (it was quite a new place) so I said "Maybe later" and trudged next door instead, which was where I had wanted to go all along.

The Perfume Grass Hotel thankfully didn't have the perfume of grass wafting through it (although with all the hippies hanging around it might as well have) and was really quite groovy. I got a room for $9 - no air con or bath, but the weather was cool enough to get by with just a fan, and they had free internet in the looby. Plus the staff were so friendly and the room was so cute that I took it.

Completely unrelated photo, but look how good this Pho is!

I spent my first night just wandering around. Took a walk along the famed beach, which actually was disappointingly crap - brown, pebbly sand, choppy water and rubbish everywhere (more plastic bags on the sand than people at that stage of the day). Sat down on the esplanade, the coconut palm-lined Tran Phu, and watched the world for a while.

It appears the Vietnamese are obssessed with knowing their height and weight at all stages of the day. Or perhaps they're just curious about how fat us Westerners really are. I say this because everywhere you go there are men and women pushing around these bizarre contraptions that look like bad Dr Who props - a sort of electronic shower head on a pole with wheels. You stand on the base and a laser reads your height through the shower head, and it's displayed along with your weight on an electronic screen on the side. I can't imagine someone like me being able to complete this process without a crowd of Vietnamese onlookers standing around waiting for the results. Yeah, like I need the whole of Vietnam to know how fat I am.

Not surprisingly these guys don't get much trade from the tourists, and you see them standing on corners, completely baffled as to why they're not getting any business. In a country where putting on weight is seen as a good thing, you canperhaps understand where they're coming from. It's just that we do't join them intheir enthusiasm.

Although it could be more to do with the fact that the machine breaks into an electronic version of Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' every 30 seconds. The theme from Titanic? What are they trying to say?

The other trade that doesn't do so well with the tourists are the street vendors who sell dried flattened squid. They walk around with them hanging up, pinned to wires. At first i thought you were meant to use them in soups or stews, to reconstitute them. Then i noticed the squuezy bottles of chilli sauce in the vendors' baskets, and realised you're just supposed to eat it as is. They hang around outside the backpacker bars at night - presumably hoping to cash in on drunken young men in displays of bravado ("Wey hey, let's get a squid Wozza!") but everyone typically ignores them. The Vietnamese alternative to a late-night yiros, I guess.

Anyway, back to Nha Trang. After a night of doing not very much except getting about five massages at various venues around Biet Thu, I spent my first proper day at the Thap Ba hot springs centre. I agreed, as their promotional poster suggested, that "soaking in hot mineral mud is very interesting", so paid about $20 for the privilege. It was well worth it, and then some. I put my stuff in a locker and was shown to a wooden tub under an umbrella overlooking a beautiful tree-lined lake. How's the serenity? The attendant turned a tap and a stream of warm mud flowed into the tub, looking like Willy Wonka's chocolate river. I hopped in and the attendant took a half coconut shell on a stick and ladled mud over my head, and then I sat there, soaking, for about 20 minutes. The mud was very thin and a little sticky, with a very fine grittiness to it. It was fantastic just sitting there, in mud, with such a pretty view from the top of the hill.

I think it's time to change the water...

After washing off in a shower, I was directed to a stone wall that I had to stand in front of. I didn't quite know why, until someone somewhere flicked a switch and water starting jetting out of tiny holes all over it. It was supposed to be a hydro massage, but felt more like I was standing in a broken, cold shower mounted too low on the wall. Coupled with the uncomfortable bed of pebbles I had to stand on while this was happening, I reckon the VC could have successfully used this as a torture device for GIs during the war.

The hot baths were a welcome relief from the jet-wall, and as the friendly sign assured me "Time to take here is endless". Cool. So I splashed about a bit before heading on down to the swimming pool area, surrounded by lounge chairs and bamboo huts. I was pleasantly surprised to find the pool was also heated - 38 degrees to be precise. I don't know why I thought the hot springs would have a cold swimming pool. I lolled about in the pool for a bit, then sat under the heated waterfall for a bit, then toddled off to have a massage, in which I think the masseuse walked on my back. I'm not quite sure, but at one stage she did yank my neck so violently that I heard a ripple of cracks and wondered if I might now enjoy life as a quadraplegic. Fortunately not.

At the end of the massage she handed me a piece of paper that had various boxes on it with 'Good', 'Very Good', 'Bad', 'Excellence' written next to them, which I gathered I had to tick according to her performance. Even though it was one of the most painful massages I've ever had, I ticked 'Excellence' so she wouldn't be taken out the back and shot by the boss. Then she pointed to a dotted line next to which was written 'Tip'.

I had already paid for the service (an extortionate 60,000VND) so I felt a bit annoyed, but also noticed that the dotted line was rather long - did she want money, or advice? I was going to write "Next time don't do it so hard" but instead asked her "Money?"

"Yes, money," she said, as if I was completely stupid (which is probably fair enough - why would they want my advice on how to massage?)

So I wrote 20,000VND, which was way too much, and wondered when I'd have to pay it. As it turned out, never, because I wandered out without anyone so much as looking at me funny. That's the kind of tipping system I like.

I was directed into a 'steam bath', which was one of the most harrowing three minutes of my life (probably another VC torture device turned into a tourist attraction). A tiny room is pumped full of lemon-scented steam so much so that you can't see your hand in front of your face. Or the man sitting across from me, as it turned out.

"Hello!" he said cheerily.
"Hello," I said, not knowing what else to say to a man in a steam bath that wasn't pornographic.

He seemed very relaxed - more so than me, as I could hardly breathe and was sweating buckets. As my eyes adjusted to the swirling gusts of steam, I noticed that this man was actually VERY relaxed, as he had taken off his pants and was sitting there completely naked.

"Lemon leaves, very nice," he said.
"Yes," I said, wondering if this steam bath WAS actually going to turn pornographic.

Fortunately he put his shorts back on and left, and I left soon after, fearing I might die of suffocation and naked man exposure.

After leaving Thap Ba I went to the Cham Towers - massive stone structures built hundreds of years ago (or maybe it's thousands?) but they weren't all that exciting. Took a few photos, ignored the postcard sellers, and then went to the big white Buddha, which is all the name promised it would be.

Guess which Nha Trang attraction this is

Unlike the Cham towers, the Buddha was free to enter. Free, that is, if you discount the sad-faced old women trying to sell you postcards at every step of the way. Ignoring them all I pressed on up the stairs, until a young girl with a laminated nametag approached me.

"It's ok, I won't bother you, I live here with the monks and go to school. I can show you around," she said.

I should have known the only free lunch you get in Vietnam is included in your hotel room, but her nametag was LAMINATED. She must be ok.

After answering various questions about Australia (I was impressed she had heard of Adelaide) I was joined by another boy, also with a nametag, who gave me the same speech.

"It's ok, I won't bother you, I live here..." etc.

Eventually at the top of the hill, just when I thought things were going so well, out came the postcards. Those FUCKING postcards are everywhere in Nha Trang, they're even less easily escapable than The Quiet American in HCM.

"You buy postcards, help our school, we have no money," the boy said.
"You buy postcards, help our school, we have no money," the girl said.

How much?

"You buy two set, 200,000VND."

WHAT THE? That's about $20. You've got to be fucking kidding me. Do they teach you maths at this school? I don't know anywhere in the world where it's acceptable fo pay $20 for postcards.

"It's for our school, we no have money," he said.

I tried to tell them that after $20 for postcards I too would have no money, but they didn't accept this and just kept looking at me with sad faces and making me feel guilty.

I didn't even want any damn postcards, but eventually I gave them 50,000 ($5) just to piss off, and they gave me one set which, as it turned out, is pretty crap. Sigh. Sometimes I think I'm just too nice.

I returned to Biet Thu and began looking around for a place to eat. I settled on a seafood restaurant with long boats of ice and fresh prawns, lobster, crab and fish lying on them - it looked marvellous. it was marvellous actually, despite the fact that the waiters seemed to have immense trouble working out my order.

"A pineapple shake, Vietnamese pancake, some garlic bread and a prawn hot pot, please," I said, carefully pointing out everything on the menu.

Two minutes later.

"You want garlic bread?"

Three minutes later, another girl arrives.

"Vietnamese pancake?"

A minute later, a different girl still comes over.

"Garlic bread?"
"Haven't we been through this before?"

Eventually they brought my food over, but as they put it down they looked rather cautious, as if they still might not have it right. They didn't - I got a fish hot pot instead of a prawn one.

As I waited for the replacement, a street kid comes up to my table. "You want buy postcard?"

GOD NO, NOT MORE POSTCARDS. I couldn't handle it.

"No, I don't want any, go away."
"Maybe later?"

With a "I wait you, you finish, I come back" he walked away and I mistakenly thought I had gotten rid of him for good. Not a chance. As soon as I finished my meal he was back.

"You buy postcard now."
"No I don't want any."
"You said later," he complained.
"No, YOU said later, I said MAYBE."

Jesus, this kid was getting aggro. I began to get a little worried.

"I said maybe, and now I don't want any, so go away."
"You a LIAR! You no want to be liar, you buy postcard."
"I don't care if you think I'm a liar, I'm not buying any bloody postcards, so bugger off."

He did bugger off, but not before standing out the front of the restaurant glaring at me for 10 minutes, followed by a sulky walk down the street, yelling out "LIAR! LIAR! LIAAARRRRRRR!" as he did so.

Welcome to Nha Trang.

After this exciting day of postcards and annoying kids, I decided to get out of town for a bit and took a boat tour to the neighbouring islands for some snorkelling and R&R. The water was beautiful and warm, but there wasn't much to see in the way of snorkelling - dead coral and a few fish - so I figured time was better spent sunning myself on the boat and going for the occasional dip.

The tour group was a real mixed bunch of old and young, Vietnamese and Westerners. I think Nha Trang is a popular holiday spot for locals, and there were quite a few on the boat, so every notice by the tour guide had to be given in both languages, which took forever. It was like one of those comedy sketches:

"Fernn munng hoy thap hunng buy iot gerr fraam mung mung hut herrg yun bert hung yio poy murng phoo hurry nunng merrhh."


Typically enough, there was a bunch of young Australian girls on the boat (18 year old North Shore princesses, I think) who were so skinny that even if they all huddled together in a group could still do a passable impression of a toothpick. they spent the whole trip sun bathing and complaining about their "fat rolls". I wanted to throw them overboard but I knew they wouldn't sink, so there was no point.

Well HELLO there, you lovely...oh wait, it's me.

Got chatty with a German guy called Thomas, and a Canadian couple from Korea called Aaron and Michelle, who were very funny. Michelle and I bonded by bitching about the thin Australian girls - go sisterhood!

We visited a few more islands before the tour guide and his friends started setting up instruments so they could "entertain" us with their band. I have never seen a dodgier drumkit in my life - it was covered in rust and looked positively pre war. Nevertheless, the drummer went through the motions of tuning it (at least, I think that's what he was doing) before they kicked off into a rendition of 'Yesterday'.

Yesterday, I found my drumkit in a dumpster

And actually, it wasn't that bad. Everyone was a little bit pissed and sun-happy, so we all started clapping along and singing, and before long it was a right little party. Finally they invited everyone to get on the table and dance, and they played 'Let's Twist Again' while we all bounced around on the table, trying not to smack our heads on the low roof. It was like a scene from one of those crazy 1960s beach movies. I kept looking around for Gidget and Moon Doggie.

After taking us to the final island (a COMPLETELY unremarkable fishing village with absolutely nothing to offer - even though Thomas' Lonely Planet said "not to be missed") we were taken back home. Me, Thomas, Michelle and Aaron agreed to meet up later where I had promised to meet Aussie Peter from Saigon.

The most exciting thing about the fishing village were their groovy saucer boats

We had dinner, then hit the Guava bar which for those back in Adelaide was a lot like the Lotus Lounge, very cool.

The Guava bar

And then after that I don't remember much... We went to the Sailing Club, a very swanky place on the beach with a heaving dancefloor and great cocktails. I remember having quite a few 'jam jar' rum cocktails - they actually serve it to you in a jam jar - and talking to some local guy who said he was from the moon., which went a little like this:

"I'm from the moon, where you from?"
"What you do?"
"I'm a journalist."
"Ahh you write about Vietnam?"
"You write what you like, ood or bad, I don't care - I'm from the moon."

He then insisted my father must be Vietnamese because I had dark hair, ignoring the fact that I have blue eyes and am almost 6 foot tall, and then danced off into the night. Strange people, these moon men.

When this place closed at 1am (PATHETIC or what?) we carried on to the Y Not? bar, of which I have very little memory, except for drinking something out of a coconut and staggering home at around 4am to wake up the doorman.

I woke the next day at around 11.45am with a STUNNING hangover, the likes of which I have never suffered before. Those fucking jam jars. Given that I had to leave the hotel at noon to catch a plane, I skipped a shower and spent a frantic 15 minutes throwing everything into my bag. I have since discovered I have lost several pairs of underwear, which is only to be expected. (I assume I lost them in this mad panic, but after those jam jars who the hell knows.)

Arrived at the airport looking like I had bird flu, or SARS, or possibly both, and then suffered a horrible flight to Hanoi. Our in flight lunch was the grimmest sandwich I have ever seen, served with warm water. I wanted to take a photo but my hangover prevented me from doing anything other than breathing, so I couldn't.

And so I arrived in Hanoi, looking and feeling like utter shit, and wishing I had somewhere to sleep, or throw up, or preferably both (but not in that order). I wanted to get a taxi. I SHOULD have gotten a taxi. It would have been expensive but it would have been worth it, given my state. Instead I agreed to hop on a minibus, which was empty. I thought I might be lucky enough to get the same minibus service I did in Nha Trang. I was wrong.

Sitting in the corner clutching my water bottle and hiding my bloodshot eyes behind my sunglasses, I was joined by an extremely chipper American couple who were way too enthusiastic for me to stand. I got out my book to make it clear I didn't want to talk and was happy when they didn't sit next to me. I later wished they had, when a Vietnamese woman hopped on and sat next to me instead, immediately getting out her mobile phone and sending text messages to, oh, EVERYONE IN HER ADDRESS BOOK.

Do you know how long it takes to write a text message in Vietnamese? Every letter has about six different accents on it, which I guess has to be selected from a menu inside the mobile phone. Thus I was subjected to "BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP" for almost the entire journey. I was on the verge of turning to her and saying "WHY DON'T YOU JUST FUCKING CALL THEM!" when she did something even more distracting - picking her nose. And I don't mean just doing the sly pick thatpeople do in cars at traffic lights, I mean a full-on nose-mining session. This woman was attacking her face with such enthusiasm I thought she might do herself an injury. This was followed by bouts of snorting, which in my delicate state was enough to make me want to vomit out the window. I have never been so grossed out in all my life.

And so the journey progressed: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP *snnoooororrrrrrrrt* BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP *snooorrrrrrrrrrt gag spit* BEEP BEEP BEEP....

Jesus H, get me out of here.


Alas, my ride was not to be a short one. The minibus driver attacked the city as if he had no idea where he was, driving around and around until even I began to recognise the places we had been before. What the HELL was this guy doing? Everyone seemed to have paid different prices for the same service (the Americans and I paid $3, a girl in the back paid $6, and two completely clueless French tourists paid 8 EUROS EACH!!), but it didn't seem to make any difference to the driver, who dropped people off at random, and not necessarily at their chosen destination.

Feeling decidedly queasy (those FUCKING jam jars) and getting ever closer to vomiting on the woman next to me, I glanced out the window and noticed we had passed my street.

"Hey, isn't that my street? Hang Hanh?" I said.
"Yes, yes, ok, you get out and walk back," said the helpful bus driver, who by this time had driven about three blocks from it.
"What the hell? I'm not walking, my bag's heavy and you're supposed to drop me off at my hotel," I said, abandoning all niceties in the face of my hangover.
"No, you get out please."
"It's so FAR and my bags are heavy!" I pleaded.
"Ohhh come on, not far, not far. You walk."

Yeah, like what is this? A minibus or something?

Pissed off, I took my bags and trudged off down the street towards Hang Hanh and my chosen hotel, the Win, where I had stayed last time I was here.

Feeling REALLY ill by this time, it was all i could do to suppress a hearty "FUCK OFF!" to all the smiling men on motorbikes who offered me rides, and fell through the door of the Win, demanding a room at any price. At $20, this is the most expensive place I've stayed in vietnam, but I didn't care. I climbed the awful six flights of stairs to my room and collapsed into bed, but not before a healthy spew in the bathroom. Fantastic.

After an hour's sleep I roused myself to go out to dinner (all i had eaten that day was a small tube of Pringles and the grim sandwich) and again, I couldn't be bothered finding anywhere cheap, or good. Anything would do at this point, as my hangover still hadn't gone away (it was 9pm at this point) and wherever I walked I felt like I was tottering on a boat deck.

Found a cafe on the edge of Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi's picturesque centrepiece, and ordered the worst Margarita pizza I've ever had (this time I didn't succeed in getting any basil) delivered with the slowest and worst service I've ever had. The restaurant was called The Little Kitchen, which may explain why it took about half an hour to get my dinner (perhaps it's so little they can only make one dish at a time) and I have no hesitation in not recommending the place to anyone ever.

I went back to the hotel and passed out watching American Chopper on the Discovery channel, and so passed my first horrible night in Hanoi.

Today I am still not feeling the best (those FUCKING JAM JARS) and plan to wander around aimlessly buying things at whim. Tomorrow I will take a tour to Halong Bay, staying overnight on the boat, and returning for one more night in Hanoi before leaving on the morning of the 19th to come home.

Let's hope things get a bit better in this town. Perhaps I'll get on the Berocca.


  1. my god woman. keep into consideration the attention span of some of your dear readers.

    this is like a fuking book!

  2. Yeah, but a GOOD fucking book.

  3. i'm sitting in a net cafe in hanoi (no doubt one you've used before as i found your site in the history list) and a man just paraded by a scale cranking the titanic theme. what a song... gotta love it. anyway, just wanted to say hey. your extensive blog puts mine to shame.

    paul recon

  4. king chow,

    You and Paul should meet up somewhere and get a pic together that would really entertain us!!!


  5. We've already established I think I was about 2 steps behind you throughout Vietnam, but - damnit - I'm going to write a comment on every post. Thus increasing your readership and making you lots of money when you publish.
    (You write better than me anyway - I'm a good writer, but most of Vietnam left me speechless!)
    So. Nha Trang eh? I recommend the Asia Paradise Hotel, which is not in any guidebooks as it is only 3 months old. The owner was a Vietnamese expat living in Australia, on a temporary visit to put his own personal style and wealth into his own hotel.

    When I say this hotel was new, it was sparkling new and very impressive. With a restaurant and swimming pool on the rooftop. And incredibly cheap for a 5-star, because it was 90% empty. In fact, it was so new, there was hammering and drilling in the room next door at 7am. I complained to the manager. The bleached-hair hawaiian-shirt owner looked on, apparently not wanting to get involved for some reason.
    When no discount was forthcoming, I regretfully left, choosing a hotel right next door with better prices and a bit of history.

    Nha Trang is the only place in Vietnam where I was offered drugs on the street - "you won marru whanna?" - which I took quite a while to comprehend before replying in the negative. This is a country where one of their own citizens was locked up for 3 years for writing an e-mail to Amnesty with his Yahoo account. I'm not gonna buy any drugs from a pushy guy on a motorbike.

    Also in Nha Trang I dined by candlelight in a reasonably nice restaurant. The menus were hard to read with such little light, and the cooks kept carrying all the electrical appliances next door to the adjoining hotel.
    Then someone found some fuse wire and the power came back on.
    I was very impressed that they didn't let a lack of electricity spoil a good night of trading.

  6. oh - and at the mud spa, you should have tried standing under the heated faux waterfall, usually monopolised by japanese men in speedos but able to me made available by standing with hands on hips.