(July 31st) Decided against the trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. Woke up late instead, packed, and took a taxi to the train station. Realised on the way there that we’d left our chargers in Nils’ apartment. While Lily waited on the train with our bags, I waited outside the train station for the Grab motorbike Nils ordered to turn up with them. It got there with 5 minutes to spare. I had to sprint back to the train, trying not to spill the coffees I’d bought while waiting.
Train journey to town near Mui Ne, then a taxi to get us to the hotel. Straight out again to the sand dunes. Sand surfing on plastic boards then the sunset. Photo obsessed girls taking endless shots of each other as the sun went down. The entire trip was full of people (including us) taking photos the whole time. The whole time. Everyone. Every single person on the dunes was taking selfies and landscapes. It would be tragic, if it wasn’t so beautiful.
Another taxi to a restaurant, to have a seafood hotpot and baby squid. The food was expensive, the restaurant large an empty, the kind of place that expensive tours would bring you to justify their high prices.
Then onto a bar, Joe’s Cafe. It was the farewell party for Lud, a Philippine who had been performing there for 9 years, but who was sick, going to die. His friends had come out to celebrate his life, crying and singing. Onto bed.
(August 1st) We woke early and went to the fishing village to watch the morning haul. The horizon was hidden by a fleet of colourful, small wooden boats. Between them and the shore were another fleet of circular tubs, propelled by guys swinging and twisting an oar side to side to create forward momentum. A strangely inefficient way of getting anywhere. The shore was probably the usual chaos found at fishing villages, but after the quiet peace of the previous evening on the dunes, it seemed extraordinarily tumultuous. The beach was packed with at least a hundred women sorting and stacking the gigantic haul their men had brought to land.
Baby and adult squid bursting through the gaps in the plastic baskets, fish of all sizes, an assortment of shellfish, including flailing crabs, shrimp and giant snails. Grandmas balanced wooden rods on their shoulders, sagging with the weight of a heavy basket full of fish on either end, walking them up the beach to waiting motorbikes ready to drive them off to market. The sand was covered with crunchy shells and tens of thousands of flies feeding on the fishy water that spilled out with each new catch.
After collecting a couple of shells that had survived the chaos, I went to the ocean to rinse my hands, and noticed the water was full of red droplets, either fish blood or oil. The craziness on shore had been going on for at least an hour or two by the time we turned up, and showed no signs of slowing down. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of fish taken by what might amount to just a few dozen fishermen. One lady was curving a long, thin fish into an already stuffed cooler box, bending it twice to fit it in. Among the multitude of regular fish, there were some treasures – a giant squid separated from the baby ones, a star fish accidentally caught up among the others.
We bought a sandwich (a banh mi, which is a Vietnamese and French mix of cuisines: a baguette bursting with sliced meats, bean sprouts, egg, local herbs and a spicy fish sauce that’s served with every dish here) for £0.30, a little worried buying street food in an area so full of flies that had been feeding on fish carcasses. We also bought a couple of Vietnamese coffees: strong, burnt coffee quelled by the thick sweetness of condensed milk and ice, to make a syrupy, intense mix.
After that, we got into our waiting taxi to the Fairy Stream. We’d been told the stream was a tiny thing that had carved out an impressive trench from the surrounding sandstone, which was cut into soft, jagged, multi coloured cliffs. It’s a stretch to call this the local Grand Canyon, as described in some guidebooks, but the comparison does help convey the look of the place, if not the feel. The earth in this entire region largely comes from the sandstone, weather beaten into red and white sand, with very few rocks, so you pay someone £0.17 to look after your shoes while you go for a walk along the softest of sandy riverbeds.
It was beautiful, somewhat less serene thanks to the two van loads of Chinese families on tour, but we put some distance between us and enjoyed the waterfall at the end. After, we climbed back into the taxi, back to the hotel, packed, caught a minivan to the bus station, then hopped on a sleeper bus with seats that were more like beds, watching the rice fields and wind farms and corrugated tin roofed shacks, farmers in conical straw hats spraying and planting, a mass of well irrigated greenery flanked by a spine of hills in the distance.
We arrived late that night at Nha Trang, walked to our hostel (more of a hotel), and dropped the bags, covered in sweat. Back out again, we found a pho place (a meat broth full of firm rice noodles, scraps of beef, the ever-present beansprouts, local herbs and leaves, flavoured with chilli and fish sauce), paid our £2, and walked to the beach. On the way, we stopped to buy a pricey lobster and crab (£8) from another street seller, grilled over coals in a small round metal pot, balanced on a shelf on the back of a motorcycle like the ones you get in Colombia. We’d decided to leave the hotel without phones, so no photos I’m afraid. We also picked up a kilo of pungent durian (£1).
After eating on a wall next to the beach, I took a dip, then we walked through the city’s lively, bright and electronic-music filled noise back to the hotel, passing through a night market along the way. Nha Trang is as if the touristy beaches of Santa Marta, the lavish resorts of Miami and the neon commercialism of Hong Kong had a baby, then shipped it for adoption by the Vietnamese. It’s slightly maddening and beautiful all at the same time. Home to rest.
(August 2nd) Our free hotel breakfast was a small baguette, a thin egg omelette, two slices of tomato and fruit. We missed the early bus to Bai Di beach, so we got a cab there for £7. The beach was already burning hot by 10 a.m., so we walked along the still damp sand nearest the sea to a shaded restaurant with good reviews (The Shack), just one in a row of shacks with hundreds of mostly empty deck chairs.
Kids played in the water, jet skis raced up and down. We ordered a beer and a coconut. Sand crabs popped out of their holes to throw sand, like a beachy whack-a-mole. Tiny jets of sand would flick up in your peripheral vision (like whale spouts in the sea), but the crabs would have disappeared by the time you looked. An old fruit seller wandered up and down the beach, nagging us now and again.
We sat in the shade for several hours. On the sand dunes of Mui Ne, conservatively dressed Korean girls had obsessed over the perfect Instagram shot. Here, it was Russians in bikinis, wading into the water, wiggling out of it, striking sexy poses, arms up, hips cocked, butt out, while accommodating friends patiently clicked photo after photo before discussing the result and returning to click again.
We looked up the recipe for a “coco loco”, then taught it to the bar staff, run by Englishman George and a mate of his. George’s girlfriend whipped one up for me, or at least as close as she could get to the Colombian original, putting Bacardi, vodka and a touch of condensed milk in with the water inside the fresh coconut. It was just missing the “biche” (Colombian moonshine) kick.
After a plate of oysters (for me) and vegetable noodles (for lily, who was feeling delicate), we returned by taxi to the hotel. We washed, changed and went out, hopping on a bicycle taxi to the disappointing Louisiana Brewhouse, a highly reviewed, made-for-Americans restaurant that served mediocre, overpriced food and forgettable house beer around a swimming pool. We didn’t stay long.