24 December 2001
It’s nearly midnight, I’m knackered, surrounded by more Westerners than I know what to do with and I’ve just ordered an expensive curry. And I can’t find P anywhere. He left Hoi An yesterday and we had made tentative plans to meet up in Nha Trang. He seemed quite down about not being with his girlfriend and/or at home at Christmas, so I really thought I should check he was all right. But I’ve tried to find him and failed. I was going to stay somewhere rather swish, it being Christmas and all, but almost everywhere is full (bloody tourists!) so I’m in a rather basic place, at $5 a night. And I’ve decided Christmas is crap without presents. There’s burger all to look forward to tomorrow without them.
That said, today has been pretty great, once I’d got over the shock of leaving Hoi An at 6am (brutal!). I got a bus from Hoi An to the town of Quang Ngai, where I hired a motorbike taxi to take me – and my 20kilo backpack – the 13km each way to the village of Son My and the site of the infamous My Lai massacre. I reckon I paid over the odds for the moto (100,000VND!) but it was worth it. The site is green and so peaceful now, and it was difficult to believe that something so dreadful had happened there less than 35 years ago. But it had; the foundations of some of the village houses have been left, and next to them are plaques giving the names and ages of the family members who were killed there. It was all so moving and thought-provoking, although I could have done without the propaganda-esque artwork dotted around the place; it was kind of intrusive and ruined it a bit. However, I met this bloke, who, who is Irish, 69 years old, and has been travelling independently and alone around Southeast Asia for months. He was so cool. I want to be like him when I grow up!
Anyway, I had four hours to wait at Quang Ngai railway station for my train to Nha Trang, and during that time I was befriended by the station nurse, P. It’s her job to look after local people who have to be sent on the train for treatment in Hanoi or Saigon because the local facilities aren’t up to looking after them. She was ace. She took me to a café and bought me Vietnamese tea and Che Chen (like sago pudding, but made with light sugar syrup rather than milk – and bloody delicious). She started copying things from my phrase book so I gave it to her, and then we talked about her patients, such as babies who are born premature (although I’m not sure how premature eight-and-a-half-months is classed as now in the West!) and die; could it be because of Agent Orange, she wondered. Can someone who tells you about sad things still be a joy to talk to? In P’s case, I’d say yes. She really was so lovely. She even gave me a note to use when I was buying some sugar, so I wouldn’t get overcharged.
The train journey here was great too. Yes, I was tired and hot and worried about finding somewhere to stay, especially as the train was only due in at 10.30pm, and also a bit homesick – it is Christmas, after all. But it was so enchanting, looking out of the window and seeing these houses decorated with Christmas lights. Mandarin Café in Hué had a Christmas tree and had been playing Christmas songs as background music, but Mandarin is aimed chiefly at tourists, especially Western ones. These were houses in the middle of nowhere, the homes of people who couldn’t have been pandering to tourists. I’m not sure how much of it was down to the residents genuinely celebrating Christmas – this was once a French colony and despite the years of Communism there is still a Christian legacy here – and how much to them looking for any excuse for a party. Whatever the reason, there was something so comforting and uplifting about those tiny lights twinkling away in the absolute darkness (of rural areas without street lighting).
Nha Trang, when we arrived, was mayhem. Glorious, wonderful, ebullient mayhem. All the churches were decorated with fairy lights and the streets were packed with people – Vietnamese people that is – in Santa hats wishing me a Merry Christmas. I was stressed about finding a hotel, I was sweating like mad, and my backpack was so heavy I felt like my back was breaking. But I was grinning from ear to ear.
And now I have a bed for the night and I’m chowing down on a blinding Veg Masala in the Sailing Club, being alone and x thousand miles from home on Christmas Day doesn’t seem quite such a grim prospect.
Train to Saigon
Taking the overnight train tonight to Saigon to meet Bill [Californian friend from University], who is coming over for a week or so.
I’m not sure I’m a big fan of Nha Trang. It’s supposed to be Vietnam’s premier beach town or something. The beach is OK and everything, but the town itself is a wee bit ugly. Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by lovely Hoi An?.
I bumped into P very late on Christmas Eve – or rather very early on Christmas morning, I guess – and he was fine. He was stumbling out of a very loud bar with some people he’d met on the bus down. They’d arranged to have Christmas Dinner together, but the restaurant was fully booked, so I couldn’t join them (which turned out to be a good thing – I saw P later and he said the meal was crap). My Christmas Dinner was a cheese toastie on my own, and I did nearly cry when I was doing my Christmas emailing – I felt so very far from home – but it was actually pretty cool ambling on a beach in blazing sun and contemplating what England would be like right then.
Yesterday was a bit pants. One of the things you’re supposed to do here is take a boat trip around the islands. Some trips are complete beer-fests but I chose one that was supposed to be more restrained and I was looking forward to dozing on a sunny deck, admiring some stunning scenery and maybe even having my first dip in the South China Sea. If ours was one of the more restrained, goodness knows what the party boats are like. We had this really annoying Australian guide who kept blasting out AC/DC at top volume (yes they are one of my favourite bands, but there’s a time and a place…) and playing air guitar and screaming at us to sing along. From the uncooperative grunts of the people around me, I’d say they felt like me – just looking to chill and maybe swim a bit round the islands. The islands were nice but I was actually pretty glad to get off the boat and get some peace.
This morning was interesting. I was in a café near the beach and I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of these two blokes sitting near me. One looked Western, the other Asian. They were Americans, and travelling together. It turned out that the Asian man was a Viet Kieu, “Overseas Vietnamese” – one of the people who left Vietnam after the Vietnam War. He looked youngish, though, so he must have been a baby when he left, or maybe even been born soon after his parents arrived in the US. I have heard about Vietnamese people, especially in the north, being quite mean to foreigners. For example, expats who understand Vietnamese have told me about buying stuff from locals who, while smiling broadly at them, are saying insulting things about them in Vietnamese to their neighbour, such as: “How much should I charge the stupid Westerner?”. That’s not everyone, by all means, but it does happen. Anyway, according to what this Viet Kieu was saying, if you assumed locals would be nice to Viet Kieu, on account of them being fellow Vietnamese, you’d (often) be wrong: the locals can be meaner to Viet Kieu than they are to practically everyone else. They regard Viet Kieu as traitors, or cowards – for leaving when things got tough, that kind of thing. Some resent Viet Kieu for their ‘indulged’ Western lifestyles, or see them as a soft touch, and either charge them higher prices for stuff than even regular ‘foreigner price’ or lay a guilt trip on them in the hope of ‘persuading’ them to pay over the odds. The Vietnamese government seems to be becoming more conciliatory towards Viet Kieu, in the hope of persuading them to invest in the ‘old country’, but it looks like those attitudes have yet to filter down to street level.
The most noticeable thing about this bloke was just how different he looked to the Vietnamese people around us. He was taller, for a start, and while he was certainly not fat, he was certainly heavier built than the local people, and his clothes looked more expensive. I suppose he just looked generally ‘glossier’ than the Vietnamese Vietnamese people.
It was raining this morning, but it had cleared up by this afternoon, so I rented a bike. I cycled a couple of miles to the Po Nagar Cham Towers (like My Son but smaller and less important). They were OK, but swarming with souvenir sellers. Then I went to the Yersin Museum, which celebrates Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss/French bacteriologist who discovered the bacillus that causes bubonic plague (hence the name – Yersina pestis). He has a museum in Nha Trang because he settled there, and founded the Pasteur Institute research facility. The museum was actually really interesting, if a bit gross.
On the way back, some scrotes tries to rob me. Every time I’ve rented a bike I’ve clipped my backpack into the basket, just in case. While I was cycling down one of the faster roads, I had a kind of sixth sense that something was about to happen, so I got hold of one of the backpack straps as well. And a few seconds later, two men came past on a motorbike and one of them leaned over and tried to grab my pack. The look on his face when he realised he wasn’t going to get my stuff was priceless, although I really should get someone to teach me the Vietnamese for “Scumbag!”. I think Nha Trang is a bit of a bad place for crime, for tourists, at any rate: the Irish blokes we met in Hoi An were mugged there, and another couple I met in Hoi An suffered an attempted mugging there. So much for the beach paradise! Fingers crossed Saigon will be more pleasant…