Going Troppo

Nha Trang is a city of 300,000 people on the coast of south-central Vietnam. It is blessed with a tropical climate, which means it has only two seasons: wet and dry. It is set in a beautiful bay punctuated by rocky peninsulas (Hon Chongs) and numerous small islands. It is really the start of a series of three gorgeous bays that begin at Nha Trang and head south to Diamond Bay and Cam Ranh Bay. I was looking forward to Nha Trang: it's where my friend and host Peter, and his lovely wife My Le, have built their new home and hotel.

You are likely to misunderstand Nha Trang if you read only the tourist guide descriptions. Most tend to concentrate on the beach culture – and the beaches are beautiful, there's no doubt about that – and they describe it as "beach culture and partying to the max". Yes, there is that, if that's what turns you on, but there is a lot more besides. Nha Trang is an intriguing mix of culture and beach culture, of hedonism and history. Within a short ride from the beach you can immerse yourself in the beauty of the Cham temples built a millennium ago by a Hindu–worshipping people who had come from Borneo even earlier, or in one of many Buddhist pagodas, like the one with the giant Buddha sitting atop a hill and visible sunlit or floodlit a few kilometres straight ahead from Peter and My Le's 6th floor terrace.

Part view of the Po Nagar Cham Temple, Nha Trang

Barefoot prayers, Po Nagar

Interior with Buddhist Shrine, Po Nagar Temple, Nha Trang
The Giant Buddha at the Long Son Pagoda, Nha Trang

Ashes of the departed, Long Son Pagoda, Nha Trang

Long Son Pagoda

Sleeping Buddha, Long Son Pagoda, Nha Trang

Interior, Long Son Pagoda, Nha Trang

Life's a beach

The main beach at Nha Trang is six kilometres long. A long palm tree-lined boulevard runs the length of it and continues out to the north and south. It is lined with restaurants, clubs, micro-breweries and 5 star hotels that would be at home in the world's ritziest and most expensive resorts. This place never sleeps: there is always something to do. It is also home to a growing and thriving expatriate community in which Australians feature prominently, as do French, Germans, North Americans and many others. 

Impromptu beach games after school, Nha Trang

Part view of the Hon Chong (Suspended Rock) Peninsula, Nha Trang

View from the Sailing Club, Nha Trang

The conversation



Sometimes, setting out to do one simple thing can lead to unexpected but pleasant and warm encounters that transcend language barriers and reach deep, past our superficial physical differences. I had just such an encounter in Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage listed town in central Vietnam. It was approaching noon, and my gear was packed and stowed in the hotel lobby awaiting my pick-up by the bus company that would take me north to Hue, the old imperial capital. (My pick-up arrived in the form of a 17-year old girl and her Honda scooter: she took me and my gear to the bus station a few kilometres away). In the meantime, I was hungry. I spied a sign on a footpath outside a house. It read: "Com" – rice. 
I walked up to this little eatery. The dish of the day was "Com ga" – chicken rice. It is served with spinach in a broth and copious amounts of Vietnamese tea. 

My lunch: com ga – chicken rice with spinach in broth

Like most places that serve food in Vietnam, this one also started on the footpath and spread back inside the house and into the family's own living and dining area as seats were needed. The couple that ran the place welcomed with broad smiles and sat me inside, in the cool shade. Outside, I had become an object of curiosity for a woman who asked me to take her photograph. My gear was packed for the six-hour bus ride and all I had with me was my iPhone. I took her picture and she beamed when I showed her the result on the screen.
"Hello, you take photo".

I looked around me at the interior of the house. On one side, there was a window on the wall, directly opposite another window on the neighbouring wall across a covered walkway barely a metre in width. Through it, I could see a young man snoozing on a couch. I didn't know if the houses or the families that live in them were in any way connected. 

On the rear wall, there was a little family shrine, where the family prays and honours its ancestors as they look on from the framed photographs in which they are memorialised. 

The family shrine
On the opposite wall, another window was crowned by a framed certificate or award bearing the Vietnamese official coat of arms and an image of Ho Chi Minh, and below it, there was a traditional Vietnamese sofa: a large, rectangular piece of wooden furniture – much like a hugely oversized dining table but standing at about half the height. Vietnamese lounge, snooze, read, play, meditate or just chill out on these traditional sofas. 

I took a photograph of the beaming couple who run the little eatery, then went back inside to tuck into my lunch. 

The proprietors

When I got back inside, I saw that a young woman – rather pretty and sweet-natured – had sat on the traditional sofa, with a traditional Vietnamese conical hat propped casually beside her. It was a photo begging to be taken, and I motioned with my iPhone. She smiled shyly, thought for a minute and then agreed (with a little gentle persuasion from the proprietor couple). It's a pity I had no way of printing photos to leave as mementos or any way to tell them about the blog. We just couldn't understand each other's languages. We could only smile.

This simple encounter was a beautiful way to part with Hoi An and its people. Strangers met, smiled and managed a lot more than a simple commercial exchange through the sale of a plate of food. The people I encountered seemed to be pleasantly surprised – perhaps even honoured – that I had taken such an interest in them, in their surroundings and in a small aspect of their lives. I was honoured that they shared so much more than the food they had sold me. 

It was the warmth and good humour of these people that impressed me greatly. I was happy to have had the experience of meeting them and enjoying the delicious food they prepare, but they seemed even more happy that a stranger had taken such an interest in them, their shop and their home. I had experienced a little slice of Vietnamese life I would not otherwise have known, and I had to record it and share it. I think maybe they understood that.

So, here are the iPhone pictures. They are technically wanting (the iPhone doesn't do low light slow shutter speed shots well) but I have a simple philosophy for times like these. A technically imperfect shot of a unique moment is better than no shot at all. And, as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you at the time.