On the road again – Quy Nhon

After five days in Nha Trang, the road trip itch hit again. It's too easy to just stay put in Nha Trang and enjoy the lifestyle, but my intention was to see more of Vietnam, not to become a tropical beach bum.

Quy Nhon, a coastal city further north, in Binh Dinh Province, is said to be a Nha Trang in the making, but not yet a fully-fledged tourist destination. My Lonely Planet guide said that any westerners found there at any given time are usually en-route to somewhere else. Affluent Vietnamese retirees are flocking to Quy Nhon, enamoured with its fine coastline, seaside promenade and tidy, litter-free streets and huge boulevards. There are many fine hotels and tourist villa complexes, catering for all tastes (and wallets) but they are nowhere near as full of western tourists as might be thought probable. That, though, is about to change: even a cursory look at websites and blogs that are replete with appealing photographs and alluring vistas – and all of them buoyed by enthusiastic, excited and superlative prose and tourist testimonials – will tell you that it will not be long now before the tourist barbarians breach the gates.

An aside: During the American War, there was substantial South Vietnamese, American and South Korean military activity (and Viet Cong, of course) in the province, and the enterprising mayor of Quy Nhon, ever willing to turn a profit, turned his official residence into a "massage" parlour.

There are differing opinions about how the city's name should be pronounced. The "high" Vietnamese of the North, which is the official language of the nation, would have it as "Cooee Nyon", but the Southern dialect, which is spoken in the city and surrounding province, insists on "Wee Nyon" (or, if you prefer, Ngon, where the "yo" or "ng" in the syllable is pronounced like the "nion" in onion). It is a short, palatal sound. I choose Wee Nyon, since that is what the locals use.

The road trip to Quy Nhon did not start well: I had lunch with Peter at the Ciao Vietnam Restaurant in Nha Trang and, for the first time, I was disappointed. The Australian beef was tough and chewy, and the creamy sauce might have been a bit suspect. To make matters worse, I got to the bus station a little late – a matter of minutes, only – and missed the bus I had booked. My travelling companion and I got our tickets refunded and I bought new tickets for another bus.

It turned out to be a small bus, one of those one tonne Ford Transit vans, kitted out with eight or ten seats. At least it will get us to Quy Nhon by tonight I thought. By the time we had been on the road for an hour, and I had experienced the driver's technique, I wondered if we would make it there alive and in one piece. I got the first bad feeling when the driver had an adult sitting on his lap while at the wheel, and there were five people on the front seat, which was meant for three.

In the meantime, I had become very sick from the food I had eaten at lunch. But stay with me; it gets worse.

The driver is a maniac. He speeds on the congested highway, overtakes very dangerously, and plays chicken with all the other traffic. The trouble is that he is not the only madman driving a vehicle on the road. He hardly even stops to allow passengers to disembark or to board: he keeps moving, while his sidekick urges people to jump off while he tosses their baggage behind them, and hurries other new passengers to board while the van is still moving.

My heart is now in my mouth, along with my stomach. I hold on, even though I feel like being sick out of the window. The seats are narrow and pew-like, not proper bus or passenger seats, and my legs are squashed in a painfully uncomfortable position, skewed sideways. My back and spine are aching as a result.

Now, put all of these things together and stretch them out over about six or seven excruciatingly long hours, and you will begin to get an idea of what it was like. The road trip from hell. Toilet breaks at road houses were a small mercy, but I nearly got left behind: the driver and his sidekick would start the van moving barely three minutes after we had stopped, and would angrily call out to passengers to get aboard.

All along the journey, the van would drop off people and pick up new passengers, frequently carrying more than it was licensed to or had seats for: often, two or three people would be standing on the right (passenger) side of the van, with their heads bowed because there was no headroom. A few millimetres of side panel tin was all that separated them from the outside world and other speeding vehicles competing for road space with this motorised bullet. There was nothing for them to hold on to. Those of us on the seats might have had a chance if anything happened: the standing passengers had no chance at all.

We pulled into an empty bus station yard in Quy Nhon at night, in a slight but constant drizzle, and our only transport to the hotel appeared in the form of two xe om (se om) motorcycle taxis – unlicensed, of course, but common in Vietnam – operated, in this case, by two seedy-looking young men.

We had no choice but to take them, but only after I had tried to protest and avoid their approaches (there were no other people or vehicles around to be seen). All the way to the hotel, I kept a wary eye out for the xe om carrying my travelling companion, and had a bit of a fit when I lost sight of it for some long minutes.

We arrived at the hotel, and the xe om riders bragged and gloated in broken English, trying to make the point that my fears were unfounded. The ride cost me less than $3 for both of us, but you couldn't put a price on my apprehensions.

We checked in to the hotel then went looking for a doctor. We found one upstairs in a dingy little building, and my companion explained my symptoms. The doctor commented on how good my blood pressure reading was, then thought for a few minutes before handing me a collection of medications from his stash. Apparently, this is normal in Vietnam: doctors also dispense the necessary medication during the consultation, and people use pharmacies for further supplies. The consult and medicines cost me AU$10.

I settled into a routine of taking fluids and some fruit for the next two days, along with the doctor's medication. On the third day, I was able to have some plain noodles for breakfast and a more substantial – and tastier – lunch.

First night in Quy Nhon: view from my hotel window.
The sun did not show himself at all during whole time I spent in Quy Nhon. Every day was overcast and flat, with some rain and many long periods of drizzle, although it was warm, but, surprisingly, not uncomfortably so.

This light was less than useless for photography, as you'll see. Nevertheless, I wanted to enjoy Quy Nhon and was always on the lookout for subjects. There was, of course, another Hon Chong peninsula – there is one in every coastal town, it seems – with cafés and various other attractions, the long bay and beach, with its curiously ochre-tinged fine sand, upon which there are random groupings of nets, fish traps, fishing platforms and flotation devices, fisher folk working away at their nets, coracles or currachs, volleyball nets, kids playing and, of course, the fishing boats bobbing about at anchor in the water, with a backdrop of those curious Vietnamese fishing nets stretched out above the waterline and fastened to four poles. These are lowered into the water for a while, then winched up slowly with foot pedals and, hopefully, full of fish. 

The sea does not look as inviting as it did in Nha Trang or, indeed, in photographs of Quy Nhon that I had seen online. The overcast skies and the rain took the colour, gloss and iridescence out of the water, the land and the foliage, and the strong winds and tides had disturbed the sea floor so much that sand permeated the waves and the water, destroying its colour with a uniform underlay of turgid brown. 

The fishermen use the coracles to paddle out to their boats, or to their nets and traps, which are tethered to all manner of crude but effective flotation devices and "rafts": bizarre contraptions made from sticks, tree branches, bamboo poles and bits of foam and polyurethane taken from packaging containers, the whole lot fastened together with string and rope. Most of the coracles are made in the traditional manner, with palm fronds and grasses woven into an oversized round basket, then daubed with resin and tar. Some are made with fibreglass. I cannot help but think that, if fibreglass takes over, a whole cottage industry making the coracles with traditional materials would collapse, and a time-honoured skill would disappear along with it, and it would be a great pity.

 New and old coracles.

 Coracles and fish traps.

Fishing platform
 Tending to the nets.

Traditional coracles awaiting their finishing touches.

On a walk with Huong, my travel companion, I came upon a group of street urchins hanging out on the beach promenade. They probably should have been in school. A small orange ball was lying on the ground. One of the young boys spotted me and, immediately, his countenance changed. He bolted upright and ran among the group, alerting his comrades to our presence. Then the performance began. They played and jostled in a demonstration football game, the aim of which seemed to be to target the photographer (me) with the ball. They succeeded, as the picture shows. After they scored the "goal" they gathered on the low wall and put their arms around each other, posing and acting up. One spread his fingers in the ubiquitous V sign that appears in every photograph of people taken anywhere in Asia, and another one contorted his features into a comical grimace. The performance over, I smiled at them broadly and applauded their performance, and walked on.

The photographer is spotted; the performance begins

Dramatic tension

The climax: Goal!

Curtain call

The next day, we set off for the Hon Chong and, afterwards, the Chua Long Khan Pagoda, with its 17 metre Buddha and resident monastic community. As soon as we arrived, a boy in his early teens, with obvious signs of some slight physical and, perhaps, other disabilities, approached us and offered to show us around. I wondered if he might have been latching on in order to ask for money but, at the end of an extensive tour, during which he spoke very little, except for a few words spoken in Vietnamese to Huong that I assumed were explanations, he just walked away, without asking for anything. "Em" I called out to him (the pronoun by which one addresses people much younger than oneself in Vietnam). He turned, I motioned to him with an outstretched hand, and pressed a decent amount of money into his palm. I nodded my appreciation and thanks, and he did the same.

Long Khan Pagoda

 Interior, Long Khan Pagoda

 Great Buddha, Long Khan Pagoda

 Female deity, Long Khan Pagoda

 Memorial tableau for ancestors, Long Khan Pagoda

Courtyard, Long Khan Pagoda

 Living quarters, and respect for the space, Long Khan Pagoda.

Lotus pond, Long Khan Pagoda

 Offerings at a temple in the Hon Chong of Quy Nhon

 Prayer, Hon Chong, Quy Nhon
Prayers, temple on the Hon Chong, Quy Nhon

 Tourist villas, Quy Nhon

At a temple in the Hon Chong, I observed a woman praying in front of a sacred effigy, at the feet of which had been placed offerings of food and flowers, meant, I think, for one's ancestors in the afterlife. I took my shoes off and entered the temple proper, a small space, in which two elderly women were prostrated in prayer and supplication. Huong also prayed and, as is the custom, I left some money in the donation box. One of the elderly women, a spritely and physically fit and supple septuagenarian, touched Huong's arm and spoke to her. Apparently, we were invited to lunch with a group of lay people who live in the temple along with the monastic community. It seems that sometimes, people who are not well off gather to live in these quarters, sharing their resources among themselves and with the monks. The monks are not permitted to turn them away.

I was a subject of discussion and some curiosity, it seems, and the people – exclusively women and children – were warm and welcoming. Huong and I sat with them on the floor in their communal space and shared their incredibly delicious vegetarian lunch. None spoke English and, as I don't speak Vietnamese, Huong was peppered with questions about me. I could only make out the words "Hy Lap" — that's Vietnamese for "Greek", in reference to my heritage. When it was time to go, I reached into my pocket, took out a handful of notes (I made sure it was a good amount of money) and offered it to my hosts. It might have been expected, but then again, no-one had asked. The money was passed to the old woman who had invited us to stay for lunch. She accepted it graciously. For my part, I will remember this encounter fondly: a group of strangers had welcomed me in their midst and, with the barriers of language and culture forgotten and made irrelevant, we had all been as one.

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