Friday, January 18, 2013

Nha Trang

While every port stop has been a great one, I found that Nha Trang was a most pleasant surprise. Hugging the central coast section of Vietnam, I expected it to be a beach town with little else to offer. 

While it is a very popular seaside retreat for Vietnamese and world tourists alike, it is also home to a lot of colonial style architecture, Champa Kingdom relics from the 8th century, and the Truong Son mountains which line the miles of stunning shoreline.  There are also numerous small agricultural villages just a few minutes outside of town. 

Nha Trang's economy relies largely on tourism. In the suburban areas around the city, the shipbuilding industry has developed and contributed significantly to the city's economy. Fishery and services are also important to the city.  Nha Trang in particular is among the largest contributors to Vietnam's annual budget revenues. Lobster farming on the sea is an important industry for the people living in suburb areas of the city.

We docked at about ten AM, which is a bit later than usual for a port, but we didn't leave until eleven PM.  I had a tour scheduled with my group and we met on the dock at 10:15. Into the minivan we hopped, and off we went to explore this port area. My initial observations were that this city is lovely!  Clean streets, pristine white sand beaches, a bustling yet orderly flow of taxis, trucks and motor scooters, all choreographing perfectly on the city's streets. 

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory and store in town. We saw young women hard at work doing beautiful needlepoint, and their completed works were framed and displayed throughout the shop. As is common with most tour companies and guides worldwide, this was more than just an opportunity to see local craftsman, it was an obligatory stop, hoping you would buy things. I don't mind it, because tourism, especially in its infancy here in Vietnam, is a very important and critical industry, as I noted earlier. 

We then continued through the center of the town, eventually making our way out to the countryside, through some small villages, passing by fields of rice patties, finally arriving at the Cai River,  where we hopped on (yes, I mean that quite literally) a small little boat with one of those cute, but smelly, put-put engines. We passed underneath an old wooden bridge, and spent the next half hour meandering down the river, banana and mango trees to our right, old fishing boats tied to tree limbs dipping down to the river's edge, small homes and huts, occasional water buffalo and cows.  It was totally relaxing. After a bit, we tied up alongside a tiny dock at the water's edge, and climbed out and walked about 100 feet to a beautiful old village house. 

Chickens were running around cock-a-doodle-dooing in the yard, a small puppy was tied up alongside a fence by a shed, barking at us, and our guide stopped us to talk about the family that lived there. Now, they are a bona fide family, but they were clearly set up for small groups of tourists, because their main source of income is weaving, and they had a nice supply of woven goods set on shelves in their weaving room. We were allowed to tour parts of their home - we saw their kitchen, which is a combo of indoor/outdoor, and quite large, actually.  We also saw their worship room at the front of the house, the separate sleeping quarters for men and women, and the toileting areas (just off the kitchen, next to their parked motor scooters). 

Many of the village homes are multi-story affairs. The ground floor is for entry, worship altars and bikes and scooters. The next story up houses the kitchen and meeting rooms as well as the men's sleeping quarters. The top floors are reserved for the women and children.  We were told that after the children were asleep, the men would "visit" with their wives, to talk and "be romantic" and then retreat to their sleeping beds in their own rooms.  I found that the Vietnamese talk about "being romantic" quite a lot, and they all giggle when explaining how the villagers live in this regard.  You would think that, with all this romance going on, there would be more than a gaggle of children, but that is not the case. The government has decreed that there can be no more than two children per married couple. You are fined very severely if you have more than two.  

Our minivan had arrived and so, after a nice snack of local fruits and some green tea served by the residents, we headed out and continued our journey through the countryside. 

We stopped to see a new, standing Buddha that was just completed about three months ago. We were the only ones there, and we took that opportunity to have our guide take a group photo.  The Buddha was quite impressive, so tall, like, I don't know for sure, but maybe 60 or 70 feet high.  

About that time, as we drove away, down the hill from where the Buddha was, our minivan made a sudden cuh-lunking sound and lurched precariously forward. Uh oh.  The driver muttered something to the guide in Vietnamese, and before the guide could turn around to tell us what was wrong, a couple of the men in our group all nodded knowingly what was wrong. Words like "shift differential" and "axle" were  bantied about, and serious shaking of heads followed.  Shit. 

Our day was only half over! We were out in the Vietnam equivalent of the boonies! What was to become of us? Would we be forced to slog through rice paddies to find our way back to the ship? Was it a big conspiracy to drag us into forced labor? Would we have to learn how to make conical hats or weave mats to earn our way home?


Not hardly.  The driver just slowed down and drove carefully, everyone settled down again with only a little worry. After all, our ship didn't sail until late into the evening, and we knew if the van stopped altogether that there was plenty of time to get a new one driven out to us. 

We stopped off at a few more places - a grass mat weaving place, where some of us got to operate the loom, a rice paper plant where we watched the full process of turning rice into first a powder, then heat and water steps into rice sheets, drying, and then finally shredding the dried sheets into rice noodles.  I will never eat these again without thinking of what I saw and how much goes into making them!

We sat for a few minutes and watched some women making those famous conical hats, and then we sat by the river and had a leisurely lunch, while our driver crawled underneath our minivan and worked on whatever repairs were necessary.  Afterwards, we stopped off at a very special pagoda - attached to it is an orphanage, housing 120 children. The orphanage is self-sufficient with donations and subsidies provided by the government. There are several teachers that provide schooling, teach English, and several nuns who look after the children. Foreigners are not allowed to adopt orphans at this time. 

It was now late afternoon, so we left the countryside, and made our way back to the main town.  The driver had successfully corrected whatever problem there had been with our minivan, so our journey back was both smooth and quick. 

Goodbye Nha Trang.  You were lovely!

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