When I repeated ‘Làm ơn cho tôi hóa đơn’ for the third time and she still didn’t understand my awful Vietnamese accent, I relented: ‘bill, please.’ ‘Ah, the bill! Of course sir.’ I think she thought I was trying to order lamb…
After nine months in Australia and three weeks in New Zealand, it was time to venture out of the first world for the first time. We hit up Bangkok and Koh Chang in Thailand before heading off to Cambodia to see Koh Kong, Koh Rong, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, the Temples of Angkor, the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. In Vietnam, we had arrived in Saigon and checked out the War Remnants Museum, Market and Reunification Palace.
We were up at 6am in Saigon so I had time to run to the bakery on Pham Ngu Lao Road while Jodes checked us out of Vinh Hostel Guesthouse. The bus station was on De Tham, the same street as our hostel. The bus left at 7:15 and took us out of Saigon, whose outskirts were massive. 90 minutes later we were still in urban territory.
Every day in South East Asia we took an anti-malaria DOXY-100 tablet (that’s 100mg of doxycycline). Thus far we had remembered every day to take them!
We chatted to a Scottish lad named Steve who was actually Dutch and had never been to Scotland except once on holiday, yet inexplicably had a thick Scottish accent. He got off the bus at Mui Ne, where we had a break and chilled on the pretty beach (apparently the nicest in ‘Nam) for 20 minutes. We then ploughed on through gorgeous late afternoon golden sun-bathed countryside. To our left, striking green mountains reminded us we were no longer in flat Cambodia. To our right, tree covered sand dunes were interspersed by patches of yellow beaches and picture postcard coastline. The contrast in landscape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon bade well for a diverse trip up the spine of a tantalising and fascinating country.
Despite these thoughts, I was still totally unprepared coming into Nha Trang Bay. A bay of majestic, serene islands opened up as we wound our way down a coast road to rival the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Pacific Coast Highway in California or the Westport to Greymouth stretch in New Zealand’s South Island. With every day that passed I was feeling more excited by this country, and it was only my second day!
We checked into our lovely Nha Trang hotel and got a free upgrade to a three-person room plus a personal talk about Nha Trang’s attractions. It was the best place we had stayed in Asia so far. I had spent hours that day teaching myself basic Vietnamese phrases and numbers. When I said ‘Càm ơn’ to the lady at reception she understood and said ‘you’re welcome’. Nervous, but excitedly confident, I decided to take it up a gear. After a lovely calamari and rice dinner at a restaurant in town, I asked for the bill in – wait for it – Vietnamese. The thing with Vietnamese is it is all about vowel tones – some rise in pitch, some fall, some lay flat, some rise higher, some fall lower. You’d have more success trying to hum the words than speak them like I did, in Franglais style. It’s like Singstar in that respect. Once you’ve mastered that it’s apparently alright. I was far from reaching that stage, however…
The next day was marvellous. We had booked a snorkelling trip for 9am but woke early and grabbed breakfast at a small French bistro, appropriately titled ‘Le Petit Bistro’. I had a Croque Madame, which brought back memories of an August 2004 family holiday to Le Touquet in northern France.
We got picked up soon after 9 and taken to our boat. About a dozen of us clambered onto the boat and we sailed out to the beautiful islands we had seen the previous day from the bus. En route we passed the world’s biggest sea-crossing chairlift taking folk to Vin Pearl, Vietnam’s sort-of answer to Disneyland apparently.
After nearly an hour of passing breath-taking island after breath-taking island, we moored up and got on our snorkelling gear. The water looked beautiful and clear and after awkwardly hobbling to the end of the boat in flippers we sort of fell in. There were a few minutes of me forgetting that unlike diving you cannot go underwater and still breathe when snorkelling but then I stopped spluttering and looked down. Below us was a world of stunning coral and all manner of tropical fishes: a vista to match my Great Barrier Reef dive or any tropical fish screensaver that all PCs had in the early noughties. Jodes loved it this time and didn’t squeal once!
After an hour of chasing fish, trying not to kick delicate coral and spitting in our goggles to de-mist them, we boarded the boat and drove to the next island. It was just a few hundred metres away but the coral was more colourful and we saw a squid, more varieties of rainbow fish and what may well have been an eel.
The guys on the boat provided us with a wonderful lunch of tuna fish, prawns, chicken, spring rolls, noodles and rice as we prepared to head round to the islands of Hon Mun and Hon Mot for our third and final snorkelling session of the day. There the coral was more exotic, including the kind of starfish trees that wave in the watery breeze. When I looked at them I could almost hear Attenbrough’s voice in my head.
We saw an actual starfish too, plus even more varieties of colourful tropical fish such as the black and white one in the dentist’s in Finding Nemo. Hon Mun’s location adjacent to the hot sea-currents from the equator allow corals and tropical sea creatures to develop in diverse abundance.
As usual I had managed somehow to get sunburnt so it was a good job the clouds had covered the sun as we headed back to the mainland, refreshing ourselves with dragon fruit, watermelon, pineapple and Vietnamese bananas, which were consistently the nicest bananas I’ve tried.
That evening we wandered around the town and the beach. The Sailing Club had beanbags on the beach and – get this – swings at the bar! It was too expensive, though, so we ate in town before grabbing some delicious cheesecake on the way back to the hotel.
After a fantastic day snorkelling, we were’t really sure how to spend our last day in Nha Trang before getting an overnight bus to Hoi An. We grabbed a mango pancake breakfast (mmm…) at Café des Amis and checked out of the hotel. We decided to stroll to Louisiane Brewhouse and paid $2 to rent a sunbed by the pool all day. I chose a shaded sunbed as I’d managed to properly sunburn my back snorkelling the previous day.
We had such a relaxing day. It was swelteringly hot so every hour or so we jumped in the pool to cool down. After weeks of near-constant travelling and activities it was great just to feel like we were on holiday. We had lunch at the Brewhouse and sweated the afternoon away before returning to the hotel to shower and pick up our backpacks. It was back to the Café des Amis for seafood noodles, then to the bus station. The sleeper bus had clearly been designed not for six foot somethings like myself, but for dwarves or those practised in the art of self-origami…