01.04.2020 - 01.28.2020
After a week or so of trying to be adventurous travelers in Vietnam - you know sightseeing, eating street food, walking the streets - we've settled into our normal routine of not doing much and just hanging out. Back to that "it's life not vacation" mantra! Because truly, at the end of the day, I feel like Nha Trang is really just more enjoyable as a beach town and if you don't ask it to be more than that, you won't be disappointed. And, spending a month in a beach town isn't all bad! Especially when beach chairs and an umbrella are $6.
It took a few days by the pool, some country music, and some good cocktails at a rooftop bar (eight American-style cocktails for $35), but we've got our groove back.
It isn't place to move and that's sort of disappointing but we're excited to keep searching out "home" in Asia.
BUDDHAS AND TEMPLES
When we first arrived we were going out for walks in the morning and we walked out to Chùa Long Sơn, a buddhist temple. We can see the 24 meter tall white concrete Buddha from our apartment so it was an obvious destination. As a bonus, there is also a reclining Buddha and a nice temple.
Walking around is definitely an adventure here and not for the faint of heart. We've pretty much given it up except on the beach walk and in the tourist zone. The reality its that nobody walks anywhere here, except tourists. As a result, the sidewalks are filled with parked motor scooters, things for sale, tables, and food stalls. It is not a walk-friendly city (more on that in a minute). But if you get out you do get to see other temples and occasionally a really pretty sight like a courtyard filled with orchids.
And as it's Tết, the sidewalks are filled with huge potted flowers and flowering trees for sale that are an integral part of household celebrations.
One thing you don't see, as a visitor, is many real signs that you're in a communist country other than the ubiquitous hammer and sickle flags and the communist-style concrete architecture. There are other subtle things like the morning and evening broadcasts of the news over loud speakers throughout the city, which we assume include patriotic announcements and music, and the plethora of what appear to be government and party buildings. But really, it's not at all a thing as a tourist.
So about the walking thing. Anything you read about Vietnam will mention the motor scooters.
What they don't really get across is that there are literally no traffic signals or stop signs. Traffic just "flows". Crossing the street consists of walking into traffic, keeping a steady pace so the scooters and cars can avoid you, and hoping for the best. It's total chaos. But as with everything, time breeds familiarity and if we still aren't comfortable with it, we can navigate it. The craziest thing we saw was a railroad crossing near the temple. You have to check out this video to see the reality of it all.
The other crazy thing about scooters is how many people ride on one. It is totally normal to see a family of four on a scooter together. (Not the best capture from video but can you make out the family in the bottom left?)
One kid up front, the driver, second kid wedged in between the driver and the other parent on the back. I've wondered whether there is an inherent incentive not to have more than two kids as that's all they can fit on the scooter. And kids don't wear helmets. It's insane. The parents all do but maybe one in a hundred kids has a helmet.
From our balcony we see the hills surrounding Nha Trang and we wanted to get into them as there are supposed to be an assortment of waterfalls to see. Many have been taken over by tourist infrastructure with everything from gondolas to restaurants to spas. But luckily one day while lazing on the beach, we were approached by Lac and invited to take a tour with him. A local from Nha Trang, his wife has a sidewalk coffee cafe around the corner from us, he knew of an off the beaten path waterfall and included a visit to the market to buy our lunch, stops at local " craft villages", and a BBQ lunch at the falls.
So the idea of a village is different near the city. It's really impossible to tell where the city ends and a village begins. But even in the city there are small areas with entries and signs and flags denoting the entry to a specific "village". The first we stopped at, women were making rice paper. Really fascinating. They use the rice husks to burn for fuel, prepare the tapioca and rice mixture in huge vats, make the rice paper over the fire, and then lay them out to dry. Yep, right on the street. Yum! Seriously though, they were tasty.
At the next one, women were weaving traditional sleeping mats. Beautiful but I can't imagine sleeping on one - not too comfy!
Chợ Đầm Market is a huge indoor/outdoor market selling everything under the sun. The food section, as always with market like this, is a sight to behold. Here, it was the fresh seafood that was stunning. The shrimp are alive and wiggling, their little "feet" going a mile a minute. And you can't ignore that the chicken still have their feet here! We bought chicken, prawns, and lobster for lunch!
The drive to the waterfall was both beautiful and unsettling. The rice fields and forest were beautiful but so much land is being "slashed and burned" to clearcut for bananas and mangos. It's really sad to see these open scars in the otherwise green and lush forest. Ah progress. But let's focus on the beautiful - it's what we try to do.
The waterfall itself wasn't that impressive and after the waterfalls in Baja the water clarity and litter was a bit of a let down but it was a fun hike, a nice place to relax and swim, and a great picnic spot. Lac was a great chef!
As a side note, the Vietnamese đồng is one of the least valuable currencies in the world. One dollar is 23,000 đồng. So spending a million đồng isn't that hard. Our tour, all in, was 1.16M đồng each ($100 total). You get used to it. My method is: divide by two, take off four digits, and subtract a bit! One benefit is there are no coins! Score!
Lunar New Year and Tết Nguyên Đán
Tét is the most important Vietnamese holiday. It is a combination of the Lunar New Year and the celebration that follows and reminds us a lot of how the US goes all out for Christmas with decorations and lights everywhere.
The biggest symbol is the yellow flower of the Mai tree, a relative of the Apricot.
So much so that there are cutouts of it pasted all over and even fake ones added to other shrubs and trees. Those red envelopes symbolize the money gifts given within a family but every tree everywhere has them, not just in homes.
The celebration begins about a week before the actual New Year. In the week before, Vietnamese people clean up their kitchen and prepare food to offer in the farewell ceremony for the Kitchen Gods. As I understand it, it is said that Kitchen God’s task is to report to the King of Heaven about the family’s affairs throughout the year and to wish for a lucky and prosperous new year. In Nha Trang, many, many businesses do this, too, including our hotel and the bank next door. Some even have monks in to do a blessing. No idea what they do will all the food afterwards.
Then it's New Year's and there is a huge fireworks show and concerts. The beach and streets are packed with people having fun - just like the 4th of July!
And now, in Tết (the week after New Years), it seems like people are out in the streets just trying to make as much noise as possible using firecrackers, drums, bells, gongs, and anything they can think of to ward off evil spirits. This morning, beginning at 8:00 AM, a group of Lion Dancers (Lan) started up in the street below us. The Lan is an animal between a lion and a dragon, and is the symbol of strength in the Vietnamese culture that is used to scare away evil spirits.
So a word about the Vietnamese people. Everyone says the Vietnamese are so very friendly. While we haven't found them unfriendly, we also wouldn't say they are over the top welcoming. Of course, we spend most of our time in the "tourist zone" where I'm sure it gets a little tiring to always be friendly to foreigners. Especially when most of them are Russians and Chinese - two peoples that are not well-liked by the Vietnamese for all kinds of historical and modern reasons. Usually, once they realize we're American, they become friendlier. Amazing but true. There aren't a lot of fluent English-speakers but most people have enough to communicate a little. When we get out of the tourist zone, people just seem to wonder why we're there and it feels kinda like they wish we'd just go back ha! I suppose if you lived here and they saw you day after day things would change but the language barrier is a significant hurdle and its seems most Westerners kind of stick together in a few places.
Scott did his first dive here!
The dive company was very good though there were only two divers on the boat with a ton of snorkelers. The diving is nice but nothing special. Having Roatan, one of the best dive sites in the world, as your first experience gives other places a pretty high bar to live up to! But he enjoyed being in the water and rediscovering his skills and he's excited to do more as we travel on.
We booked travel to Bangkok for after the Super Bowl - we do have out priorities! We found a good sports bar here that either plays in real time or rebroadcasts the games so we've been following the playoffs! GO CHIEFS!! We will be watching the Super Bowl along with you, albeit at 6:30 am Monday morning. After Bangkok we're planning a side trip to Angkor Wat, the Hindu temple complex in Cambodia that is the largest religious monument in the world and so-called "8th Wonder of the World". Then it's on to the Thai and Malaysian islands for more scuba diving. You can check out our notional map here.