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Nha Trang, South Central Viet Nam
Letter #8: April 9, 2002
by Beth Buffam

Budhhist Nuns.
Nuns at the Dieu Quang temple.

Dear friends,

From a cafe on the corner of Ha Noi and Nguyen Tri Phuong streets in Hue at 6:15 am, sitting on a very small seat at a low table, ca phe sua in hand (by now my readers should know that ca phe sua is my addiction -- strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk served in a tiny glass which is itself in another glass of hot water), I finally have time to write about the South Central Viet Nam part of my trip.

The students drive by on bicycles in blue pants, white shirts and red ties. Or the lucky ones are piled on their dad's honda. Young girls in the same uniform, older girls in their wonderful white au dais. This parade beautifies the landscape from south to north, in villages and cities, at the beach and on the mountains, four times a day: 6:30 am, 11:30 am, 2 pm and 5 pm. The cafe is filling up quickly with men ready to start their day -- smoking, uong ca phe (drinking coffee), talking and laughing. I bet the Vietnamese men in the U.S. miss that. (Two burly bald Westerners with pierced noses walk by -- ugh!)

Well, it's Tuesday April 16 (despite what the Subject line says), and my trip is at the midpoint geographically and chronologically. Two weeks travelling North from Sai Gon to Hue have produced their share of unforgettable memories, which I'll share with you, my adventuresome readers. I've met people from every range of the political spectrum, and have taken some trips that I wouldn't particularly want to repeat! So far, 3 people have tried to trick me, 1 successfully. By the way, I'm also at the midpoint in provinces: 27 visited, 3 missed, 31 yet to see. (I've included Da Lat province and one or two others that I visited on my last trip but not on this one.)

I planned to travel north from Saigon by train or local bus, but at the end bought a tourist minibus ticket from Saigon to Hue, via Mui Ne beach, Nha Trang and Hoi An, for $14. It's just too cheap and easy to pass up. But the rest of the trip will be train to the bigger cities and local bus to villages. I bought the minibus ticket at the suggestion of the reception lady at a $3 "dorm" hotel in Saigon who, for those of you who know her, looks exactly like Mrs. Bay.

First stop was the idyllic beach town of Mui Ne. I slept in a thatched roof cottage on the beach front under palm trees (got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but the dogs growled at me so I went back.) Sunbathed a bit, and visited a few sights such as some beautiful sand dunes, and a temple built by the Indian-influenced Cham people centuries ago. Brown cows shared the road. All very relaxing after the hecticness of Saigon.

At the sand dunes, I talked with two photographers who worked as farmers when they weren't taking award-winning photographs, and had picked up quite a bit of English, Japanese and German in their spare time. I wish I could pick up Vietnamese in my spare time.

In Phan Thiet, near Mui Ne, I was supposed to meet Kha, a young Christian student I had met in Da Lat on my last trip. He is a hysterically funny guy, now working as a seminarian. I wonder what his sermons are like. Unfortunately, the difficulty of sending and receiving emails meant that I never got his phone #, so missed the chance to see him. I also wanted to get some photos of fishing nets on poles, which they use in Phan Thiet to get the fish for their world-famous nuoc mam or fish sauce. (You can tell where it's being made by following your nose.) But I never found them either. My website schedule says for Phan Thiet: See Kha, take pictures, neither of which materialized.

Next stop further north up the coast was the famed beach town of Nha Trang. Vietnamese readers may have seen a Paris by Night episode in Nha Trang. I was detemined to find a cheaper hotel there than the default hotel where the minibus dropped us. But a young woman at the hotel made me an offer I couldn't refuse -- a $5 room with a TV. (Most rooms so far have been $6-8). First time I've seen TV for a month, so I caught up on the situation in Israel (sort of, since it's in Vietnamese, and I understand about 0.1%), and got hooked on the morning exercises. Mot, hai, ba, bon...(one, two, three, four...) Graceful rather than bouncy exercises.

For me the drawing card in Nha Trang wasn't the beach (anyway, the bus conductor, a young jokester who had most of his fingers missing, told us that there were a lot of pickpockets on the beach so we should be careful). It was a Buddhist nunnery called Dieu Quang, from which four nun friends of mine in Maryland originally came.

I went there several mornings and enjoyed the delighted warmth of the mainly young nuns, taught some English, learned some Vietnamese, took a siesta with them in the afternoon, saw an interesting Buddhist movie, and enjoyed their an chay (vegetarian) food. One sweet young nun is a carbon copy of her 10-year older sister in Maryland. One young nun was a bit of a proselytizer, which surprised me, but I told her that I'd gone through too many religions to be interested in starting another, much as I respect the Buddhist viewpoint.

And in the evenings, I was lucky enough to have some Vietnamese classes with the hotel receptionist -- a young man named Nhut, who turned out to be an excellent teacher. He was organized, spoke clearly and slowly, spoke English well, and was a perfect fit for me. I wish I could have studied with him for a month.

I got brave enough to try to chat with some of the local staff in Vietnamese, and usually got a blank stare in response. One time Nhut was standing nearby and said, "I understood exactly what you said; I don't know why they didn't." We decided that before trying to break into a conversation with a Vietnamese person, I should give them some indication Xin loi... (Please) that I would be trying to speak with them in Vietnamese.

I started to talk Vietnamese and English with the other receptionist, a young woman. One day, with rapture in her voice, she shared the following with me. "The national day of liberation (April 30) is coming. Would you like to learn to sing this song: 1000 years of rule by the Chinese, 200 by the French, 20 by the Americans, and now we are free."

Another great thing about the hotel was a little puppy that gently chewed the ankles of all guests, and went to the welcome mat when he wanted to pee. The dogs in Viet Nam are almost all small. He got a hug and a scratch from every guest or staff who entered the lobby.

I rode briefly by the beach with a great (cute) cyclo driver, who had been on the "wrong side" in the war, and had not had very much work. But had "one wife, 6 children", and read lots of books.

As much fun as Nha Trang was (with a cheap room) I had to move on sometime! I had been ahead of my schedule, but after 3 days was catching up. The question now was -- should I take in the three provinces that were west of the coast, in the mountains? The regular tourist minibus just went along the coast to Da Nang, and a tour to the mountains was five days -- way too long.

(By the way, it's 7:30 at the cafe, and most of the men have left for their work. Adults are riding bikes or motorbikes, presumably to their jobs. Each person is in one position -- upright. One of two expressions -- "impassive" or laughing. I'm intrigued by the "controlled / impassive" expressions I see around me. I like it, but I don't know enough about why to even talk about it. In the U.S. there would be 100 different expressions and positions -- grumpy, happy, tired, angry, slouchy, wriggly, stretchy.... An overstuffed bus drives by, policemen in khaki with red and yellow stripes on shoulders and caps oversee a construction site. A love song (I think) plays in the background. My courtesy glass of tea keeps getting refilled. It's a beautiful warm morning in Hue, and I'm lucky to be here.)

Back to the mountain question. The tour company (TM Brothers) whipped together a solution -- get off the tour bus half way up the coast at Quy Nhon, and then take a local bus west to the mountains (Pleiku and Kon Tum). That way I would see 2 out of 3 mountain provinces, and have a chance to visit (and just be quiet) at the site of some terrible battles. Then go the next day by local bus to Da Nang on the coast. As often happened, the local bus trips were.. um, let's just say not boring.

As the nice safe tour bus entered Quy Nhon several hours north of Nha Trang, a banner in English (extremely unusual) said: "Welcome to Quy Nhon. Good luck to you." I felt I would need it. I worried when there would be a bus going to Kon Tum. And what kind -- sardine or room to move? I didn't think of the price but I should have.

As the tour bus came to a stop, a bus to Kon Tum appeared! The conductor ran out seeing a possible rider. I asked how much, and the tour bus conductor also negotiated with him. I heard "Tam ngan" (8 thousand -- about 50 cents) for a 5-hour trip. Wow, even cheaper than $1 for the 3-hour trip I'd taken from Tay Ninh to Saigon. But if it's too good to be true, it usually is.

Once in the bus (on a seat with some space) the bus conductor, a funny guy, started in on me. My Vietnamese was just enough to encourage him to ask questions and laugh at my response. You can always talk for 15 minutes about how old you are, the ages of your children, where you've been, etc. and play with the beautiful babies (who tend to pee when you hold them...) Then came the price -- "tram ngan" (100 thousand, or $7) I had always been quoted the Vietnamese price before, and was expecting 8 thousand, so I was confused. I asked several people if that was the price and they said it was. About triple what I'd paid before. Then the guy -- who knew he had a fish flopping on the hook -- said when I would go from Kon Tum to Da Nang it would be 300 thousand or $21! 300 kilometers, he said.... I felt I was in La La land! $21 on the minibus got me from Saigon to Ha Noi. Anyway, he was definitely playing with me, and trying to get whatever he could I paid him the 100, and later learned that Vietnamese would pay about 35, so the normally accepted double price for foreigners (which I support) would have been about 70. But the Lonely Planet says it's theoretically illegal to sell tickets to foreigners, and the conductor can charge whatever he wants. So 100 wasn't too bad. And when I went from Kon Tum to Da Nang, I negotiated the price to be 100 -- not 300!

Kon Tum was cool, almost cold, and high in the mountains. So far the temperature in all places has hovered between 90 and 100 (30-35C). I bargained with the honda guy at the bus station for muoi ngan (10) to take me to a hotel recommended by a man in the bus. But once at the hotel, he asked me for 20, and the hotel person told me, yes it should be 20. But ha! I know enough Vietnamese now to find out that he told the hotel person he'd brought me all the way from Pleiku to Danang! A bit embarassed, he took off with 10. But there seems to be a different spirit here. I don't know if it's because we're heading north, or just chance.

Kon Tum and Pleiku are places we heard during the war. Terrible battles took place here, one on Charlie Hill nearby where a Vietnamese commander determined not to retreat or surrender, and lost a large number of soldiers. A Vietnamese song was written: Nguoi o lai Charlie -- the people stayed in Charlie. On my one day in Kon Tum, I wanted to visit a battlefield -- just to be quiet in memory of the horrors that had taken place. The guide I expected to use was absent -- and the guides I got turned out to be people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the young girl in the Nha Trang hotel. They were Catholic Christians, and either they or their parents had been on the "wrong" side. So there were two reasons why their lives since 1975 had been hell. I was saddened to hear their story, but glad to be able to talk with them at length -- at a bar at the end of the day.

But it's 8:30 am, and perhaps this email has gone on long enough. So for now, goodbye from the blue mountains of Kon Tum province.

-Beth

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