25 August 2007

Toad Rock Beach

In need of a short beach trip, with limited funds, I had almost given in to the realization that I would have to go back to Mui Ne, where I had gone a few months after arriving in Vietnam. It was not really what I wanted to do.

The bus trip to Mui Ne is only $8, and “only 4 hours.” But you have to add in the hour I allow to get to the departure location, and then the hour waiting for the 8am bus which leaves at closer to 9am. Then there are all the stops it makes before dropping me at my hotel. So, six hours is closer to the time it really takes.

The hotel was another problem. Mui Ne is growing by the day. I hear that four years ago it was a cute little fishing village. When I went, it was wall-to-wall accommodation, ranging from cheap bungalows to costly resorts. I had stayed in a nice enough place, down the beach from the center. But that had been a year and a half ago, and there was a good chance it was no longer an isolated venue.

Add to that ,that I would have to leave Monday morning, and return Wednesday morning, and I had pretty much decided to call it all off. Then I remembered Binh Chau. I was told that it was only two hours from HCMC, and had a beach, hot springs, and wide open nature areas. Most of foreigners I talked to hadn’t even heard of it, which was a good sign. It might be sort of quiet and not over-priced. I had actually thought about going there over the May Day holiday, but everything had been booked, and prices tripled.

After finding the website, I called the Binh Chau Eco-resort. It is run by Saigon Tourist, a government organization that seems to own about half the hotels and tourist industry related businesses in Vietnam. I was thrilled to discover that although the resort was costly, the beach bungalows at Ho Coc Beach were only $8 a night. I booked a room.

Now the problem was how to get there. If one goes to any of the tourist places, anywhere in the country, you grab a bus down in the backpacker section. Not so for my destination. I was told to go to the main bus station, and to buy a ticket for Binh Chau, and given instructions where to get off. I was assured it was only a two hour ride.

Again, I asked friends about this bus station, and no one had ever heard of it. I then knew what I was in for; a giant bus terminal, with long rows of ticket windows, and a fair amount of chaos. I’ve been there-done that, too many times to count, although never in Vietnam. I kept asking the guy from the resort, as well as Vietnamese friends, for specifics. They kept saying it wouldn’t be a problem. I asked when the bus left. I was told “all day”, and to get the 7am bus.

Completely leery about the whole prospect I, nevertheless, caught a taxi at 5:45, so as to avoid morning traffic, and arrived about an hour later. And yes, it was my semi-nightmare come true.

There wasn’t one foreigner within 5 miles. This was going to put my Vietnamese to the test. I stared at the long row of ticket counters, one on either side of the main entrance, and tried to find something that said “Binh Chau”. Finally, I just walked up to a counter and asked. They pointed to an agent two windows down. I asked for a ticket and was told the bus left at 8:30am. It was only 7am. I tried to ask if there was an earlier bus, but got nowhere. I paid for the ticket and decided to first find the point of departure before trying to figure out what I would do for an hour and a half.

I walked out into the rows of buses and milling crowds, asking where to get on the bus. I young woman with an official looking “employee” tag around her neck, took me by the arm and led me away. Soon, I was surrounded by people wanting to know where I was going. They pointed to a filled mini-bus and said that was the one, and that I could get on.

I mentioned that it didn’t leave for over an hour, so I was in no rush to board. More people appeared, some of them drivers from other buses, my appointed guardian explaining where I wanted to go. A lot of commotion ensued, and a driver told me that his bus was leaving in ten minutes. I sold my ticket back to one man, (I assumed he went and got a refund). I was wondering if I was supposed to tip my personal travel agent, when she held up a bag of water bottles to sell me. I finally understood that all these people with tags around their necks were vendors. I bought some water, thanked her, then boarded the bus. At least I know that if I ever use that station again, I should simply walk out to the buses as ask who is leaving next.

I can’t say that I was really surprised to see that the 18 seat mini-bus was already filled, and the fold down seats between the rows, (2 seats on one side, one on the other), were already in use. This was the people’s transport, not for tourists. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to sit, but the driver came in and made the people in one row move over to let me in. There were now five people squished into three full seats and one fold down seat. I perched on the edge, and could not sit back. I also had my carry-on bag in my lap, which was banging into the people on either side of me. I haven’t yet learned how to say, “Is there a luggage section under the bus?”

After a lot of sign language and a few words, the driver’s helper took my bag and shoved it somewhere up front. They loaded on two more people before we finally took off. I had directions written out, and several people assured me that they knew where I needed to get off. Oh well, it was only for two hours.

Getting out of the city was slow and sweaty. I was glad it was early in the morning. I was stuck in the middle and there was no air conditioning. Once we were out into the rural areas, I tried to appreciate the scenery. But the bus kept stopping and piling on more people, until there were 35 of us. I looked at my watch and asked the lady next to me how long it would take. Her answer; three to three and a half hours.

We finally arrived at the corner where I had been told to get off. I walked under the awning of a little store to get out of the heat and to call the hotel for my driver. But no one answered. And then this guy showed up and asked if I was going to Ho Coc beach, and that he and his motorbike were for hire. I do not do motorbikes. I had been told I could get a taxi. But I was out of energy for anything, and it was a quiet road, and only 6 kilometers. I told the man at least six times that I was scared to death of motorbikes, and he had to drive slowly. I inspected his bike; it was new and shiny. He was in his late thirties, and I was very impressed that he put on glasses before we took off. (as opposed to a crappy bike, a 19 year old, and someone too vain to wear corrective lenses.)

We drove slowly and I tried to concentrate on fresh air and almost no traffic. I arrived in one piece at Ho Coc beach, and was met by the manager who spoke perfect English. There was a lot of construction going on around the enormous, open-air dining room. I was told that it had just been completed the week before. He later told me that it seated 400. No one was there.

We then went out to the bungalows. I didn’t see anyone other than workers. It was gorgeous. There were only 18 large bungalows arranged in three rows. The front three were built on raised platforms that had been made to look like tree trunks. Behind them, but still right on the beach front, were the second row, and behind that, the third set. All were positioned so that you could see the beach. It was then that I found out that I was the only guest. I choose a bungalow away from the workers, in the second row. The tree house ones were more expensive and unnecessary.

My bungalow was beautiful, except that I was concerned with the floor boards which were made of split bamboo that sagged when I walked on them. If you weighed any more than me, I am sure you would have broken them and fallen through to the sand, three feet below. Aside from that, it was equal to the one in Phu Quoc, which cost nearly five times the price. I settled in, looking forward to a very quiet stay.

When I opened my front door to the beach, (there was also a back entrance off the main walk), a saw a family of around twelve people rollicking on the beach, right in front of the bungalows. It was good that all I wanted to do was lie on the bed and look out at the beach. I would not have felt comfortable as the only foreign-bikini-clad-tourist, which would have caused a stir. I was hoping that they wouldn’t stay all day; I wasn’t quite sure if they had paid a “day fee,” or if maybe they were staying at the resort. They left at dusk.

Ho Coc means ‘Toad Rock’. It is named for a giant rock that looks like a turtle gazing out to sea. This is the legend of Ho Coc, which I am copying from the resort brochure:

One year there was a strange drought. All the rivers and springs dried up to such an extent that everything lacked water, and the plants and trees were withered. The Tribe of the Toads decided to sue the King of Heaven for rain to rescue all the creatures. To go up to heaven, though, all the toads had to swim through the vast sea, so they plodded away day and night, plunging and emerging from the water. They tried relentlessly, but they could not pass the great sea. The Toads’ leader was so sad that he decided to never move again and to stare at the sea forever without a motion.

From the Heaven’s Court, the King of Heaven was moved and impressed by the toad’s strong will and effort, so he ordered his ambassador to make rain on the earth. And then it was raining and all creatures shouted with joy and came in crowds to two hilltops close to the sea for singing and dancing. A strange thing happened - the toads saw their leader, who was still looking at the sea, turn into rock, his eyes fixed at the vast ocean facing the eastern direction. Today, that rock remains unchanged and named “Toad Piece”. The two hilltops now are “Tam Bo” and “Ho Linh” and the seashore is called Ho Coc.

In the evening, I walked over to the massive dining area for dinner. Other than the kitchen staff, I was the only person there. I ordered some calamari, talked a bit to the staff, and went back to my shack.

It always surprises me how much cooler it is in the evening at the beach as compared to HCMC. I almost felt chilled. I went to sleep on a truly comfortable bed, dreaming about the next day, and lying in the sun.

I woke up at 4am, and walked outside to sit on the bench in front of my bungalow. Way out at sea, I could see the lights of the fishing boats lined up along the horizon. I looked up to night sky and the millions upon millions of stars. Far off in the distance a storm was brewing. Lightening bolts lit up the skies in silence, being too far away for thunder to be heard. For an instant, the entire scene in front of me would be illuminated, then plunged back into darkness. I’d catch glimpses of the calm sea lapping on the rock-lined shore, and the silhouettes of the fishing boats. Every time the sky lit up, I tried to register how much I could see. Slowly, the storm clouds moved towards me, and soon soft, quiet rain began to pelt the sand in front of me, as I was sheltered by the overhang of the bungalow roof. I stayed there until I started to get wet.

The next morning, I was disappointed to see that it was grey and overcast. Plenty warm enough to lie on the beach, but I craved brilliant sun. About an hour later, I started to notice groups of mostly teenage boys, with a few girls mixed in, coming down to the beach. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts, carrying bags of food and drink. At first I thought they were just strolling down the beach, but then they sat down, right in front of my little house. And within an hour, there were hoards of loud kids, eating and dumping their garbage on the beach, then running into the water. This was not at all what I had expected, being at a ‘private’ resort, and they only registered guest.

I went to see the manager to find out what was up. Turned out that it was a school holiday and, apparently, every teenager in the area had come to the beach. I tried to ask why they were allowed on the resort, but no one seemed to understand. So it turns out that this perfect little ‘gem’ I had found, really was not. I was not going to get any tanning hours in.

The following day, I steeled myself for the trip home. The same man who had taken me on the motorbike was going to pick me up and drive me a little farther down the road from where he had picked me up when I arrived. This way, I was assured, I would get a good seat.

Once on the motorbike, I tried to look out upon the beautiful scenery to keep my mind off any possible peril. It didn’t work; I kept getting flashes of being road-kill. So I shut my mind off and thought about other things.

When we turned left onto the main road, I really started to feel uneasy. Only two kilometers, I kept repeating to myself. But then we kept driving, and driving. Yes, he was a good driver, but we were on the big road, and there were trucks, and we were going at a good clip. And still we kept driving. Forty minutes later we arrived at a real bus station. At least there were only two other passengers on the min-bus, and it was to leave in ten minutes. I got on and leaned back in the seat.

We were off to a good start. I had a window seat and the air rushing in felt good. The driver would slow down when we passed any place that seemed to have people waiting for a bus, and his ticket-collector would hang half-way out the open door and call out to people. We gradually filled all the seats and I was beginning to get the feeling that that had nothing to do with not taking on any more passengers. A few times we came to a complete stop and the ticket guy got off and physically steered people onto the bus. We were soon up to over thirty passengers but at least this time I had a prime, if squished, seat.

About two hours into the trip, when there really was not even one inch to spare, the bus came to a halt and everyone started getting off. I soon realized that we were being shifted to a different bus. This time, being one of the last on, I got caught in the middle again. And then the new ticket man started asking everyone to pay up, even though we had already paid on the last bus. Needless to say, my fellow passengers were having none of it, and the guy finally relented and left us alone. I was never so happy to get back to HCMC and hail a taxi. It was another hour before I got home, but I was cool and comfortable.

All in all, it was one of those experiences that builds character. If one subtracts all the noise and distraction at the beach, it really was a beautiful spot, with a wonderful story about its creation. Mom, you would have loved it.