26 November 2007

Nha Trang

I’d been planning my annual birthday trip for months. All I wanted was a few days of sun on a secluded beach where I could get a tan and collect sea shells. I figured I’d go to Nha Trang, an hour’s flight north of HCMC. Everyone who has been there has brought back good reports, but no one could recommend a hotel, so I was off internet hunting.

Unfortunately, all I seemed to find were ugly hotels, not even on the beach, but across a huge main boulevard. That was not what I had had in mind. Upon further research, I found a place called Paradise Resort, that had beautiful bungalows on a long stretch of beach. The price was a mere $18 a day, which included three meals a day. It also was 33 kilometers north of town. After not too much thought, I decided that it really wasn’t that far to travel and it was exactly what I wanted. I booked my ticket and Paradise.

A few days before my trip, a nasty typhoon was moving in towards the Philippines, with a good chance that it would continue on to Vietnam and hit Nha Trang. I kept up with reports, right up until 4am Thursday morning, an hour before I needed to leave for the airport. The forecast was grim. I thought maybe I should cancel but knew if I did, the typhoon would dissipate and I would be stuck in HCMC. I should have cancelled.

My flight left at 7am. I was not pleased to see that it would be on one of Vietnam Air’s little prop jets. They give these runs to the new guys and they have always been rather bumpy flights and landings. I was also thinking about the typhoon. And then there was the fact that Paradise was in fact a 2 hour taxi ride from the airport. Nha Trang flights, up until a year ago, landed in the downtown airport. They have since moved to Cam Ranh airport, 45 minutes away from downtown. Buckled in, it was too late to change my mind.

I sat next to an American doctor who was in Vietnam overseeing an international medical training project. He told me that he had been in Vietnam in the mid 60’s as a USAID worker. We were having a pleasant conversation when the turbulence started. It was fairly horrific, went on entirely too long, but I managed not to loose my breakfast. The lady across from me kept yelling with every bump. She later apologized and I answered that that is how we all felt, but had persevered to not scream.

Coming into Can Ranh, my seatmate told me that it had been built as an airbase by the US military during the war. It is a massive, basically deserted airfield. Besides worn out tarmac there didn’t seem to be much other than sand and some green ground cover. The landing was a few bounces short of a text-book maneuver, and I was really happy to de-plane.

Waiting to get our bags, the doc asked if I’d brought my skeeter repellent. Damn! Once again I had forgotten. He said he had an extra bottle, and handed me a container of Cutter Bug wipes, to which I said, “I went to school with Tommy Cutter!” I really wonder what ever happened to Tommy.

After collecting my bag, I walked outside to the grey, drizzling day, and found my taxi driver waiting. I don’t remember much of the ride into town; I was whipped, having had little sleep, it was a grey day, and the raindrops impaired my vision. As we got into town and started to pass some of the hotels I had seen on-line, I was truly grateful I hadn’t booked any. There was the beach bordered by a lovely promenade, then that double wide boulevard, and then the hotels. At one point we pulled over, and my driver told me his brother and his brother’s taxi would take me the rest of the way.

For the next hour I did notice the beautiful scenery. We drove over a river and I saw that all the fishing boats were painted a bight, royal blue. They reminded me of Portuguese fishing boats. And they didn’t have any eyes! They are the first sightless boats I have seen in Vietnam. When we went through small villages, their houses were also blue. Very lovely.

We arrived at Paradise and I was really looking forward to meeting the owner, “Mr. Cheri. A Frenchman”. That is what it said on the website and how I addressed him on the phone, but his email address said “Vladimir.” He came out to great me and I guessed his age as late 60’s even though he walked and moved like a 30 year-old. I later learned he was 80! Throughout my stay there I would ask about his life and got bits and pieces, but mostly that he had lived here and there and done this and that. I did ascertain that he was Croatian. Then again, maybe not. He had been in Vietnam for eleven years, had a 32 year old wife and two young boys.

Paradise resort really was nice, although the weather pretty much made it impossible to get a good look at things. There were basic beach bungalows and beautiful apartments and higher quality bungalows, a huge eating area, patio/lounge space and, of course, the sea. Only one other guest was there at the time, so I had my pick of accommodation. I chose the high-grade bungalow right at the water’s edge. A two meter wall protected me from the surf, which seemed to be getting quite wild, especially since the water there is supposed to be fairly flat.

I unpacked my bag cursing myself for the 300th time about the fact that I, yet again, did not bring enough warm clothes. I had the sweatpants out the night before, but decided they would be too warm. I spent the next 4 days in my one pair of grubby jeans and one long-sleeved t-shirt, sweatshirt and scarf.

My days were spent reading, eating, and sleeping, as the weather got worse. I enjoyed talking to the one other guest, a retired guy from Sweden, bumming around Vietnam for six months. I kept bugging Mr. Cheri about the weather forecast. Although there was no wind, the waves were getting scary, especially since my bungalow was right there in the front of it all. At one point he told us we were on alert for evacuation. Great.

The first night I was on my bed reading, doors open, listening to the waves crashing. I kept getting up to check how close they were to my room. At this point, they were about two meters high and seemed to be breaking just a few feet in front of me. I kept envisioning tsunami scenarios. Around 9pm, totally freaked, I packed my bag, left it in my room, and high-tailed it up to the dining area, which was farther up the hill, to see what the situation was. No one was around. Fine with me, I was prepared to sleep at the table. About 10:30 Mr. Cheri came down, asking what I was doing. I explained that I was about to be swept away by waves and he started to laugh. “No problem”. Finally convinced he knew what he was talking about, I went back to my bungalow.

The next night I was up every hour to check on the waves and kept my bag packed for a hasty retreat. At least I finally remembered to use the bug wipes so that when I was sitting outside before crawling under the mosquito net, I wouldn’t be chomped on. Reading, I looked down and noticed my bright red nail polish was on a page of the book. Oh crap! Cutter bug wipes take of nail polish! I quickly ran in to wash off my hands. My nails remained sticky. Wonderful, stuck in the middle of a typhoon, no nail polish remover to get the rest off, and gummy nails. I washed my hands again, then tried to forget about it. Eventually they did dry and I was saved from any embarrassing nail situations. Add that to your list of nail polish removers, along with brake fluid. (don’t ask)

The rain never stopped until Sunday morning. And although it wasn’t sunny, at least then I could do one walk on the beach and collect shells. I was glad that this trip had come to an end and I could go home. On the drive to the airport I was able to get a better look at the area. The road to Can Rahn is brand new and beautiful. But when we got to the airport, it was a different story. Because I had been talking to people and in a hurry to get into the taxi when I had arrived, I hadn’t paid attention to my surroundings.

Can Rahn airport is haunted. I felt it as soon as we drove in. When I first came to Vietnam, the war was always in my mind; in the names of places, in the people I saw. But it was always an intellectual connection, not something I physically felt. Vietnam to me has become just the country where I live and work. It has lost its edge as the place of such useless death and destruction. It is not that I have ever forgotten that, but that those sentiments had been pushed into the backdrop of my life. Looking out at the vast expanse of Can Rahn, now only a tiny air terminal and a few abandoned buildings, I said to myself, this is why I have come here.

I walked around outside and could feel the ghosts and sadness in every step I took, and in every place I looked. Inside, on the second floor, I gazed out onto what I estimate would be miles of paved ground, now barren but for two planes.
I found I could not sit down. The building itself was oppressive.

We were loaded into the bus and driven out to our plane. I stepped out onto the tarmac and was wracked by an overwhelming sense of sorrow. While the others moved quickly to board the plane, I stood back and tried to concentrate on what I was feeling. What could I do? Someone needs to heal this landing strip, and I am just little me. Maybe just being aware, just being receptive to the grief reaching out and enveloping me was what I was supposed to do.

I’d spent most of my vacation pretty much just wanting to leave and feeling anxious. Getting onto the plane, I felt much calmer. Some purpose had been served, although it was not the one I had planned.