25 March 2011

Temple of the Whale

I came to Mui Ne because it’s on the beach. I wanted a place to write and relax. Most days I don’t leave the hotel grounds except to walk on the beach or go for a meal close by. There really isn’t much to see right in my neighborhood other than tourists and tourist related industry. So I was rather surprised that the tourist map I had bought contained more than just advertisements for local restaurants and clubs. There are several places of interest within a 30 minute bus ride. Today’s trip was to the Whale Temple.

The local bus let me off within two blocks of the little temple, located in Phan Thiet, the “big” city at the other end of the bay.

According to the blurb on the tourist map, the Thuy Tu Temple was built in 1762 by fishermen to worship the whale. It goes on to say that there are nearly 100 skeletons at the temple, more than half of which are 100-150 years old. It mentions a burial ground within the temple which has been used for beached whales. And that’s about all I knew before I got there, and pretty much what I knew after I left. At times like these I really, really want a translator. What could be more fascinating than a place where whales are worshiped and have been for centuries?
Since I was unable to talk to the source, I had to rely on the internet and got a bit more information.
Worship of the Whale God is a religion practiced by coastal fisherman in Vietnam and dates back to at least the early Khmer and Cham cultures. They believe that this god protects them while at sea and will guide them to shelter in a storm. Whales are highly revered creatures in Vietnam and have never been hunted here. If a dead whale or dolphin washes up on the coast, there is an elaborate ceremony performed to mourn and honor the mammal. It is then buried and three to five years later exhumed; the remains then carried to the temple to be worshiped. From what I have found, it seems the last whale funeral was in 2002. Once a year, around August, there is a large festival in honor of the whale and to ask for protection on the seas in the coming year.

I arrived at the small temple and was ushered in by a gentleman collecting the nominal entrance fee. From there one walks into the room which holds the intact skeleton of a fin whale. A placard stated that it was 22 meters long, (aprox 67 ft) and I believe it said it weighed 65 metric tons. I think this whale passed on to the great ocean in the beyond, either 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. (I’m not sure that I understood the man at the temple, or if the internet information was accurate.)

There were a few local people visiting the whale. I saw a woman reach out and touch the fin of the skeleton. Being raised in a culture where you are never allowed to touch a museum exhibit, it bothered me a little. But then I noticed a young man, clearly not a tourist, doing the same thing and I believe they were communing with the whale’s spirit, not desecrating its remains.

From there I walked over to the temple proper. Music and chanting was blaring from loudspeakers that came from a small room to the left where men in bright blue costumes were praying.

After making sure it was all right to enter, and then if it was ok to take pictures, I stepped into the first room with its central alter in golds and reds. There were also smaller ones on the sides. A few older folks sat around the edges and some others were lighting incense and praying. I did try to ask about it all, but my limited Vietnamese was not going to work. One gentleman guided me up to the alter. When I saw the donation box, I took out some money and put it in, then pointed to the incense. He kindly took out three sticks, lit them for me, and showed me where to stand. I said a few blessings for the whale god and for my mother, who loved whales. When he saw that I had finished, he took the burning incense and placed in the pot on the alter. Then he mimed that I should fold my hands in front of myself and bow.

This room led to a small passageway that held the remains of whales gone by. Again, I couldn’t ascertain just how many creatures were stored there. I then walked into the back room that also opened out onto an ally.

Another alter covered the wall facing away from the ally. In front of it, and out onto the street, tables were set for some sort of lavish luncheon. I had no idea if this was a weekly affair or if it was some special occasion. In a room to the right, women were preparing platters of food while young men waited outside, later to deliver the food to the tables. When people started to arrive for their meal, I left the temple.

When I first arrived I had noticed that across the street was a workshop of people making those little round rowboats that one sees all over Vietnam. They are completely constructed of woven bamboo. I had wanted to take pictures but again, the instinct to be non-intrusive took over. As I walked out of the temple and again looked across to the boat shop, I saw that there was a tiny drinks café set up in a courtyard adjoining it. Perfect; I’d buy a drink and hope I could talk to some people and take pictures.

I got my drink and sat at the table watching a man making lamps out of pieces of bamboo. He pointed to a fantastic mural on the wall across the way and said he had painted it. Then he excused himself as he was already late for the prayer service across the street at the temple.

His wife stayed around and introduced me to the five dogs she had, all very friendly. When I finished I got up and walked over to takes pictures of the boats. Being that it was lunch time and temple time, no one was actually working on the boats. I will have to go back another time.

I think it will be a mission of mine to find someone associated with the whale religion and who also speaks English. I really need to know a lot more about this wonderful faith.


20 March 2011

Super Full Moon

The Super Full Moon of March 19th arrived in Vietnam last night. After reading that it only occurs every 20 years or so, and that the moon would be 14% larger than normal, I readied myself with moonrise information. I scouted out the hotel grounds for photo op locations. I had no idea where the moon would rise but was out and searching at 5:40pm.

I’d read on the NASA site that the best photos are taken when the moon is still low on the horizon and there is an object, like a tree, in front of it. There are lots of palm trees around but I knew they would be too tall to get a shot of the moon just coming up. I needn’t have worried; it was still light until after 6:00pm and I couldn’t even find the moon. Eventually I did, it was beautiful, but even my new, very expensive camera was not up to awesome lunar shots. I went out several times during the night, but had no further luck in producing the beautiful moon picture I had hoped for.

That adventure over with, I needed to start on a serious effort of eating properly. The worst thing about hotel living is that you can’t prepare much of your own food. Buying fresh fruit and carrots is no problem. And last week I made the 35 minute bus trip out to the only supermarket in the region and was able to stock up on Corn Flakes, cashews, soy milk, and orange juice. (in those boxes that have a shelf life of 50 years.) But that really isn’t the best way to eat for weeks at a time.

One would think that in a locale which was only small fishing villages until about ten years ago when the tourism trade took off, it would be easy to get a fantastic meal of grilled fish. Not so. Yesterday I tried yet another local restaurant and I swear the fish had been marinated in mothballs.

And that brings up another question; what type of fish have I been ordering? The menu may have several different fish listed but when I question further I find out they only offer the one fish I have eaten since arriving. It is not very good, it is always overcooked and the flavor goes from bland to hideous. I find myself forcing down food and trying not to think about what I am eating or where it came from.

There are also my particular food requirements. I don’t do MSG. This has nothing to do with philosophical or religious reasons, but bad-reaction reasons. Migraines and puking for a day or two after ingesting the stuff is not pleasant. When I go into any restaurant I tell them, in three different languages, that I can’t eat MSG. (Ajinomoto, Bot Ngot, Knorr). Sometimes they tell me they don’t use it but when questioned further say, “but it’s just a little.” And even when they swear they will not use any, they do.

So I will try to figure out how to eat well. And I will try to ignore the closet moths that are multiplying at an alarming rate and, I assume, devouring my clothes. And I will also remember that cleaning with water-only is how they do it here, so must just get used to it. The rest of it is still on the amazing scale, so I think I should do just fine.


12 March 2011

No Tsunami in Vietnam

As I walked back from a late, fish lunch two days ago, I received a frantic text message from a Vietnamese friend in Ho Chi Minh City. She told me of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Since I am at the beach, she urged me to run for the hills as fast as I could.

A little freaked, I got to my room and turned on the CNN and BBC. Tsunami warnings had been issued for the entire Pacific Basin, but I didn’t see Vietnam on either the maps they were showing or on the countries listed. I flipped to the Vietnamese channels where no broadcasts were being interrupted with tidal wave warnings. I text-ed my friend with this news. She wrote back to say that Vietnam had no tsunami warning system and I needed to get away from the water.

Still a bit nervous, I went to the lobby area and spoke to the owner. He more or less laughed at me. There was no problem in Mui Ne and never is a problem here. Apparently, because of the geography of the area, it is where ships are told to come when there is any sort of storm at sea. He told me that the name Mui Ne means Safe Harbor. OK; I was mollified for the moment, but did keep a close watch on the news and the sea level. If I saw the water suddenly retreating, I was ready to make a run for it.

The internet had been on and off for most of the day so I thought it best to email folks and let them know that all was ok here at the beach. Back watching the news I find out that Northern California is on a tsunami watch. What was up with that? I’m not that far from Japan, and all is well, yet San Francisco was busy preparing for destructive forces from the ocean.

I stayed up long enough to see that Hawaii got a slight hit but couldn’t stay awake to watch the California events, although the waves were to arrive within the hour. How could that be happening so soon after they left Japan? It takes 12 hours to fly from San Francisco to Taipei, yet the tsunami made the trip from Japan to California in seven hours? Next time I travel, I am going by tsunami.


07 March 2011

What I Wake Up To Every Morning

From the window of my little room, I can see and hear the ocean which lies less than 50 yards from where I sit. Mui Ne is a bay without giant waves crashing on the shore. Still, I can listen to the constant ebb and flow of the water as it laps upon the sand and rocks me through the night.

In the continual warmth of the day, most often cooled by a gentle wind, I gaze up at the coconut palms backed by brilliant blue skies and wonder if there is anything more beautiful in the whole wide world.

I have no idea why it took me over six weeks in Vietnam to finally get to a beach where I know I belong. In part, I wanted to visit with friends and be in a place that I knew well which happened to be in the big city. And then there was the decision of which beach to go to. Contrary to what one reads in the guide books, I do not find the tourist beaches to be very alluring here. And I am just not up to roughing it on a secluded patch of ocean of which there is probably no shortage.

There are, of course, a few beautiful islands, but then you are stuck on an island, costs are high, and there really isn’t any local population to delve into, which is important for me when I travel.

It was around six years ago that I first came to Mui Ne. It was my first trip to a Vietnamese beach, it was close to Ho Chi Minh City where I was working, and friends told me it was lovely. I was happy to find a hotel that was away from the central area that everyone seemed to rave about.

I remember walking a few kilometers down the road to the “center” of tourist-town. It consisted of one hotel after another, no space in between. The beach was packed with mostly young ones drinking, surfing, parasailing, and sitting on the beach. It was not my scene; it had not been my scene even when I had been one of the young ones.

For me, the beach is solitude and waves, collecting seashells and meditation. When I was last here, I remember enjoying my somewhat isolated retreat where I could go out every morning to watch the fishermen pulling in their nets. I also knew that just a few years prior, this area had been only fishing villages and figured that in another few years even that stretch of beach would look like the crowded areas.

So that was my dilemma; where was I to find that elusive beach atmosphere with some of the conveniences but without the party-life and noise? I searched and searched on the internet and finally decided I might as well give Mui Ne another try. It was the right decision. Not everything in Mui Ne has been overbuilt. Sometimes one simply has to take the risk of ending up in hell to find paradise.

The fishermen are still here. They still go out in their little boats and still haul their nets in every morning. I like to sit at the beach entrance to my hotel and watch the morning rituals of pulling in the nets. But it makes me self-conscious; as if I am intruding on their time with the sea. Or maybe it bothers me that I am the rich gal who can afford to watch them work so hard for so little money. I want so much to capture it all on film, but it seems too invasive.

This morning I did go out and I did take pictures, along with several other tourists. But before I left the beach I handed one of the women a bit of money, thanking her for letting me take photos. I will never be comfortable with the rich gal status I carry with me when in countries like Vietnam. I only hope that I am making a favorable impression and not offending those who live here and who have called it home for centuries.


03 March 2011

Windsurfing in Mui Ne

Coming into Mui Ne in the taxi, I’d noticed a banner strung across a hotel. About all I could understand was Windsurfing Competition and March 1-5, the rest being written in Vietnamese. Well this was fortuitous. Once situated in hotel number one, I cruised the internet for details. Yes, there was a PWA, (Professional Windsurfer’s Association), contest going on right here in town. The problem was that the PWA site didn’t list where in Mui Ne it was happening.

Once in hotel number two, I continued my search for windsurfing details and was just about to go out on the street to flag down surfer-types when I stopped to chat with another hotel guest sitting in the shade in front of her room, five-month-old baby on her lap. We talked about the kid and I noticed a surfboard lying to her right. It turned out that her husband was in the competition and she told me to go down to the Full Moon Resort to watch.

A little background on me and surf related sports; had I grown up at the water’s edge, (and not across a bay that lead to the Pacific Ocean), and had that shoreline been in a hot weather location, (and not frigid Northern California with its 50°F/ 10°C water), I would have been a surfer.
The ocean is my lifeblood. There is nothing on earth that clears my mind and replenishes my soul as does a walk along the beach listening to the sounds of the crashing surf.

Even growing up turning blue in order to romp in the waves of Stinson Beach didn’t deter me from the dream of catching a few waves on a board. (But access and equipment did.) It wasn’t until I jumped into the warm waters in Southern California at around 14 that I realized I had been tricked into thinking one must endure pain in order to play in the ocean. From that time forward I think I only tested the arctic waters of the north a few more times. I knew what was available and I was holding out.

Landing in San Diego to go to college I, of course, lived in Ocean Beach. Everyone there surfed or scuba-ed and I watched with vicarious delight and with more than a bit of sadness that I wasn’t out there with them. One apartment I had overlooked the Ocean Beach Pier and the waves beyond. I actually would have a few surfer friends call to ask how the waves were at any particular time of day. All I could answer was, They’re breaking.

I moved to another apartment where my neighbors were all into, at the time, cutting edge sports like hang-gliding and windsurfing, which was so new that one of the guys was hand-manufacturing boards. They invited me for a windsurfing lesson and I was over the moon. Little did I know that I was not going to be able to master the sport.

Maybe I was past the age of developing water and sailing skills. My friend kept telling me to snap up the sail and make sure the wind was at my back. I tried and tried but just couldn’t manage to hold that contraption in the right position to catch the wind. I don’t know how long I was out on that little lake when I finally gave up, lay down on the board, and began to paddle towards shore which was taking a long time. My friend easily sailed out on his board and towed me back in.

And here I am, all these years later, still dreaming of my little surf shop on a white-sands, tropical beach. Possibly I’ll never have that, which is ok, but that doesn’t stop me from my surfer girl mind-set.

I caught the bus down to the Full Moon Resort, which is one of the high-dollar joints in town. The entranceway and surrounding gardens with brilliant flowers and lots of shady palms looked charming. With many of the hotels along that stretch of beach, it is just a matter of walking through the entrance, out through their beach café, and onto the beach proper. Not quite the case with the Full Moon. It sits above the beach on a mini-cliff requiring climbing down a bunch of stairs to the sands below.

Not that it mattered as this was the spot where the event guys were set up, manning a number of laptops. It was also and the main filming area for both foreign videographers and Vietnamese press photographers. I ordered an ice coffee and joined the ranks of the press corp. I didn’t even need the press pass that they all had hanging around their necks.

Since the wind had yet to pick up to an acceptable sailing speed, the contest was on hold. This gave me time to check out my photographic competition. Right. These guys had the bad-boy mega lenses. I pulled out my new, very expensive Canon, with its little bitty zoom. I made eye contact with one of the photographers and pointed to my camera and then to his and laughed. I walked over and asked about his very expensive Canon and that 400mm lens. The lens alone weighed close to 6 kilos. I looked out to where the action was to take place and knew it was a virtual impossibility to get any good shots of folks jumping their boards over the water. Even if I walked down to the sand, I wouldn’t get much. My alternative was to hang out with the guys getting paid to do what I was trying to do and take pictures of them and the sunshine.

I sat back down to sip my coffee, took off my lens cap and saw some grime on the lens. It hadn’t occurred to me up until then that I should have brought a lens cloth with me. And why the heck didn’t it come with my very expensive camera? But hey, I was surrounded by pros; they’d know what to do. It took me a few minutes to gather the courage before approaching one of the men and asking how to clean my lens. He asked me to hand him my camera. For less than a split second I worried about him dropping it. (I don’t ever hand this camera to anyone to even take a picture of me). Of course I quickly realized that my camera was much safer in his hands than even in mine. He called out to his buddy to lend him the required materials. With the gentlest care imaginable, he first cleaned the lens with one cloth and then finished it with another. At least I now know that this is a two-step process.

Every ten or fifteen minutes an announcement came over the loudspeakers informing us that the competition was still on hold due to lack of wind. Mind you, I thought it was quite breezy, but apparently it was not enough for windsurfing. And it was already past 3 in the afternoon. And the sun goes down by 6pm. The guys would look at each other and shake their heads. I’d look and say something like maybe tomorrow. The last announcement I heard before leaving was that if the wind picked up they would start at 4:05. That was enough for me. I hopped on a bus back home.

I might head out again in the next day or two if it gets really windy. I don’t think I can get any good pictures but I would like to watch the guys and gals take to the sea. And more importantly, just being around the whole surf scene makes me very, very happy.


This is my one winsurfer shot; a speck on the landscape. I took a peak at the same shot done by one of the real guys with the big lens, and you can read the name on the riders sunglasses.

01 March 2011

Travelling to Mui Ne

The only way to get to Mui Ne Beach is by bus or train. I didn’t relish the thought of either even if it was only four hours away. It has to do with the one major downfall of travelling alone; who watches your bag when you go to take a pee?

A bus trip would have meant going to the very crowded backpacker section of Ho Chi Minh City, which gets even more crowded in the morning when all the buses line up to take tourists and locals to vacation destinations. It would have meant watching your suitcase get thrown in the storage unit under the bus and then just hoping it will be there when you arrived. It also meant a long, uncomfortable trip, maybe with a potty break; maybe not.
So it was to be the train. And what the heck was wrong with me? I come from a long and honorable line of railroad engineers; it’s in my DNA. I love trains. I love the sound and the chug-a-chug, and the ability to get up and roam around. Except there still remained the problem of who watches the bags. Worst case scenario I just might be able to avoid leaving my belongings in search of the train loo if I stopped drinking anything 24 hours before the trip.
I came to Vietnam with a big suitcase, a small suitcase, and a backpack that contained laptop and camera. There were definitely things I could leave at a friend’s house thereby deleting the small suitcase. As I sat on the larger one trying to zip it at 5:00am yesterday morning, I wondered how I still had managed to be travelling with so much weight.

The taxi dropped me at the station at 6:15 which gave me forty minutes to wait on the platform and try to sort out just how I was going to get that heavy bag up onto the train and after that, just exactly where I was going to put it.
Luck would have it that this guy saw me walk over to get on. He looked as though he might have spoken English, but he didn’t say anything. Just pointed to my bag indicating he would help, then hauled it up onto the train and without my even asking, shoved it behind the last two seats. Fantastic! I was set. Except that that wasn’t my assigned seat. Once again, I had forgotten to think things through. I should have requested an aisle seat, I should have asked for the last seat in the car. I got anxious for no reason at all since it turned out those last two seats were empty. And it was then that I realized that in the future I will just pay for two seats and make sure they are in the back of the car. Considering the trip only costs around $4, double that price is worth the comfort and freedom of mind.
The ride was comfortable since I had two seats and when I did need to get up and move, I looked around the train car; people looked normal. I didn’t see any thugs or shady characters so just left my backpack in my seat. The train toilet was at the front of the adjoining car. Having been in a Vietnamese train bathroom before, I knew what to expect. A squatter toilet. On a rocking train. Much more dangerous than on an airplane with turbulence. I then made the mistake of hitting the flush pedal and only speedy reaction time saved me from a soaking wet shoe.
I was now no longer so obsessed with watching my belongings. I stood between the cars and let the rhythms run through me. I began to hum along with the four measure repeating cadence that the train made as we rumbled through farm land and jungle. It was as close to a samba beat as I was going to get and seeing that it is just about Carnaval time, I did a few Brazilian steps to the tempo of the locomotive.
The scenery was lovely and I thought of pulling out the camera but with dirty, scratched-up windows, nothing would have looked very nice. Also, it was simply too labor intensive to haul it out.
Once at the train station in Phan Thiet, I hopped in a taxi for the twenty minute ride to my hotel. Yet another harrowing trip along a narrow two-lane road, taxi driver honking and passing everything in sight. At least this car had functioning seatbelts.
Within twenty seconds of arriving at the hotel, I was already getting bad vibes. I could see that the rooms were not what I had expected. Although on the beach, there were no “sea views”. Two long buildings of guestrooms ran along either side of a central garden/courtyard. I passed one with an open door and it was pitch black inside at twelve noon. But what was most troubling was the surly staff.
In all my travels in Vietnam, and in fact the world, I don’t think I have ever been to a hotel where the staff made me feel as if I were imposing on them. And then the gal at reception tells me there are no rooms because they over-booked. I pointed out I had a reservation and she got upset. They finally took me to an upper level room. I saw at least four other empty rooms.
The room was small-basic-basic, but since it was relatively new, it was clean. Being upstairs it was bathed in sunlight from the huge windows that ran across the front of the room. OK, that was nice. But then I noticed that the windows didn’t open. And I noticed there was no mini-fridge, but there was internet access. That’s another major change fro just five years ago; no budget hotel had internet then and now every place, from cheap to five star, has Wi-Fi available in the rooms.
The place was fine for the night but not for anymore than that. Just before I had left HCMC, I ran into a friend who had given me a name of a hotel in Mui Ne that was reasonably priced and very nice. So after dropping off my bags, I headed out to walk down the street to find it. On the local map I had picked up, it was just down the road.

After walking twenty minutes I realized this was another Vietnam tourist map that greatly distorted distances. I stopped to ask how far the hotel was and found out it was another 5K. This time I did not mess up the conversion to miles. I then asked about a city bus. I just happened to be at the bus stop and one would be by in fifteen minutes.
I instantly fell in love with the new hotel the minute I walked through the front entrance. It had beautiful gardens, and wide open structures and it just had to be way above what I had hoped to spend. But I persevered. A smiling young man came out to greet me and I explained what I was looking for. He took me over to the front desk and handed me a room price list. There must have been something wrong; rooms for $16? I must have looked shocked because he quickly explained the 10% discount. Still not quite believing that this could be true, I asked to see the rooms. They were similar in size and darkness to where I had just come from. I asked to see something with more light. I have booked the room for a week and will move there in a few hours. I will pay $18 a night because I want hot water and breakfast, otherwise it would be $14. This still just doesn’t make sense, when everything else around here starts at close to $40. Even the backpacker places are $12.
I will be very happy to finally unpack for a while and not have to get on a plane or train. And I am at the beach, the most wonderful place to be in the world.