A Christmas in Nha Trang

We got up early and drove from Hoi An to Da Nang, where we were supposed to board a day train to the beach town of Nha Trang. The trains in Vietnam are known for being bad at timings – sometimes they’re early, sometimes they’re late. They are rarely on time. This one was late, and we had to wait over an hour in the rather inadequately provisioned train station. Eventually the train arrived and we all hurried with our luggage onto the train tracks to climb up into the train – once inside it was chaos, with far too many people trying to cram too much luggage down the narrow carriage isles and into their cabins.

The added bonus of this 10 hour journey was that I was meeting my friend and repeat travel buddy Sam, who had got on the train in Hanoi the night before, Understandably, he was feeling a little worse for wear after over 12 hours on a Vietnamese sleeper train, but we actually quite enjoyed the journey, watching the Vietnamese countryside roll past and drinking beer in the bar carriage. It was Christmas eve, after all, so drinking seemed to be in order! We arrived in Nha Trang around 9pm, checked into the hotel as quickly as we could and headed out to find some food and suitable Christmas eve entertainment.

We failed to find an appetizing Vietnamese restaurant and as Sam was getting increasingly hungry we went to a movie-themed western restaurant called Tarentinos for some pasta and chicken wings. As is common in South East Asian restaurants, service was pretty haphazard. When we first walked in, we were given a menu entirely in Russian (the recent addition of a direct flight from Moscow to Nha Trang has caused an enormous influx in Russian tourists in the area, to the extent that many restaurants now cater specifically to them). Then, more than 20 minutes after placing our orders, and well after I’d received my chicken wings, the waitress came out to tell us that the meal Sam had ordered wasn’t available. So he reluctantly chose something else and we then had to wait for that to arrive. It was already late and we were anxious to get on with our Christmas Eve. Once we’d eaten we decided to bid fair well to Tarentinos, and headed back to a backpacker bar near our hotel for some cheap cocktails before midnight.

A couple of cocktails and some shots later we had cheered up considerably, and rushed down to the beach to see Christmas day in. We made it just in time, and sitting on a beach chair watching the waves come in, we heard music in the distance. Further down the beach there were lights and music – some kind of Christmas eve party was happening. Sam dragged me down the beach to check it out. As we got closer we realised it was a huge party at the sailing club. We paid the rather steep entrance fee (which did at least come with two free drinks), and headed straight to the dance floor. The party was amazing, the DJ was great and there was a fantastic atmosphere in the crowd, which was a roughly equal split of tourists and locals. We stayed till late and stumbled back to our hotel around 2am.

Christmas morning we had a much-needed lie-in and then went for a huge full English breakfast at a cafe just round the corner from the hotel. Hangovers cured, we set about some sightseeing activities for the afternoon. Just outside of town was something called the Po Nagar towers, that were mentioned in our guide book and sounded interesting. It wasn’t totally clear where they were, though – the street listed in the guidebook was off the map. But, we were feeling adventurous, and there were precious few things in Nha Trang that were walking distance of anything else, so we wandered out into the town to investigate. The weather was finally what I’d imagined for southeast Asia – hot enough to dance on the beach until 2am, and hot enough to find it rather difficult to adhere to the tradition of covering knees and shoulders during the day. We walked across Nha Trang, sort of succeeding in navigating using our rather useless map, and bumped into a market which we decided to have a little wander around. We continued, now heading into the unknown – where the road left the edge of the map. We walked and walked, across unbelievably busy roundabouts, down run-down streets and past an increasingly curious audience of locals. I stopped to marvel at what appeared to be an entire nest of an ant species, which had been destroyed and the larvae were being collected, presumably for food (for people or pets, it wasn’t clear). It was sort of heart-breaking to watch the ants in disarray, desperately trying to save their young. We carried on, and soon we found ourselves on what felt like a very main road. The pavement petered out and we seriously considered going back. But we pushed on a little further and suddenly I saw in the distance a glimpse of some ancient buildings, and a rock sign built into the hillside that said ‘Po Nagar’ – we’d found it!

VTN_037The Po Nagar towers were absolutely magical – tall, ancient buildings in bright orange brick, and inside each one a shrine. Unfortunately, given the oppressively hot weather, I was wearing shorts and a singlet, so I couldn’t go into any of the shrines. We wandered around the temple for a while and had an ice cream to provide a short moment of relief from the heat. Finally we headed back towards the city. We needed to get a train ticket sorted out for Sam if he was going to come down to Ho Chi Minh city with me tomorrow as planned – my ticket was provided as part of the tour but Sam was just planning to tag along. With only a few hick-ups and moments of confusion we managed to find the train station. It was then that I realised I wasn’t totally sure which train we were getting. The one I thought we would be on didn’t make sense in terms of times, and I didn’t have the confidence to say which train we were on. So Sam couldn’t risk buying a ticket. Feeling a little deflated we walked back towards the hotel via the beach and had a little stroll along the sand before popping back to our room to shower and get changed before dinner.

We were supposed to go for dinner with Monique but she decided to join the rest of the group and so Sam and I went out for dinner on our own. It was Christmas Day, so we felt we should get something special, but I didn’t want to attempt to find a traditional English Christmas dinner as I felt it would only be disappointing. So instead we opted for something totally different, and ended up in an Italian restaurant, claiming to be the best in Nha Trang. The owner was in the restaurant, chatting and drinking with some friends and he was clearly Italian from his accent, which certainly improved our hopes that it would be a nice meal. And it was. I had a proscuitto pizza and it was absolutely delicious. Afterwards, having said we might try to meet up with Monique at a the backpacker bar near our hotel, we rushed back there so we didn’t miss her. We got a couple of drinks and started chatting to some other backpackers, including one very sweet, lonely Swedish guy. He seemed very defeatist about his romantic life, even though he was a very sweet guy, so we schemed a little to try and set him up with Monique. Of course, Monique never showed up so we ended up dashing his hopes once again.

The next morning we continued our new routine – wake up late with a hangover, get a late brunch at the cafe 2 doors down from our hotel. Early afternoon we headed out again to do some more sightseeing. But first, we still needed to get a train ticket to Ho Chi Minh for Sam. So we decided to walk to the train station on our way to more interesting things. We managed to find the station again, but it was around 2pm and the ticket counters were closed for lunch. It was ridiculously hot. We had no idea how long it might be before ‘lunch’ ended, so we resolved to come back after we’d visited a nearby temple.

VTN_041So we headed to see the Long Song Pagoda, home to a huge seated Buddha. There is also a lying Buddha and a rather beautiful Buddhist temple there. We looked around the temple a little and then a helpful monk showed us the way to the bottom of the steps leading up to the Buddha statues. He walked up with us and chatted the whole way up. It was hot, very steep and we were being bitten to death by mosquitoes, so when we got to the top and he left us to it, we felt obligated to say yes to his offer of some postcards of Vietnam. The lying Buddha was very impressive, and we had a little breather before tackling the last few steps up to the top of the hill. Almost as soon as we got to the top a small Vietnamese girl tagged along with us, asking for money. She was relentless. She barely spoke any English but she told us her name was “google”. As we looked at the seated Buddha at the top of the hill it was hard to really appreciate through the constant hassling from her. I was getting a bit annoyed. It was oppressively hot and the mosquitoes were relentless. So, we sat down for a little while on some benches near the seated Buddha and Sam bought a beer from the lady with a kiosk there, and google continued to stair at us. Eventually Sam started making an origami animal to give to her – she looked so pleased with it when he gave it to her and I calmed down a bit. As we left I gave her a couple of thousand dong because I simply couldn’t resist.

We headed back down from the Buddha and on the way down we passed a giant bell – we looked at it for a minute or two and then out of nowhere appeared a monk who grabbed us and encouraged us over to the bell. He gestured for Sam to climb into the bell, and for some insane reason he decided to say yes. So Sam sat inside the bell and the monk rank it for ages. I was quite worried about his hearing, but apparently it was fine. The monk offered me a bell ringing but I politely declined. I didn’t need to have ‘trapped in a bell’ nightmares for the rest of the week.

From the temple we made our way back over to the train station, having checked with my tour guide exactly what train we would be catching. To my surprise we were booked onto a train that would get us into Ho Chi Minh city at 3am!? Madness. But, madness that was already fully paid for and organised. So Sam got a ticket for the same train, seemingly this was quite easy and the people behind the counter in Nha Trang station spoke sufficiently good English to make the process fairly pleasant.

VTN_046Satisfied with a successful ticket purchase, and having resolved our one nagging concern, we wandered back down to the beach for a late afternoon stroll before dinner. The sea was quite calm and the beach fairly quite as we strolled along. We decided it was time to find somewhere to eat, and although we checked the map for suitable places, in the end we went back to the sailing club for a rather fancy last meal in Nha Trang. We found a table outside but it was really windy and after a few minutes we concluded that it wouldn’t be possible to eat there. So we relocated to a table by the pool, which did have the downside of rather excitable Russian children running around, but was at least sufficiently calm to eat a civilized meal. I had a cocktail and some delicious enchiladas – I know, I know, not very Vietnamese, but we did have a side of spring rolls! After dinner we meandered back towards the hotel, collecting supplies for the sleeper train along the way. Around 9pm that evening we left the hotel with the rest of my tour group and went to the station where we boarded the sleeper train south to Ho Chi Minh. We had another couple of beers in the restaurant, and a very disappointing serving of spring rolls, and then tried to get some sleep before our horrendously early arrival into Ho Chi Minh city.

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