[whoops, there are lots of typos here! Please consider them charming.]
After one whole month of being 'in country' (I love that phrase), I finally left the clamor of Saigon for more than a few hours, and along with 6 friends, took an overnight train to the beach town of Nha Trang. Nha Trang means white house, which is fast becoming my favorite phrase to learn in a new language, as it keeps turning up: when I was in Wales, the name of the place where I spent Christmas was Bwythn Gwyn, which of course means the same thing. And then there's the whole Casablanca thing, the Morocco fixation... So anyway, off to the white house of Vietnam we went.
A note about the trains: I love them. The sleeper car costs $12/person and since it's a 9 hour ride, it was very very worth it to snuggle up into this tiny bunk with sweet low lighting and the gentle rumbling of a somewhat old train on very old tracks and fall dead asleep, waking up to realize you're already there. On the way there we bought a bottle of wine and passed it all around, which when combined with the late-nightness and aforementioned coziness of the cabin, caused us all to pass out blissfully and have crazy dreams (at least on my part). There are 4 beds to a cabin, and on the way up I bunked with my new Aussie friend Sonja, who is just the hippest travelling girl (I really like her), plus the constant Canadian companions Michael and Corey (whom I also really like, obviously). The only bad thing about this particular train ride was being awoken seconds before we had to get off of the train, so there was a mad sleepy scramble to gather our belongings which had somehow spread themselves out all over our temporary digs. The only thing left behind was the tin of cashews (a sacrifice to the travel gods, no doubt).
We arrived pre-dawn and had the requisite bowl of Pho while we waited to get our land legs back and the crust out of our eyes, then took a taxi to the center of town and then went looking for accommodation). We had tried to book our rooms in the famous Perfume Grass Inn ($12/night) but it was full, so we figured we'd just show up and see what we found. I realized that this annoyed me, in truth, coming from a life of Amercian experiences: you can't show up at 5:30 am and expect a room! No one will have checked out yet; plus, that's early! But Vietnam schools me over and over: of course there were places to stay at such an hour, and there were motorbike solicitors putt-putting by us, trying to sell us on their particular place of employment. We took the advice of one guy based on his promise of "Five dollar a night! Close to beach! Very good!" and blearily wandered in the direction he had pointed. The hotel was located down an alley, and when we rang the bell a young woman opened the gates for us and showed us three rooms in a row: perfect. One room for the boys, two rooms for the gaggle of girls to share as they may. We dropped our stuff off and then laid down for a while to wait and see if the rain would stop (it wouldn't) and wait for the rest of our party to arrive (they had missed the earlier train). Well, we decided that since it was rainy and we were ready to be told what to do, we would book a day-long boat tour. We shook ourselves awake, climbed into our swimsuits, grabbed our cameras and made our way to the docks.
Our tour guides were INSANE. Literally, I think. Insane and crazily weird and sometimes actually funny. They were trying to get the party started at 9am, having the foresight to know that soon we would all be very drunk and willing to party, but none of us knew it yet so we just looked at them warily as they removed their shirts and put beer cans on their heads and danced lewdly to some copy-of-a-copy random mix of songs, including last years hip hop chart toppers, saccharin Beatles covers and stupid techno versions of '60s rock songs. Our boat took us to three different islands: at the first one we were invited to grab snorkels and face masks and go have a look at the coral. Well, from the boat this didn't actually sound too promising, but once I had jumped in and swam away from the people and over towards the rocks, I was shocked and amazed at what I saw below me: like a scene from Finding Nemo, albeit a little more washed out (darn those cartoons and their flashy colors), I was swimming right above coral of all different shapes and textures, schools of little fishes, huge tropical fish which really did live up to their Disney versions, and even some long lurking grey thing which I think may have been an eel. Anyone who has gone to the beach with me knows I have a fear of jellyfish: well y'all, I swam through swarms of them! Jellies in my hair, jellies against my bikini top, jellies swirling around my feet and legs. They were mild ones, translucent with little bits of pink, and all they caused was a little itchiness of the skin (which may also have been the salt water). I had such a blast marveling at all the stuff swimming around and below me. Gosh. Wow.
Next we went to our second island, where we swam again and then were fed lunch. Unlike the silly Mekong trip where the included lunch was a half-bowl of rice and some colorless stir-fry, this was a full on ocean lunch: steaming garlic morning glory salad, lots of chewy squid, peel your own shrimp, greasy spring rolls with delicious meat inside, and of course lots and lots of veggies cooked with pineapple. Yummm. Since it was too soon after lunch to swim, the tour guides created a mini-concert (which was hilarious and embarrassing all at once) by pushing the tables we had just eaten on into a makeshift stage- which had previously been the benches were sitting on, of course) and busting out some of the oldest, crappiest instruments I've ever seen: make-billy-jonas-proud plastic drum kits made out of wash tubs and metal piping, a very fuzzy sounding guitar, a tambourine, and of course the microphone which was screamed into over a ocean-worthy PA system. It turns out these guys knew a song in every language spoken by their guests: we did Frere Jacque in about 12 different tongues, then a Russian folk song (for the little grey haired couple in the corner) and a few chanty Vietnamese songs (for the cute laughing girls dressed in long sleeves, jeans, and jean jackets, per usual). It went on and on until Happy Hour was declared, at which point they threw a homemade 'floating bar' into the water and told us to go for it. So Louie (or so he says his name is) the Tour Guide, who was also our driver, played bar tender: the rules were, you have to stay near the bar so the currents don't pull you away, and you can't say the word 'no' or you have to chug. The choice of drink was simple: there wasn't one. Everyone got a mix of vodka/lemonade/sugar/pineapple juice (I'm guessing) with more than a little seawater mixed in inadvertently. So Louie let us begin imbibing before surprising us with questions: "so this is your husband?" To which of course the one in question would say "No!" and then we'd have to drink. Louie was surprisingly good at catching us off guard. Eventually we began to just discipline ourselves and chugged the sweet stuff on our own accord. I remember thinking "wow, was it this hard to climb up the boat ladder before?" After splashing around in the half-sun and drinking little salty plastic cups of this stuff, I was kinda drunk. Add to that the motion of the ocean (sorry) and lots of swimming and I was actually quite drunk. Well, the third island turned out to be the one I shall remember always, because as we pulled up to the dock I saw people flying through the air: para sailing! in my drunken excitedness, I realized that This Was The Moment I would overcome the whole fear of falling thing and take on the skies head on. After prancing around like a puppy that has to pee (I'm so excited! I'm so excited! Aughh!) I got strapped in and was told by the uber-young Vietnamese attendant in charge of safety measures that all i had to do was 'one two tree run!' So on the count of tree, baby I ran. And my feet lifted from the ground. And I was so elated and so hyped up I just screamed the first thing to come to mind: and it was First Kiss by They Might Be Giants. I ripped through the air yelling at the top of my lungs:
The morning alarm rings!
I'm asleep but she's talking to me,
She's walking 'round wearing all of my clothes,
But we decided long ago
We'd build a time machine and go!
How 'bout another first kiss, kiss, kiss, yeah!
I want another first kiss!
I mean, when inspiration hits, can you really help yourself? So, many many thanks to Michael Edmonston, if he is reading this. What a great song. And who knew it would go so well with para sailing over the South China sea while drunk on pineapple vodka juice and salt water?
After I had screamed my brains out and caught my breath, I took a good look below me. The sea was sparkling. My friends were on shore. The mountains were glorious: their dusky grey blue green trees protected from the ocean by thin strips of white sand. This was heaven. I felt close to the heavens. So I said the first prayer that came to mind, probably the first one I ever learned:
The light of god surrounds me
The love of god enfolds me
The power of god protects me
and the presence of god watches over me
Wherever I Am
and all is well.
Thanks to my Mom for that one. [I like it so much, and it's helped me, inexplicably, at some of the strangest moments of my life.] After that, I just shut up and watched the world go by. It didn't take long, since my whole flight was supposed to be less than 2 minutes long. They dropped me into the sea which was the opposite of what i had expected: in my dreams, falling is terrifying, hard, and full of horrid anticipation. But this was soft and gentle, slow and easy: I didn't realize I was going to hit the water until moments before I had to take the big breath, so I just slipped right into the sea with nothing clenched, nothing held in: just breathed in and plopped right under. Come to think of it, I was definitely inebriated, but if you can't take silly risks and change your life when you're 25 and in Vietnam, I mean when the hell can you? I picked myself apart from my wet parachute and climbed onto the back of the jet ski who was waiting to take me back to shore. Then I played in the waves with my friends as we watched each other take off and land, like color featherless birds. I love my new friends.
The rest of the trip I shall explain with less detail, just because I'm getting tired of typing, and I want there to be details you haven't heard so that I have something interesting to say whenever I go back to the states:
-big tall delicious cocktails and barefoot salsa dancing at a bar called Crazy Kim's
-plates of fresh crab legs on the beach for mere pennies
-all day sunning under woven umbrellas on Sunday, getting sunburned and wind swept and walking the beach like a gypsy pirate
-laughing like crazy at Mike climbing a palm tree
-laughing like crazy at Tennille and Lindsay attempting lady-like squats over the ocean waves
-listening to introspective songs on my iPod while staring moodily at the sea, hung over but feeling slightly beautiful
-smelly mud baths and mineral water soaks right at the end of our trip, and finally:
-the train ride back, much more subdued, falling asleep and letting our brains process all we had seen and done.
It was glorious, you guys. I felt miles away from the workweek, which is now upon us. I think I'm going to go to yoga, though, and enjoy being employed only part-time, for now. Bless this thing called traveling. I thought it might be what I needed, and it turns out I was right. Amen.
Oh yeah, see my flickr page for selected photos.