Saturday, 9 July 2011

A snapshot of Vietnam

“We could run down the gangway shouting Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” suggested one of my shipmates jokingly, as we prepared to dock. “ We’re in Nha Trang, on the south coast of Vietnam, and quite far away from Ho Chi Minh city”, I reminded him, but he had already vanished in the excitement of disembarking from the ship after our 2 week long cruise in the South China Sea from Singapore to Vietnam. Much as I had enjoyed every bit of the cruise, I was relieved to set foot on ground again, as I left the ship to spend a couple of days in the scenic coastal town of Nha Trang. The local Oceanography Institute had organised a welcome party for the entire crew followed by a short tour of the institute and its in-house aquarium. I had my first taste of the delicious local food which seemed to set me up for a life-long love of Vietnamese food. Our hosts had organised music and dance for later in the evening; we couldn’t have had a warmer and more heart-felt welcome!

The following day we hired a boat and went off on a snorkelling trip in the coastal waters of the South China Sea. The boat was skippered by an old man. The old man met tourists from various countries through his boat business and he maintained a notebook of his encounters and conversations with foreigners. He showed me a page in his book of a popular Indian song written in Hindi by an Indian person who had been on his boat. He even hummed the tune to me, which he remembered very clearly. I was amazed and inspired by him. From his little wooden boat in Nha Trang, he was able to stay connected with the rest of the world. His notebook contained snapshots of multiculturalism from around the world. It was my first attempt at snorkelling, and although I was somewhat overwhelmed to be out in the open ocean with a pair of flippers and a face mask with a pipe to work as a breathing apparatus, the scene of the colourful corals underwater made every minute of it worthwhile. On returning to the boat, a delicious Vietnamese lunch awaited us, prepared by the skipper and his assistant, while we were out in the water.

Later that evening upon returning ashore having bid our friendly boatman a warm farewell, I took a walk along the sandy beach lined with palm trees. A local musician strummed a guitar playing local tunes and accepting whatever change people dropped in his hat. Local kids played in the sand, with no seeming hurry to go home. The next morning we made a trip to the market in paddle rickshaws. The driver of my rickshaw would not accept a tip, and he insisted on waiting for me until I finished shopping at the market so that he could take me back to the hotel. Most of us bought the traditional Vietnamese straw hats that are typically worn by workers in the rice fields. One of my colleagues couldn’t stop taking pictures of the market place. He said it felt so warm and homely that he had to take back as many reminders of it as he could. We treated ourselves to traditional Vietnamese coffee and spring rolls at a street-side café. I bought portable statues of the laughing, travelling and the meditating Buddha, local paintings and picture postcards depicting life in Vietnam, all as souvenirs and gifts. At another street-side shop, I bought a t-shirt embroidered with a traditional scene of a rice field. Happy with my purchase, I walked away. A few minutes later, I saw the owner of the shop hurrying towards me with a t-shirt. I thought she wanted to sell more of them to me, so I politely refused in English and started walking away. She followed me, insisting on something in Vietnamese, all the while holding out a t-shirt to me. I ignored her for a few minutes, and then I tried to explain again that I did not want another t-shirt. She pointed at the t-shirt that I had bought from her which was in my shopping bad and said the word ‘damaged’. I pulled out the t-shirt from my bag, which she hastily grabbed from me, unfolded it and pointed out to me a large tear in the cloth! She had realised that she had sold me a damaged product, so she had followed after me to exchange it for another t-shirt! I was touched by her honestly, and I gladly exchanged the t-shirt with her. She smiled in relief and went away.

We went to a restaurant for our evening meal. I ordered two servings of spring rolls. The waitress laughingly informed me that two servings would be too much for me. She recommended one serving to which I agreed, although I was somewhat confused and embarrassed that I was being told to eat less. When the food arrived, I realised why her advice made sense. One serving consisted of a medium sized plate full of about 10 small-sized spring rolls! I couldn’t possibly have managed to eat more than a plateful.  My short stay in Nha Trang was over. As I waited in the airport lounge for my flight, I wondered when I would be back again. Although 2 days seemed like such a short time, almost like a snap-shot, after 12 years my memories and feelings of the place are still alive and fresh.


  1. Hi Charu, what a lovely picture you paint; quite idyllic! Made me wish I could have been there with you and reminded me of my first trip to Thailand in 1978, which seems a lifetime away. Yet as I read your report and looked at the pictures I could feel the heat and humidity and smell the smells and hear the sounds of the market in Bangkok. Time is just a concept!

  2. Hi Margret, it was an amazing trip. Such a short one, yet steeped in memories. Perhaps we'll go there someday!

  3. Hey Charu, loved reading this... you should write more

  4. Hey Lakshmi,
    Thanks for the encouragement. Remember, we discussed the titles for the next articles --'Sunrise over Lahore' and 'Moonrise in Gurgaon'! We should meet more often.