Junk Boating in Nha Trang
Saying goodbye not only to Hồ Chí Minh City, but also to Mika, a gorgeous Japanese sweetheart who was leaving the group, we boarded our first sleeper train to Nha Trang. This in itself was a revelation. We were put up in a first class carriage; in Vietnamese terms, a small cabin with two bunk beds. Apparently the only difference between first and second class is you get a slightly thicker mattress, but one can’t be fussy in Asia, so we wiled away a couple of hours playing a ridiculously addictive card game (Skip-Bo) before hitting the bunks, attempting to stretch, failing and sleeping until our 5am wakeup call.
Arriving in Nha Trang in darkness, we trekked down to the beach to watch the sunrise. Amusingly, half of the inhabitants had decided to join us to do their morning stretches and T’ai Chi. In all fairness, if I lived there I’d do exactly the same, because as the sun came up, the full beauty of the area revealed itself (Image at the top of this post).
That afternoon, we took a cycle tour to take in some of the sights Nha Trang had to offer. First up was the Long Sơn Pagoda, with its impressive Buddha sitting over 150 steps up with a fantastic view of the city below. Extraordinarily, this whole area was once located elsewhere, but after a cyclone in 1900 which destroyed much of it, it was taken apart, transported and reassembled where it sits today. It is important to note that a surprising symbol may be spotted in such places: the Swastika. However (and this was news to me), before Nazism adopted the symbol as their official emblem, it had been a symbol of peace for over 5,000 years.
A short cycle along the dangerously busy roads brought us to the Po Nagar Cham Towers which sit majestically on the Cù Lao Mountain overlooking the bay. Prayer takes place most of the day here, and tourists are encouraged to light an incense stick and kneel in the Towers. Although I was willing to try anything, my personal view is that their religion is theirs, and it would be wrong for me to encroach upon their rituals seeing as I’m not of the same belief system.
A dinner of Phở (what else?) and a better night’s sleep later and we were driven on a warm morning to the marina to board our junk boat for the day. A junk boat is a normal vessel, with seats for passengers and life jackets (that are worn for a maximum of five minutes) for safety; the only differences are that a huge amount of alcohol is consumed and music is constantly booming from hidden speakers. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day than relaxing in the sun with a cold drink, good music and even better company.
We drifted for 45 minutes through the South China Sea before reaching our first stop, an island dedicated to an aquarium. Not too keen on spending US$20 to see the same fish we could look at over the side of the boat, we waited until everyone had done, and set off for island number two. This time, Joaquin, a Spaniard living in the US, had something to be excited about. He was asked if he’d like to try paragliding, and was in his harness and ready to go before he’d even been told the price. And where better to do it?
Safely back on the ground, we re-boarded our boat and watched half an hour of the strangest Karaoke I’ve ever seen. The nationalities of each passenger were determined, and a song for each thought up and performed by one lucky audience member. For instance, we were serenaded by the Irish with a U2 song, and slightly less relaxingly, by the Kiwis with the Haka. It was so bizarre that the Vietnamese man with a coconut bra went mostly unnoticed.
We departed, and at last, the main event had arrived. This was my chance to be a child again, and I relished every moment of it. With a floating bar set up on the water, the passengers made their way onto the roof of the boat, before jumping, flipping, tumbling and belly-flopping into the water 12 feet below. It was brilliant fun, and something I would do in a flash if I am ever lucky enough to revisit Vietnam. The only downside was that it was jellyfish season. Having never received a jellyfish sting before, it was a little shocking to garner nine in the space of five minutes. An experience all the same!
The whole day was very memorable, and after an early dinner, it was time to take our next sleeper train to the picturesque city of Hội An…