It was a strangely spooky and sombre drive through the dark streets of Ho Chi Minh City as our taxi searched its way toward the Saigon Train Station. The bustling loud city seemed reduced and quiet at this time of night. The only real lighting was our dim yellow headlights picking out the white painted tree trunks on route. The puzzle of the whitewashed trees was solved. At night they became markers rather than obstacles. With overnight packs in our laps we felt like refugees fleeing home in the dead of night. The trip was just beginning but we already felt dog tired. It was nearly midnight and way past the kid’s bedtime as they struggled to stay awake.
The mood lifted when we entered the station and spotted the food stalls in the waiting room. It’s wonderful what the prospect of treats can do for a child’s spirits. A patient attendant waited as a concentrated debate ensued on the merits of soft jubes as opposed to hard sucking lollies. God help her if she didn’t give them an equal selection! Like a nervous batsman I loitered about looking through doors and trying to work out the correct platform while worrying that we’d missed the train. Marg likes to cut things to the last second and was out on the street looking for bottled water. This habit of the family splitting up at crucial times does sometimes make me feel like head-butting the wall. I began to calm down as I realized there seemed to be only one platform and one train and it was sitting there hissing but not yet open for boarding.
The Vietnamese train network is pretty simple. In this long and slim country it is really just a straight line running North to South or vice versa. So we were at the end of the line with one place to go. North. I found this reassuring because it dawned on me that at least we couldn’t get on a train going in the wrong direction. Marg casually reappeared strolling along looking for further goodies to buy. I asked her if it would be OK now to go and look for our train!
As we waited to board the normal tension built in the crowd. We all had tickets but somehow we all wanted to get on first. At least the foreign tourists did, the locals showed more dignity. Maybe it had something to do with us all wanting to get the best bunks. I am ashamed to admit I hatched a plan to go in first and fast and claim bunks for the children (and us). Previous experience in China had taught us that the bottom bunks become communal during the day and wouldn’t that be dreadful! Not. I greeted the family with a smug smile and showed them their lovely room. The kids jumped on the beds, explored the nooks and crannies and soon had Spot and the beanie kids lined up looking out the window. Short of repainting it a different colour, our presence seemed to be making a strong claim on the cabin. Soon two Vietnamese woman joined us in our compartment. To their great credit they calmly accepted their fate with our motley crew. They were so polite and understanding that we quickly relaxed in their company. The children beamed as the train started to move and the station lights receded into the night. With noses to the window we watched the flicking village lights but were soon asleep as we rocked our way north.
Mercifully the early morning call was a polite knock on our door not Marshall Music or the local top of the pops as we once experienced in China. We had just completed our breakfast of steaming rice and vegetables in small aluminium punnets washed down by green tea when the train rolled into the coastal town of Na Trang.
After Saigon the station seemed quiet and calm befitting its provincial status. We were confronted with taxi and accommodation options but here the shootout only involved two earnest contenders. Joe by this stage was negotiating best price and after a few “too much, too much,” we had our man and were heading confidently toward the Hai Yen Hotel. The streets are wide and spacious, set out in a neat grid behind a very long straight beach. Fascinating accommodation options present themselves along the foreshore ranging from the exquisite villas of the Ana Mandara Resort to state run guest houses and cheap backpackers. The lodgings I had carefully chosen was a cross between a Butlin camp and a jaded University residence. In many ways tailor-made to our needs and budget. Yes the rooms were plain and basic but I argued clean and airy. The clincher was our marvelous balcony view over the South China Sea. The swimming pool was huge and meant business, great for a hundred conference delegates to improve their lap times. No fancy palm trees or rounded edges and a water slide with the solid design of a Russian tank. Food (breakfast included!) was laid on in a massive dining hall, a self-serve heaven for the kids.
Our first expedition to the beach turned into a surreptitious food critic’s tour. Restaurants of all styles and standards lined the route with open patios leading onto the sand. The choice between budget and delicious Vietnamese fare, the Indian Omar Khayyam, the Western Na Trang Sailing Club or the Louisiane Café. Slowly and surely over the next week we completed our assessments and found none wanting. Day two and we had the routine sussed.
An early breakfast at the hotel with the challenge to sample everything.
It took a supreme effort to drag ourselves away from this idyllic setting and visit the nearby Long Son Pagoda and Giant Seated Buddha. At the entrance to the Pagoda we were high jacked by an old man determined to show us an adjoining temple. We found ourselves on a winding rubbish-covered mountain track. In the midday heat and flies it seemed he was leading us to the town tip. Joe and I lag behind whinging until Marg tells us through gritted teeth to get a grip. By the time we arrived at the temple ten minutes later I am sweating profusely everywhere but particularly from the nose which is not a dignified look for a man in control. Worse I am mopping my brow with a hanky while local urchins beg me to buy postcards. I feel like a very ugly tourist in a sticky situation.
The moment passes as we retire to the cool of the inner courtyard. We complete a circuit tour to the hilltop Buddha and down to the ornate Pagoda which is teeming with devotees. Into this throng walk a group of elegant silk-clothed monks. We watch enthralled as they begin to drop coins on the ground and then in horror as temple guardians beat the crushing crowd back with sticks. We hustle the children away and it is a relief to get back to our beach oasis.
In contrast our trip to the Na Trang Oceanic Institute started poorly but ended in style. We considered diverting back to the beach when our taxi pulled up outside its drab and factory like entrance. The basic concrete fish tanks looked like holding pens for a canary. We were moving quickly through the displays until an enthusiastic young attendant began explaining the fish to the children. Her manner was contagious and we particularly liked her commentary on the upside down sharks. Marg lagged behind engaged in a deep conversation with a Vietnamese local. She has a long talk to him about working with sheep... until she finally realizes he is talking about his work on a ship! The visit ends in an amazing grand room of colonial splendour with slowly circling ceiling fans and large open louvered windows. The entire space is filled with a fantastic collection of marine specimen jars meticulously collected over many years. It looks like someone’s lifetime of work that some how serenely survived Vietnam’s years of turmoil.
Na Trang would not be complete without a boat trip through its turquoise waters to view the abundant coral reefs and numerous surrounding islands. The Mama Linh boat trip to Monkeys Island was promoted in a modest way as a fantastic, famous, once in a lifetime entertainment experience. How could we resist? It was a fun trip with the crew exhibiting a fine sense of the ridiculous. Over lunch on deck they set themselves up as an improvised rock band wearing swim goggles and reverse baseball headgear. They punched out a mighty beat on old guitars and a drum kit of pots and pans. Each tourist nationality was treated to a song. The Swiss to Edelweiss, Aussies and Brits to Waltzing Matilda (covers both apparently) and the Yanks to a wild tabletop version of Lets Twist Again. Like Australians they seem to have a dry sense of humour and a quick and easy knack of laughing at themselves. I admired and envied their ability to enjoy the moment. The kids swam like fish, adored the seafood lunch and loved the crew acting like big kids. A grand finale for NaTrang.