Thursday, November 29, 2012

What About Nha Trang?

Written from La Gi, two days later, on Thursday 11/29/2012

If a fellow spends two days in Nha Trang, he must have something to say about it.  Let me think a minute.  Somewhere I've already ranted about the new harbor front promenade that has replaced the old fish market on the northern bank of the northern river mouth harbor, not to mention the dredging of the sand bar that used to provide such a spectacular morning informal fish market.  For a time that was probably the best fish-boat show on the whole coast.  A hundred or more boats would roll in off the South China Sea, their crews bleary eyed from working all night and ready to sell whatever and get some sleep, while the bumboatmen and the fish wives were wide eyed and ready to buy it all and carry it ashore and sort it and ice it and pack it away on bicycles and motorbikes ever so quickly, and all of that in plain sight from the comfort of the new bridge across the harbor mouth.  You could stand on the offshore sidewalk and watch the boats converging from all the Eastern points of the compass, lining up in the rock-bound fairway and under the bridge, then you could scoot across 4 lanes of traffic to the inshore side of the bridge and watch the bumboats swarm around them as they slowed in the harbor.  Some over eager skippers, unwilling to wait to transload into a shore boat, would simply run their boats aground on the sandbar and hand the catch overboard in bright plastic baskets.  Either way it was a delight to watch, furious activity, acts of daring do by bumboatmen and fishermen alike and excellent boat handling all around.  Well.  They have just a little more waterfront promenade now and a few more coffee shops to line it.  It's not like Nha Trang didn't already have THREE WHOLE KILOMETERS of the finest sort of white sand beach, every inch of it groomed and landscaped and lined by a waterfront promenade. . .nope, they really needed that extra 400 meters.  Dang.  But what the heck, they do a nice job of it and if you didn't know what was gone. . .you wouldn't miss it!
Actually, a lot of the boats still tie up there below the Cham Temple complex, they just don't put on the performance for tourists every morning.  I suppose to be fair I should admit that where you had to hire a boat and take a boat ride (if you could find a boat to hire) to get a good look at the fleet, now you can ride your bike along the new promenades and park anywhere along the way and stop and have a good look.  So much for picky complaints.
You can still take good   boat photos from the new waterfront promenade, it's only the chaos of the old fish market that's gone.

The most spectacular thing about Nha Trang other than its God Given white sand beach and beautiful blue water (it really is that blue and beautiful) is how fast it's changing otherwise.  There are new hotels replacing old hotels all over the place.  Little old funky hotels are being torn down and new ones ten times as tall are going up.  The tower cranes make good landmarks as you run up and down the miles of confusingly similar hotels and shops. The landscape architects tried to help, with interesting variations on how they prune the trees. . .my hotel was near a stand of flat topped pines, easy to tell from the pyramid shaped pines down the way.  Oh, and it was located between the ongoing hotel demolition site (to the North) and the new hotel construction site with the yellow tower crane (to the South).  It was in a cul de sac with five other little hotels just off the waterfront drive (and much quieter than a hotel right on the Ave), so I was careful to line out very prominent landmarks to find my way back.
A few hotels. . .the view out one side of my room in Nha Trang.  This is only a very small sample, but it gives you an idea.   
The standards are high and the prices are low, and the whole world comes here to play in the sun. Half the signs are in English and a great many are in Russian (keep in mind that when the US was embargoing Viet Nam the Soviet Union was the country's biggest friend, culturally, politically and economically, so a LOT of Russians know about Viet Nam as a holiday place!!).  The interesting difference is that the Russians I've met can speak English and I can't speak Russian.  H'mm.   So anyway. . .the place is really clean, up to date, well set up for visitors of any sort and is just plain nice.  You can get by on $20 a day, room, board and entertainment (that would be me, the last of the big spenders) or you can be treated like royalty and do all sorts of exciting and unlikely things for a bit more.    There's even an amazing tramway that flies you up and over the harbor to an offshore island where. . .I'm told. . .there is lots to do. . .er. . .a big hotel, many restaurants, and video games???   The fellow who was directing traffic (no, I could not park my bike right there, but I could practice English with him if I wanted) was a great potential tour guide, and really very sweet about sending me off to the parking lot instead of letting me leave the bike right in the middle of things.
I wasn't kidding about the cable cars. . .they go ACROSS THE HARBOR to an offshore island.  Ships go underneath without even looking up!  It costs $25 to ride, an astronomical price for most Vietnamese people, but a great many take the ride.  It's very popular.  Pretty amazing one way or another.
But the best part of Nha Trang may be all the rest of it.  It's really quite a large city and has a lot going on away from the waterfront tourist zone.  It's not really EASY to find your way around, but with a little attention to the compass, the mountains and the street names (if you have a good enough map or a good enough memory) then you can find your way pretty well, and it's small enough that aimless wandering will eventually bring you back to someplace you know.  Maybe.

I did finally find where they sent the fish market, across the southern river (the town lies between two river mouths, one of them right in town where it was easy to find, the other one south of town and not quite so obvious to a casual visitor.  However. . .if you follow the signs for the new road to the airport in Cam Ranh (and you should, it's a gorgeous cliff-top freeway winding along above the sea like something from the best of Southern California). . .if you follow the signs, as I was saying, you cross the southern river on a fine new bridge and if you turn left (I seem always to be making sudden left turns) you find yourself in the new harbor. The place is quite the change.  It's organized, sanitized, straight up and down and square left and right.  Well, almost.  There's a long concrete dock where boats lie to discharge fish and take on ice, a correspondingly long covered sorting and icing shed, so that fish come straight off the boat, get trundled or slid as the case may be under cover out of the sun, covered with ice if they're to lie there long, and then shuffled on out the other side of the shed where the trucks wait with their doors open.  All the while the big blocks of ice keep coming.  There are big ice chippers everywhere, blowing ice down into fish boats or into piles to be shoveled into trucks or onto piles of fish. . .a very very busy place.  You leave the place feeling like you really WOULD like to eat a fish that had been there.  Some fishing harbors tend to leave a strangely contrary feeling in your gut.
Offloading sharks and rays at the new fish market pier.  The pier goes on for a thousand feet or more, all very proper and modern.  Darn.
And I found at least one small yard and the walled off and security gated back side of a large shipyard and boatyard.  The small yard at least was a lot of fun.  It's wedged in beside the bridge abutment of the new bridge, with almost room to build a boat if you're good at organizing space.  So they're building a matched pair of large boats and rebuilding the whole front end of a middle sized one.  What would you expect. They're also doing really nice work, excellent fit and finish, attention to detail, and they're having a lot of fun doing it.  Of course, I, with my beard, my belly and my camera stumbling around the crowded little place probably provided more light entertainment than they get in an ordinary day.
This is what you call proper space utilization.  I'm not sure the scaffolding comes up to OSHA standards, but it held my weight and only bounced. . .a little.  These people are building really good boats. . .excellent timber, beautifully fitted and fastened.  Rather odd framing I admit, but it obviously works.
Short summary:  Nha Trang is a superb place to be for beach fun of any sort (Question: How do you play volleyball in the sun and the sand? Answer:  Enthusiastically!)  Get your scuba certification here (water like that to dive in? Oh my), ride the cable tram, bake in the sun, swim in the easy waves, watch the pretty girls/handsome guys (your choice) go by, practice motorbike riding in medium traffic (nothing like Hanoi or Saigon, but busy enough to be good practice). . .and come here to meet people from anywhere, eat haute cuisine or great street food (or are they much the same thing, just with or without the napkins?) and choose restaurants from anywhere you can think of.  Okay, no Ethiopian places yet. . .so there's a niche market  you could jump into.  Or go shopping for almost anything you don't need (pearls? opals? silks? a T-shirt that says. . .anything you can imagine, how about a sarong or a sari? a Swiss watch from China?  or a Swiss watch from Switzerland. . .).  My gosh.  I had no idea.

Or you could hang out in the little boat yard and find out how to build a fishboat.


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