“Anyone who is for Dalat, Mui Ne and Saigon, wait in my office.”
The unexpected stop in Nha Trang wasn’t all that surprising. The city is small by Asian standards, but big for a small country like Vietnam. There’s not much to write home about here – much like any Chinese city: ATMs, banks, stores, markets; a few unfinished construction projects.
Everyone made a move; some quicker than bleary-eyed half-asleep others. I’d been awake for some time, so decided to get the inconvenience over with. I ferreted for my rucksack, hastily pulled out of the bus’s basement and buried beneath most of the others that had been routinely thrown on top. Being equipped with an attached waterproof cover is useful, protecting the material from getting dusty and soiled. The bright yellow colour is unsuitable.
The operator again ordered:
“Everyone who is for Mui Ne, please give me your tickets.”
I took mine from my waist-strapped money pouch. The operator fitted a motorbike helmet to his head and rode off. An assistant also asked for the tickets which flew some of us into a panic. He didn’t know they’d already been taken. A semi-retired Californian, traveling with his Vietnamese partner, wearing baggy gray pants and open toed sandals, confronted the operator and made a scene about the unexpected stop. I couldn’t help but stifle a few laughs.
We moved off in an older and slower bus.
The Californian, exact and efficient, complained:
“This bus is slow. We should be at Mui Ne by eleven. In this contraption, it’ll be more like 2 pm.”
I enjoyed the slower travel. It made seeing the lives of the Vietnamese easier. Apart from usual motor bikers filling the main roads, some were sitting outside stores and buildings on their honkers. A boy squatted, expelling a long gob of saliva into the gutter. A row of sellers sat astride motorbikes with green bananas strapped to the back of each. Wouldn’t it be better spread out: one here, another over there, one further away? A tall young Vietnamese bus assistant wearing a Vietnam-style cap distributed bottles of water, and gave me a friendly nudge seeing my humorous reaction, and also looked out of the window. A European couple sitting in front couldn’t see the funny side at all. The guy took off his flip-flops, sprawled himself lazily on the empty back seats and enjoyed a good nap. The bus blew a tyre, much like one I travelled on from Phom Phenh to Kampot in Cambodia, and stopped for nearly an hour.
“Did you see the red-brick building?’ The Californian asked before the bus continued.
“How do you mean?”
“The building we just passed. You can just see it.”
“I sort of noticed it; interesting?’
“It’s an old civilisation, much like the Khmer of Cambodia.”
“Yes, I’ve seen Angkor Wat and most of the rest.”
“Well, there’s less here in Vietnam. Did you visit My Son from Hoi An?”
“I felt a bit touristed-out. It was a bit off-putting.”
“Well, there’s evidence of Cham there.”
“I did tour around the Imperial Palace in Hue, or what was left of it. A notice inside said it was destroyed by war in 1947.”
“I don’t think so. If you know about the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive, the resistance known as the Viet Cong used it as a hideout. The Americans knew about it, and that’s why they heavily bombed it.”
“I see. The history’s very interesting.”
I could see that this mine of fascinating information meant it was time I read-up on the War which started when I was a young boy. Apart, like everyone else, from knowing what was happening at the time, I understood very little which continued after it ended.
“What are you doing in this part of the world?”
“I’ve been living and teaching in China.”
“On the East. Not far from Hangzhou.”
“Is the air quality bad there?”
“Not as bad as in some other parts. Further inland it’s terrible. The country’s developing and becoming richer at a cracking pace.”
“Yes, once it’s done, the people can settle down to a glorious future.”
“Yes, it’s pretty much the Chinese psyche.”
The driver clipped a motor cyclist, stopped, and ran back to see if the fallen-off rider was okay.
The Red Dunes, like the colour of tomato ketchup mixed in mayonnaise, plastered as pictures to the back and sides of numerous tourist agencies, spread themselves into the landscape as the bus passed. It halted in Mui Ne.
“With only ten kilometres to the resort area, I can’t see the point in stopping,” the Californian remarked while we sat in an outdoor restaurant. “Maybe the driver’s gone to the police about the accident. don’t you think he should do that?”
The sun burned from a deep blue sky as the bus continued along the coastline. Kite surfers, taking advantage of the increased winds, were out skimming on the rough foamy sea. It halted beside a tourist agency on the main road.
I ignored offers from motor bikers who wanted to chauffeur me to a suitable guest house and struggled along the sidewalk. I stopped and doubted, finding rooms for 8 or 10 Dollars a night. I decided to walk further on, not sure if If find anything cheaper.
Opposite a chalked notice, a woman called from over the road:
“Five Dollars!” I couldn’t believe the price.”
With an assistant, she led me upstairs into a large dormitory of eight beds fitted with mosquito nets. She chose a bed, gave me a locker key, a clean white towel, and showed me a roomy bathroom.
I popped out into the mulled evening sunshine and strolled along the main road, admiring tall bending coconut palm trunks and enjoyed the gentle breezes wafting from the sea.I bought a sandwich from a street side vendor for 9,000 Dong and dreamily walked back to the guesthouse. A do-nothing, relaxed atmosphere, began to pervade.
Talk about finding things on the cheap – and Asian.