Nha Trang, Vietnam

“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone.  Our responses to the world are crucially molded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others.”  – Alain de Botton

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”  – Freya Stark

 

The question most often asked by the Vietnamese I meet is, “Are you traveling alone?”  When I say yes, they almost always laugh uncomfortably and look somewhat mystified.  They don’t get it.  Why would anyone do such a thing?

Admittedly, solo travel is far from perfect.  It’s more expensive, less safe, and lonelier.  When you have a bad idea, there’s nobody to talk you out of it.  When you’re tired, there’s nobody to pick up the slack.  When you rely on old habits, there’s nobody to push you beyond your comfort zone.

It makes sense that traveling alone doesn’t appeal to everyone – the disadvantages are clear and easy to understand.  The advantages, however, are subtler…  Your agenda is entirely your own.  You avoid the petty bickering and irritations that inevitably spring from constant, extended togetherness.   When you’re in a bad mood, you’re the only one who suffers.

But more than that, when I travel alone I find that my day-to-day experiences take on a higher level of intensity.  By myself, with no thought to the way every new occurrence, each new sight, sound, and smell is being filtered and interpreted by someone else, my mind is more receptive.  Memories of the places I visit are more vivid and enduring.

When you’re alone you’re also more approachable, which can either be good or bad, depending on the situation.  In most cases it’s great.  In Nha Trang, for example, every time I sat outside by myself I was approached within 10 minutes by a local who wanted to practice English.

After lunch on Saturday I stopped to read near the beach and managed to get through only two pages of my book before a Vietnamese guy walked up and introduced himself.  “You travel alone?” he asked, followed by the usual laugh and confused look when I said yes.  In broken, heavily accented English he covered the basics – his name was Cuong, he was 28 years old, he wasn’t married but had a girlfriend in Da Lat, and he wanted to practice English because he needed to speak it better for his job as an engineer for the San Miguel beer company, where his responsibilities increasingly involved conversations with foreigners.

After talking for a while, Cuong said, “Excuse me.  You like beer?”  I told him that yes, in fact, I have been known to enjoy a beer from time to time.  “You want drink beer?” he asked.  Fifteen minutes and a short motorbike ride later we were sitting at his favorite restaurant with a pitcher of “W1N” beer, which Cuong said was unpasteurized (for someone whose English is not great, that was an impressive word for him to drop) and only good for one day after it’s made.  Seeing the look on my face, Cuong assured me, “Good beer.”  And he was right – we ended up finishing off two pitchers.

 

Drinking with Cuong

 
As we drank, Cuong explained his normal weekday routine:  up at 7am, at work by 8am, a break at 11:30am to drink a pitcher of beer (yep, I triple-checked this with him – he drinks a pitcher of beer at work every morning), lunch at noon followed by a short nap, work until 5pm, then Business Administration classes at the local university from 6-8pm.  He said his salary is about $200/month.  “And how much money do you make?” he asked (people here ask this a lot; it’s not considered rude).  “Zero dollars a month,” I answered truthfully.

The conversation I had with Viet back in Da Lat made me curious about musical tastes in Vietnam, so I asked Cuong what bands he likes.  He said he mostly likes foreign music and remembers the names of songs but not bands or singers.  On his cell phone he played his two favorite songs – “Yesterday Once More” and “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You.”  I’d never heard of either one.  Turns out the first song is from The Carpenters in 1973 and the second was recorded in 1984 by some guy named Glenn Medeiros, who looks like an even cheesier version of Richard Marx.  “Do you know the Beatles?” I asked Cuong.  Nope.  “How about The Rolling Stones?”  He’d never heard of them either.  I’m starting to think the United Nations needs to rush some kind of music-appreciation task force to Vietnam.

After a short break Cuong and I met back up for dinner at a seafood restaurant in the northern part of town.  The restaurant had a big display of live seafood and you just picked what you wanted them to cook for you.  I have no idea what kind of fish we ended up ordering, but it was great, and I enjoyed watching a big party of rowdy Vietnamese men – co-workers, apparently – at the table next to us.  They made me and Cuong look like amateur drinkers.

Nha Trang is a party beach town – Vietnam’s version of Indonesia’s Bali or Thailand’s Phuket.  It’s also Vietnam’s top diving destination.  I briefly considered getting certified in SCUBA and checking out some of the dive sites, but I decided to wait until later in my trip.  The diving in Nha Trang is supposed to be good, but, from what I hear, still pales in comparison to Thailand.

I woke up before dawn on both Saturday and Sunday to take photos of Nha Trang Beach at sunrise.  Not much color in the sky either morning, unfortunately, but it was interesting to check out the pre-dawn scene.  The locals prefer to hang out at the beach at dusk and dawn, and by the time I arrived there at 5:15am the place was packed.  There were 20 times more people there at 6am than there were at noon, no exaggeration.

 

Pre-Dawn Panorama of Nha Trang Beach


Nha Trang Beach at 6am

 
I’ve been disappointed with my photos so far in Vietnam, so I decided to search for inspiration by paying a visit to the gallery of a local Nha Trang photographer.  I hadn’t heard of the photographer – Long Thanh – before reading about him in my guidebook, but his work is excellent.  The gallery is full of really compelling black and white photographs of everyday people and scenes around Nha Trang.

 

Long Thanh Gallery

 
Long Thanh’s work fired me up, so on the walk back from the gallery I overcame my introversion and asked some interesting street characters for permission to take their photo.

 

Nha Trang Street Portrait – Grandmother


Nha Trang Street Portrait – Construction Worker


Before leaving Nha Trang on Sunday I spent about an hour helping an enthusiastic student named Dung pronounce months, days, and numbers.  I was tempted to explain the English meaning of his name but decided the sign language I’d need to use might get a little awkward.

 

Dung