Sunday, September 1, 2013

Trip to Nha Trang ---

PhotoAt 12 minutes to seven on the morning on August 28th we loaded ourselves, Vinh, Leanna and I, into a van and headed for the train station to board the 8am train to Nha Trang. We were on our way to visit a second Ton Duc Thang University campus, enjoy a holiday, and experience and learn more about VN. Part of the adventure was the unexpected train trip. The original plan had been to travel to Nha Trang by van but there was a change of plan from six travelers to three so a nine passenger Van was superfluous.
When the change was made 2 days before departure we were caught by surprise but excited by the idea of traveling by train as you sit up higher and can see a lot more of the country. Our expectations were fully fulfilled. We loved the train ride both going to Nha Trang (NT) and returning three days later to HCMC. One of our sponsors at the University Prof. Hoa met us at the Saigon train station to see us off. He wondered if we were used to train travel or that it would be perhaps uncomfortable for us, but we assured him that we were looking forward to the trip and that train travel was fine. Prof. Hoa commented that we were typical of foreign visitors to Vietnam with our interest in old trains. Our accommodation was a room with 4 bunk beds so we could sleep if we wanted or watch the scenery pass by.
     The trip to the train station was the first adventure. The main road to downtown HCMC was clogged with traffic because of a wreck somewhere ahead of us so our driver made a U turn after a few minutes and took us an alternate route through a working class neighborhood and then across two bridges that we hadn't been over before –- as time began to creep close to train departure time and we were still driving we had some moments of wonder –- would we make the train or not? The driver joked that if we missed the train then he would drive us to NT, no problem.
Of course the short cuts and alternate route worked out just fine (the driver clearly knows HCMC very well!) and we got to the station with 12 minutes or so to spare. Our train was called within minutes, we said goodby to Prof. Hoa, we boarded, and we were on our way through the city and out into the lush, green countryside with rice farms, industrial parks, rubber plantations, dragon fruit orchards and on and on. Crops included corn, scallions, sugar cane, lotus, bananas, coconuts, grapes. It really reinforced our knowledge that 70% of VN lives and works in the rural areas and produces not only food for the country but also provides major export income for the national VN economy. We got to see more of the traditional step-down roof houses, water buffalo hard at work plowing and pulling loaded carts, women carrying water, creative access to electricity – all the scenes of a developing country. We also noticed lots of craters amongst the fields – some filled with water, some just adding to the variable contour of the fields. We're not sure, but we suspect this may be a legacy of USA 1960-70s carpet bombing by B52s [Carpet bombing involved dropping massive amounts of daisy cutter and other very large bombs in carpets across the landscape to kill anything that moved: women, children, grand parents, water buffalo, cattle, goats. There are still thousands of tons of un-detonated ordinance.], a result of warmongering. The sleeper train cars on the trip north were from the French art deco era kept in very good shape with lots of wonderful design features.
     We reached NT only a few minutes late and the car from the campus was waiting for us. Since it was rush hour, our driver did not take us through downtown NT on the way to the University. Instead we got our first view of NT with the very modern tourist section right along the gorgeous, LONG beach. Besides tourists, fishing and construction industries are the key economic sectors for this city which is about 1/3rd of the way to Hanoi from HCMC. This is serious fishing – fisherman fish both daily as well as with 2 week journeys out into the deep sea. A major recent development has been the formation of fisherman unions both to improve ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications for weather safety and for sharing info about good fishing locations and coordinated fishing. This also unites the fishermen in dealing with markets and negotiating fair prices! The beach was spectacular and the fishing fleet was bobbing on emerald green and blue waters. The city is surrounded by mountains and itself is hilly and rocky. Lots of rocky islands scattered all around the HUGE bay – small and large islands with what seem to be fishing villages, one is a small pagoda and others are just beautiful. One of the larger islands is where VinPearl Land, an amusement park is located – more about VinPearl later.

     The TDT campus was impressive. Founded in 2008 there are already close to 2,000 students and the campus is a major training hub for the provincial VGCL union leaders and staff. We got to briefly speak with a VGCL class – they were in the midst of taking 2 exams for their class. The campus not only has modern classrooms and labs (computer and hospitality training) but also a activities/sports building, canteen and dormitory. Every Monday morning all the faculty and students gather in a big courtyard to salute the VN flag and hear about important political news and topics, review upcoming activities and school policies, recognize outstanding students and give not-outstanding students opportunity to take responsibility for their non-outstanding activities. 
     Mr. An, Assistant Rector, was not only generous with the complete tour of campus but also took us swimming at the beach and to breakfast one day. The bay is so clear and clean, the morning waves so gentle (afternoons can get windy) that you can really enjoy the WARM water and swimming. We didn't hit the beach until about 6:00am – when it was clear many VN had already had their swim and were headed back home and to work. NT is famous for snorkeling and diving.
VinPearl is reached by either ferry or the longest cable car over open sea. We made the cable car trip both during the day and then at night – breathtaking views. The park is a mix of scary rides (of course Hollis enjoyed every damn one of them), children-speed rides, arcade games, live performances, aquarium (really well done), delicious restaurants (we had the traditional VN dessert “che” which we loved), lots of shops and an outrageous laser water show choreographed to both traditional VN and classical music. The laser show was a highpoint. There was also a water park, but Hollis and I just couldn't move fast enough to fit that into all we did at VinPearl Land. Everything was translated into English, Russian, French and VN – so this is a real tourist attraction. While we were there on a Friday afternoon/evening, it was not particularly crowded, but we're told week-ends are really popular so the snaking-wait lines are a necessary feature. While there were some Russian tourists, most of the others sharing the fun were VN families.
     NT is a much more relaxed pace than HCMC – to which we quickly adjusted. The city feels like at least two cities – the modern city is spread out along the never-ending beach and bay with lots of hotels, restaurants, fancy shopping mall, bars, beach-front parks with plenty of sculptures and trees. The older NT has a great traditional VN market that has so many fresh and dried seafood stands I can't imagine how local shoppers decide where to buy. As a typical market you can buy everything from clothes to kitchen and household goods to spices to seafood. We missed the early morning crowds, but were still impressed at how busy the place was – but still not with the crowds, motorbikes and pace of HCMC. We often heard the comment that people who have moved to NT from the north (like Hanoi) do better financially than the local NT residents...VN from the central and southern parts of VN often see themselves as hardworking but not into saving for the future. Interesting conversations with taxi drivers and sales and wait staff.
Of course NT is famous for seafood, so we filled up every chance we had! We tried a typical restaurant where you pick out your wriggling, fresh seafood (we enjoyed squid, octopus and shrimp), tell the staff how you want it cooked and then EAT! Great! We also tried banh xeo which is a type of VN pancake made with egg, sprouts, scallions, cilantro and SEAFOOD. Delicious. Typical little eatery with a shortlegged table, little plastic chairs and several hardworking women cooking by the street on two small, old cast iron ovens.

     Just across from the small eatery was the historic Cham temple. While we're not into religion, these 7-12th century restored temples were impressive. The Cham lived all around VN and build the temples starting in 2nd century. The VN government and private individuals all cooperated to restore and protect these ancient, historic structures and sites which sit on the top of a hill with a very strategic view of the harbor. I may be wrong about this, but the beautiful weaving and traditional clothing typical of the Cham people reminds me of Khmer people. The site in NT was an interesting mixture of worship, historic information and displays, cultural demonstrations and tourist sales – and an incredible view of the city and bay.

     We also got to visit the Oceanographic Museum which has been around for a long time (as has the Pasteur Institute which is famous for its public health work in VN) and combines important on-going scientific work –which is available to VN students – with a good aquarium. While the facilities are old, it is a great experience, well-maintained and very popular with VN tourists.

     Another unique NT experience for Hollis and Leanna was a fish pedicure...check-out the photo. Tourists are expected to be ridiculous, correct? It tickled, got us into a fun conversation with a young VN family and an Australian couple walking by us with our dangling, fish-covered feet. And we both had many less callouses! Anyway, you can now see we both are doing our best to well represent progressive USA folks here in VN (if you're worried, you can emphasize we're from CA).

     The train trip home to HCMC was part of the fun. This time we rode in a newer sleeper which had a higher ceiling with beautiful wood paneling. While we traveled at night, we stayed awake long enough to enjoy the design of sleeper night lights, comfortable but thin mattresses, quilts and pillows, TV (which did not work – thank goodness!), PA system with patriotic music (Independence Day is September 2), “European Water Closet” – very comfortable. Both our train and the train headed in the opposite direction further north to Hanoi were FULL as folks have a long week-end to celebrate Independence Day. We will never be able to fully express our gratitude to TDT for all the opportunities that they have honored us with as they share their country with us.  

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