There and Back Again (A bit like what Bilbo did) – Part 3

Day 8 – Nha Trang Third Day

Clear blue skies and warm sea air greeted us as we found ourselves roomless. Nha Trang was quickly being filled with local holidaymakers who had booked their stay in advance. Luckily, Gareth was able to find a room, at $25, on the same square that we’d been staying on. But we were only able to stay for one night. Tomorrow would again involve an early morning roam for a room it seemed.

After unpacking everything onto the bed and slopping suntan lotion over our exposed bits, we strolled the stirring streets to the tourist agent where Gareth and I had booked two tickets for a fishing and snorkelling daytrip the night before.

At 9 on-the-nose we were on the bus that was going to carry us to the port where we would pick up our boat for the day. It was a good opportunity to gauge who our fellow snorkellers were; we didn’t want to be going on some party boat. There was a young American couple mine and Gareth’s age, a group of middle-aged Australian friends, a young Australian family, and a large Vietnamese family; a good mix of people.

We sluggishly passed by small deserted islands and a floating fishing village colonised by barking dogs on our way to the snorkelling spot. It took 30 minutes before we stopped. The boat was anchored about 100 metres from the shore of an island. I’d never snorkelled before, and I’ve always had a thing about putting my head under water even though I’m quite a strong swimmer. I slipped on the flippers and pulled the salty snorkel over my head and into my mouth. Gareth was the first off the boat, practically belly flopping into the South China Sea. It took a couple of other people to get into the water before I would slip in, and Gareth’s taunts of ‘grow a pair’ probably gave me some Dutch courage.

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Once in the water I asked myself ‘do I really want to see what’s below?’ I could have been happy just swimming around, oblivious of the life underneath, floating by and relaxing under the sun’s hot rays. But would I regret that for the rest of my life? If there was a shark then there were plenty of other people around, why would it choose me to eat? I took one last look at the world I have known all my life; the cloudless sky above and the green turf of the land, then, I stuck my head under.

My senses honed into the moment. I couldn’t hear life’s distractions anymore. It was me, and the sea. Treading, my arms open wide, embracing the life beneath. My hair, battered in all directions. The colours were like a psychedelic trip; bold and striking yet gentle and serene. Some fish were curious about this creature of the land and some were timid, skirting off to hide behind a slab of rock. The coral waved to the deep blue’s beat. I saw Gareth delving towards the seabed. I was happy to be a witness to this realm; I wasn’t ready to connect with it just yet.

An hour and a half of deep-sea exploration later and we were moving on to our fishing spot. I had decided to lay down on the top deck of the boat to dry off. It was time for us to eat so the tour guide carried up to us our starters; a tray of crab soup. I slurped up that soup and lay back down again, satisfied. Life was good, the sun was hot on my skin and my stomach was on a journey to fullness. Then, it just came upon me.

‘Gareth, I feel sick’

‘Ok babe, if you’re going to throw up,’ he pointed to the opposite side, ‘then go to that side of the boat because there are people sitting down there and the wind will blow it away’

‘Ok, yeah, I’ll do that’

30 seconds later.

‘No, Jen, Noooooo, the other side!!’

I caught what I could and ran over to the side Gareth had originally advised me to hurl over. I was lucky. It didn’t necessarily blow into the boat, but it did leave a bit of a stain on the wooden panels.

After stopping at the floating fishing village that we’d passed earlier, I watched everyone else eat the rest of the lunch of grilled seafood and rice (I obviously wasn’t up to putting anymore food inside my body) and we were handed a reel and some bait. The water was a stunning blue, I think Italians would call it azzurro-azzurro. With one leg over the side and the other leg balancing me inside the boat, I spent the time optimistically dropping the fishing line into the water and watching the dogs swim back and forth to the shore. The optimism vanished soon after I realised the fish had found a cunning way to eat their lunch without being mine.

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Just as I was getting the hang of this fishing lark we were disturbed from our idyll by the boat’s engines turning on.

‘The weather isn’t good for fishing,’ said the tour guide ‘we are moving on.’

The weather was glorious, what the hell was he talking about? We ‘moved on’ to a private island owned by a hotel. It cost 100,000 dong (£3/$5) each to step foot on the island. The price wasn’t included in the ticket. Once docked, the boat and tour guide abandoned us. We had no choice other than to stay on the dock or go onto the island. We were indignant that we wanted our money’s worth of fishing so we fished off the blustery pier for 30 minutes. We didn’t catch a thing.

The private island was the last place we wanted to be. Loud 90’s music blasting from a poolside bar, young men riding jet skis dangerously close to the beach. The food options were a restaurant, which was filthy; leftovers, napkins, chopsticks, beer cans just thrown onto the floor, it was that or a few stands for some deep fried fast food.

We were picked up two hours later by a different boat, this time we arrived on the mainland in record speed. I personally believe that the first boat was being driven purposefully slow in order to cut down on the time at the snorkelling and fishing spots and maximise the time on the private island. But, maybe I’m just being cynical. Upon reflection, I realise now that we should have spent a day snorkelling and a day fishing so that we could enjoy both activities fully.

Day 9 – Nha Trang Fourth Day

Hotel prices were becoming extortionate. We found a room so easily the day before but this day was another story.

From 9:00am to 11:30am we searched the city for a room. Nearly all of the hotels we came across were fully booked or charging ridiculous prices. We eventually paid $35 for a room that would usually cost at the most $10. It was disheartening but as this was the main time of year that most Vietnamese get to travel themselves, I tried my best to not take it personally.

The day was spent lazing on the beach drinking beer, eating grilled lobster and prawns and reading Wild Swans, a book that I can only read when I’m at my utmost relaxed; It’s too terrifying to read in my normal day-to-day life. (It has taken me a year to get through 70% of it.) It turned out that the weather for the day was soggy and dull anyway.

I was getting itchy feet. Why were we still here, in a city where we were, by choice, being extorted to stay? We were surrounded by hundreds of people. It was getting claustrophobic; a beach version of Ho Chi Minh City. I wanted the freedom of the road again, to move forward, to not stagnate in this tourist trap.

Day 10 – Nha Trang to Mui Ne 220km

Before we were bankrupted by the ever-increasing hotel prices of Nha Trang, Gareth, Neha and I set off for the fishing town of Mui Ne*; a much more calm and quiet beach resort south of Nha Trang. The coastal road was a delight, and, at times, had an air of the curvaceous Amalfi.

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After coming inland for some miles we turned off down a 35km stretch passing an arid landscape. I was taken back to when I was 20 and I’d had the opportunity to spend a week camping across the Sahara Desert with a group of friends and a travel writer when I lived in Morocco. Before I’d even had a driving licence I’d driven boldly across flat salt planes and mountainous sand dunes in a Range Rover. Now I was anxiously riding my 125cc scooter up a steep dusty hill being blown every-which-way, shitting myself a bit. How we change when we are aware of our mortality.

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We found a lovely guesthouse for $30 a night. All three of us shared the room and the cost. After showering off the grime of travel we made our way to the beach by passing through another hotel over the road.

The day was drawing to a close. We had three hours of sunning on the beach. I kicked myself for staying in Nha Trang for so long. Mui Ne was where I had dreamt about. I had never seen it before but it was the place I knew my soul needed to be. The beach was lined by naturally growing palm trees, they weren’t tall and elegant, but they leaned and looked beaten by the sea and wind. Wooden huts sat scattered between the few hotels that were near by. It was authentic. The sand was near-white, the sea was playful and spirited. It was a place of peace and restoration.

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Day 11 – Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City 220km

Daylight poked through the wooden window shutters at 6:30am. It was our last day and I needed to be on that beach. I picked up my sandy bikini from the floor and gave it a rinse in the sink. From the bathroom I heard Gareth get up. We whispered about our plans for breakfast and a sunbathe so we wouldn’t wake Neha. We had to book out of the hotel by 11:30 and we needed to maximise what little time we had left.

Our timetable was no longer flexible. We had to leave today. But leaving Mui Ne was hard. It felt like I was removing a plaster cast that had, over months, become a part of my body.

The journey home was as hardcore as it could get. We stopped only a few times for snacks, drinks and petrol, but by 6pm we were back in Ho Chi Minh City.

My head was clear and my body was relaxed. Without that tension that had been my normal state for so long, I was able to see that Ho Chi Minh City was my home. ‘Welcome back, Jen’ it bellowed. And it was good to be back. Back to our apartment, back to Khoe** and back to life.

* Tourist Mui Ne is a 10km stretch of road that follows the coast. Along it you’ll find hundreds of hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, cafes, convenience stores; everything you need for a pleasant stay. Non-tourist Mui Ne is a fishing village, located in Binh Thuan province, which is home to over one million people. Compared to Nha Trang, it is a much more relaxed and down to earth destination. There are plans to open a new airport close to Mui Ne in 2017, perhaps it’s best to go now before the influx.

**For those of you who are interested, Khoe had been getting looked after by my friend Trang.

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