Forty-eight hours in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Beachside, oceanfront, tourist-infested. These hours, sandwiched between a pair of nine-hour-long incarcerations in the cacaphonic carnival ride known as sleeper trains that run between there and Saigon, and occupied as they were mostly with fending off the predatory advances of street vendors and unscrupulous taxi drivers, is hardly a guaranteed formula for rest and relaxation. But that’s how I and Ida Becker spent our weekend: sleep-deprived, harassed and bruised, to which we added, on the return trip, severely sunburned and, for my part, less heavy by a pound or so of hair.
All said, it wasn’t a bad weekend.
Vietnamese trains are as much like Japanese trains as a cup of warm spit is like a glass of single-malt scotch. Ours left a minute early, at 10:59 pm Friday night – the one solitary gesture the railway and its operators made in the following nine hours toward efficiency, timeliness, or comfort, as if a strong first impression might somehow inure us to the coming physical insults. We had the six-berth compartment to ourselves, but only through an accident of diplomatic distress. Shortly after departure, a plump elderly Vietnamese women stuck her head in, no doubt quivering with excitement that she’d been booked into a nearly empty room. She took one look at Ida and me and quailed, backed out, slammed the door, choosing instead to stuff herself into the packed compartment next to ours, out of whose open door cigarette smoke billowed in cauliflowers of ash.
Once we’d got underway, an endless parade of passengers who must have been waiting all evening for the chance to loosen their bowels inside a mobile public facility commandeered the toilets at either end of the car for no less than an hour. Every five minutes I’d reconnoiter one of the two locked bathrooms and jiggle the handle hard enough to make whoever was inside wonder if someone outside had been pushed beyond his breaking point and was considering a forced entry, followed by the swift eviction of the idling wretch inside, philosophizing pointlessly in his rank fog of bile.
In our compartment, a central air-conditioning unit over which we had no control pumped an Antarctic gale across us that left slushy pinheads shivering on the insides of the windows. We both grabbed spare blankets from the other four beds and mummified ourselves in them, daring each other to lick the compartment wall and see if our tongues stuck. Had the walls not been so filthy, I might have given it a try just out of reckless curiosity.
The Vietnamese are pathologically early risers, a lingering vestige of agrarianism whose sole purpose seems to be to irritate me and others for whom dawn is sometimes a reasonable time to return home, but never an acceptable hour to rise and begin playing music for the entire neighborhood. Yet the streets of Saigon are choked with traffic by 6 am, and the construction crew outside my bedroom begins its symphony of racket by 6:30 am seven days a week. An hour before the train’s 6 am arrival time, the corridor was croaking with activity, and ghastly music whined from hidden speakers in the compartment – not traditional Vietnamese folk songs, which might have been bearable, but a medley of hideously transformed elevator-instrumental versions of the worst American pop hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Cigarette smoke wafted down the corridor and seeped under the doors. Sleep became a laughable fantasy. We threw off our blankets, pumped life back into our frozen extremities, joined the line of leaning, cigarette-smoking passengers in the corridor, and watched the sun rise over the dim, forested landscape outside the open windows, flickering by like a movie reel.
Two hours later, we sat on a tattered sofa in the lobby of the Perfume Grass Guesthouse, one block from where a 17-km stretch of white sand cupped the Pacific Ocean, and three meters away from a television set we’d taken temporary possession of. We watched the presidential debate, rapt, for 25 minutes, then fell asleep somewhere between a “What Barak doesn’t understand” and a “John’s absolutely right.”
Breakfast was a five-inch-high glass column of thick Vietnamese coffee standing atop a creamy hockey puck of sweetened condensed milk. Stir, sip, and feel the caffeine muscle across the blood-brain barrier like a running back at a goal-line stand. A pair of crusty French baguettes that looked ready to float out of their basket up to the ceiling. A squared two-egg omelete with a thin patch of ham draped across the top, encircled by divots of fresh tomato and cucumber. All served with a side of wrenching guilt, courtesy of a three-wheeled supplicant, leg nubs prominently displayed, hand out, sign around his neck declaring him a veteran of DMZ landmines. With uncanny dexterity, he zoomed from table to table, excuting masterful three-point turns in his little carriage, timing his mooch to land exactly at the most inopportune moment for each diner: fork in mouth, saliva squirting, contentment spreading like a drug.
Hefty wooden beach chairs: 25,000 dong for the day. A buck fifty for a day lounging on the white sands of a tropical beach in Southeast Asia? Done. What we neglected to remind ourselves of was that, even on an overcast day in the Vietnamese wet season, you will burn. Quickly. Three hours of fitful slumber later, during which we were woken every ten minutes by a trundling vendor hawking books or sunglasses or grilled lobsters (done on the spot) or steamed crabs (ditto) or fruit or cigarettes or fried dumplings (but never sunscreen), we roused ourselves and discovered three hours had been two and a half hours too many. Sunscreen was bought and applied, but it was too late; the damage had been done.
The Pacific was pellucid and warm, the taste of salt, hour-old bathwater and youth. We shuffled back to our rooms at the guesthouse for a few minutes of sun-soaked sleep before dinner.
We chose a Vietnamese restaurant with raised, outdoor seating beneath a tangle of hanging plants next to the street. Crispy fried vegetable spring rolls, a bowl of Thai-fried rice clattering with clams in the shell, fat pink prawns and pale chunks of fish. A pretty young girl stood below me on the sidewalk, just on the other side of the wall. Did I want to buy some postcards, she asked in a voice that was odd and twisted, woozy like an unsprung spring. Could I help her be lucky? She’d sold nothing all day, she said, smiling broadly at the transparent baldness of her lie. I hesitated, trying to understand what was wrong with her speech. She leaped into the pause, piling packs of underwhelming postcards on the table. I realized she was deaf. I paid three dollars for a pack of postcards I’ll never send.
A minivan from the dive shop picked us up the following morning at 7:30 am. We piled in, and the driver looked at our sunburns in the mirror, whistling through his teeth. Two Germans, one of whom looked like Karl Rove without glasses, occupied the rear seat. There was an opinionated older woman, Canadian but just ending a year’s residence in Vung Tau, where she’d been teaching English. A young American couple who’d been traveling in China, Laos and Thailand for five months, where the girl she’d thought she’d contracted Dengue fever, but hadn’t. She was named Leah. “Charleston?” she said. “I graduated from the College of Charleston in 2003. Go figure. Small world.”
The water at the dive site was a meter thick at the surface with small, invisible jellyfish. The divers dove beneath them, but we snorkelers had to push through, their translucent bodies bumping against our chests, faces, and hands like dirty thoughts, the occasional sting as mild as a mosquito bite. “This would be perfect for Fear Factor,” Ida said, surpressing a gag reflex. Afterward, I leapt from the roof of the boat into the water, crashing down to a bottom of blue coral and startled reef fish, a scattering kaleidoscope of color.
Later that afternoon, I decided to return to a street barber we’d passed earlier who was set up on the sidewalk a half block from the beach. Ecstatic to see a foreigner sitting in his chair, he lingered over my thinning hair and schoolboy’s beard for 45 full minutes, carefully trimming millimeters of hair at a time with every instrument he had at his disposal: shears, a huge variety of scissors, hand-cranked clippers. He’s obviously billing by the minute, I thought. If I hadn’t signaled to him to hurry it up after three quarters of an hour, I’d probably have been there until the light gave out. At the end, nearly bald and with a thatch of freshly severed nasal hairs twiching at my feet, I asked him how much, knowing I should have agreed to a price before sitting down. He looked at me for a long time, deep in thought, wondering how obscene a figure he could get away with uttering. “One hundred,” he finally said, cringing slightly and taking a step back. One hundred thousand dong – probably five times what he charges a regular customer. I considered: six bucks for the lengthiest and closest haircut of your life. I handed it over, muttering, knowing that if he’d been deaf I probably would have agreed to two hundred.
The train home left at midnight. We were in a full compartment for our return trip, a crew of champion snorers who, as expected, were up at the first glimmer of sunlight through the frost-covered compartment window. An hour later the music came on, insipid pop pap filtering through my dreams. Our compartment emptied but for Ida and I, lost in a fitful slumber caressed by electronic synthesizers and cigarette smoke. Alone, we waited, unconscious, while the corridor outside filled with leaning bodies, the landscape outside swelling with signs of the approaching city, flickering past silently, patiently.