Quang Ngai, a pause for reflection – Day 10

I have no pictures of Quang Ngai. Booked into the room, arranged my few possessions, and dropped the camera again. It came on briefly, then died, a useless lump of expensive glass and impact-resistant plastic.

Let me be frank: you do not go to Quang Ngai for the sake of the town itself. It’s a fairly typical, straight up-and-down town, slightly grimy at the edges and without much in the way of sights. There are no Cham towers, no shimmering beaches, no mountain bike scenery.  Hotels are cheap and honest, but resorts? Look elsewhere. No, you go to Quang Ngai for one reason alone, and that is Son My, because Son My contains the small hamlet of My Lai.

I’m not going to go into the history of the massacre, because it is so well known. I chose to go to to My Lai for the impact it had had on me as a teenager still learning about the world. Even now, when researching the history of Vietnam, that single small event in the overall scheme of things still makes me angry, and upsets me. I lost a lot of faith in human nature learning how supposedly civilised men would follow an order to massacre and entire village of unarmed civilians, and do so without  questions or regret. There were two semi-heroes, the soldier who shot himself so he couldn’t take part, and the helicopter pilot and crew who tried to save at least some amongst the carnage. I cannot understand how humans could unquestioningly do such things, let alone live with it afterwards.

I also cannot understand how someone could be party to the cover up, nor how the planners and perpetrators got away scot free. Of course, once it became known, the impact did much to speed the end of the war, and lost the US Army support for a long time, just as the US government lost any remaining support it had internationally for the war which they already knew they couldn’t win and were searching for a way out.

House foundation, Memorial Park

Son My is some way out of town, and is a village consisting of smaller hamlets. The authorities decided not to rebuild My Lai, so all that is left are the foundations of the houses that were destroyed, the memorial and the museum. It is well-tended, and, when I was there, empty. The photos in the museum are both striking and harrowing. The image that sticks in my mind is of the US soldier assisting a bewildered old man leave his house. A few minutes later, he was shot.

 I left Quang Ngai with mixed feelings the next day. The more I thought about it – and what else can you do on a nondescript train journey – the more it seemed, for me, anyway, a worthwhile deviation.There was also the nagging feeling that I’d missed out on seeing much of an interesting area, so much so I’ll go back next trip. Of My Lai I did not want to think. It remains a cruel blot on the history of the human race.

 

Holiday towns in the rain – day 9

The Beach

Beach, Nha Trang

I was up early next morning, as anyone whose room overlooked an army base would be. Not that I minded, I am an early riser anyway, but the noise of hundreds of boots drilling below drove me out. Reception lent me an umbrella, and off I went.

Taking the plunge ?

Beach resorts on grey, wet days always seem far more depressing than inland towns and cities, and Nha Trang was no exception. As the day progressed, a few hardy souls ventured out to the beach, but not many ventured into the sea, which, as the pictures show, was sandy and troubled. This man was clearly in two minds about the advisability of taking the plunge. Ten minutes after I’d taken the photo, he was still there, lost in thought.  

There being little point in remaining, I turned my back on the beach and headed towards the market, stopping at a small coffee shop on the way. There was one other person there, who greeted me in and affable manner. He had a North American accent, but whether Canadian or American I could not tell, so I asked.

I did not mean to offend him, my reaction was spontaneous. I said I sympathized with him, it must be difficult for and American travelling at that moment. He didn’t day anything, but went to the counter, ordered another copy and found a seat as far away from me as possible. Americans can be sensitive, it seems.

Market

Market stalls

I’m not a marketoholic, or whatever the word is, but the persistent rain meant that the resort-based attractions of Nha Trang were not an option for me, and, judging by the people mooning around restaurant, bars and coffee shops, most other people. So, armed with my trusty umbrella and camera, I set off to see what else the town had to offer, which was mainly a market, although, as I found out later, some surprising other options, given the nature of its politics. 

I took some desultory photos of restaurant menus, the ones with pictures of each dish on display, in the rain, motorcycles in the rain, stallholders in the rain, my foot (not intentional) in a puddle, tourists wearing plastic macs, locals wearing plastic macs and so on, in the certain knowledge they would turn out as drab as I felt, until I found the market. 

Stallholder in the rain

Part of the market was inside, but I did not spend long there, prefering to see what was on the street. Perhaps it was me, but the all pervasive damp had rendered the interior forlorn. At least outside there was life, and colour, although  the mood was still one of dull resignation, as the photo shows.

The rain had probably reduced the size of the shopping crowd, but some stallholders still busied themselves with minor tasks, much as staff in empty restaurants do. I was interested to see the conical hats everywhere, much as I had previously in Hanoi the year before.

The downpour steadily increased. My umbrella was at its protective limit, so I diverted into a café for and unnecessary, and as it turned out iced, coffee. It wasn’t particularly cold, but I wasn’t in a hurry. As it happened, I’d taken a seat outside under the veranda, rather than in the air-conditioned interior, and there I saw the man whose job it was to look after the motorbikes parked outside the café. His face was expressionless as he walked up and down ay a leisurely pace, until the ennui got to him and he returned to his chair. He stared out disapprovingly into the rain. It was Vietnam, so he had seen a lot.  I could only sympathise.

I headed back towards the hotel, resolving to change, and find somewhere to eat. Despite having weathered the downpours, I hadn’t considered the impact on my little 500m stroll down the lanes to the guesthouse. They had turned into mini torrents, not more than knee deep it has to be said, but it would make for an uncomfortable walk, especially as the waters hid the occasional pot hole, as I would no doubt discover. Accordingly, I took shelter outside a massage parlour and consulted my guidebook for good places to eat. While I did, one of the girls started chatting with me, pointing out the obvious advantages of massages, and the cheap price. I smiled, we chatted, then I politely declined, saying I’d think about it later.

When that later came, after I’d bought my air ticket from Hué to Hanoi and after the rain had stopped, the game had changed. The same girl came out, and began offering me even lower prices. I kept on declining, and she kep on lowering the price. Finally, having exhausted that, she offered something I’m sure the Communist Party of Vietnam had outlawed years before. Frankly, politely declining was out of the question, so I raced off , followed by the girl for a frantic couple of metres, until she stopped and said something in her native tongue I’m sure wasn’t polite.

I reflected later, over a consoling beer, that the whole situation was really my fault. Yes, I had been naive, in not even thinking what might be on offer, but more so because my politeness had been mistaken for interest. I had lead the girl on, a simple “No” to begin with would have prevented an awkward situation. At my age, I should have known better.

 

 

 

 

 

Nha trang, rain google maps and disappearing guesthouses – Day 8

It rained in Nha Trang, solidly, consistently and annoyingly, the whole time I was there. Not only that, google maps contrived to send me on a wild goose chase which involved a brush with the military. Oh, and I dropped the camera, although it seemed to survive without a problem.

Google maps

It was a fair walk from the station to my guesthouse, but google promised a reasonably straightforward one. The rain started within minutes, but only in a half-hearted way.

I followed google’s itinerary precisely, stopping frequently to check, as it took me further and further away from what appeared to be the middle of town down empty suburban streets of mildewed flats towards a wide street with a set of gates at the end. This struck me as odd. When I reached the gate, it became even odder – there was a parade ground, another gate, what looked like army barracks, and the inevitable couple of US aircraft left over from the war. The whole construction screamed military base, not a highly-rated tripadvisor guesthouse. 

I retreated. Google told me to carry on. I dived down different side streets. Each time Google brought me back resolutely to the gates. I was minded of Harris and the Hampton Court maze. With that in mind, I turned Google off, and headed towards what appeared to be, and in fact was, the town centre, and a posh looking hotel. Ritzy hotels are useful in Vietnam, because the staff will speak English, as was the case. They hadn’t heard of my lodging, but obligingly rang for me. There followed ten minutes of  conversation which I assumed to be directions, followed by a silence, some smiles, and that was the end of the call. They hadn’t understood the directions, and the owner was coming to get me, they thought on his motorcycle.  It was raining hard now, and I wasn’t looking forward to riding pillion.

I needn’t have worried. There smiling owner arrived, and together we walked the 200 metres to the hotel, it was that close. Installed in my room, I opened the window to see, not 20 metres away, a parade ground and a gate. Google had been 100% accurate, apart from one small detail. The back of the guesthouse stood on the exact spot Google had indicated, only there was no access from that street. 

 

Day 7: Return to Ho Chi Minh City, and broken resolutions

I’ll be honest: I looked at the options for going back to HCM, where I’d booked the train for the trip north, happened by chance on the Vietnam airlines website, and in a couple of clicks had invested $20 in a return flight. This despite a longstanding resolution only to travel by land transport wherever I happened to be, as you can’t see much from an aeroplane. That it would give me the morning in Phu Quoc, and the afternoon in HCM, where I would overnight and leave next morning, was icing on the cake.

Not having the moto, and dismissing the massing clouds, I set off to wander down the coast. It was one of those days with not a lot of sunshine, some wind, and a sea which, if not angry , was at least mildly disturbed. There weren’t too may on the beach, either, put off no doubt partly by the hour and partly by the unappetising conditions. The resorts I passed seemed barely full, and the men repairing roofs, cleaning, or performing other sundry resort business outnumbered their guests by a clear majority.

Further down the beach, and only a handful of meters offshore, was a fishing boat. Nobody appeared to be on board, but, on shore, two youths were busy hauling in the net. I wondered what their intended catch was, given the proximity of a handful of  bathers, but did not wait to find out. The further I progressed down the coast, the more ominous the sky became.

Some people hate being photographed, and neither, it appears, do some cows. This one looked at me with deep dislike, mingle with suspicion. I tried to explain that it was safe from being served up on my dinner plate as I didn’t eat meat, but the animal was not convinced.

It belonged to a small cluster of habitations in a narrow strip of farmland between the main road and the sea. Phu Quoc might be rapidly turning into a fantasy land of resorts and backpacker hotels, but, for some of the locals, life remained as it was.

I don’t know whether these wer permanent homes or temporary shelters, nor whether the people were impoverished fisherman or comfortably off, but the chair on the veranda got me musing on their lifestyle. It struck me evenings sitting in the chair, contemplating life as it passed by, undisturbed by the frenetic pace at which us westerners live, would have its attractive side. No internet, no emails, just nature, the lowing of cattle, the happy fatigue of a day well spent, the gentle conversation with loved and dear ones …

It struck me the chair faced the road, not the coast, so the idyll would be regularly punctured by the noise of motorbikes, buses and lorries. In the end, it was just a chair on a veranda.

I arrived back in HCM in the late afternoon, when peak hour was beginning to warm up. The bus driver dropped me off about 400 metres from my hotel, and took pains to ensure I knew the way. I smiled and nodded, then, under his watchful eye, headed off in the certain knowledge I was going to consult google maps the moment the bus was out of sight. I was to find out shortly that google maps were less than perfect, but, for the instant, they guided me across a maze of teeming small streets and motorcycle choked alleys to my hotel. The contrast with Phu Quoc couldn’t be more marked, yet I was happy to be back in HCM, just as I had been happy to be in Ph:u Quoc.