Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday, July 16th

No room at the inn

View from the train

The Vietnamese have an unfortunate reputation throughout South-East Asia for being a bunch of crooks. I would say this is unfair to the vast majority of Vietnamese people, who are charming. However, there is a significant minority of crooks, and they are attracted to foreign tourists like flies to honey, bearing scams by the bucketload - particularly the practice of agreeing to a price or a service, but then turning the tables at the last minute - and Nha Trang was a place where we did, unfortunately, experience this behaviour.

To get to Nha Trang, the south-eastern coastal town and beach resort, we opted for the train. I had never ridden on a Vietnamese train before. Apparently they have "upgraded their rolling stock". From the state of the train, and on further examination, it seems that the "upgrade" comprised purchasing decomissioned trains from China. Our train was of the same design as the final train we took in China, from Xi'an to Chengdu (the quality of which deteriorated the further west we travelled). Apparently this is an enormous improvement over the previous situation.

The 500 km journey took eleven hours. It left only an hour late, which is pretty good from the sounds of it. There is only one track for much of the length of the country, with overtaking places, and thus if one train is late, it throws the entire country's schedule out of whack. Hue to Nha Trang is a segment of the express route from Hanoi to Saigon, which takes thirty hours. We bagged the last few soft sleeper berths, despite the journey being during the day, as they were all that was available. The berths were reasonably comfortable, in a Chinese train style, and we chugged through the lush green countryside and arrived in Nha Trang at about 11pm.

Arriving late into a new town, especially a popular destination, it was important that we already had a booking at a hotel, which is why we called ahead and secured ourselves three rooms at the Seaside Hotel. At the station there was a taxi driver holding up a sign. All well and good, and he drove us there.

At the hotel, which had locked its reception desk - they like to go to bed early here - there was a guy sitting there saying "no rooms". "Aha, but we have a booking," we reassured him. "No, no rooms." He turned the cabbie's sign round and on the back were the words "Sorry no room". "But we booked," we protested. "Sorry no rooms". The hotel had got greedy and even though they'd sent a driver to meet us at the train, had decided to give our rooms away just in case we didn't arrive. One of our friends had even offered a credit card to secure them, but was told there would be no problem with the booking.


"OK, taxi driver take you to another hotel," said the shyster, and through various semi-comprehensible phrases, we understood that he'd booked us into another hotel, and the next morning we could come back and take up the rooms we had been promised. So off we went round the corner to another, grottier place, where the receptionist had to be woken up, and who told us that no, there were no rooms here either. We were getting a mite frustrated, and started to envisage a night on the beach, fending off lurking thieves and prostitutes, for which Nha Trang has a bit of a reputation.

Finally our cabbie took us to a third place that did indeed have rooms. On the sixth floor, with no lift. To compound the discomfort of this, we asked for beer, and the owner very helpfully brought us up a bag of cans of Tiger and a bucket of ice. Then his wife came up with a big plate of bananas. Then there was another knock at the door and she appeared with a big plate of artfully cut and peeled dragon fruit, which looks spectacular - a bright magenta soft skin, filled with white apple-like pulp and little black seeds - but is so bland as to be inedible, as well as even more bananas. The poor woman had been woken up in what was, to her, the middle of the night, and had tramped up and down all those stairs with all this unneccesary fruit, but we speculated that we should pitch it off the balcony at the so-far dishonest citizens of Nha Trang, or perhaps flush it down the toilet. And because of the stairs situation, we were going to check out the next day anyway.

The next day was bright and sunny, and early the next morning I checked us into a more salubrious waterfront hotel. The owners of the first hotel, seeing that we were checking out without them getting commission on any of the tours they'd deluged us with information about, stiffed us on the beers instead, charging us for them twice as we checked out in two groups.

We lounged on the beach for most of the day. The surf was low, but the drop-off from the beach steep, and I was unable to be in the water without thinking of tsunamis and the effect one would have on this beach, even though it is on the other coast.

It was there that we met Ngup, a cute little street child, selling postcards. Street kids are ubiquitous throughout Vietnam, many of them coordinated in their actions by 'beggarmasters'. At first it is tough, but there are so many of them that eventually it becomes easier, to shoo them away. However, occasionally one meets a kid who is so adorable, honest, or affectionate, that one inadvertantly spends time with them. So it was with Ngup, who stayed with us on the beach, playing games and having fun, for pretty much the entire day. I am not naïve enough to suppose that this mightn't be a strategy to get one to buy their stock at the end of the day, but Ngup seemed so genuine in her affections that I don't think she was one of these.

And indeed the next day she came looking for us, and the day after brought her mother - who seemed to be the provider of her stock, rather than a beggarmaster - to meet us, waiting over the road from our hotel for quite a time, looking for us. Hanging out with Ngup raised memories of Jing, a streetchild in Saigon ten years ago, of whom I shall write more later.

The last time I was in Nha Trang, an incident happened that illustrated what happens if you make assumptions about people's habits. An Australian girl with whom we'd been hanging out joined us at a café. I had previously been to the toilet, which was accessible via the kitchen, off a chicken-occupied courtyard at the back of the building. So when this girl asked me "where's the dunny", I gave her instructions.

She came back from the toilet with a look of disgust on her face. "These people are animals!" she exclaimed. "What makes you say that?" I asked. "The toilet, it's disgusting!"

Vietnamese toilets don't have the best reputation in the world, but this one wasn't any exception. And the Aussie girl had been in Vietnam for quite a while, so I didn't expect her to be quite so surprised by this one. I enquired further what was wrong with it.

"It's just a concrete floor," she said. "I just had to squat down and take a dump on the floor. How do they live like that?"

"Er..." I replied. "When I went, it was a normal squatter toilet, with a water scoop, just like normal. Which door did you go in?" I asked.

"First on the right," she replied.

"But the toilet is the second on the right..." I told her.

Her disgust turned to a creeping and horrific realisation. "Oh my God," she said, turning white. "I just took a dump in their shower."

She stood up, and walked out of the café, leaving me to pay for her coffee. I never saw her again.

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