Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

If I say ‘tropical paradise’ do you have a clear picture in mind? I do. It’s the one where I’m lying in a hammock, shaded by palm trees with a cold drink in one hand, eyes resting on a white sand beach or drifting the clear blue waters that stretch to the horizon. Everything is quiet and serene. After 3 weeks (or 3 minutes, depending on your temperament) you might well get bored of the perfection.

Nha Trang isn’t like that.

It’s got a lot of the right elements (beach, palm trees, blue waters) but it’s a much more industrial kind of seaside. It’s like the well-established UK or Mediterranean holiday resorts. A grubby, going up or going down one without the gloss, chain stores and health-and-safety regulations of the big places. I’ve been thinking of it as Torquay in the Tropics.

Roofs and a big hotel against Vietnamese mountains

The hotels are all big, or at least tall. Ours is 8 stories, and we’re on the 7th which is why we’ve got such great views over the technical college (which has ostriches, for some reason), the local sports centre and the apartment block in front. But we can see the sea, and from this height you can’t see all the rubbish on the beach or the rubble on the pavement (better than it being on the road, I suppose).

We decided that we wanted a break from rushing around, a little bit of luxury and to try scuba. With unrest in the Philippines and Indonesia when we were booking, Nha Trang seemed like a good choice.

It kind of wasn’t.

I feel bad every time I suggest to anyone that this trip has been less than blissfully, perfectly wonderful in every single way, but actually we’ve made several mistakes, and some places just weren’t as interesting as we thought they would be. LA was one, Nha Trang is another. We’re learning as we go.

As an example, we’re used to travelling in Europe, where if you turn up on the day and look for a hotel you pay twice the price and may well get told they’re fully booked. On the backpacker trail, however, you pay the highest price if you book online, as you can’t bargain, and – most importantly – you can’t inspect the room before you fork over the cash. And you certainly can’t get a refund if you decide to leave early.

K picked a nice hotel in Nha Trang, and booked us in. We needed a couple weeks, as we weren’t sure when we’d be able to do scuba.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, and took the train up. We checked in, argued with the hotel until they gave us the room we paid for, and went to explore.

We really are out in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm. The beach is close (and I do love a beach) but the town centre is 5k away. And thanks to the type of building around here (educational/commercial), there are very few market stalls or restaurants or shops. I couldn’t figure out where people bought groceries, until I realised that people don’t really live around here.

Football pitches and school buildings with the sea in the distance

There’s this notion of ‘authentic travel’ prevalent on travel blogs and in guide books. The ideal is to ‘visit the real {whatever country}’ and ‘see the heart of the place’. It’s characterized by deeply meaningful encounters with locals that typically only last 30 seconds. I find it a bit odd. It’s like the ‘travel like a local’ thing. Even if you live somewhere for years and years, you won’t necessarily see behind the scenes, so I don’t see how you could manage it in a week of rushing about.

And if you do spend time somewhere ‘like a local’ you’ll notice that locals are stuck in exactly the boring rut that made you want to travel. They work. They shop for food. They cook the same meal they made the day before yesterday. They buy coffee at Starbucks. (Actually, Nha Trang doesn’t seem to have a Starbucks. It may be the last place on earth not to. I bet Everest has one.) They eat at McDonalds and do all sorts of non-authentic things. They watch TV.

Locals don’t visit tourist attractions. They don’t go to major religious sites, except on the appropriate holidays. If you do a place ‘like a local’ you’ll miss out.

Nha Trang crushes those lovely ‘off the beaten track’ dreams. It’s an entirely ordinary town, where most people seem to have nothing to do with the tourism industry. As a result, they don’t speak English. And if they did learn a tourist language, it would be Russian. There are a lot of Russian tourists. Well, there aren’t a lot of tourists down this end, but the ones there are speak Russian. Or Vietnamese – our hotel seems to be a pretty successful conference center. We’ve already seen the classic ‘egg drop’ team building exercise and there’s 3 nights of corporate functions and weddings every week.

Nha Trang is, in short, boring.

It’s too far away from anything friends with local knowledge or the guidebook recommends to make a day trip. HCMC, Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue are all at least 8h away. Even the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam and Trip Advisor are at a bit of a loss. LP recommends visiting the local medical centre and Trip Advisor is all about the scuba. Pool, beach, sea: that’s it.

That’s not a bad thing though.

Street at night in torrential rain

It took a while to get into the habit of having nothing to do. We visited over 20 cities in the 2 1/2 months it took us to get from the UK to Vietnam. We didn’t really mean to go so many places, it just kind of happened that way. Did you know that it’s only 20 minutes on the metro from Osaka to Kyoto? And the same to Kobe? Me neither, but once you find that out, how could you resist?

The first couple of days, I think we slept and ate pizza. After that, we read books, swam in the pool and the sea, and explored the hotel’s menu. After that, I got bored. I got itchy feet. I complained to K that I wanted to move on. I got cross that the hotel was booked and paid for, so we couldn’t go away or change it without wrecking our budget.

I think at that point, K booked the scuba to distract me. He’s asthmatic, so has to wait for his breathing to be perfect before he can dive. It didn’t happen, but he got me out of the hotel for 3 days. (And then fish! fish fish fish. Seriously, I saw so many cool fish. And a purple slug with a crown of yellow horns on its butt.)

Lit up football pitch at night masked by palm trees and torrential rain

After that, I relaxed. I suddenly realised how lovely it is to have nothing to do. All our successes from Nha Trang are small, things that could have happened anywhere, but they happened here. We planned out a website we’ll probably never build, I started a book I’ll probably never finish. K taught me to play his favourite computer game. We actually watched some TV. I swam 1.5km for the first time this year.

It’s been good.

Now, our time in Nha Trang is coming to an end. We leave on Wednesday and it’s all a rush again. We’ve got things to do today, tomorrow and the next day. After that, we’re in the hands of the airlines. We’ve got a train to HCMC, an overnight layover there then a flight to Singapore. 18h in that city, then on to Brisbane. A weekend there, then on to Auckland. It’s all down to when flights are affordable, and so whoosh we’re off!

4 Responses »

  1. If you see Gleneagle’s hospital in Singapore, that’s where I was born! Glad you’re enjoying the downtime and scuba diving, and hope you manage to finish enough of the novel to let me see some of it someday.

      • As soon as I finish the Big Read challenge! Don’t worry, it’s safe on my kindle and I will get round to it before you get back, but it is set somewhere I don’t usually go for my usual fix in relaxing literature. Where’s the country doctor and the manor house with a tasteful murder happening behind closed doors and people sitting politely in drawing rooms making double-meaninged conversation? :P

  2. Pingback: 18 Days in Nha Trang | Trip Counter

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