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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!

Austin: natural urban wonders

Austin: natural urban wonders

One of Austin’s slogans is ‘Keep Austin weird’. It’s known as a hip, liberal, arty enclave in conservative Texas. It was certainly a fun place to visit, and in a couple days we managed find indie restaurants, pleasant shopping streets and live music. We discovered K’s favourite cinema ever (the Drafthouse chain feeds you at your seats, vg) and an absolutely excellent place to swim, so if it wasn’t for the visa issues, the heat and the fact we have a life in Europe, I think we’d be happy to live here.

Barton Springs (first things first!) is an absolutely gorgeous swimming hole. A natural spring has been shaped and molded to create a 200+m long swimming space, most of which is 5 feet deep or less (I know I’m mixing my measurements, but this is how the lifeguard gave the info out!).

Barton Springs pool, still water in the sunshine

Interestingly, people use it like the did the hotpots in Iceland. Most people seemed to be in a group of friends, and loads of people came down just to stand about in the water and chat. No food, alcohol or pets are allowed in the Barton Springs bit, so the water just downstream is where all the people with those things congregate. It’s a bit of a party.

Crowd of people hanging out in the water near Barton Springs

I love swimming and being in or by the water, so we actually went twice! It was free the first day ($5 for parking) and the parking was free the second day ($8 for two entries) so a bit of a bargain, I think.

Driving meant that we saw more individual things, and could eat at restaurants that were recommended, but it was harder to get a feel for the city. We had to park the car, make sure it wasn’t going to get towed or scraped or what have you, and then get back to it before the meter ran out. It’s daft, but that was quite a bit of hassle. That said, the places we went were miles apart, so I don’t know what the alternative would have been as we didn’t see many buses.

The other awesome thing we saw in Austin was the flying of the bats. Austin’s Congress Bridge is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. There are around 1.5 million bats living in the bridge, and they all fly out at dusk to go and hunt bugs. It’s absolutely amazing. Unsurprisingly, there were a few other people there to watch:

Crowd waiting to see the Austin bats

It took over half an hour for the stream of bats to die down. It was astonishing, and I’m so glad to have seen it. As the sky was dark, the swarm was subtle. When it started, people began to move towards the river, trying to make out the bats in the darkness. The flood picked up and went on and on, thousands of bats just streaming out, doing their own thing.

Blurry picture of bats

This crappy picture is the best I have. Sorry!

Natural wonders aside, Austin is home to some pretty cool, slightly weird, stuff. The University of Texas has is apparently one of the richest in the world, thanks to oil. As a result, its collection of documents is large and varied. On permanent display at the Harry Ransom Center are the world’s first photograph (very cool) and a Gutenberg Bible (also very cool). We also ambled round a WWI exhibition which was good (lots of primary sources) but disjointed (no real narrative). I would have preferred either a local focus (since I’ve seen similar displays in about 5 countries now) or some other tighter theme (graphic design, nurses, war literature, letters home…) that would have tied it all together.

Austin is the Texas State Capital, and it’s capitol building is, yep, slightly weird. It’s in the classic vein (columns, cupola, stone, statues…) but it’s pink. This is not a sunset effect. It’s just pink.

Austin's pink capitol building

We stayed with Airbnb hosts in Austin, who turned out to be a lovely local family. They recommended a couple of great places to eat, and we found others using the TripAdvisor app (free!). They also suggested running routes, fed us breakfast and were generally great all round. So far, Airbnb has worked out really well for us, we’re loving it.

My face and a Gutenberg Bible are included in K’s blog post about Austin.

Galveston and the Gulf Coast

Galveston and the Gulf Coast

What do you do when you’re being baked alive by the weather? Head for the sea, of course. From Houston, the easy, pretty, popular bit of sea to go to is Galveston. It’s an older city, but has been completely flattened by hurricanes a couple of times. In fact, Houston got its start because people wanted to move away from Galveston’s dangerous weather.

Galveston reminds me a lot of Torquay. Now, particularly if you know Torquay, you might be wondering what a holiday resort in Devon has in common with the Texas Gulf Coast. True, the weather is significantly warmer in Galveston – about as warm as they pretend Torquay is, in fact – and the sea front is so long you need a car to get about, but the entertainment is the same: arcades, fast food, beach and mini-golf. Just bigger.

K taking a crazy golf shot that goes through a cannon

Like Torquay, the houses are painted in bright colours, and there are plenty of imported palm trees about. They look a bit less forlorn here though, and the houses are often on stilts. They’re so close to the water, even a high tide would come up to the steps so it makes sense. We saw this style in a lot of the new (or re-) builds in New Orleans, too.

Houses on stilts by the water at Matagorda

Even the seagulls have the same thuggish attitude. These little nippy ones had a good go at swarming a family that made the mistake of pulling out a picnic.

Seagulls mob a family on the beach at Galveston

I think one of the kids fed the gulls, which triggered this chaos. They looked pretty innocent afterwards.

Grey and white seagull on a post

A couple hours from Galveston is Matagorda, which is advertised as ’10 miles of unspoilt white sand beach’. For $10 you can get a permit to drive your car along it, so you can pick your mile and spend the day, effectively on a private beach. As our hire car is not remotely an off-road vehicle, we didn’t do that. We actually found the beach a little disappointing, as the waterline is about a foot deep in rotting seaweed at the moment. It’s the same at Galveston. It’s a bit like swimming in miso soup.

K and I on the beach at Matagorda. There's white sand and brown seaweed making up the shore in approximately equal quantities.

We decided to pretend we’d come for a nature walk, not a swim, and the area is absolutely beautiful.

Sand dunes covered with sea grass at Matagorda

I’m really enjoying seeing all the different birds. I’m sure these pelicans are really common around here, but I was thrilled. We saw alligators out the window of the train, plenty of birds and a few lizards, but otherwise it’s like in Europe: most of the wildlife you spot day-to-day is roadkill.

Pelicans on the beach at Matagorda

You can read K’s thoughts on the Gulf Coast and see more photos here.

The Blue Lagoon and other thermal baths

The Blue Lagoon and other thermal baths

K and E in the milky, pale blue waters of the Blue Lagoon

I love to swim, or bathe, or play in the sea, and Iceland has over 700 thermal baths and swimming pools, for a population of around 300,000. We managed to hit six in nine days; a good score I think! You can find out more about thermal pools in Reykjavik on the council website.

Apart from the Blue Lagoon, each pool charged about ISK500 (£2.60). They’re all heated and most have at least a lane pool, a ‘hot pot’ (hot baths usually around 38C and a hot one of 40-42C) and a steam room or sauna. Icelanders mostly seem to come to sit in the hot pots with friends and chat. It’s a lovely way to end a day which has been cold, wet or involved lots of walking.

My top tip is to take your towel with you. The system is slightly different than in most other countries. You leave everything in your locker but your swim suit and towel, walk to the showers to have a wash (without swim suit, as signs in five languages explain) then leave your towel in a rack and go on to the pool. On your return, you shower again (if you want) and dry off completely before going back to your locker. It keeps the locker room dry, which is great. There’s free soap on tap, so no need to worry about that, either.

Laugardalslaug
A lovely place to spend a sunny day. There’s a 25m lengths pool, a kid’s pool with slides and a large hot pot as well as saunas and steam rooms. Plenty of space, even when it’s busy. This one is quite close to Reykjavik city centre, near the sea.

Asvallalaug
A bit outside the town/suburb of Harfnarfjordur, Asvallalaug is a brand new pool complex. It’s mostly indoors, with only a few hot pots outside. It’s got an Olympic size 50m pool and space for kids to play. When we went, we had the main pool to ourselves: utter bliss.

The Blue Lagoon
Apparently 80% of visitors to Iceland go to the Blue Lagoon, and I can see why. It’s gorgeous and surprising, it’s a pleasant way to relax for a couple of hours, and it’s near the airport. It’s also EUR35 (£28) per person, so it’s far and away the most expensive pool. The splendor is man-made, created by the waste heat from a geothermal power station, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. I’m not sure I’d go again though, and I’d definitely want to wait for a sunny day.

The Blue Lagoon waters, a pale milky blue

Sundhollin
Right in the centre of town, near Hallgrímskirkja. The hot pots are outdoors while the lane pool is inside. This is an older pool, and not quite as nice as some of the others, but it’s easy to get to. It’s also a popular spot for tourists, so if you want to chat in your own language to strangers, or not be the only newbie in the locker room, it’s a good choice.

Vesturbæjarlaug
A bit to the west of the city centre, this is another good local pool. The lane area, the kids play pool and the hot pots are all outside. There are plenty of hot pot spaces, with temperatures from 37-42C. It’s a nice pool, but a bit out of the way for us.

Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach
At the water’s edge, near the Pearl (Perlan). The hot water from a single long hot pot drains into the sea, making the water in an artificial, sandy bay slightly warmer. It’s a fun place to visit. Run in for a dip, or just sit in the warm and watch the locals swim with neoprene gloves, bootees and woolly hats.

Geothermal beach in Reykjavik

Notes from an Essex island

Notes from an Essex island

Just a reminder that the UK can be beautiful…

Sea at Mersea Island

… and sunny.

From left to right, the sea, beach and footpath on Mersea Island

We’re on Mersea Island, in Essex, spending a few days with my mum before we leave on our Grand Adventure. It’s really pretty here. We’re staying in a 3-bedroom static caravan, which is as neat and carefully designed as our own van (it’s even made by the same people: Swift). I rather like it – I think there’s plenty of space for a permanent home, and easier to keep clean and tidy than a flat or house. The park is lovely and green, too, and very close to the sea.

I’ve also been trying out my new camera, and am really impressed by how much I got for my money. I bought a Panasonic Lumix TZ35 for about £120 (we had a voucher) and took this standing in the sea, pointing downwards. The snail was about the size of my thumbnail.

Sea snail at Mersea Island

At swim, two ducks

At swim, two ducks

There are a lot of wild birds on the lake at the moment, as the winter has been so mild that some seasonal visitors have stayed, rather than head futher south. I don’t know which should be where when though.
Lake Geneva, with Alps in the distance. Birds everywhere in the foreground.

The swans are here all year round, I know that much!

Behind a white swan is a group of smaller waterfowl

And they’re always pretty bossy when someone starts throwing food around. Or when a dog comes by, and they hiss for dominance.

Close up of a white swan in shallow water

The only one I recognize out of these is the mallard.

Three ducks, each a different species, in shallow water on Lake Geneva

I took this last photo about a week before the others. The coots are sheltering from strong winds blowing on the lake by hiding in the harbour with a flock of brown tufty ducks. I’d never seen a flock this size – I usually see one or two coots, paddling along quickly with their giant feet. I think they’re rather lovely.

A flock of coots floating among the small boats in a harbour

Middelfart, Fyn, Denmark

Middelfart, Fyn, Denmark

Wooden dock extends from sandy beach into sea, clear and still reflecting clouds above

On our way out of Denmark, we stopped by the sea for the first time. We’d swum in the harbour at Copenhagen and Stockholm (in designated swimming areas, not in the shipping lanes) but we hadn’t yet been faced with the whole sea, wide blue water. The weather was stormy and rainy, but cleared for long enough that we could have a quick dip.

The caravans near ours were embedded, with full awnings, canvas fences and even canvas garden sheds. We were passing through, but I can see the appeal of stopping, of spending the whole summer in this place.

Brighton beach

Brighton beach

It’s been raining all day today. It has rained so much that the ducks from the river came up to sit in a puddle outside our van. (They moved on when I got the camera out, sadly, so I have an awkward picture of half a duck which isn’t worth sharing.)

This makes it all the harder to believe that on Friday we were in Brighton and went for a dip in the sea. Not only that, it was nice enough to sit around on the beach for a while afterwards. And now I’ve got the heating on in the van.
Waves crash on the brown pebble beach under a sky full of white fluffy clouds

 

Brighton’s seafront is most famous for the pier, but I prefer the beach. It’s not a comfortable, sandy beach, though. It’s acres of pebbles and they’re quite sharp on the feet when you go to bathe. You also have to be careful not to go swimming at Brighton beach when it’s too rough. The first day we went it was placid as a pool. The second, Friday, the lifeguards marked as fine, but it was still rough getting in and out, with quite big waves. Not a good day for little ones. Saturday I took the photo above.

The other thing to watch out for is that you don’t accidentally wander into the naturist beach. (If you’re going to go, do it deliberately, with confidence. Otherwise you’ll wind up hopping around with your jeans tangled around your shoe or something.) It’s got a great big bank of pebbles around it and big signs, all of which I would quite happily have walked past without spotting if it hadn’t been for K standing back and going ‘Er… darling… mind you don’t walk into that sign…’

Swimming in the evening

Swimming in the evening

A ladder into a swimming hole

I love being in or by water, and it is a real joy and a luxury to be able to go swimming, outdoors, in the evening. In Cambridge, a dip in the Cam or the Jesus Green pool was usually a chilly affair, saved for the hottest days of the year. Here, lovely beaches abound, by river and lake, and the light and heat fade slowly. The shadows get longer and longer, stretching out so far you’re in shade wherever you go, and yet the sky is still blue and clear and the water, if not exactly warm, is temperate.