From Vietnam with love: it's all about people - Dal Vietnam con amore:la gente soprattutto

Saturday, September 02, 2006

On the Road!

Driving in Vietnam is a hair-raising experience, with at least one close call per hour of driving no matter how good a driver you are (or Marco is, I should say – most foreigners have chaffeurs and locals are surprised that he drives his own car). The major national highway is a two-lane road full of motorbikes mostly, but also minivans, buses, trucks and a few other private cars. People drive without paying any attention to other vehicles or to traffic regulations (which are not enforced), so you have to be on guard the whole time because motorbikes will just dart right in front of you without looking. They pass recklessly and insanely and that in itself probably causes most accidents. We managed to avoid driving at night most of the time, but the few times we had to were quite scary because there are no streetlights so you really can’t see people on bikes or motorbikes (without headlights), or the women and babies who like to hang out in the road until you are right up on them.

We only had one mishap with the car – one of the front tires blew out as we were driving along. Luckily it happened when there were few other vehicles around, and Marco pulled over and changed the tire without any difficulty. But in general the car was in good shape (except for iffy shock absorbers, which resulted in a bumpy ride and Maia getting carsick on the way home). Compared to some of the other vehicles, the KIA seems like a Rolls Royce. Most families go by motorbike, and use their bikes to transport anything imaginable, including ice, giant logs (see pictures), geese, pigs and trees…


Mui Ne is a lovely crescent-shaped, palm-lined beach with resorts on the beach side and restaurants across the street. The water is not tropically clear and warm as I expected, but more like the Atlantic - short, strong waves, slightly chilly (Marco would disagree, but I'm a wimp). I loved it anyway. It's the rainy season, which means that the sun is out in the morning and then it rains most of the afternoon. That's okay, because Maia wakes us up early and then we all take naps soon after lunch.

To get over the harrowing drive there, we ate at an Italian restaurant for dinner (a big plate of pasta and a bottle of red wine to calm the senses). As usual, the Italians seem to have found a nice beach spot to settle down in and open restaurants – there are at least four genuine Italian-run restaurants in the small resort area. Naturally we had to try all of them. My favorite was Il Giardino, where we had delicious fresh little scallops, very small whole fried fish and calamari on a bed of watercress, and exceptional ravioli filled with shrimp with a wine and cream sauce, and for dessert, a dense and cool chocolate tart and a warm pineapple one. Maia flirted with the Italian owners (who joined us later for limoncello) and played with the staff.

Besides the beach, Mui Ne is famous for giant sand dunes, like Jockey’s Ridge but bigger and in a more natural setting, with excellent views of the coast. As you approach the dunes, little children surround you to offer you a ride on their plastic sleds (for a price, of course). I couldn’t try it because of my hurt wrist, and Maia was too scared, but Marco gave it a go. It looked like a lot of fun!

We stopped in Mui Ne again on the way back to HCM City, to break up the otherwise long journey home. This time the weather was sunnier and the water was calmer and more fun to swim in, and it was mighty hard to leave knowing that we would be going back to the big city and would have to face the chaos of moving into the new house, but more about that later…


Tourists – Vietnamese and foreign alike – visit Dalat in the dry season, to escape the heat of the city and enjoy the cool, sunny, spring-like weather, the blooming flowers and hikes in the nearby hills. Although the town has some interesting features, the drizzly, chilly rainy season weather put a damper on things (ha ha), and we couldn’t hike because my ankle was hurt. So we’ll have to visit in the right season to fully appreciate the area.

The town itself is not that special, except for some outlying roads lined with old French villas. There’s a pretty lake, though, and some oddball places to visit, such as a guest house designed by an imaginative architect in a sort of free-flowing, soft, curvy, organic style. There are a lot of cafes, since this is a coffee-growing region. We went to one in an old pink villa, famous for its owner, a poet with a long white beard and a beret. He brought us artichoke tea for Marco (it’s supposed to have some health benefits), and homemade cherry tea for me, along with delicious moist spice cake. Maia was thrilled when the cat jumped up and took a big piece of cake away in her mouth and the man chased after her. She wanted to discuss that for a long time afterward.

There are few decent restaurants, which is a real shame since this is the region where most of the country's fruits and vegetables are grown. However, on our last morning we visited the bustling and colourful market, where Maia ate some delicious vegetarian pho – finally a good meal in Dalat!

One day we visited some beautiful waterfalls with a colleague of Marco’s and his family, who were also there on vacation, and another day we hired a guide and went to a Lat village. The Lat are one of the myriad minority groups here. Although the minorities are very poor and marginalized, the visit was interesting rather than depressing. They have a fascinating matriarchal society and are artistically gifted – they weave beautiful fabrics and have lovely singing voices. We peeked into a meeting hall where women were cooking rice stuffed in bamboo poles over an open fire and singing sweetly.

Then we visited an elder in a traditional home, and tasted some of the local brew made of some kind of roots. I figured if other tourists before us drank it and survived, we would too. The elder and Marco knew some of the same French mountain songs, which they sang together after a few swigs of that root brew. (They also make wine in Dalat, which is surprisingly drinkable!).

Beach Again!

After Dalat we visited Nha Trang, a beach resort geared purely toward fun – all restaurants, bars, shops, amusement parks, jet skis, beach massages, you name it. It’s definitely more touristy than Mui Ne, but festive and enjoyable. The beach is very scenic – a large crescent of sand facing warm, calm, clear green-blue water, with nice views of the little islands in the bay. Unfortunately the water is a bit dirty, but the beachfront was developed nicely, with a boardwalk and a lot of palm trees, parks and playgrounds, and only a handful of restaurants on the beach side.

Our next stop was Doc Let, about a 45 minute drive from Nha Trang but a totally different scene. We stayed at a resort called Paradise Beach (next two photos), which was almost true to its name, except for the plastic bags and trash that floated in the otherwise beautifully warm and clear water in the afternoon (in the morning it was much cleaner). The resort consisted of fairly rustic bungalows leading down to a postcard-perfect beach.

The place is run by a 79-year-old Croatian man who has a 34-year-old Vietnamese wife and many children by current and previous spouses. That gives the place a fun, family-style mood. All meals are eaten communally and the food was very good, with lots of vegetables and fish. The other guests were mostly young Europeans and some other families with kids. On the last night, four Russians arrived - the men were muscular and thuggish and the women were impossibly beautiful. They were rude and demanding and drank non-stop, including at breakfast, which earned them a fatherly lecture and public humiliation from the Croat.

We took a day trip to a more distant (in fact, almost impossible to find) beach called Jungle Beach where there were very basic bungalows, with no electricity and common bathrooms, run by a Canadian guy. That beach was even more beautiful - totally clean and backed by mountains full of rare wild monkeys.

After relaxing in Paradise, we headed back to HCM City via Mui Ne, went straight to our new house and spent the night there. In the morning we had to drink coffee out of Maia's baby bottles since we didn't have any cups yet...then the next day the movers came and we've been working hard since to put everything in order. It will take a long, long time...but you’ll know more about it soon!