Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Cam Ranh-ing Around

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Yay! It feels good to finally write a blog post about a less touristy and properly active day. After some much-needed rest and our drive down the QL 20 switchbacks into the choking lowlands heat, we’re ready for some more adventure!

Up at 0515, which we’re dismayed to find isn’t the crack of dawn – apparently seeing the sunrise over the Pacific takes some work this time of year! Anyways, we head over with Tanya and her father, Phung, to the local swimming beach about 5km from her house. It’s a beautiful morning, and the water is both clear and pleasantly warm, so we jump in and swim out to a buoy set about 200m out into Cam Ranh Bay. We’re actually a bit too late for the morning rush; most people are just leaving the water! I guess we haven’t quite internalized this schedule yet.

The salt water makes for an easy swim there and back, interrupted only by tiny stings from the mostly harmless jellyfish that swim around here in the morning. Refreshed from our quick jot of exercise, we head back to their house, then prep for a hike up into the hills surrounding Cam Ranh. This appeals to our Bay Area sense of geography, if not our sense of climate; there too, it is possible to climb from sea to mountains in the span of 10km, except that it’s much cooler near San Francisco! Tanya’s feeling a bit under the weather owing to a recent bout of flu, but Phung is happy to guide us up there. Despite having learned English some 40 years ago with minimal opportunities to practice, his English is quite good; we feel bad again for having such a poor command of Vietnamese!

Along the way, we stop at a women’s monastery at the foot of the hills, which is kept in pristine condition. We’re greeted by the eldest monk, who at 82 is holding up pretty well. One of the first questions she asks is how old we are; this is a common question when the Vietnamese meet new people, as they use this to determine the correct pronoun to use in addressing you!

The hike up is every bit as beautiful as we expected. This area is semi-arid in parts, so we spot a few species of cactus including the familiar prickly pear. (These aren’t really bearing fruit right now, sadly, or we might have eaten some!) As we hike up, Phung tells us to turn around: we can now see over the whole town, and with the aid of his binoculars (which, missing one half, might properly be called unoculars?) we can make out the massive communications tower perched on his rooftop. Tanya’s family occupies one of the tallest residential buildings in Cam Ranh, so they draw some of their income from renting the roof for this purpose. Aside from their home, we can also clearly see:

  • two supermarkets, the Maximart and CoopMart;
  • the local hospital;
  • the giant cement factory across an inlet of the bay;
  • the harbor with its clusters of fishing boats, all painted bright blue so that fish cannot distinguish them from the sky when looking up;
  • the sand depot, where they store white sand before making it into glass;
  • the mountains that ring the bay itself, forming a impressive mouth that stretches out from the mainland some 15km or so.

During the Vietnam War, Cam Ranh housed a major US naval base, its bay and natural harbor making an ideal launching point for carriers and the like. There’s no evidence of the base today, at least not that we can see from here.

As we ascend a bit further, we’re thwarted by a series of gates! Around the time of the Vietnam War, all this area was covered in jungle, but people have since felled the trees to make way for small homes. We try a couple more paths, all of which end in makeshift gates that block us from entering private land. We decide to try a different approach, so we scramble back down. There’s a man hauling lengths of wood to be used in the manufacture of agar, with which Phung is intimately familiar as a biologist. His wife helps with the load, carting some three or four small trunks on her shoulder. Phung helps the man navigate his bike down the treacherous path, no small feat with the washed-out sections of bumpy rock! In exchange, they point us at a dried-up streambed which should lead to the top.

We hike up this streambed a bit, then pause for rest in a copse of trees. Phung breaks out some delicious sugary crackers which are mysteriously called “Champagne”, a name that we had heretofore associated with French bubbly. He then launches into more serious tales of the horrors of war. Unlike the American Civil War, the Vietnam War ended somewhat less peacefully, with the North Vietnamese Army gunning down entire families as they pursued them into the hills. Those missed by bullets often fell victim to malnutrition, dehydration, or malaria, so that by the time casualties ceased piling up some two million people were lost in this way. Many of the older Southern Vietnamese still bear some resentment over this brutal treatment. Meanwhile, the younger generation has been spared these horrors, and with the spread of technology has found opportunity for slightly more contentment.

Not everything we talk about is so dire, however. Phung also mentions that the mountain we’re on was named “Mouth of the Dragon” by the Koreans, who discovered the physical resemblance after flying over the area in helicopters. He also points out that the roads are in poor condition, a fact that we’re well acquainted with after a week and a half of driving around on them. Infrastructure in general here is in an intermediate stage: as I mentioned in a previous post, medical treatment is rapidly improving. Like in Albania, paved roads are being laid with impressive speed, but only along specific high-traffic routes. Vietnam follows the mandatory comprehensive exam model favored throughout much of Asia, in which all high school students take a single exam that determines their future. Higher-ranked students usually get the chance to attend university, while the rest must find work.

Most tourists to Vietnam take the usual tourist route, starting in either Saigon or Hanoi and hopping between larger cities and resort towns along the coastal stretch. In these places, Vietnam is a place of decent infrastructure, happy smiling tour guides, and backpackers looking for a cheap stay and the occasional thrill. Stepping outside that, you get a feel for the real country: a place where many people still live on maybe $1-10 per day; a place where no one has fancy Western drugs to keep malaria at bay; a place still struggling with the biological aftermath of Agent Orange; a place where it is still possible to find unexploded landmines if you venture too far off the path; a place slowly healing rifts between North and South.

And yet, there are encouraging signs of optimism amongst students and younger Vietnamese. Technology plays a role: most everyone has a mobile phone, internet cafés are ubiquitous, and Facebook use is widespread in spite of government blocks. Most people, old and young alike, are friendly, and we’ve had the good fortune to meet some fantastic people through CouchSurfing.

As Phung winds down his discourses, it’s getting a bit hot; we decide to head down to the monastery again, where the monks treat us to a sampling of their vegetarian food. There’s a mushroom-vegetable soup, some kind of fake meat made from pressed tofu skin with a texture not unlike pork, and some fantastic “meatballs” made primarily from peanut. All of it is incredibly delicious, and given my recent intestinal troubles I’m happy for a bit of herbivorous fare. We top this off with a bowl of banh canh back at Tanya’s place, which her mother has lovingly prepared for us all.

Vietnam shares one thing with Spain: an appreciation for the midday ritual of siesta, made necessary by the stifling heat. We take a nap…

…and then Tanya, having recovered a bit, takes us over to a local temple that sports a truly unique attraction: a 2km-long maze built out of cemented coral chunks, half of which is completely dark, known as the “Pathway Into Hell”. Somewhere in the dusty hallways, I manage to bash my head against a chunk of coral, which gives me a nasty-looking but harmless scrape mid-forehead. Deep in the maze, there are several panels featuring various punishments for unforgiveable sins; my recent intestinal distress and minor head gash seem like cakewalks by comparison with the tortures depicted there! Finally we emerge at the other end, climbing out through the giant sculpted mouth of a dragon into the temple grounds. The temple itself is adorned with coral structures, and we remark that it must have taken a while to build all this – so we’re surprised to learn that it was all built in two years! Monks earn their reputation for badassery, it seems.

After that, we visit a local café by the name of Cactus, which serves up tasty drinks. Valkyrie orders a drink of lotus seed and jelly in coconut water, while I get a mixed smoothie with chunks of avocado, papaya, and jelly in it, all for 28 000 VND (1.40 USD). We learn that avocado is called qua bo, or “butter fruit”, in Vietnamese (and here I’m truly sorry that we aren’t using proper accents, since bo could also be beef but avocadoes are definitely not beef fruit!) A few of her friends from school join us, and soon we’re all playing a fun board game! There’s a tower, several colored rods, a bunch of monkeys, and a die with colors matching the rods. You insert the rods into the tower, dump the monkeys down the top until they’re all hanging off the rods, and then take turns rolling the die. When you roll, you have to remove a rod of the color shown and keep any monkeys that fall down; the person with the most monkeys at the end loses, and must perform some mildly embarrassing task for the amusement of everyone else! Valkyrie loses the first game, and ends up singing the American national anthem. Tanya loses the second game, so her punishment is to dance for everyone :)

Later on, we head over to the local park where young people hang out. There’s the usual statue of Ho Chi Minh, and in front several groups practicing different types of dance around boomboxes. One of the more experienced dancers shows us his rendition of Gangnam Style, and we capture the resulting awesomeness on video.

To round out the day, we head over with Tanya’s family to one of the karaoke/dancing bars in town, where I’m cajoled into playing a quick jazz piano set in front of everyone. The sound system isn’t really calibrated for live piano, though; it’s set up for karaoke, which often features simpler melodies and is covered over by loud singing anyways.

Full day! Tomorrow we’re meeting up with Daniel, our previous CouchSurfing host, to Binh Hung and hopefully Binh Ba. Tanya might be able to join us, provided we can convince Daniel to give her a ride – the driving age here is 18, so she isn’t quite licensed yet. Excited to see what our island adventure will bring!