Sunday 5 April 2015

Progress: 'It happens'

Lying awake at 3.00 am, or thereabouts, in our hotel in Nha Trang, I can hear the monks in the Temple over the road doing their daily chants, accompanied by the thing they use that sounds like a cymbal (I think it's called a singing bowl?) The noise rolls, ascends and goes quiet. The chanting continues and then the process starts again. The first night I heard this I found it disconcerting, almost haunting. Now I find it comforting, like they are acknowledging a new day before the rest of usually even open our eyes to it. The monks have so far been the only thing that I have really liked about Nha Trang, and we are leaving tomorrow.

It's a sad tale, all told. The last place we stayed, Trap Cham, was supposed to be a taste of real Vietnam, not consumed by tourists. But I guess it was too far the other way for us. Out of season, we were the only westerners there, or so it felt, and we were stared at and glared at wherever we went. At this point in our travels, this was just wearing. We were both feeling a bit out of sorts for different reasons, and being run down combined with feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome, made for a stressy couple of days. Because travelling does get to you at some point. As awesome as it is, you sometimes just miss having a home, being able to cook your own dinner, and just not having to be 'on.' I know what you may be thinking, but Chrissy, it's like being on permanent holiday! Which it is, in one way. But if you don't have the budget to be ferried about by tour operators, nor the sort of personality that would want to be, every day you're packing, researching, waiting for long periods at train stations, hand washing (which is frikkin hard work and i'm not very good at it!) walking or just trying to interpret the foreign land that is currently your home. There is no calling it in, there is no slacking off, you need to manage every detail, spend hours finding your next hotel, next route, and deciding what your next direction will be. I know, world's smallest violin, right? But seriously, it does get hard at points, because there is no comfort zone to hide in, and your friends are literally thousands of miles away.

So at this point I was practically looking forward to Nha Trang as a tourist spot. We'd be less of a novelty, things might just be a bit easier. My partner was also exited because he had loved Nha Trang when he visited it well over a decade ago. He wanted to show me his favourite eateries and drinking spots, all still showing on Trip Advisor as being up and running. Not to mention the epic and rugged beach where the tropical forest met the raw coastline, photos of which he had shown me many times. So he was shocked to find that all of this was gone, long gone. The beach as it was, the old eateries and bars, all gone, and in it's place is a fully built up town. As built up and as much of a consumer palace as it comes. Like a Vietnamese Blackpool. The prices were high, the people cynical, and the tourists were as rude and demanding as I have ever seen. It was shocking all round. My least favourite place so far. For the first time, I felt ashamed to be considered just another tourist, and while our politeness and manners did make some of the weary staff in bars and shops react a bit differently (leading to us getting charged local prices for some super tasty cakes) overall it just made my heart heavy. For my partner, he was gutted that the place he wanted to show me, the place he loved, had long since been buried under yet more spas, and shopping malls, KFCs and Pizza Huts.

But this is the way of the world isn't it? This is progress. How fair is it to demand that a place remain untouched, and the people possibly poorer, for the sake of us having a beautiful place to visit? Part of me does feel that way, but Nha Trang is also now a place I would not want to visit again. This is based on my own experience, not just my partner's perspective. To me it's overpriced, a bit soulless, and generally has nothing about it that would make me want to come back. It made me really miss HCMC to be honest. Because there the blending of old and new worlds feels strangely complimentary. Out of chaos comes a working system, and the place was full of character and vibrancy. The people in Nha Trang just seem resigned. Maybe I'm way off base but I can only interpret this in the context of the other places in Vietnam that I have so far visited.

The coast is, of course, still stunning, nothing can take that away, but it only works if you look at the sea and not behind you. Again, who am I to say? It's their city and their choice and that's fine, but it's my choice to also say, I'll be happy to be moving on again.

The one place that is worth a visit is the pagoda and temple where the big Buddha sits at the top of a hill looking out over the city. Of course you've got dudes there who will try to charge you 200,000 dong for two sticks of incense. To give you an idea on what that equates to in English monies, that's £6, which is an insane amount of money however you look at it, and in Vietnam, that amount of money gets you an average hotel room for a night! Instead, I gave some money to the monks, who in turn look after the poor where they can.

At the top of the pagoda I stood and stared up at Buddha's calming face. I have always collected Buddhas because I find them serene looking and charming, but I've little to no real understanding of Buddhist teachings, something I plan to rectify to address my own hypocrisy after this visit. But as I was looking into his face, allowing myself to feel the calm moment that doing so normally brings for me, a group of three monks approached for a chat. One of them spoke excellent English so we had quite a long talk about why we were there and what life is like for them. He explained that they have lived there for all of their lives, and always would do, teaching children in the way of their religion. He asked whether I was Catholic or whether I had any faith, at which point I explained that I have faith but it's not in any deity or religion, but that of all the religions, theirs seemed the nicest to me. Which wasn't me just sucking up, it's genuinely how I feel.

What stuck me at that moment was the idea of being as educated and clearly intelligent as this chap was, and never leaving the same place for the rest of his life. Knowing that he would never leave, and being okay with that. Not that there is anything wrong with spending your whole life in the same place, but the finality of knowing that, I think I would find that hard to deal with. Ironic given my earlier complaining about my current nomadic existence. I decided not to ask him about that. Instead I asked him about Nha Trang itself, about how much it had changed in such a relatively short time period, and what it must be like, watching it all from such a vantage point, atop a hill where you could see it all changing from above. I'm not sure what I expected from him, resentment? Righteous anger? Sadness? I guess it was just because he was the first person I had met in Nha Trang that I could communicate well enough with to ask the question of. He looked me in the eye, gave me a smile, opened his arms out, and said 'it happens.'

Which is pretty much the answer I should have expected from a monk! But shit me if he doesn't have a point. The world is the world and things will change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, and what makes it better or worse to us is just our perspective. Maybe I'm just too emotional to be as wise as him, but I am what I am, and what I am, is happy to be leaving Nha Trang. Of course leaving was going to be a whole other debacle, what with being padlocked in a hotel trying to find a way out, with a 5.00 am train to catch...But that, my friends, is a story for another day. Let us leave off here, with the monks and their steady chanting, that gradually lulled my busy mind to sleep.

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