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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000
The night train to Nha Trang
By JOSEPH LIEBERMAN
A few minutes before dawn on the night train to Nha Trang I awake to the sound of a nonstop diesel speeding past in the opposite direction. It hurtles past just inches away from the open windows of our own side-tracked train, sending us rocking nearly out of our bunks.
Welcome aboard Vietnam's Nha Trang Express. It may not be the last word in elegance but it does get you there, minus a few hours of sleep, and is a better bet than the alternatives.
The only other land-based travel option is not anyone's idea of a relaxing journey. It requires riding a retired Kyoto city bus 12 hours over Vietnam's rough country roads. These aging vehicles, still displaying their Japanese signboards, were donated years ago as part of an aid program.
Jason Tri Tran, a manager at the Hotel Equatorial in Ho Chi Minh City, had a better idea. "If you want to arrive in Nha Trang in the morning," he suggested, "why not get a first-class berth on the night train? Sleep all night and arrive refreshed."
The Equatorial is one of only a handful of international hotels which have emerged out of what used to be called Saigon. Foreign investment was allowed in from 1989, but it soon lost its fizz due to bureaucratic red tape and the Asian economic downturn.
Rooms costing $200 (including breakfast buffet) do not faze business expense-account travelers, and with its classy Japanese, Chinese and Western restaurants, and health spa offering luxurious massages, the Equatorial is as good as it gets. Low-budget backpackers still have the option of cheap local hostelries which exist in fair supply.
For excursions away from the city, however, the choices are not as extensive. Long-distance trains in Vietnam have four classes: hard or soft seat, and hard or soft sleeper. Even the most expensive option is quite cheap by Western or Japanese standards: The 11-hour soft-sleeper journey from Saigon to Nha Trang costs less than 3,000 yen.
Luxurious, however, it was not. Wire mesh windows on the blue-and-cream-sided railroad car made it look a little like a prison train. Later I learned that the wire is to protect the passengers from rocks thrown by naughty children along the route.
Inside, with four to a room, other passengers quickly became congenial, sharing food but also, unfortunately, passing around cigarettes. If you have a bottom bunk, casual visitors will sit on it without asking permission even if you are already stretched out for the night.
The simple beds are comfortable enough, sheets and blankets are clean, but conditions do not favor rest. Because there is only a single track running nearly the length of the country, the train had to keep stopping on sidings to let other engines pass by in the opposite direction. Each time they did, it sounded like the screaming, roaring thunder of a rocket, and the whole car would shake. This did not help anyone to sleep better, nor did the occasional gigantic cockroach that wandered across the floor.
The next morning, however, the world became a more agreeable place. Impressive rural panoramas filled with conical hills and verdant green paddy fields began erasing the night's discomforts.
From Nha Trang Station, it is just a few minutes via trishaw (three-wheel bicycle rickshaw) to the Long Son Pagoda, with its giant white Buddha statue and dragon stairways. By and large, Nha Trang is a prosperous town; it has a thriving fishing industry and tourism based upon its incomparable beaches, reputed to be the best in the nation. There are dozens of hotels, both classic colonial-style and modern high-rise, but, surprisingly, only one cottage-style accommodation on the entire seashore.
That one, the Ana Mandara Resort, is worth singling out not only because of its intimations of Eden, but also because the manager, Emilio Melcher, imported to Vietnam the Balinese ideal of "no building taller than a coconut tree." The coconut trees around the Ana Mandara are not tall.
Local people flock to the hundreds of small islands which can be reached by compact ferries from the chaotic southern pier at Cau Da. Less disordered but just as lively is the downtown Dam Market, where uncommon seafood competes with even more exotic agricultural products, such as the illustrious dragon-fruit.
To the north, the Sam Bong Bridge crosses a bay harboring a fleet of colorful fishing boats. Seamen skim the surface from vessels to shore-side shanties via two-meter-wide circular basket-boats.
On a hill just above this bay rise the magnificent, towered ruins of 1,200-year-old Po Nagar, an important site of the Cham kingdom that occupied this area before the Vietnamese moved down from the north. At the gateway to this collection of ancient temples, a group of convivial grannies in conical hats sit patiently chatting, united in their begging posture.
It is a disturbing reminder that while some in Vietnam have adapted well to the moves toward entrepreneurism which have occurred since the war, there are many living hand-to-mouth. Developers would do well to pay heed, setting their pace of modernizations at a rate which this nation can absorb comfortably. Overland transportation in Vietnam has room for improvement, but alluring destinations such as Nha Trang may be fine left for a while just as they are.
For Vietnam tourist information e-mail Huynh Anh Dung at email@example.com Hotel Equatorial in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), +84 (8) 839-7777, fax: +84 (8) 839-9969, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Ana Mandara Resort at Nha Trang, +84 (58) 82-9829, fax +84 (58) 82-9629, e-mail: email@example.com