Wham, bam, thank you Nam
April 7, 2007
Poetry in motion … locals practise tai chi on the golden sands of Cua Dai Beach, near the town of Hoi An
A street in Hoi An … wander through artists studios or have a tailor-made suit or dress within 24 hours. Picture: David May
DECKED out in red and yellow, Vietnamese lifeguard Nguyen cuts a lonely figure on the deserted, but beautiful, Cua Dai Beach.
It’s a balmy August afternoon – close to 28C – but it seems everyone has better things to do than spend a day at the beach.
As I walk by pondering how a country of 80 million people could possibly have a beach with no people on it, Nguyen runs over to say hello.
He’s keen for a chat with a westerner.
I learn the beach is pretty empty for most of August, but packed during summer when the temperature soars to the high 30s.
Further up towards Da Nang, there is even a surfboard riders’ club – a hangover from the Vietnam War when US soldiers used to pass the time riding the waves in between fighting.
It’s clearly a fishing day today as the ocean is as flat as a lily pond.
Its serene beauty is enhanced by a spectacular backdrop of densely-forested mountains.
As we wrap up our conversation, a young couple settle into a pair of grass umbrella-covered deckchairs.
Happy to know Nguyen has company, I leave.
Cua Dai Beach is 4km east of the town of Hoi An in the Quang Nam province. Stretching over 30km long, the beach features the same white sands and blue-green water of the better-known Nha Trang beach, but is yet to be discovered by the masses. It’s the spot to dump your bags for a few days and just breathe, particularly if journeying between cities along National Highway One.
We’ve just arrived from Hanoi at the start of a week-long trip from north to south Vietnam.
Despite the millions of people who call this small country home, there are still places of solitude, whether on one of the thousands of islands lining its coastline, in the hills bordering China, or one of the beaches that line the 3200km coast.
It’s our second place of refuge – the first was spent aboard a luxury junk on Halong Bay. Our hotel is the luxurious beachfront Golden Sand Resort, one of many five-star hotels.
A courtesy bus takes us to downtown Hoi An, although riding a bike is also possible. Artists paint in their studios as visitors wander through, browsing at their works, while the whirring of sewing machines emanate from dress shops where tailors make a suit or dress within 24 hours.
Every household item imaginable can be found here, from colourfully woven bedspreads to giant wooden hanging lanterns.
OFF ROAD SECRETS
A short drive from Hoi An is My Son, pronounced Mee-Son, featuring the fourth-century remnants of the ancient kingdom of Champa.
It requires a four-wheel-drive to get to the site. We cram into one driven by a local who has clearly driven along these roads before and knows the limitations of his vehicle.
Set in a valley, only a few monuments remain after the site was repeatedly bombed during the war, when they were used as a staging ground by the Viet Cong. The remaining structures were recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tranquility is in stark contrast to our next stop, Ho Chi Minh City.
“Just where is everyone going?”, one of my travelling partners muses as she watches a local on a motorbike balancing 30 packets of Whiskas on the bike frame and under his chin. Close behind is a family on another motcycle – dad driving with a toddler balanced on his lap, mum hanging on behind him and young girl clutching on to her.
Unlike Hanoi, cars and motorbikes are the preferred mode of travel. But, despite its frantic pace, there are plenty of places in which to escape, including the second-hand Saigon bookstore where you will find anything from French comics to vintage surfing and fashion magazines. There are also hundreds of cheap spas and massage parlours – the legitimate kind – to freshen up after several days on the road.
After exploring the city we headed to the rooftop of the kitschiest hotel in town – the Rex.
Popular with US army officers during the war, the hotel is stuck in another time. Beneath its alternating neon lights, we shouted ourselves old-fashioned cocktails and rounds of cold Saigon beer.
Below, the sounds of motorbike and car horns continue and gradually fade as the band playing Beatles covers strikes up. We toast to having found the ultimate refuge.
The writer travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines and Adventure World.