Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

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In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Typical Ko Tao Day

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The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

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You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015

Santa in Sunnies: Christmas Day on the Beach

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It was the middle of the morning on Christmas Day and the sun was hot enough to burn.

The beach was crowded but the only Thais were the boat taxi men, calling out “boat-boat” from under their awning when anyone went near. The rest were Western backpackers in boardies, bikinis and Santa hats. They sprawled on the sand and frolicked in the waves and lined up the empty Singha beer bottles. One prattled about finding a turkey to roast, saying much the same thing a few dozen times, as if polishing a phrase for a piece he was writing. “Hey mate,” another shouted to every guy on the beach, “What’s your best ladyboy story?” As if everybody had several, and would happily share.

I crossed the isthmus to the quieter, second best beach and sat on the sand near an empty bar where Errol Dunkley sang Ok Fred and Bob Marley was jamming. Longtail boats, moored in a line, nodded at the edge of the beach. A small yacht dropped its sails and slid into the harbour. The owner of a sports cruiser started its engines and revved them a few times, filling the air with a sound like a supercar underwater.

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I found a restaurant by chance when I cut through an alley where an old lady sat mending socks in a doorway and a skeletal man pumped air into the tyre of a rusty bike. The walls were jerry-built from reclaimed wood and the tables and chairs were cheap plastic things intended for a garden. But the eyes of the fish on ice in the doorway were inky black and their gills were cardinal red. There were none of the tacky Christmas songs I had heard from the restaurants I had passed in the middle of the village. It was, after all, just a regular Tuesday in Thailand.

A little silver tabby sat down beside me and let out a spare any change meow. I gave her a piece of grilled snapper, and then heard a different meow. It was a poor old red Persian with a sneeze and battle scars and one ear folded down. We agreed to share the fish three ways. They let me eat all the rice.

Merry Christmas all.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Escaping Patong

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I was tired of the babel of English, Russian, German and French, never Thai; of the fat farangs; of the burgers and Heineken; of the parasols laid out in uniform rows.  

So I walked away from the resort and over the hill, about as far as I could get in flip-flops, and stopped at a beach which was smaller and tattier than Ao Patong. It was dotted with stones and bits of dropped litter and things which had washed from the sea. There were no deck chairs or jet skis, and no hawkers came round with sunglasses, watches, ice cream or beer.  I was the only farang there.

I sat and I watched as the tide crept further up the beach and the sun began to fall and it drew a line across the sea and lit the wet sand at the margin. I watched the fishermen set off in their long-tail boats with old car engines spinning long propeller shafts dipped in the sea. The vendors up the hill were grilling fish and the smell drifted down towards me.

A pick-up arrived with a group of Thais in the back, students I think. They jumped out and scampered across the beach and jumped in the sea fully clothed. They were as happy as children, squealing and shouting in the waves, and splashing each other, until the driver beeped his horn and they scampered back and left.

The sun had slipped further by then, backlighting the clouds and silhouetting the fishing boats and the mountains behind them. I could see across to Ao Patong, where the deckchairs were still laid out in neat rows, and the jetskis still chased across the water, and a parasailer floated a few hundred feet above a powerboat tearing round the bay. It was too far away, though, for the English and Russian and German and French voices to reach me, too far away to pick out the hawkers selling sunglasses, watches, ice cream and beer.

I stayed until the last of the sun leaked from the sky and I could barely make out the mountains and boats in the distance. Then I made my way up to the street food stalls and bought fish and rice and a Singha beer and ate at a table with locals.

(c) Richard Senior 2014