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Bơi ván đêm. Biển êm, gió nhẹ, sóng hiền.

I used to love going to the ocean at night. Especially whenever I was upset, or felt restless, nothing would sooth me more than floating on my back looking at the dark sky. Sometimes I asked the ocean for clarity and strength, like her water. Most times, I just wanted to be. Serenity.

The waves aren’t here yet, but I need to train, and have taken up going paddling at night. The motorbike guards always ask if I feel spooky out there. The spookiest thing is when an errant plastic bag brushes against one of my legs, sending up a shiver as I jerk startled. The only things that live near shore in this water are trash, unfortunately. Plastic bags, empty bottles, foam floats that were once used by cuttle-fish fishing baskets.

I’ve written so many times about how much I like paddling. At night, I can’t see past 10 ft ahead of me if I face away from shore so I feel a lot more. The bigger dip when a set is coming in, the gentle side to side between sets. The quietness. The clouds that form and part to reveal the moon and a few stars. The lights along shore, and further out from big ships and the twinkle from smaller boats. But all around me, just me.

IMG_7082

My 3 months stay in Da Nang came to an end today. I’ve been a hermit for the most part, and here are the top 3 spots where I go to soak up solitude in the open air:

– Non Nuoc beach: about 7 kms south of town. Practically no tourists ever set foot here, especially after the last b&b was demolished to make way for future resorts. The crowd is exclusively local from the nearby Marble Mountains neighborhood, and they all go to the beach 5-7am and 4:30-6:30 pm. If you go anytime outside of these slots, good chance that you’ll have the whole beach to yourself.

– Marble Mountains: very popular with Vietnamese tour groups, but later in the afternoon and it’s much less crowded.  It’s lovely with marble stairs carved right out from the mountain leading to temples and caves reflecting a long Buddhist and Champa (Hindu) tradition. Climbing up to the top, you’ll be rewarded with the cooling ocean breeze and a beautiful panoramic view. The whole place would take at least 2 hours to explore. If you go after 4:30 you don’t even have to pay (ticket people have gone home).

– Linh Ung pagoda: From the beach, you’ll see a big white Guayin (Kannon) statute up in the mountains to the north. One of the biggest temples in central Vietnam, it’s a destination for locals and visitors alike. It gets quiet in the evening (the temple is open till 9pm) and that’s usually when I come to wander around. There are convenient benches where you can sit and enjoy a pretty view of the ocean sparsely lit up with squid fishing boats, and further away of the city blinking with neon lights stretching all the way Hoi An. Remember to check the lunar calendar to make sure it’s not the 1st or 15th of the month, or else you’d find yourself among a crowd of hundreds.

Linh Ung pagoda, Da Nang skyline at night

In Lăng Cô, we “splurged” and stayed at a government-owned resort. The price is very reasonable $30/night for a large room right by the pool. Government facilities are well-known for their lack of service, but we didn’t need much and found the place nice and quiet (except for when a large group of Vietnamese got dropped off at night and made quite a commotion in the lobby, and except for the lawn mowing at 7 in the morning right outside of our door).

It was still drizzling by the time we checked in at 6p.m. The pool was surprisingly warm. I insisted on going for a swim so as not a waste any chance to enjoy the place.

Dinner was at a floating seafood restaurant, at the end of a dark alley opposite the resort. On a lagoon, it’s connected to land by 2 nicely lit-up bridges. Rather limited options, and cheap, though not as cheap as I’d expected. There’s a strange dragon boat extension to one side of the restaurant.

Lang Co floating seafood restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

Lang Co floating seafood restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

For my birthday, the weather cleared up nicely. We went down to swim right in front of the resort. It was quite empty as Lăng Cô receives mostly Vietnamese tourists and vacationers and Vietnamese don’t like swimming during the day. The small town and the limited development definitely helped the water quality. And the backdrop of Bach Ma national park mountains was gorgeous.

Lang Co empty beach, Hue, Vietnam Read the rest of this entry »

I’m 25!

I decided on the spur to spend a night in Lăng Cô for my birthday. Called to book a room at 3p.m. while Col was out taking a walk. He got back at 4p.m. and we left right away to avoid riding in the dark. It’s only 40kms north of Da Nang, but the road winds up and down a scenic pass, the famous Hải Vân, which divides the north and south of Vietnam.

We saw ominous clouds forming as we left the house, and felt big drops of rain by the time we approached the foot of the mountains. As the wind gusted, I started regretting. I should have asked whether it was raining when I called to book the hotel. The bad weather would defeat the whole purpose of this beach and exploration getaway. If Col had said a word of caution and doubt at that moment, I’d have turned back right then. The rain dropped faster and heavier; I wanted to stop and buy raincoats, but Col said to press ahead, that the longer we took, the wetter we would be. The clouds grew darker and lower as we climbed up the mountain, and everyone that came down from the other direction had a wet raincoat on. It obviously rained on the other side. Up and up we went. The rain lightened to a sprinkle as this side of the mountain was actually quite shielded.

Hải Vân pass has a very special place on my heart. It used to be my favorite of the North-South train journey that I took every summer as a kid. From the window, we could see the train curving around the mountain with the ocean below. We would go through a tunnel; the darkness and the echo were always so exciting. This is where the mountain goes all the way out to meet the ocean right in the middle of the country. The pass is 20 kms long but the highest point is only 500m.

These are the photos we took on the way back the next day:

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, abandoned bunker, abandoned check pointabandoned bunker and ancient check point at the top of Hải Vân pass

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, Đà Nẵngview to the south over Đà Nẵng from the top

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, Huế, Lăng Côview to the north over Lăng Cô, Huế from the top

When we got to the top and crossed to Thua Thien Hue province, it was obvious that we actually lucked out. It had rained on that side very recently: the road was soaked and the water was still running off. We got there just in time for the dwindling sprinkle. Now I was so happy that I didn’t ask about the weather, or else I’d have stayed home.

to be continued…

Finally went and explored the coast today. Just south of the city is a strip of resorts: Furama, Fusion Maia, Intercontinental, Hyatt Regency (which consists of unimaginative bomb-proof concrete blocks that I happen to find fugly). The beach they all line up on is gorgeous, but the surrounding is a little uninspiring.

After 4 kms, I saw the first beach access called Non Nuoc (mountain and water, home country), just a little past Marble Mountains. Further ahead and even just across the road is not as developed. Mostly empty lots with overgrown grass and rubble. It was probably set for fancier structures but came to a halt amidst the real estate market freeze. This area was one of the most overblown speculations in the country. And Danang government’s reputation of  investor-friendly attracted not only resorts but also beach condos and villas complex, with the majority of buyers coming from Hanoi.

trail to beach in Da NangOne of the beach trails

scooter on Da Nang beach
True to my heritage, I rode my scooter all the way in. It wasn’t a great idea; the little monster definitely got a good workout. Read the rest of this entry »

My Khe beach

My Khe beach

6 months. Time flies. I almost forgot that ocean breeze that lightly caressed my skin and ruffled my hair, tempting me with the salty smell of the ocean.

I lucked out and found a nice furnished one bed-room apartment on Son Tra peninsula, close enough to the city center, and more importantly not far from the empty beaches. Have been dying to go surf, but no luck in finding a board rental shop. And it looks really flat these days; keep crossing my fingers that it will pick up a little bit during my 3 months here.

Even though I’m living in a rented room and off of a 50lb-suitcase, for the first time since I moved back to Vietnam, I felt like I have a place to call mine again. The bed is mine, the balcony is mine. I can leave my bag on the floor, my sunglasses on the table. The whole space is mine and no one’s here for me to inconvenience. The landlady’s employee who lives downstairs asked me twice in 2 days if I was bored by myself and I sincerely said no. I get to see and talk with plenty of people throughout the day, and it’s relieving to go back and pamper myself in quietness, talking only in my head, deciding the order of my evening, not having to ask anyone questions or answer anyone’s questions. The luxurious solitude.

formentera, spain

Feb 2008

The next day, eager to escape this sad-looking place, i took a bus back to the port to go to Formentera first thing in the morning. I boarded the ferry. The sea was rough, water splashing all over the deck. It even rained. I was the only person up on the open board. They must have thought i was crazy. But i loved it. It was coldly refreshing. Most people who stayed inside looked rather sick when they got out.

Started walking along the beach. No one was in sight. There was beauty in that desertedness. The sand was a mix of green and pink and white colors.

ibiza-water1

Then i reached this narrow strand of sand, which was at least 2 kms long. And 50 meters wide at most. I was literally walking in the middle of the ocean.

walking-middle-of-ocean

I turned back and continued down south. Still the only one on the beach for a while, but then started seeing some car tracks on the sand, and soon a couple of people. I felt lonely but stayed strong and continued on, didn’t want to make it back to town. I passed a row of houseboats on the beach and decided i could stay there for the night.

Bad idea.

There was nothing romantic about it, but absolute misery. Night fell around 7:30 and of course i couldn’t fall asleep that early. So there i was, lying on the cold wood in darkness. But the worst part was the wind. I should have known that it would be blowing hard. And it was still Feburary; it was chilly at night even without a single breeze. I put on more clothes, and finally dragged out a shed, shielded it around me against the wind and managed to sleep.

When i woke up the next morning, the tampon inside me had been there for too long and i had to change it. I was squatting on the ground, taking the old one out and putting another in, trying to wash my hands with the sandy sea water. One of the most disgusting things i’ve ever done in life.

I started arranging my things to walk back to town when i saw this guy coming in a car and disappear into one of the boathouses. I decided to wait to ask for a ride. I was exhausted and unhappy and didn’t want to walk. He didn’t speak much English, and looked puzzled seeing me there, but he let me climb into his car. I was dropped off somewhere in town, and asked for another the ride to the port. All i was thinking was: i wanted to get the hell out of here. I was so miserable for the whole night i couldn’t bear staying here for another moment.

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