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Pancakes, Sunshine, and Indecipherable Road Rules

03 October 2022

One Woman’s Whirlwind Adventure
Through Nha Trang, Vietnam.


LEFT: Bánh Xèo (crunchy pancakes). RIGHT: Spring Rolls

To be completely honest, I’m surprised I made it home in one piece. The road rules in Nha Trang are hilariously non-existent, and we risked our lives several times by simply crossing the street – but I’ll explain more about that in a moment.


It was an unscheduled, whirlwind getaway – several days in Nha Trang on the South Central Coast of Vietnam. I didn’t know much about the city; most tourists tend to go to nearby Ho Chi Minh City instead, with its huge tourist attractions and shopping centres. But I was traveling with a group, and we were ready for an adventure!


We travelled from Sydney to Nha Trang in October 2014. Monsoon season, apparently. Expecting to be greeted by bucketing rain, but were happily surprised when we arrived to find endless sunshine and clear blue skies. The scenery was spectacular – wide, sparkling oceans and tall, jagged mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. Our resort was positioned high on a clifftop overlooking the ocean; it was almost as if we were on the edge of the earth, looking out into oblivion.


After sampling some incredible Vietnamese cuisine, including pancakes and spring rolls and sticky rice with coconut milk, we were ready to explore the city.


Despite the humidity (my sunglasses kept fogging up with condensation every time I stepped outside), I laced up my walking shoes and joined a small group of fellow adventurers who were keen to venture beyond the neatly landscaped resort. We bypassed other travellers who were happy to lie by the pool and soak up the sun (cocktails in hand) and hopped in a small bus with a local tour-guide.


The bus was soon filled with nervous laughter and gasps of surprise as we made our way into the centre of the city and became all-too-familiar with Nha Trang’s indecipherable road rules. Zooming along the winding streets, we came close to rocketing off the side of the clifftops several times, as well as nearly ploughing into the backs of other buses and trucks. Every driver on the road seemed adept at swerving at a moment’s notice or slamming on the brakes without batting an eye. No one was fazed, least of all our own driver who easily zipped in and out of the traffic, while we clutched onto our seats for dear life, knuckles slowly turning white.


We finally made it to our first stop where we disembarked on trembling legs and began to make our way down some crumbling steps along the side of a clifftop. The ocean stood before us, crystal clear. When we reached the bottom, we followed the tour guide along a jumble of giant rocks, climbing over and under until we reached the edge of the water and stopped to admire the view. Beside us, a Vietnamese bride was posing for photographs on top of a rock, with the ocean (and a fisherman) in the background.


Our next stop was the Po Nagar temple. After climbing dozens of uneven steps, we were met by breathtaking 360° views of Nha Trang. The temples – which included several different-sized buildings – were rather awe-inspiring; we slipped off our shoes and shrugged into some white robes (to cover our exposed shoulders and legs) before entering one of the big temples. It was humid and dark inside, with candles casting a soft glow against our faces. In hushed voices, we admired the objects of worship placed throughout the temple and pointed out the beautiful intricacy of each object and statue.


We then made our way over to Long Son Pagoda to see the Giant White Buddha, and fought our way through the heat to climb the 150 stairs to the top of the hill. The enormous Buddha towered above us, sitting in contemplative meditation, hands resting in lap. The structures around the garden beside the Buddha were decorated with glass and ceramic dragon mosaics.


Leaving behind the other crowds of tourists, we made our way down several narrow laneways until we found a small, crumbling concrete house that had stacks of rice paper lying on bamboo mats out the front, drying in the sunshine. Our tour guide showed us inside and described the process of making rice paper, and we shuffled along the production line and watched in fascination: two ladies were seated in a stiflingly hot room, one stirring a giant bucket filled with bubbling-hot liquid and the other ladling it onto a huge spinning disc with swift expertise. Resembling pancakes, they quickly stopped bubbling and became sheets of starch which were then removed with similarly quick skill and placed on bamboo mats in front of us to dry. We were offered one to taste, and jumped upon burning our fingers; the lady who was offering it to us (with bare hands) chuckled to herself, before turning and lifting the other red-hot starch sheets straight from the spinning disc with her fingers. We watched in awe, realising she must have been doing this her whole life and had become well and truly immune to the heat.


We eventually tasted some rice paper once it had cooled. Some were sesame-flavoured and some were sweet. It was an amazing experience to see it freshly-made!


Our last stop was another small house down a different laneway; the corrugated iron roof was collapsing under the weight of leaves and sticks, and the walls were held together by mismatched pieces of timber. Sitting in the shadows of the front entrance-way, two ladies – one of whom was fairly ancient – were making traditional conical hats with strips of palm leaves. Their hands nimbly stretched each strip of palm leaf around the frame of a hat with careful precision, again and again, circling the frame; our tour guide explained how it could take them a whole day to make just one hat, and that this family had been making hats their whole lives. We watched in silence as they worked quickly and smoothly, focused on the task at hand and chatting lightly to one another, evidently amused by the group of tourists watching them.


Back at the resort (after another hair-raising bus trip), we stepped into our bungalows and let the air conditioning swallow us whole, glad for the relief from the stifling humidity.


The next day, we ventured outside again and travelled back towards the centre of town in search of the marketplace. Well, we thought we’d become familiar with the scary road rules, after having survived several bus rides already, but after hailing a taxi and squashing into the back seat, we discovered that riding in a car and riding in a bus are two very different experiences. It seemed that in Nha Trang, the bigger your vehicle is, the more right-of-way you are entitled to. Our tiny taxi was suddenly having to leap out of the way of much bigger buses and trucks, who ploughed ahead regardless of any vehicle or person who happened to be in their way.


And, similarly, our taxi charged full-throttle towards anyone on a small bike or scooter who crossed our path. In the back of the taxi, we were shrieking in fright and covering our mouths every time we nearly took out a motorised scooter, waiting for the impending crunch that never happened. It didn’t matter who was perched on the scooter that we almost obliterated – even a family of four who were balanced precariously on the back of one (and defying all laws of physics in the process) had to lurch out of our way as our driver charged ahead, undeterred. But no-one blinked; no-one shook their heads in annoyance. This was just normal, everyday traffic in Nha Trang!


The marketplace was also an experience in itself. A noisy maze of passageways was filled with colourful merchandise and mismatched products. Friendly locals smiled and pointed at their wares; the deeper we moved into the heart of the marketplace, the noisier it got. Prices were shouted above heads; haggling was fast and furious between locals and tourists. If you stopped for more than a moment to admire a dress or a hat, you risked being run over by a scooter that suddenly appeared around a corner, zipping its way along the tight passageway and out of sight again.


Monsoon season arrived the next day, bucketing down, then stopping, then bucketing down again before abruptly revealing blue sky. We wandered through the nearby streets, watching in amusement as traffic hurtled along. We discovered that pedestrian-crossings do NOT give pedestrians the right of way, after witnessing a pregnant tourist nearly get mowed down by a scooter. Also, we managed to decipher that stopping at traffic lights is entirely optional; stop if you feel like, otherwise sail right through. No-one will mind.


After a final day of swapping near-death experiences over cups of coffee and traditional Vietnamese spring rolls, we were back off home, taking with us some wild and wonderful memories of a loud, hectic, beautiful place.


By Hannah Begg – an Aussie writer, traveller and coffee-drinker.


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