We’re still a bit nervous when it comes to mini-buses, thanks to our round-about adventure to Singburi, so we were dismayed when our “29-seat bus” pulled up in Da Lat, and it was actually a 15-seater. We hoped it was simply a transfer to the bus station, where we would find our real bus. Four hours later, though, we found ourselves in Nha Trang, on Vietnam's coast, grateful to be alive and without a scratch. Our bus driver was very talented when it came to ALMOST running off the road or hitting other buses.
From the moment we arrived in Nha Trang, we let out a sigh of relief. We enjoyed Da Lat, but it was very much a Vietnamese tourist town. Several times, we ran into service personnel who didn’t speak English and were not at all interested in trying to communicate with us. In Nha Trang, we didn’t stray far from the tourist district, and almost every sign had English on it. In fact, there might have been more Russian than Vietnamese on signs and menus, and there were Russian tourists everywhere.
Our experience only got better when we arrived at our hostel. Two ladies checked us in and showed us around. One of them, Li, took a liking to us when she saw our passports and realized TJ was only five days older than she was. She quickly became my best friend in Vietnam.
We spent our first full day in Nha Trang doing what you should do in a resort town – going to the beach! It was hot and sunny, so we spread out my sarong as our beach towel and relaxed. When it got too hot, we went for a swim in the ocean – because I’m fearless and can totally do that now.
As evening approached, the beach got very crowded. A big group of people got together and started playing team-building games. Naturally, TJ jumped up when they got near us and flagged in the winning team for their centipede race.
Feeling bold after his brief referee role, TJ then joined a smaller group of guys playing volleyball. I got to sit and read a book without him interrupting me, and he got to interact with people who barely knew a word of English. We were each in our element.
Once we had our fill of the beach, we headed back to our new hotel to clean up. We had to change hotels this morning because our first didn’t have a room available. This hotel didn’t have my new best friend at the reception desk, but it did have a nice room that opened onto a fantastic balcony.
The next morning, we checked out of our fancy balcony room and put our bags in storage. We had an overnight bus booked to Ho Chi Minh City and an entire day to kill before we were on our way. Our plan was to visit nearby Vinpearl Island, where they have a cable car over the water. Our receptionist told us it was too far to walk to the cable car (she was right, it was about 4 km and HOT outside!), so we hailed a taxi and headed to Vinpearl!
It turns out that the ticket for the cable car includes access to Vinpearl Land, an amusement park on the island. We took the 12-minute cable car ride across the bay and exited directly into the theme park. Within minutes, we were sweating, so we went straight to the indoor, air-conditioned arcade. Our first stop was the 4-D movie: “Exploration of Tunnel!” It was an American movie, narrated by an old man with a Southern accent who warned us about Indian burial grounds. About thirty people sat in movie-theater seats that moved around according to where the tunnel led us. There was no mistaking our theater for an American one, though. True to Asian tendencies (if you look at the traffic and general queuing standards here), the initial scramble to find a seat was absolute chaos. Pushing from behind, pulling people aside, the crowd caught us off guard! Somehow, we managed to find two seats next to each other on the very last row.
We spent the better part of the afternoon inside the arcade after our short movie. All the arcade games were free! We played whack-a-mole, air hokey, horse racing, and gun shooting. TJ showed off his Dance Dance Revolution skills, and I scored a bonus round at the basketball hoops. Once we had our fill, we ventured outside to explore the rest of Vinpearl Land.
The best part of the park was a ride they call the Alpine Coaster. We buckled ourselves into a small cart that carried us up the hill, and then we coasted down a luge track while looking at the beautiful views. It was so much fun!
When it started raining, we ducked into the (also free) aquarium and spent a couple hours with the fish. They had one of those tunnels underneath the main tank with a moving sidewalk to push you along. We went through twice.
Just before we left, we noticed a crowd of people at a covered pavilion. It was a circus show, staring dogs and monkeys!
After sunset, we took the cable car back across the bay and hired a cab to return us to our hotel. We had just enough time to shower and eat a good dinner (the best way to begin an overnight trip), and then we walked back to our original hostel. I got to hang out with Li while we waited for our bus to pick us up.
Our ride back to Ho Chi Minh City was easily the most frustrating overnight transportation of our trip. The girls at our hostel had tried their best to get us on a sleeper bus (the nice kind, not the Cambodian kind), but everything was, as we had heard in Saigon, full. This was the only bus available, and it was normal reclining bus seats. We didn’t care, and the price was cheap, so we didn’t worry about it too much.
Not far into our journey, the bus driver turned on the radio. Loud. Even through my trusty earplugs, it was deafening. The Vietnamese voice had the cadence of a comedian, which is hard to ignore even when you don’t understand the language. I gave up on sleep and pulled out my book, thinking I would read until I got sleepy enough to fall asleep anyway. Twenty minutes into that idea, the bus driver decided to turn all the lights off, including the reading light above my seat.
My next choice was the MP3 player. I pulled out the old one I’ve been using since 2007 and tried to turn it on. Dead battery. TJ helped me dig out our bag of spare batteries and changed it. The player turned on, and then it turned off again, broken.
This is about the time TJ warned me that my inner four-year-old was showing. I was not handling it well. Our next hotel was in Bangkok, twenty-four hours away. We weren’t even sure what we were going to do with our backpacks when we got to Saigon. Our laptop battery was almost dead, and we had no way to charge it. After a long, full day, I was exhausted, and my only option was lying there awake, listening to loud Vietnamese music alternating with Vietnamese talk radio. TJ comforted me with thoughts of napping in a park when we got to Saigon, handed me his iPod, and closed his eyes. I took a deep breath.
By the end of a Billy Joel album, the Vietnamese music had miraculously stopped, and I fell asleep as soon as I handed the iPod back to TJ. I slept hard for an hour or two, until we stopped for a rest break at 4:00 in the morning. As we got back on the bus to leave the rest stop, I confessed to TJ that if the music started again, I would cry. Right on cue, the bus driver cranked up the radio as he pulled out of the parking lot. It didn’t stop until we got to Saigon.