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[Nha Trang]

Monday 24th April

We arrived in Nha Trang more than a little tired, and fortunately were only given a cut down version of the minibus runaround that we'd had in Hue and Hoi An. Renate had recommended a hotel to us, the Sao Mai and we managed to get a room there that we could move into straight away (it was only 7am or so), although we'd have to move rooms during the afternoon. Ali went off somewhere while I crashed out for a few hours.

The reason for coming this far south for me was to go on a Mama Hahn's boat trip. However I wanted to do this with Dan and Becky who wouldn't be arriving for a couple of days yet. I didn't particularly want to do spend the intervening time on the beach, so I decided to take a PADI diving course. I walked along the beach road, checking out two or three diving schools, decided to go the Blue Diving Club, and then had to find a bank so that I could pay for it. I found out later that the owners were relaxed enough that I could have paid for it some other time, but by then I already had some money.

Taxi Girls

Taxi girls are Nha Trang's prostitutes and/or bag thieves. There are usually two of them on the back of a moped. If they see someone with a bag walking near the edge of the road, the bike will slow down and one of them will try to grab it. Late at night, if they see one or more potential customers the bike will slow down enough for them to get off, and they will then try to get amorous with the unfortunate male, paying particular attention to his pockets. If they can lift his wallet they get back on the bike and head off. If they can't they try to persuade him to buy their services.


That evening, Ali and I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat that wasn't too expensive - I think we'd been spoilt by the bargains we'd had to date, because Nha Trang wasn't outrageous, just more than we were used to. We found somewhere out of the way that was quiet and adequate and had a very friendly young Vietnamese waitress, dressed untypically in a short skirt. I thought this was strange, but the request she had was even stranger. She had £50, but because she was Vietnamese she wasn't allowed to change it. She wanted Ali to go to the bank with her the next morning and change it for her. She said she had been given it by someone she had gone to the Rainbow bar with, which was also strange because nice Vietnamese girls don't hang around with western men, and the Rainbow was definitely a tourist bar. Ali, being generally friendly and helpful agreed to go with her.

Postscript: The £50 turned out to be a traveler's cheque, so Ali couldn't cash it. The poor girl was devastated.

We headed down to the Rainbow bar ourselves, which was typical tourist resort bar, complete with brightly dressed Vietnamese girls, who I took to be a variation on Taxi Girls, playing pool with some western guys.

Tuesday 25th April

When I eventually left Nha Trang I intended to go to Hanoi by train. The hotel could get the ticket for me, but it was expensive, so I needed to go to the bank for more money. As I was starting my diving course I needed to get up early and go there beforehand. I got on the back of a motorbike taxi and watched my life pass before my eyes as the driver wove in and out of the other traffic, somehow managing not to hit anything. Normally when I'm on the back of a bike I peer round the driver, so I can see where I'm going. This time I just stared at the back of his head.

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There were two of us taking the beginner's course. With me was a guy called Paul, who was a helicopter pilot, working in China. For the first day of the course we were in a hotel swimming pool, instructed by the school owner, Joel, a very friendly Frenchman. I found the diving difficult, but not the way I had expected. I had thought that I would panic when trying to breathe underwater through the tube. I think it must have helped being only a metre underwater, but I didn't panic at all. Instead, what was difficult was all the technical stuff - particularly the art of kicking my feet properly, breathing deeply, and exercises like dropping the regulator and putting it back in again.

Paul and I went for lunch in one of the local cafes and ran into Ali who was in the process of being sold services by a woman who did make up and massages and so on. She was actually in the process of being adopted, but none of us knew that then.

After the afternoon session in the swimming pool, Joel asked me to stay behind and practice my swimming, because my kicking was still all over the place. Damn - first day at dive school, and I got a detention!

That evening, Ali went off with the massage lady to a festival north of Nha Trang, while I had a quiet night of lemon tea and chocomel - it's a bummer not being able to drink when you're on holiday.

Wednesday 26th April

When I woke up the next morning there was no sign of Ali, so I assumed she'd got lucky. I was picked up by a minibus and taken to the ferry port, because today we would be diving from a boat. The boat was quite small, but big enough for the dozen or so people on board. There were two dive groups - Paul and I would be instructed by Anne-Sophie, while there was another group of four who were all experienced divers, including the school's co-owner, and Joel's wife, Thu (hope I spelled that right). In addition there were crew members to sail the boat and help prepare the equipment and the lunch. We sailed for about an hour before dropping anchor.

As it was our first proper dive, one of the crew prepared the equipment for us and helped us on with it. Paul and I checked each other's equipment and then we jumped in. I was surprised how cold it was. As it was a beautiful day I'd expected the water to be warm as well, but once we got below the surface it got a little chilly. I didn't really enjoy this dive so much - I had problems equalising the pressure in my ears, probably because I had only just got rid of a cold, and I was still finding the co-ordination difficult. For the first dive we mostly did exercises, which may be important but weren't a whole lot of fun.

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Thu takes a nap

After an hour in the water, we got out, took off our equipment and wet suits and had lunch. The lunch was superb - fresh seafood, plenty of vegetables and all really tasty. Between dives we had to rest for a couple of hours, so after lunch we sat around and talked or read the diving manual which we would be tested on before we could pass the course. The seats in the boat would fold down, so Thu made herself a bed and crashed out (right). Sophie, meanwhile, joined the dive suits at the front, open section, of the boat and worked on her tan.

After the rest period, we went for another dive, which was equally difficult, and again mostly exercises. Once we had finished, the boat sailed back to port and we got the minibus back to the diving school.

When I got back to the hotel, there was a message from Ali to say that she hadn't been kidnapped. I was most of the way through a low alcohol, high chocomel evening when I ran into her, so we went for a couple of beers and she told me how she'd spent the evening at the massage lady's friend's house, way in the north of Nha Trang because it was too late to come home, the three of them crashing in the same bed.

Thursday 27th April

In the meantime, Dan and Becky had decided to stay in Hoi An for a few more days, because they were having tailor troubles. As Ali wanted to head to Ho Chi Minh fairly soon, she went off on a Mama Hahn trip while I went diving. I enjoyed the diving far more this time, mostly because we did a fun dive as well as the exercises, so there was more to see.

I had a beer with Paul and then went back to the hotel. Ali was crashed out - obviously she'd had a good day, although she did make it out later.

Friday 28th April

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Paul, Sophie and Chris

For our final day's diving we did more exercises and another fun dive and then when we got back it was time to take the written test. Paul and I had been reading and re-reading the PADI manual all week, Paul somewhat more studiously than me. The test was multiple guess, and we went to sit in a nearby bar, with a beer in hand, while we completed it. This was not a rigorous exam. We took it seriously, though, foregoing the chance to ask each other or look in the manual. I think by the time you get to this stage it is very difficult to fail, and we certainly didn't manage it. Paul had a score in the 90's; I had one in the 70's - both were deemed passes.

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Blue Diving Club
So we proudly accepted our PADI badges, our log books, plus complimentary t-shirts and stickers (right).

We invited Thu, Joel, Sophie and all the other staff to join us for a drink to celebrate. When it was time to leave, Paul and I got our wallets out, but the waitress told us that Thu had already paid. What a great woman!

Mama Hahn - fuck me up!

There are two stories about how the Mama Hahn boat trips got started. One has Mama as a lobster seller on the beach, the other as a prostitute. In both a wealthy American GI, leaving after the American war, left her his boat, and she started doing boat trips.

The success of the trips has spawned some imitators - notably Mama Linh, whose trips differentiate themselves by not having smoke, at least according to the advert. The Mama Hanh adverts in some of the travel agents are a bit special. Slogans like: "Come on a trip with the fucked up Mama and her fucked up family".


I'm told that the diving in Nha Trang is not as good as other parts of South East Asia - one day I hope to find out if this is true. I'm really glad I learned to dive there. I really liked the people at the Blue Diving Club, and if I ever go to Nha Trang again I will dive with them. I'm not sure I will, though, because apart from diving and Mama Hahn there isn't much to Nha Trang, and I've done both of those. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Dan and Becky finally turned up, and we all got ourselves booked on the Mama Hahn trip for the following day. This was entirely fortuitous - I'd booked on it anyway and they did so independently. I was going from being almost teetotal to complete hedonism in one day, so I did my best to warm up for it that evening. I finally said goodbye to Ali as she got the night bus to Ho Chi Minh.

Saturday 29th April

The next morning while I was having breakfast, one of the owners said to me "Ah, your girlfriend has gone. Tonight we get you another one!". She wasn't, and he knew she wasn't, but it was still a nice touch. A minibus took me to the same ferry port that I'd taken the dive boat from, although at a more civilised time of day. There were two Mama Hahn boats - a couples boat and a party boat. I met Dan and Becky, plus Paul and Dale who we'd met in the pub the night before and we all went for the party boat. The deal was that all the food and mulberry wine were free, but there was also a big chest of beer, which had to be paid for at the end of the trip, on an honesty system where we had to remember how many we'd had. We started on the beer soon after leaving port - well it was after 9am.

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Becky, Chris and Dan on Mama Hahn's boat

After an hour or so sailing we stopped off for the first snorkel trip. I'd been told beforehand that it was a good idea to be at the front of the queue for these, 'cos there wouldn't be enough to go around. The snorkeling was a bit half hearted anyway - that wasn't really the point of the trip. We got back on the boat, and were soon sailing off for our lunch stop.

We sat around the edge of the top deck, and lots of food was set on plates in the middle. The food was incredible - lots of sea food, far more than we could eat. We only had chop sticks to eat with, which made it more interesting. When we'd finished there was still a hug amount left. While we were eating the floating bar had been strung out behind the boat. This consisted of a few polystyrene boards with plastic flowers on them, joined together with pieces of string. We grabbed rubber rings and headed for the bar, beer in hand.

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The infamous Mama Hahn

After a while Mama Hahn appeared, wearing a towel on her head in the style of an Arab headdress. With her were a couple of helpers - westerners who were earning some money to keep traveling. They made sure that everyone had a glass of mulberry wine and then they picked on the blokes. Mama would put a bottle of mulberry wine to your mouth and start pouring, exhorting you to drink while she did so. The pouring only stopped if you pushed the bottle away. One poor sod got picked on several times and ended up hurling over the side of the boat later. One of the helpers, a Swedish girl, kept her full wine bottles somewhere around her middle, so when she needed a new one, she reached into her cleavage and pulled it out. How could you fail to fall in love with someone who can do that?

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Hungry kids wait for Mama Hahn's leftovers

The other attraction of a Mama Hahn trip was the smoke. Mama had a number of joints in her hand, held well above the water. If you wanted one, you had to go to her and yell "Mama Hahn - fuck me up!" She would then get you to wipe your hands on her headdress and hand you the joint. The previous day I'd met an American girl who's job it had been to light the joints. Unfortunately she was a teetotal non-smoker, so she'd only lasted one day.

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and feast on them

At the next stop (theoretically a snorkeling stop, though hardly anyone did), a bunch of local kids got on. They were made to sit down in rows on the top deck of the boat, and then greet Mama one by one, almost like they were getting a benediction. Then they were given some of the left over food, which they all carefully hid around their persons, presumably to take to their families.

We were still up for it when we got back to Nha Trang, so we did a round of bars, taking in Shorty's and then the Rainbow where I proceeded to drink myself to a standstill. As I wobbled my way home, a couple of taxi girls stopped next to me and tried to put their arms around my wallet. I brushed them aside and said "no thanks" and they got back on their moped, one of them shouting "fuck you", which I thought missed the point somewhat.

Sunday 30th April

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Po Nagar

Of course I was hungover the next day. Of course I had a lie in. But then I decided to be adventurous, and hired the dodgiest bike outside Holland from the hotel. I risked life, limb and sanity as I wove through the traffic, heading for the Cham towers in Po Nagar, (left), passing through the business district on the way (right).

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North of Nha Trang
The business of Nha Trang is, of course, fishing.

On the way back, the dodgy bike got even dodgier, as one of the pedals fell off. Fortunately I was only a couple of blocks from the hotel, so I gave it back and went to the beach for the rest of the day.

This was my final day in Nha Trang, and as I was going to spend the next two days on the train to Hanoi, I decided to get myself another book. I went to the second hand shop, but there was nothing that interested me. I knew that someone else had bought "Mr Nice", the autobiography of Howard Marks, or at least a pirate version thereof, from one of the postcard boys who hung around the restaurants near the Sinh cafe. I was planning to eat there that night anyway (these restaurants did the best food I tasted on my entire trip), and sure enough the postcard boy turned up. He did his usual spiel, trying to flog postcards, books and whatever else he had. I asked how much for Mr Nice. He told me 80,000 dong (I forget the exact price, around that I think). I offered him 50,000, which is what I was sure one of my friends had bought it for. He dropped his price to 60,000 immediately. We then spent the next hour haggling. Or at least he was haggling, I was eating, drinking and haggling. He would try "only 10,000 more" and I would counter "only 10,000 less". I expected him to get bored very quickly, at which point I would split the difference. But he didn't. He kept going, and when Dan and Becky came along, they joined in as well. After we'd finished eating, I think he got a signal from whoever was controlling him that it was time to get up and sell something, so he said, really quickly, "OK 50,000", gave me the book, took his money and went away.

This was the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, so we'd expected some huge party. However this wasn't to be. There was a stage set up for political speeches near the beach, but that was it. However Nha Trang was full of holidaying Vietnamese - Monday was May Day and also a holiday. During the day the beach was full of Europeans, going for maximum sun tans and skin cancer. Around 4pm, the sun would disappear behind a cloud and the Vietnamese would come out, until by 6pm the sea was a, erm sea, of brown bodies.

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Last modified on 22nd March 2012 6:47 AM EDT

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