Sarah Coles

South Vietnam, seaside resorts, the ghastly and the great




Quy Nong 

A fishing resort where the water bounces with coracles like St Columba’s – the one he used to sail to Iona.  We are in a marble workers hotel  – v. grand indeed, and where everyone is young enough to be our grandchild and friendly and speaks no English, except for the receptionist a bit.  Are we the only guests?  Man in Saigon said they were taught Russian as 2nd language.  We meet Ronnie Reynolds, an American who has been travelling for five years because it’s cheap – he has been in the US army, the Foreign LegioIMG_3233n (nearly had his citizenship revoked on return to the US) and has sold ladies shoes for a living. V. nice, a natural charmer, more to me than Bob. 

We go to the port. Small, little boats disgorging goodies and people climbing up and down steps which line the harbour carrying parcels, baskets, all things – Venice must have been like this once, the small scale scurrying.  We get a man to take us in his boat out to the promontory where we climb to a statue of Phan …forgotten his name already … who repelled Chinese invaders – wild flowers and butterflies and views.  Man is waiting to take us back, amazing the communication with not a word in common. 

IMG_3181Miles of yellow sand.  And then out at sea are fishing nets like upside down  umbrellas, which are dipped into the water.  These surreal gold diaphanous cradles line the bay.  In the early evening young men and girls play football, and acrobats jump and cartwheel.  Fishing boats which are out after dark catching squid light up one by one like stars.  

In hotels are the two fat gods of land and money.  At night as I walk beside the open doors of houses I see lit within these altars to these white bearded obese fellows.  Sometimes gilded, always squat and chuckling, fed on, today, eggs and steak and soothed by joss sticks.  Land and money, to be worshipped.  Just like England, basic and earthy –  not that spiritual.     Outside all is communism and socialist realist monuments to the American war. 

Food, origami of cucumber, carrot etc turned into flowers.  GINGER tea, what a kick. Salad of chopped onion, tomato and MANGO!  

Beside these slim delicate people westerners seem cold, unsmiling, huge and clumsy, coarse and hairy. 

LEPER COLONY near Qui Nong 

Off to the leper colony by the sea, round the corner of the bay, up and down a massive hill, all wooded as the mountains are.  What a nightmare to be in the US army here all those years ago. Only the locals could win. 

Get ready for swim, but lose balance in the waves and it shelves steeply and the undertow tugs like gremlins and I come out and sadly remember exulting in the wildness of the sea when young.   

This leper colony is like a neat seaside village for the disabled.  Friendly.  Arms and legs and noses missing, though I do not like to stare.  At a sort of cafe we have iced coffee sort of and sit in the usual miniature plastic chairs B has to squeeze himself into.  In a park are dozens literally of white washed busts of scientists etc mostly European none English which have their names neatly IMG_3237chiselled off.  Spooky all these truncated male heads.  Catholic, and at the entrance statue of the virgin virtually identical to the Vietnamese goddess of mercy – inclined head, opening hands. 

Our taxi does not come back for us as planned. (I did not like the look of him.)  So after pot noodles, we are offered lifts by passing scooterists.  Everyone so helpful, smiling.  A short way up the bumpy steep hill and we have forgotten our Liki sticks!  So stop.  B goes on to get taxi and I insist on walking back to sticks despite sweet girl urging to get on her scooter again.  I remember exulting on the back of a bumpy ride of a scooter at Siem Reep – now all I want is not to fall off and for the ride to end as soon as possible, rather as I do on fairground rides with the grandchildren.  Butterflies. 

Nha Trang  

We came here because it is on the way back to Saigon, and it is a noisy burgeoning growing resort and I hate it.  Violet Hotel: horrible breakfasts with margarine the colour of jaundice and packed with Russians who only grunt and never say hello or thank you or smile.  Here because of Russian support during and after the American war.  Computer keyboard is sticky with tippex where they have tried to mark the letters with Cyrillic .   Shops full of crocodiles stuffed also turned into handbags etc, hard to think they will not be exterminated.   Beach has yellow sand, eateries, lavatories, loungers, masseurs advertising wares, umbrellas, distant mountains and islands, and Russians. 

IMG_3185All is redeemed by Walter’s friend and  protégé Kevin Moxon who lives here with his Vietnamese wife Loan, and comes back to UK each year as Father Christmas at Harrods.  I cold call by taxi, and they are welcoming.  They live in a decent flat overlooking a courtyard.  Vast expanse of bare shining wood, two little gods at a shrine with phials of water to quench their thirst, two bedrooms with futons.  She 60ish he the same.   (he asks Bob to guess his age, Bob proffers 67 when he is 57. Never ask someone to guess your age)  Her English hard to understand.  Here he bookbinds, she makes banana liqueur (hard to taste the banana tho sweetly agreeable).  In England they have a flat at Woolwich. 

 IMG_3186 IMG_3192The next day they come to the Violet and we go in three cyclos = bicycle rickshaws to a promontory  and take a boat to the Red Island, less than 100 yards away, and packed with Buddhist shrines and a temple and flowers, half a dozen worshippers and not one Russian.  Deep bell regularly tolls and then horribly amplified priest sings but he stops and again glorious peace.  Loan holds my hand as I wobble on uneven  paths. IMG_3200

IMG_3203That evening at their flat Loan cooks us crispy rolls with shrimp paste, ditto dumplings, barbecued spare ribs, salad, mint eaten like lettuce, and we finish off with slices of jackfruit.  But I have to say the most amazing selection of tastes come from street food the next day, it was like discovering fresh taste buds, that egg was IMG_3193it boiled in  pineapple juice??  No, more subtle.  Then, into a large room to listen to music, man plays electronic guitar and the singer is a ringer for that Chinese Girl by Tretchkoff.   

Loan’s father died fighting in the South Vietnamese army.  I would like to know more but they are not forthcoming.  She has loads of sisters.  She and Kevin met nine years  ago, she working at a cafe and he in Vietnam to get over depression after his mother’s death from what sounds like suicide, falling from a window at 3am.  He has been in the theatre world, writing plays etc.  They are both kind, generous and curiously simple.  They cannot name the prime minister or anyone in government! 

IMG_3204In the main temple rats scurry around.  Yes, said Kevin, no one objects to rats.  We like them.  Dragons coil round pillars, and ten inch hairs protrude from their nostrils. 

Thap Cham 

Thap Cham on the sea, and we landed by chance at Con Ga Vang Golden Rooster resort under the pines.  A live golden rooster and his black pal peck around.  Only other visitors are Russian, vast IMG_3234women like Venus of Wildendorf and men like oxen – no hello or smiles or greetings, and up at dawn to bag the loungers on the sand.  Jellyfish  on sand at low tide like crenulated blancmanges, can’t be edible or they would be on the menu. 

Our bungalow is under short trunked palms.  The paved straight path leads to peacock sea bisected by palm trees.  That blue seems infinity, to contain beyond and all the world.  When I swim from the golden sand warm currents caress, and when I watch the boy on his coracle I can see his guardian angel, sometimes two of them, leaning in tandem to help.  This is the vision of myopia.  These are the ghosts I see while swimming. 

We watch them in their coracles while eating breakfast, as they spread their nets.  All mythic figures, biblical.  At night while we eat our supper the bay is strung with diamonds of their lights.  I order baked crab, girl forgets and it arrives after one and a half hours, six red crabs fire hot four inches wide.  Wait for them to cool then set to but although the odd gobbets of flesh are sweet it is shelly and hard going.  Never again.  Surely they are fishing to extinction?   Dalat wine is rough but drinkable and so far no hangover.   Crab costs 360,000 dong which is an awful lot, it did not have the price on the menu. 

As we have a siesta shadows of palm trees flicker on the walls as if someone is practicing piano scales.  Up and down, up and down.  Inspiration behind louvres. 

Tham Chap Station 

Waiting for the slow train to Saigon. 

So, we sit, and wait with a family with a baby and a vigorous little girl, and, is she a bride or model, a ravishing girl in a lace dress with a retinue of photographer, dresser and carrier of bits and pieces.  Can she be photographed with us?  Of course.  She sits on the bench between us and beams at me – her smile is synthetic but brilliant, she is a pro.  Off they go.  A vendor of durian and other crisps and drink.  About 15 of us wait.  Although the train is already 45 minutes late there is no hurry.  All very Adlestrop.  As it should be. 

In the train, the green rice plains of deltas stretch to the mountains.


IMG_3215Had an insight.  Realised the origin of the hijab, yashmak, covering the face, making it invisible.  It wasn’t for religion, modesty etc.  It was to keep the complexion fair!  In Vietnam, they are all yashmak’d to the hilt, and arms and gloved, against the sun, because they value nothing more than a pale skin.  Municipal gardeners, on scooters, everyone.  (Then, in other countries, it became prescribed by religion, and then …well, we know what happened then ..)


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