Vietnam Awakening

Lessons from Nha Trang

Although stretching over 1,000 miles from the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh in the south to Hanoi and the Gulf of Tongking in the north, Vietnam is barely 100 miles wide in most sections, hemmed up against the South China Sea by the rumps of Cambodia and Laos to its west. The narrow central belt means that in-country travel generally follows this relatively restricted north-south line, with popular jumping-off points being Dalat, Nha Trang, Hué, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay, and finally Hanoi. Travel by air is easy and quick, though it's cheaper to get around by train or minibus. That said, expect traffic anarchy on Vietnam's chaotic highways, so you should also weigh itinerary and budget constraints against your threshold for road terror.

Our Vietnam Airlines flight begins its descent to Nha Trang above a rippling landscape of stubby hills and neat rice terraces (Vietnam is one of the world's top three rice exporters, along with the U.S. and Thailand) fringed by a ribbon of sandy shore and teasing surf. The scene on the ground is no less idyllic, our senses being assailed by the smells and sounds of this atmospheric beach town.

And Nha Trang is indeed the perfect way to idle away an easy week or so, snorkeling and feasting aboard one of the decadent boat cruises organized by the irascible Mama Hahn (who's spent more than a few nights in jail for supplying her clientele with the odd illegal substance) or lounging on the beach—if you can catch a break from one of the many sand-trawling hawkers and masseuses.

However, we have conversation class to teach. Our soon-to-be-students arrive at our hotel early one morning, finding both me and my friend befuddled by hangovers and sunburn from the day before. Luckily we have a half-day or so before the real class will begin, so we load up on a convoy of low-horsepower motorbikes and set off to explore Nha Trang and the surrounding countryside.

There's nothing like riding shotgun on a motorbike while playing chicken with overloaded trucks to clear the worst of headaches. Our five new friends whisk us out of the Nha Trang city limits to the wooded slopes of Ba Ho, where a mountain stream tumbles toward the coastal plain through a series of hangover-cleansing rock pools. After a short two-mile hike to reach the best of the pools, we plunge in and laugh as my friend recites swear words our new friends will need to survive in New York—a gang of youths united by the crude common language of profanity. That afternoon, as we buzz back to Nha Trang along dusty farm tracks, stopping to sip chai with one of the guy's uncles, it's hard to imagine that this happy place was once the scene of so much pain.

That evening, preceding a boisterous farewell dinner at a local café, we perform our turn in the classroom. My teaching barely does justice to all the hospitality we've received; the 14 students, including our five minders, listen politely as I muddle through my shtick. They laugh at the right moments and line up with questions for this honorary instructor to answer about his home country, his hobbies, even his love life. However, whatever the questionable educational gains of our brief time together in the thrall of English grammar, vocabulary, and idioms, it's the shared language of learning that will stay with me long after the actual particulars of that lesson fade.

Published: 4 Oct 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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