Post-military backpacking Israelis, frisbee, and a Minnesotan in Nha Trang

Back from a great three day trip in Halong Bay!  It was a bit cloudy but otherwise a fantastic experience.  And now I have internet again so let me continue….

From Mui Ne Ben and I traveled to Nha Trang, another nice beach town on the long stretching coast that is Vietnam.  Our buddy Ben Broussard from Louisana met us here with his two Israeli traveling buddies, Rafael (22) and Niv (23), who had recently finished their mandatory 3-year service stint.

Israel requires all men and women to serve in the country’s military for at least three years.  As an American that sounds awful to me.  The draft for the Vietnam War was bad enough but that doesn’t even compare to compulsory service regardless of whether a war is going on.  However, to “Raf” and Niv their service was just part what all young people in Israel go through – neither of them loved it but they were not upset that they had had to do it – it was normal, expected.  And here they were with me in Nha Trang, seeing the world at a younger age than I ever did.

On the left side of the table from front to back, Ben, Raf, and Niv. This was at “Omar’s”, the best Indian food I’ve had in SE Asia – $6 would buy you a feast of a set menu (5 course dinner).

I told Raf and Niv that their experience in the military likely had prepared them more for real life than university prepares most college students in the United States.  While Joe Fratboy was doing beerbongs, chasing girls, and skipping class, Raf was commanding a battalion of 50 paratroopers.  Raf had excelled early as a paratrooper and by 21 he had been promoted to something akin to what we would call a lieutenant.  He had led 50 young paratroopers under his command into 10-12 dangerous missions during his final year of service.

Who do you think will be more prepared for the adversity of life at the age of 22 – Joe Fratboy or Raf? I know the answer and I saw it in action.  Both Niv and Raf were nice, laid back, and conversational but they were also no bullshit type of guys.  They were also excellent hagglers – they played the game well and I made sure to take some notes from them while we spent two days together in Nha Trang. It is worth noting that I also see this with my friends who served in the military in the U.S., either in Iraq or Afghanistan. I.e., just like Raf and Niv, all of them have a good head on their shoulders.

Ben, Ben, Raf, Niv and I all took it pretty easy in Nha Trang and just spent our two days there on the beach.  The beach in Nha Trang is massive – much bigger than the beach in Mui Ne. It is “low season” for tourism so we pretty much had the beach to ourselves.

The massive beach to ourselves gave us perfect opportunities to throw some disc on both days.  The first day Ben and I played frisbee in the morning.  After about 30 minutes of tossing a local Vietnamese boy who had been watching us play joined us in our game.

I’ve noticed something about local kids in my travels through Europe and now SE Asia.  They are much more likely to interact with you than a local adult. This is particularly true if you are playing a game, which in my cases tends to be frisbee.

Unlike adults kids are not intimidated by language barriers and have not learned stereotypes.  This makes them much less inhibited when it comes to interacting with a foreigner.  I try to be a bit more gregarious with strangers and locals I meet on the road (particularly when traveling alone) because it often leads to my best memories from the trip, many of which you have been reading about. That said, even I don’t possess the happy uninhibited openness of a child.

The kid had bundles of energy and was always happy to run and fetch an errant throw.  But there weren’t too many throws off the mark – the kid actually threw pretty well – click here for a video I took of him and Ben tossing.

After about 40 minutes of tossing with the child, the child’s father – who I noticed had been watching us nearby without expression – slowly came over.  Unlike his son, he was a bit more cautious to approach but after seeing us have fun with his son he built up the courage to walk over and join our game.  We played for about 30 minutes with the father and son and then took a break.  I talked a bit with the father who told me he was from Hanoi on vacation with his wife and son.  Given his limited English this was about all that we could communicate but smiles were exchanged and that was enough to say “it was nice to meet and play frisbee with you!”  Smiles go a long way over here…

The next day Ben and I considered taking the world’s largest gondola over to a nearby island with a massive waterpark but we didn’t want to pay for the park, just the gondola and back.  I’ve had plenty of good waterpark action in the Wisconsin Dells so I felt no compelling need to stand in lines for slides in Vietnam.  Shockingly, just taking the gondola ride there to the island and back is not an option – one must pay for the full $25 ticket that includes the waterpark to ride the gondola.  Silly that they don’t have that option but I guess most people want to do the waterpark as well.  So we just had to settle for a view of the island from a distance – a rainbow broke out and landed on it during the afternoon.

Before we left the beach a man stopped by and handed us a flyer for “Booze Cruise”, a bar in Nha Trang that caters to Europeans and Americans.  The flyer read “We serve PIZZA, CHEESEBURGERS, CHICKEN WINGS – HAPPY HOUR 2 FOR 1!!!!!”  Well, I guess they know their target market…The man was wearing a Vikings Jersey so I asked him what he was doing over here in Nha Trang.

He told me he had married a Vietnamese woman and come over here with $700 in his pocket.  10 years later he owns two restaurants, a hotel, and two travel agencies and is making over $200,000 a year.  He had set up his businesses in Nha Trang just before it became a booming tourist stop – hit a sort of jackpot I guess.  I asked him how much he paid in taxes and he laughed, telling me that it is much better in Vietnam than in the U.S.  I asked him how much better and he told me he had paid only $2,000 on $220,000 of income last year.  And this was not through the use of complicated loopholes or offshore bank accounts – this is just how it works here.

He did note that he would not have been able to have the entrepreneurial success he had enjoyed if he had not married a Vietnamese woman.  A westerner with no Vietnamese family would have had to clear a lot more bureaucratic hurdles than he did.  Also there is that one little requirement that a local Vietnamese person , in this case his wife, must have 51% ownership in every business in Vietnam.

In Cambodia an expat can have 100% outright ownership but in Vietnam, well, I guess I’m not surprised at the difference.  After talking business we chatted about NFL football for a bit before he strolled on down the beach handing flyers to other backpackers catching some sun.  Tough job – here he is the owner and he’s got nothing more serious to attend to than stroll along the beach and hand out flyers.

Our last night in Nha Trang was fairly uneventful save going to the clubbiest backpacker bar I’ve ever seen on the road, “Why Not?”  Girls were dressed to the nines which makes me wonder how they have room to pack all this glitzy stuff while backpacking?  Its certainly not practical.  With all the girls present, naturally there were also lots of temporary Nha Trang resident temp-bar-job party boys from Australia who were there pick them up and push drugs.

The people watching was quite entertaining and then there was a guy we met who swore to me that he is one of the best unknown beat-boxers in the world.  He awkwardly made me listen to about 5 minutes of his talent so I just had to take a video – click here to watch and listen to what is definitely not the best beat-boxer in the world, though he did better than I could do though and it was humorously entertaining…Ben’s reaction in the video is priceless – it says “I really didn’t want to listen to your beat boxing but go right on ahead….”

The next Ben and I wanted to go to Hoi An but instead of a 12 hour overnight bus ride we decided to split the trip up and stop in Quang Ngai.  My shirt had been damp from the beach so I used a makeshift dryer in our hotel room.

While my shirt was drying I went out to get some water for our upcoming trip to Quang Ngai.  As I’ve mentioned before, in many hotels and guesthouses you are required to take off your shoes and leave them before entering the house.  A good rule – shoes and sandals can only serve to bring in debris to a house.

I had grown accustomed and even charmed by the rule but when I came down that morning my shoes were completely covered in small drops of white paint.  Apparently while the hotel was painting above their front door the day before they had not bothered to move my shoes inside. I had been happy to abide by their no-shoes inside rule but I was none too happy about this. When I asked for an explanation from the older woman at the reception (another family run hotel) who spoke no English she attempted to solve the problem by rubbing paint remover all over my Gore-Tex waterproof Merrell shoes.  I quickly grabbed my shoes from her and said “NO!” in a very stern voice.

I was a bit upset at this point but I told myself to let it go so I put my shoes back by the hotel’s entrance door and went back up to my room to grab my sandals and finish packing.  When we finished packing and walked down the stairs with our bags the smell of paint remover got stronger and stronger – uh oh….  Sure enough, one of the other hotel employees was methodically saoking my shoes in paint remover – doing exactly what I had told them not to do.

The paint remover soaked into my paint speckled shoes – luckily he had only made his way about an inch up the end – the paint did come off the rubber parts though…

I walked over and had to yank them out of his hands and made it very clear to the 3 hotel staff/family members just how unhappy I was with what they had done.  A misunderstanding but seriously, they should learn to understand what “NO!” means or at least should move their guests’ shoes when they are painting directly above them.

When it comes to painting it seems like Vietnamese have little respect– in Mui Ne a painter was painting above a one of Xin Chao’s doorways and didn’t even try to stop while I walked by – he splashed paint all over my shirt and then laughed about it.  I pointed this out to one of Xin Chao’s co-owners (not the kite surfer) and he said “I have very little control over them.”  Ok, well maybe you should work on that as the owner…..

Ben and I took a cab to the train station where we were just about the only white people there. I will miss hanging out with Ben, Niv, and Raf but I know our paths will cross again at some point. I will probably meet up with Ben in Australia and Raf and Niv told me they’d be happy to host me when I come to Tel Aviv.

A group of four train employees were crouched over by a parked train and seemed to be playing a game – they definitely weren’t working.

The train ride to Quang Ngai was surprisingly comfortable and was complimented by some more views of that great green Vietnamese countryside.

At almost any point during the ride you could look out the window and see workers in the fields of rice paddy.

When we finally arrived in Quang Ngai everything was closed but a small stand.  We went up and asked for some Pho Ga.

The broth is excellent.

Chicken noodle soup with some lettuce and spices – healthy, filling, and probably the most common and simple Vietnamese meal.  I’ve become addicted to the stuff – I like to have it for breakfast over here because that is the most customary time to have it.  Ben is sick of it – he misses his McDonald’s (no McD’s in Vietnam…too “American” for the government’s taste) and has literally been counting the days since he has had it last and the days until will he be able to get it again.  Such an American….  🙂  But that night, it was hot, tasty, and filled us both up – perfect appetizer to a good night of sleep.

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