Even though the twin city of Phan Rang-Thap Cham is technically the provincial capital of Ninh Thuan, it’s hard to believe a place where farmers steering herds of cattle down the street is the local nexus of industrialisation. But since Ninh Thuan remains the poorest and least developed province in southern Vietnam, perhaps the city’s rustic simplicity shouldn’t be a surprise.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years — almost as long as I’ve used this.”
57-year-old Thanh holds a moth-eaten, floppy hat to his chest and nods toward a rusted old sewing machine. Bursts of wind tug at the net he is mending — it’s so strong that a few women nearby have already abandoned their work and are hunched behind a decrepit building. A few braver souls still have their noses inches from their own machines, feeding endless green fishing net through the humming shuttle. The ferocious gusts mean that no boats will go out tonight. Instead, the fishermen focus on preparing for the next outing.
“This one, over here.”
A slight, smiling woman in crisp white linen reaches out for my arm and leads me past a pearly white sedan, my carry-on bag slung over her shoulder. I’ve just arrived at the airport in Nha Trang, and I thought I’d be beckoned to the nearest luxury four-door sedan. It is, after all, transport to a five-star resort. Instead, she leads me a few spaces back to a dusty gold SUV. It’s not exactly what I expected.
On Vietnam’s south central coast, between Phan Thiet and Nha Trang, is a province of extraordinary beauty. Lush forests stretch along pristine coastline while sweeping desert landscapes give way to rare geological phenomena. Home to two national parks, much of the arid scenery and desert flora remains untouched. The culture and traditions of ethnic minorities are preserved in small, rural communities and in centuries-old ruins. Ethnic, religious and cultural diversity flourish while strangers still greet each other with smiles.
If you haven’t heard of it then you’re either new to Hanoi or living the life of a hermit. Now in its seventh year, from a mere handful of runners in its salad days, the Song Hong Half Marathon has transformed itself into the biggest annual running event in the capital.
Across from the Word Ho Chi Minh City offices on Nguyen Cu Trinh, an outlier in the three-storey surroundings has been making its presence known, layer by modernist steel layer. Similar projects have been ongoing in Hanoi and Danang, entering the Accor hotel group’s hierarchy on the rung between Novotel and Mercure (midscale) and Sofitel (luxury). With all three properties grand-opened in the past few months and lording themselves above our smog-level heads, we decided to grab our toothbrushes and give their 30sqm, open-concept rooms a chance.
In the late 1960s a young Harvard graduate made a startling discovery.
William Haseltine had a colleague with access to a secret paper that showed that Agent Orange had the ability to create birth defects in animals. At this time the US were spraying massive amounts of the dioxin across Vietnam.
“What are you doing?” asked elder sister.
“I’m looking for hell,” answered Be Chinh, the little girl digging up earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling ‘Baby Nine’. Hoang — the name she was born with, and would later go by in Saigon — found hell much later, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.
Often living on the edge of society, the montagnards — or mountain dwellers — are little understood. When they do come to the attention of the masses, it’s usually from the perspective of tourism. In Sapa, the various Hmong tribes emerge from their mountain dwellings to haggle and jibe, often speaking English or even French better than Vietnamese.
The first time I met Luong Van Mao, we were outside his bar on Ta Hien. Until then, I’d believed that Mao’s Red Lounge was named after the historical figure. But this man in angular glasses and a beret, shaking my hand with a wide smile, had little in common with the other Mao.
“I’m only giving you two drink tickets, because last time you play you drink too many,” was one of the more irritating things I remember being said to me onstage.
As soon as Cu “Owl” Nguyen and her groupie-and-drummer contingent enter the room, she heat-seeks the computer and its limitless song archive. Dismissing the guidebook, she queues up five Pink songs and three Adele songs. David Moses Haimovich of Space Panther had been singing some Kylie, and she perhaps got the wrong idea.