I was scared shitless when I first got to Da Nang. That’s the only way to put it. Having just been robbed in Saigon days before, travelling alone felt more like walking through an apocalypse than it did a journey. I trusted no one, and watched over my belongings like a hawk. Everyone I encountered was a potential enemy. It was a terrible place to be. Not Da Nang, but in my head. Da Nang though, Da Nang was lovely.
Having spent most of my time in Saigon during my time in Vietnam, Da Nang was altogether different. Quieter (in Vietnam terms), less packed, and of course there was a beach. I didn’t intend to spend much time there, it was merely the cheapest way to get to Hong Kong, my next destination. I found a three star hotel close to the beach, I decided to splurge. It was the one the best $20 I spent on that trip.
I had one day to spend in Da Nang. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to leave the hotel room. I just wanted to get out of Vietnam. I had had a great time, but after the robbery ordeal I was done with the place. Or so I thought.
I at least had to check out the beach. It was 750 meters to the shore, which is roughly .5 gallons of sweat in Vietnam. Like the rest of Vietnam, its a place of contrasts. New hotels smacked right next to hovels. People with cars living next to people…with no cars. If there is a sign of wealth in Vietnam, it’s a car. I paid my 20,000 dong chair fee ($1), found the area with the least amount of people in it, and sat.
I tried to read, I tried to think, but I couldn’t stop assessing the situation, wondering if anyone around was planning to rob me at any second. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I couldn’t shake the paranoia… even though I knew damn well it was unwarranted. There were just a few locals enjoying their afternoon, and a group of guys that looked to be Russian. The worst of the foreigners you can run into overseas, besides Americans.
I finally got the courage to leave my things on the chair, and go to the water. That might have been the hardest things I’ve done. Not really, but it wasn’t easy. Even though I had nothing valuable left to steal, I guarded what things I did have left like a dog patrolling around its bowl. My day bag, my Nalgene, my $8 (or 160,000 Dong), and the hard cover book that I had foolishly lugged along with me but refused to leave behind, were like valuable jewels to me.
But oh the water felt nice. The waves were shit, but a lifelong body surfer can make do. Outside of the few waves I caught, my eyes never left my bag, bottle, book, or $8. Two of the supposed Slavs waded into the water within speaking distance of me. If I learned anything from travelling, and what most Americans would be baffled by, it was that not all white people speak English. I didn’t expect much conversation.
Not so bad, huh?
Jens and Kasper weren’t Russian at all. They were from Denmark. On the beach were Sonny and Thomas. The power of language, and being able understand the same one, is amazing when stuck in a place where you haven’t successfully pronounced a single word of the local language yet. I told the group my robbery story, as it was too good not to share. As scared of general human contact as I initially was, I was still in awe of the ridiculousness that had happened to me in Saigon.
I met the Danes for dinner that evening at Family Indian Restaurant, about 2 blocks from my classy ass hotel. One would ask “why would you eat Indian in Da Nang?” It is a good question. You’d think I would be feasting on local delicacies like fish, crab, and other sea goodness. The first deterrent was that it was incredibly expensive, not just for Vietnam but for anywhere. And these weren’t tourist places, these were local spots. Along with this, menus were rarely translated, and your chances of a waiter or waitress speaking English are laughable at best. It’s best to have a local with you. We did not have such luxury.
There was a place along the main beach strip I think I would have been able to order from quite easily. On its billboard was a cute cat, looking inquisitive as if it had been held in place for the photo with a piece of string. And then right below that cute, inquisitive cat was the picture of possible same cat being spit roasted. As appalling as the sign was… the crackly brown cat admittedly looked delicious.
So not in the mood to spend exorbitant amounts on mystery food, or eating crispy cat meat, we decided on Indian. And I should say the Family Indian Restaurant is amazing. And so was the Tiger. So many Tigers.
Tiger is THE beer of Da Nang. Although it is sold in other parts of Vietnam, they are downright obsessed with the stuff in Da Nang. It’s sold everywhere, and its cheap. Usually about a dollar, give or take. Beer is almost never served in the can, instead it is served in a glass with ice. Most westerners scoff at the idea, and while drinking a hoity toity craft IPA in similar fashion would be blasphemous, you grow to enjoy the custom. We didn’t know if it was proper etiquette to fill everyone else’s glass with ice when we filled ours, we just did it. It seemed right.
In desperation to find another drinking spot, me and the Danes, sans Sonny, set off to find a bar. Only there were no bars, none that we could find. We walked up the strip, stopping for road beers at every convenience store along the way. Beer and cigarettes. When they’re a dollar a pack, you smoke em’. You smoke a lot of em’. We couldn’t find a single bar. Only restaurants packed with locals.
Finally we took the plunge and found a table at one of the lesser packed, although still busy as hell, restaurants. Every eye in the building trained to the 1 American and the 3 Danes as they sat down. We were like exhibits at a zoo. Tigers, even. Occasionally a brave soul from the table next to us would sneak away and have someone else in the group take a picture of them with us, always with the peace sign fingers. Always. They then retreated away like they had just survived something. We ordered round 1 of Tigers. Ice in Glass. Cigarettes.
So many Tigers. So many cigarettes. It was somewhere around Tiger 4 or 5 that I completely forgot that I had been robbed, that I had met these guys on a beach that day, or any other apprehensions or fears that I had had when I first got to Da Nang. Three best friends I had never known I had had, born 4500 miles apart.
The other table still fawned over us like we were celebrities. In many parts of Vietnam, and Asia in general, being white might as well make you famous. It’s a supremely desirable trait to them, going as far as using skin whitening soap to keep their pale complexion. Finally we decided to go over and see them, like we had something to offer. We did not. Instantly, like a child meeting their hero and realizing they are nothing, they lost all interest in us. Actually it was mostly the males of the table, who sat and stared as their girlfriends struggled to use what English they did know to talk to the westerners.
We wanted to go back to our table anyways, for theirs was, for lack of a better term, fucking disgusting. While I grew to love Vietnamese people and their culture, their is one habit they have that would and does baffle most westerners. In a western restaurant it is customary for the uneaten food to be left on the table, which will be cleared away later by the waitstaff or bus boys.
In Vietnam they just throw it all on the ground. Everything. Shrimp shells, clam shells, crab carcasses, fish bones, noodles, vegetables, cigarettes, ice from dead drinks, napkins, everything. Anything remaining after the meal is also dumped on to the pile via the wait staff tipping the tables over. It’s actually a pretty efficient system. But it is certainly gross. This table of 20 had created a pile of slop that must have been half a foot. It didn’t help that one of the drunk males added some vomit to the pile as we approached.
The restaurant closed around us, and finally the drunk westerners realized it was time to go. Our bill for the 26 Tigers came out to be $4 each. Tipping, although not customary, is hugely appreciated in Vietnam. Unlike in Japan where you should never tip. Our waiter was absolutely blown away by the $2 we each left him. We zigged and zagged and pissed our way back down the strip. The locals were drunk too, and were going home.
What was supposed to have been a 24 hour layover had become one of the most important days in my (adult) life. I could once again see the bright side of life, I didn’t have to watch my back of my bag anymore. Well I did…. you never want to let your guard down overseas, but I could at least relax a little. I’d be back to Da Nang to see the Danes, but that’s a story for another time.
I’d kill for an iced Tiger right about now.