After saying goodbye to the cool pine forests of Dalat, and yet another new friend, I was ready to enjoy a few peaceful days somewhere remote along Vietnam’s extensive coastline. I’d heard tales of beautiful, isolated beach retreats, and after a few days of hectic Saigon, and a cold hailstorm in the Central Highlands around scenic honeymoon central Dalat, I decided it was time to stretch out a bit in the sun. After all, I had 30 days in the crown jewel of Indochina, and had no plans whatsoever, except to go where the day took me. I’d been here 4 days and was already on my way to Nha Trang, a seedier version of Miami, and the major town amidst the beaches of the SE. The bus from Dalat was much more comfortable, and as we drove through the remote villages in the balmy evening towards Nha Trang, it became clear that televisions were also a great source of entertainment here. Every home we passed, and they were all wide open, one-story concrete boxes or storefronts along the main road, had the family sprawled on the floor staring at the electric blue glow of TV. And next to the TV was the family shrine; the alter of the elders.
I got to Nha Trang late, and had the address of a cheap hotel from easy rider Hung along the ocean. It was a dive, but clean, and it was only 8 dollars for the night. I knew I was out of Nha Trang the next day. It was a party town; think Daytona Beach in need of a fresh coat of paint. After walking the beach in the morning and fending off a dozen or so advances from the entrepreneurial sector, offering young women, drugs, wiper blades, sunglasses, and investment advice, I started looking for a way off the main trail. Paradise Resort on Doc Let Beach was just such a place.
The ride there was circuitous, but as soon as I met Jerry, or Papa Hemingway, the owner, I knew I had to stay. He’s a salty old bastard with a pretty, much younger Vietnamese wife and a staff of friendly villagers, alternately working and sleeping wherever there’s an empty hammock. Be careful about making future travel plans with Hemingway, he often screws up or doesn’t listen. Try to get him when he’s really paying attention, just after his aquagym workout is best. Nestled between two isolated fishing villages, The Paradise sits on a gentle rise with separate bungalows just meters from the South China Sea. 18$ included three meals, my own bungalow with toilet, access to (actual) massages for 4$ an hour, and, of course, a bungalow on the surf. If you’re sailing there, the coordinates are 120*34’N-109*14’E. It was just icing on the cake that the 2 ladies in my neighboring bungalow, Nancy and D, were beautiful German bankers who just quit their jobs, as well.
After one night, the Germans left for Mui Ne beach to the south, and I found I had the entire run of the place. I was making friends with the kids in the fishing village, playing soccer with them, and eating green papaya while swimming in the crystal clean, warm water. It was beginning to suit me, this Doc Let Beach. I decided to rest here for a few days and nights, especially after the kids lifted me over their heads like Eddie Vedder and threw me into the ocean. I felt a little like old Hemingway myself, or maybe Paul Gauguin in Tahiti. Now, if I could only paint or write.
The next night I had dinner with a petit, older woman with a regal presence named Jeannie. Harold and Maude? No, not quite, but she was fascinating. She divides her time between Paris, her daughter in San Jose (a major outpost for ex-pat Vietnamese), and Paradise. We spoke English and French to communicate. She’s a wise woman, a born diplomat, and has carte blanche to stay at Paradise Resort whenever she wants to for diffusing a hard rocking argument between Jerry, aka Hemingway, and his feisty young bride a few years back. Jeannie was one for offering sage advice, for example, “never become attached to mortals, for being imperfect, they will always disappoint you. Therefore, this means, unfortunately, we disappoint ourselves, as well.” She preferred to have faith in a higher being. This kind of attitude, and I’m guessing here, came into specific relief after learning recently that her husband of fifty years, he died 6 months ago, had a mistress the last ten years of his life. Jeannie has met her, and she said it wasn’t pleasant. The worst part for her is imagining her “loyal” man giving some strange woman money from their bank account. “For what?”, she asked me.
During the day, however, conversation was lighter. We wandered along the beach, she collecting shells and me avoiding stepping in blue plastic bags of excrement thrown overboard by local fishermen. As we walked through the small fishing village of Doc Let, it was clear she was well revered. We were first invited to have tea with Mr. Q, a recent widow himself with an eye for Jeannie (see pic, he’s not staring at me), then a cheery boatmaker and his daughter, followed by the self proclaimed town “mayor”. I drank a lot of straight green tea those days.
By our second night Jeannie, just 80 years old, began to tell me the story of her life. At the age of twenty she was almost raped by a high ranking Vietnamese police officer. Fortunately, a French Legionnaire intervened and beat the officer. 1947 was a complicated time in Vietnam, the French were falling out of power, and the Legionnaire was brought up on charges for beating the officer. Jeannie’s only chance to save the heroic Legionnaire was to marry the judge, but the judge slept with her, dumped her, then turned around and sentenced the Frenchman to 15 years in prison. Jeannie entrusted me with the phone number of the Legionnaire’s son, Ngoc de Nguyen Van Van, who’s currently living in NYC, and has asked me to make contact on her behalf. She’s currently writing a book with a ghostwriter about the whole shebang. She also has a sausage manufacturing plant in the works.
Leaving Paradise was sad, but I knew I needed to get moving after 4 nights there if I was going to ever see the North. I can just imagine my mini-family waving goodbye, saying to themselves as the tiny motorbike driver took me away to my night bus to Hoi An, like Marlene Dietrich watching Orson Welles dead body float down the canal in “Touch of Evil”: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”