|Scenic Nha Trang, Vietnam's favorite beach town|
With picturesque beaches, offshore islands and turquoise waters, the southeastern town of Nha Trang is Vietnam’s most popular beach destination. Once a sleepy coastal town, the haven was a getaway for Bao Dai, Vietnam’s last emperor.
When the Americans came to town, for a while Nha Trang became a rest and relaxation (RNR) center for US soldiers during the war. Surprisingly, the beach town was also popular with the Viet Cong for the same reason.
“We didn’t have any big attacks. Charlie (a nickname for the Viet Cong) liked to go there for RNR too,” said Jay, a retired soldier I know. As a US Army Lieutenant, he was based in Nha Trang in 1969. During the time Jay was there, the town was quiet. “You could be at the beach, and the guy swimming there next to you could be Charlie. It was like an understanding. If you don’t give me any problem, I won’t give you any problem either.”
As strange as that sounds during wartime, there were a couple vacation places in South Vietnam that saw less fighting, since soldiers from both sides used them for RNR. While Rick was there, Nha Trang was one of them. “Americans didn’t bother the Viet Cong, Viet Cong didn’t bother the Americans,” Jay said.
There were periods of heavy fighting around Nha Trang, but for a while, it was an RNR destination for US soldiers. That brought with it the usual vices that soldiers pursue in war zones, namely bars and brothels. “We would go downtown to get drunk, and to get laid,” Jay said of those days. “We had curfew at nine pm. Some guys would just stay out all night, sleep with their girlfriends, and come back the next morning. There was no bedcheck for officers.”
|The Nha Trang skyline today, with the ocean at upper left|
As I walk through downtown Nha Trang, I see it’s still popular with tourists, with fewer bars. There are plenty of restaurants, art galleries and travel agencies. Most of the hotels are smaller family owned places, but there are also new mega-hotels. It’s a major change in development from Jay’s days here. “There were no buildings over four stories then,” he said of that time. Jay would hardly recognize Nha Trang now.
Heading back to my hotel, I came upon something that Jay would recognize. My eyes widen at the sight of a 1960’s era American military jeep. Parked in front of a bar, it had the logo of the USMC, the United States Marine Corps. The workmanship looked all the same, the instruments, the military antennae, everything. This jeep was known as a '151' and though common during wartime, very few are left in Vietnam.
I’ve been told that back in the 1990’s, an Australian had bought up hundreds of the old American jeeps still in possession of the Vietnamese Army. He then packed them all up, and shipped them off to Australia. I had seen only one genuine 1960’s era American jeep during my entire time in Vietnam, and it was used by the Ho Chi Minh City fire department. Although in good condition, it looked like no other jeep in the world. It was painted bright red, with whitewall tires.
But what about this one in mint condition? I couldn’t believe my eyes, this dark green jeep before me in downtown Nha Trang looked like new. How did this jeep survive so many decades, in such excellent condition? Examining the jeep closely, I walk around it for a better look. Then there on the back of the jeep, in small lettering, was the reason it looked so new: “Made in Vietnam”!
|A counterfeit US jeep near the beach, made in Vietnam!|
This was a counterfeit jeep. As it turns out, somebody had copied the design locally and began manufacturing them a few years back. This was not the only time I would see such a jeep in Vietnam, I would see more of these copies in other cities. This is part of the Vietnam’s strange nostalgia for the war years, which includes the popularity of American military items.
On my second day, it’s sunny out, so I take an afternoon to venture further around town on foot. I end up atop a hill near the edge of town, and I happen upon a small old military base. This post was first built first by the French, then inhabited by the Americans, then the Russians, and finally the Vietnamese. These days, it’s mostly empty. With the sun beating down on me, I stop at a small restaurant across the street for something to drink. Since there were few customers, the owner had plenty of time to chat with me. As it turned out, the restaurant had been open here for many years, under the ownership of the same family. The old owner had hosted many soldiers as customers over the decades, from many different foreign armies.
I wondered who he preferred serving here over the years, so I asked him, “Who did you like as guests at your restaurant?”
“Like Americans, he answered. “Americans good customer.”
I thought of the flip side of that question, and inquired, “who did you not like in your restaurant?”
He was quick with his answer: “No like Russians. No money.”
|Statue on a Nha Trang military base, once inhabited by French, American, Russian, and now Vietnamese troops|
Obviously he was speaking of the Russian sailors who stayed here in the 1980’s, who had little money to spare from their meager military wages. The USSR Navy had taken over Cam Ranh Bay after the American departure. But even the Soviet sailors have gone. When the cold war was ending, the Russian economy took a dive. So the Soviets vacated their base here, even before their lease agreement had expired.
Oddly enough, the Russians have invaded Nha Trang again, only this time it’s sun worshipers. With the improvement of the Russian economy in the last decade, the number of tourists in Nha Trang from Russia is on the rise. Their presence has become so profitable, that many local businesses have posted Russian language signs to attract them. As more Russians have money for vacations these days, Nha Trang has become one of their preferred holiday beach destinations. It sure beats Siberia.