Monstrous mountains covered in green surrounded the bus as the dark sky loomed above us. We drove further into the storm.
When the bus arrived in Nha Trang after the 4 hour drive from Dalat, the rain had only picked up. I fled to a cafe to wait it out and grab wifi to get in touch with Việt. He was taking a flight in from Saigon, but due to the weather, it had been delayed. I spent several hours sipping on my first taste of true Vietnamese coffee while getting some writing done.
When the rain had stopped, I ventured outside to explore the town, on a mission to find at the very least, a flower arrangement for Việt’s dad and stepmom since they were graciously inviting me to spend the holiday with them. What I expected to only take around 10 minutes, took over an hour and a half as the flowers sold in the streets of Dalat were nowhere to be found here. Instead, I picked up a small cactus plant and headed back to the cafe to pickup my bag. Việt had landed and was on the way.
Pulling up in a black cab, Việt got out to help me load my bags. Once inside, he introduced me to his father, Hiển. Hiển spoke limited English and I spoke limited Vietnamese, so as became usual, Việt played translator. Exchanging conversation about my travels and Hiển and his family living in Nha Trang, we shortly arrived at the resort in what felt quicker than the hour and half drive.
That’s not a typo, yes, we arrived at a resort and we weren’t just staying there, Việt’s dad owned it! Việt had casually mentioned that we were staying at a resort but I hadn’t thought too much of it. I later learned that it was rated 4.5 of 5 stars and for good reason. But I also learned that owning a resort wasn’t easy work nor as profitable as you’d expect by the lavish lifestyle we temporarily lived while there. Hiển worked arduously full time and usually lived at their home in the city of Nha Trang but for the holiday, his family lived at the resort outside the town to ensure that all the festivities during the busiest season of the year worked out flawlessly.
As night had fallen, I couldn’t see much of the property when we arrived but Việt promised to show me around the next morning. We entered the dining hall and were joined by Trúc, his stepmother. She could speak far more English than I could Vietnamese, so I talked with her about my initial impressions of the country. As you might imagine, I had very positive words to share after having such great experiences in only the past week since arriving.
We continued talking as dinner was served, Mì Gói Hải Sản, or seafood noodles. I was shocked by the dinner presentation and just being waited on in general. This meal was the first of many as I was quickly spoiled, having access to food anytime Việt and I grew hungry. I came to try countless other Vietnamese dishes, especially seafood ones, prepared fresh by the in-house staff such as Sò Mỡ, Sò Dương, Bánh Xèo, Tôm Hùm, Sò Bung, and a resort specialty, Ốc Hương.
Both exhausted from our days of independent transit, Việt and I excused ourselves to retire in a villa. We fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves. The ocean was nearby and I couldn’t wait to get a full glimpse of the tropical paradise the next morning.
We woke up to loud banging on the door, and opened it to meet Ân and Phúc, Việt’s younger stepbrothers aged 8 and 6. Both of them were ecstatic to meet me and even more so when they found out I could only speak English. Việt whispered simple questions and phrases into Ân’s ear which he repeated as naturally as Việt, whose spoken English was nearly indiscernible from an American’s. It wasn’t long before Ân was asking me how I was and what my name was. When I returned the question, asking him his name, from nowhere he exclaimed “Johnny!” This began a long running joke between Việt, “Johnny,” and myself.
After breakfast in the dining room, Việt, hand in hand with his brothers, led me on the grand tour of the property. Beyond the entrance building, which held the administrative offices, security department, IT room, a bar, and shops in addition to the dining hall, many secluded villas bordered the beach. One of the villas was ours but it wasn’t until that morning that I realized I could literally see the crashing waves of the green hued ocean from our patio. It was no wonder that I remembered drifting asleep to the sound of water so vividly the night before.
To the left of the villas were the pools, spa, and condos. This area provided less expensive accommodation to tourists not wanting to splurge on the extravagant villas we had lucked out on staying in. Although we could stay in them, this meant constantly switching which room we’d sleep in most nights to avoid conflictions with previously assigned bookings of paid guests. We were staying in vacant rooms and on our last few nights, since it was the busiest time of the year, this meant “downgrading” from one of the villas to one of the condos. Việt apologized but I couldn’t help but laugh. I would have been content to have slept on the grass outside. Staying at this resort was unbelievable, especially after roughing it so many times throughout my gap year.
On the opposite side of the villas was a secluded beach which many tourist companies frequented, bringing along buses full of families and couples visiting for day trips. All around the property, signs were in English and Russian as well as Vietnamese. Việt explained how in recent years the resort had experienced an influx of Russian tourists but now they were beginning to be overshadowed by the Chinese. The resort was in the process of adding Chinese translations to the signs.
Behind the public beach were large dining rooms to cater to the many tourists who arrived each day. In between the beach and these dining halls stood many tiki-styled gazebos. Việt showed me the largest gazebo which he explained that he was helping his dad convert into a bar.
Having toured the entire complex, we sat down with Việt’s brothers who encouraged us to help them build with legos, something I hadn’t done in years. I remembered a time when I was their age playing legos with a friend of my sister’s. I couldn’t help but smile, reminiscing about how cool I had thought it was that someone so much older was taking the time to build legos with me. It was a full circle.
Both design oriented thinkers, Việt and I collaborated on building the best spaceship for Ân but he was a tough boss, rejecting most of our additions and instead opting for a spaceship solely focused on attacking enemies. We ended up letting him do his own thing as he continued to mumble about how we were doing it wrong. On the other hand, Phúc built a much more peaceful spacecraft, focusing on speed rather than weaponry.
As Việt continued building with his brothers, I paused to reflect for a moment. I was absolutely dumbfounded. A few weeks prior I was working for room and board in Thailand, having fun, though closely watching my budget, and now I was experiencing such a sudden shift, living a life of extravagance with everything provided for me in Vietnam. It was surreal to process and I had to continue pinching myself to realize I wasn’t dreaming.
As soon as Việt had invited me to Nha Trang, a seed had been planted. Why make what could be the beginning of something larger anything less? With both of us having such a great time being in each other’s company and possessing the time, boldness, and money to continue traveling together, I teased Việt with the idea of joining me up north to Hanoi, especially since he didn’t have to begin work at his new job until long after the holiday.
In agreement, that evening we began modifying my itinerary to make it ours. With his birthday fast approaching, he had already planned on heading way up north to Sapa to go hiking as a gift to himself. I had wanted to check out the area as well so we added it to the itinerary and planned on hiking together a few weeks prior to his birthday to celebrate. Overexcited thinking about our future plans, we had overlooked two hurdles:
- I still had my work exchange helping to design and market children’s playground equipment in Hanoi in a few weeks.
- Việt potentially needed to stay at the resort longer to help his dad with more development on the bar.
With the opportunity that had presented itself to me I chose to cancel my work exchange. I sent an email to the host explaining the sudden circumstance that had arisen and she later responded understanding my reasoning. Meanwhile, Việt had spoken with his dad and not only was he “okay’d” to leave the same time as me, but his dad wanted the whole family to fly to Hanoi to visit Việt’s grandparents on his dad’s side. I had been extended an invitation to join and within a few hours their family had managed to book last minute plane tickets despite the Tết rush. We would spend the actual New Years at the resort, then fly to Hanoi to celebrate the following days of the new year with more relatives.
With most of the days at the resort leading up to the new year, Việt and I would practice simple English phrases with Ân, try new foods, munch on fresh cakes, lounge by the beach, swim in the ocean, continue trip planning, observe organized holiday performances, bicycle around the property, and even on one morning, para-sail for my first time over the unbelievable landscape. The glistening green water shined below us, bordered by untouched white sand and mountains towering in the background. I again had to pinch myself. During calmer moments, I’d find myself beyond relaxed, writing at the bar, sipping on coconut water while Việt was busy helping his dad work on the new bar.
When the long awaited New Year’s day had finally arrived, singers and dancers entertained tourists in a series of traditional performances around the resort’s premises. But for the grand finale, occurring prior to the strike of midnight, Hiển disappeared from the lobby which tourists had crowded in to observe the festivities of.
Việt explained how it was tradition that each year depending on the Chinese Zodiac, whichever animal chosen would be the first one welcomed into the home, or in this case, the resort, to bring good fortune for the year. It was an ancient tradition that had been adopted into Vietnam’s culture ever since the country had been dominated by China for 1,000 years. This year, it was the year of the monkey which happened to pair with Hiển’s animal, the dragon (as determined by his birth year), hence his disappearance.
Loud banging echoed throughout the resort’s grounds as two men under a dragon costume danced back and forth seeking out lucky money which Trúc had hidden in the lobby’s ceiling. Hiển re-entered the resort as the clock struck midnight and the year was new.
The night concluded with us joining the main resort staff sitting around a large table in the dining hall, snacking, drinking, cheers’ing, and welcoming in the new year with wide smiles and more than enough toasts, especially to me, the foreigner.
The day after New Year’s, we woke up early to board a minivan along with Hiển, Trúc, Việt’s siblings, and their nanny for a trip into town to visit three different pagodas. I had witnessed Buddhist practices in India, Thailand, and Myanmar, but this was the first time I got a more insightful understanding behind the practices as Việt and Trúc were happy to answer any questions I had. We arrived back at the resort late and retired.
One of our last evenings at the resort, we borrowed a motorbike to explore the surrounding landscape. What we discovered was breathtaking: vast mountain ranges spread across the horizon as water separated the miles in between. I found myself at a loss for words, overcome with gratitude towards Việt and his family for welcoming me to join their festivities in a location that couldn’t have been any more fitting to celebrate a new holiday of a once seemingly distant culture.
After our joyride, we packed our bags and left the resort and our days of simplicity and extravagance behind. On our final night in Nha Trang, we would be spending the night at Việt’s family’s home actually in the city instead of the resort. Since we’d need to get up early for the flight to Hanoi, the house geographically made more sense as the airport was nearer the city than the resort. Although we had to get up early, Việt had arranged for us to meet up with friends that he had met during his first year of law school in Saigon. It just so happened that a few of them were in Nha Trang for the holiday too.
We first met for dinner, sitting down at the all too common tiny, almost pre-school sized tables and chairs nearly every restaurant had in the country. My tastebuds were pleasantly surprised to try Bánh Căn, a specialty dish of the town.
Satisfied from dinner, we moved to the beach where we drank beer and grabbed fresh seafood grilled by merchants set up on the street to snack on. Watching waves crash, we drank and ate more.
Việt’s friends were initially shy speaking English, but slowly warmed up. This would be far from the last time I’d be seeing them as they all worked in Saigon. Việt mentioned we’d hang out with them again when we returned to town later in the month. At this point our itinerary was near complete. We would travel up north to Hanoi, go farther north to hike, then visit a few other cities on the way back to Saigon. There I’d live with Việt for about 3 weeks to get a better feel of the city with someone my age.
Sleep deprived, Việt and I woke up early to drive to the airport with his family. Our flight was easy and within hours, we were greeted by Việt’s grandparents and uncle who had driven a van to pick us all up. Geared up for the ride, I gazed out the windows, excited to see the landscape which Việt had teased me with by previously showing me photos. What I really should have been doing instead was prepping my stomach for the massive amounts of deliciously homemade Vietnamese meals I was unknowingly about to try.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.