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Day 75 – The Art of Vietnam’s Roads (Heading to Po Nagar Cham Towers)

May 17, 2010

Dateline: Nha Trang, Vietnam – Monday, May 17, 2010

Today I stumbled on a little bit of Top Gear. A couple years back, the British automotives TV show did an episode where its three hosts trekked through Vietnam on motorscooters. They started in Saigon, cruised up the coast, and finished off by transforming their scooters into boats for a race through Halong Bay. Think the A-Team, but with less skill and more Monty Python.

The show is consistently one of my TV favorites. Imagine a couple chaps at the pub getting into a meaningless argument about “which would be faster in a drag race in Dubai: a McLaren F1 or a Bugatti Veyron” except instead of going home to incredible hangovers they instead go to the airport to ship two cars to the desert capital and to actually find out. They’re drunkards with an out-of-this-world budget. One of the things I’m looking forward to most when I get stateside is running through new episodes of the series. I’m all for a little lunacy.

I channeled the Top Gear lads today and decided to forgo a guide and drive myself 6 km out of Nha Trang to the Po Nagar Cham Towers. How hard could it be?

First up, though, I decided to visit the Long Thanh gallery to view a collection of black and white photos by a local photographer. He’s an award winning artist known for still using film and developing all his portraits by hand. He basically has my dream job, except without the writing.

Needless to say, I didn’t find the place straight away. I got lost and, in frustration, stumbled into a random place for lunch. No one really spoke English so I ended up ordering off a series of pictures with English words on them; think giant “Learn Names of Vietnamese Food” flashcards. I ended up with pork slices and fried spring rolls over rice noodles. Perfect. I think one of the slices was pure pork fat, which was like biting in to a little one inch square of heaven and cardiac arrest. I loved it.

As I sat contemplating my life, I realized that a darkened shop across the street matched the address of the gallery. I paid the bill and walked across the way. It was locked up, but I followed the suggestion of a sign that suggested they were open and that I should ring the bell. A lady descended interior stairs, wordlessly let me in, and flipped on the lights.

That’s when I discovered one of Nha Trang’s underrated treats. The gallery was filled with wall after wall of fantastic art. Every single photo captured a bit of the soul of Vietnam. Besides the two beautiful pictures mentioned in Lonely Planet (two girls in the rain lit by an otherworldly sunbeam and a boy running across the backs of water buffalo) there were scores of others. I knew right away I’d found my Vietnam souvenir.

I don’t do trinkets, but I do large pieces of art. I like to find pieces that move me—the kind that make my heart flutter as they remind me of one of my favorite countries. To date, these have all been paintings. Vietnam is already on the “greatest hits” list and deserves a spot on my wall. Long Thanh got a few of those spots.

With his help, I selected three portraits from the scores that I had my eye on. He pulled them straight off the wall, thumb printed the backs, and handrolled them into a tube for shipment.

Did I mention he develops all his pictures by hand? There are no mass produced prints. There’s no cheap, plasticky paper. Every single one of his works is developed straight from the negative in his little darkroom in the back. You can actually feel the difference. It’s the difference between eating a scoop of lasagna churned out by a cafeteria and a slice that’s been baked by an Italian grandmother in her home kitchen—you can sense the love in one and the assembly line in the other.

Afterwards, Long Thanh pointed me in the direction of the Po Nagar Cham Towers (“Three intersections, left turn, 6 km”) and I headed off. I counted off the lights, made my left, and checked the odometer. How hard could it be?

Problem. After 5 minutes of driving, the odometer hadn’t moved. Neither the speedometer needle. Guess the whole front panel didn’t work.

I immediately overshot the Po Nagar Cham Towers and ended up on a twisty mountain road straight out of the Top Gear Vietnam episode. The boys had traveled out of Nha Trang and this was the fastest way out of town to the highway that skirted the ocean to Hoi An. I became Clarkson, May, and Hammond right down to the dodgy motorbike and useless helmet. The road was windy and perilous. I almost shook off the front end because, despite pavement, the road had ridges.

I didn’t care. I almost drove straight to Hoi An myself until I realized that (a) I didn’t have my luggage and (b) I would certainly die alone on a coastal mountain road.

I headed back to town, retracing my steps and going the wrong way on the twisted “one-way” hill road. I even managed to find the Po Nagar Cham Towers and return the motorbike in time to take the night bus out of Nha Trang to Hoi An.

For the price of my $10 ticket, I got to experience the Top Gear route in the dark from the bed of a double decker high bus. If it’d been light out, it might have been as thrilling as the impromptu bike trip I’d almost taken earlier that day.

The bus bobbed up and down the same ridged road. I could see the lights of fishing boats bobbing in the ocean. The driver careened around corners, slow-moving trucks, and stone-faced families on motorbikes. I snapped a couple pictures of the daredevil pilot at work until I realized every time I snapped he’d take his eyes off the road and look back at me because he’d see the flash of the metering light. The pics were cool, but not as cool as living. I put the camera away.

Sitting on the dash was a boxed statue of Buddha or some other god. The figurine faced forward, no doubt there to ensure safe travels. Probably didn’t hurt that the idol’s box was ringed in Christmas lights that flashed between green, red, and yellow. A sort of divine warning light to oncoming drivers: “This bus believes it is immune to death and drives accordingly; plan the next 3 seconds of your life with care.”

It seemed to work. I wasn’t even scared thanks to my patented ability to turn off my brain. For me, that’s really not as hard as it should be.

GALLERY: Click through to see pictures of Mervyn with photographer Long Thanh, the photos that Mervyn purchased, people sleeping on a bus, and more pictures of bridges, roads, temples, and insane Vietnamese bus drivers and their gods.

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