The street vendors were out in force as our tour bus stopped to let us off at Po Nagar Cham Towers. I’d barely stepped onto the sidewalk when women carrying buckets of fans began waving them in my face, as if a small breeze would encourage me to buy one. Men hawking their various wares kept shouting, “One dollar, one dollar,” surrounding us as we walked to the entrance.
We clearly weren’t in Japan any more – or Taiwan, for that matter – and it seemed that Nha Trang and I weren’t getting off to a very good start. If I were going to come away with at least a kernel of understanding about this place, I needed to ignore the aggressive sellers and focus on my surroundings.
Nha Trang is a coastal resort destination in southern Vietnam. Stretches of sandy beaches and palm tree-filled green spaces hug the shoreline on one side of the main coastal road. On the other side, hotels and high-rise buildings line block after block, looking touristy and prosperous. But on the way to Po Nagar Cham Towers, our guide explained that the pandemic had been brutal to this city that relies on visitors for its economic survival. Nha Trang, he said, is climbing back, but it has been a slow climb.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
Po Nagar Cham Towers was constructed between the 7th and 13th centuries, when Vietnam’s Cham ethnic group flourished and Hinduism was practiced. The complex is dedicated to the goddess Yan Po Nagar, “mother of the country.” It is believed there originally were eight or nine towers, but today only four remain.
We entered under a triangular-shaped red brick arch and up a stone staircase to the tower complex. Each tower has its own entrance and is dedicated to specific goddess. I removed my shoes and went inside the Southeast Tower, complete with a bright green mat emblazoned in English with “welcome,” and found a small altar. But with little information on what was there – the tour turned out to be less guided and more of a “drop off and meet at a certain time” experience – Herb and I decided to wander the grounds and take in the ancient architecture.
Long Son Pagoda
Our next stop was a Buddhist temple called Long Son Pagoda, known for its statues of a Reclining Buddha and a 78-foot-tall white Buddha that sits at the top of a 193-step staircase. Again, we were dropped off and again we wandered. And again, I didn’t get any context or much of a feel for what we were seeing.
If I thought the street vendors at Po Nagar Cham Towers were aggressive, I hadn’t yet been to Dam Market. These shopkeepers were relentless. But what made it even more uncomfortable were the narrow maze-like aisles that wound through the endless sea of indoor stalls.
Dam Market seemed to be a huge destination for locals, with clothing and household items as well as food and typical market products. But as soon as we stepped inside, the vendors began blocking our path with arms full of knockoff designer scarves and handbags. We found an exit as soon as we could.
The Craft Village
The final stop was not listed on our itinerary, but it was orchestrated with as much rote-ness as the rest of the tour. Our guide called it a “craft village” and ushered us into a small theater where young people who looked like students were playing musical instruments. We sat and listened and then were led to the next room, where women were weaving Vietnamese conical hats and working on various crafts. And of course, toward the exit there were tables of items to purchase.
It was a pretty place, to be sure – a little oasis, really – complete with a garden and whimsical statuary. But the thing was, I had no idea why we were there or how any of the places we’d visited that day were connected. The only common denominator between the street vendors and the Dam Market sellers and the craft village was that they had items to sell. I love bringing home special souvenirs from our travels and supporting local businesses. But not like this. You can’t put a price tag on authenticity.
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I wish I could say that I had a great day in Nha Trang and that I wanted to return. I would love to have shared a serendipitous story or a profound insight about our first stop in Vietnam.
But maybe it’s okay that our time here was, well, just okay. Maybe the disappointing days of travel serve as a reminder to treasure those places that fill us with wonder and dazzle us with delight. There will always be a just okay day or two mixed in with the magic, like an afterthought to the entire trip. But it’s the extraordinary moments – those joyful, captivating experiences – that we carry with us long after the journey has ended.
Like a secret elixir, they are the reason that we pack up our suitcases and head out again, ready for the next adventure.