Qui Nhon

After our amazing meal at the truck stop, there wasn't too much of the evening left. We drove a bit more. Hung had already set our expectations that the hotels in the area weren't great, and we weren't disappointed when we pulled into Qui Nhon  (pronounced "Gwiñon", if that helps) . We parked in front of a huge cement monstrosity, which turned out to be a military hotel, right on the South China Sea. We parked next to a Soviet jeep, which had to have been the most solid vehicle I've ever seen. If it crashed, nothing would rumple, except, of course, the replaceable personnel who would be thrown on their heads.

This hotel was a Communist Block – 3-star, but only if you're a general. It hadn't been architected so much as poured, and there was extra cement fronting for privacy from the road, since the rooms were boxes with plenty of windows and glass doors. The cement was grimy, and where there was still white paint to cover it, the white paint was grimy. The lobby was full of dark wood, and there was an enormous, empty restaurant with all the tables set, ready for a banquet should there ever be one in the next three years' time. They only had two rooms available that night, one of which was a suite. It was a bit on the expensive side, but we figured that it was only one night.

We were shown to our rooms in the back, which were off some cement-corkscrew stairways with dim florescent light. My room was the suite (how nice), and even though I probably had the best room in the house, I have to say that it was horrible. It wasn't that dirty, but it was designed to look that way. There was an outer room with bulky ,extremely uncomfortable, dark wood furniture. The inner room was the bedroom, with rock-hard beds and the same ham-handed sense of style.

Throughout the suite, there were florescent lights, mustard-colored polyester curtains, the most hideous floor tiles they could find, and dark wood squares around the asbestos ceiling tiles. There was dark wood wainscot along the walls, again, for the sake of elegance. All of the wiring ran outside the wall, and the switches and plugs were on cheeseboard blocks, like the electricity projects that kids do in school. The bathroom window was a hole in the wall, and there was a plastic cup on the sink that said "There's nothing sweeter than a friend". No doubt this was left by one of the prostitutes who regularly frequent this hotel.

To add to this was the fact that we were right next to the water. Probably the designers had thought that this was luxury itself, but the South China Sea was kind of angry at the encroachment. The waves were really loud, and with the total lack of privacy, gave me a sense of profound unease, since you couldn't hear anyone coming. I realized that it was one of those nights that I would spend with the lights on, in my clothes, on top of the covers. Luckily there were no visits during the night. I read my guide books until I was tired enough to go to sleep. The books said that Qui Nhon was being touted as a beachfront alternative to Nha Trang, and failed miserably. I don't always agree with the guide books, but saw no reason not to trust them on this one. The next morning came, and I was up extra-early, raring to go.

One thing had been bothering me all night. The hotel where we stayed was a communist military hotel. The architecture, though, was from the seventies. During the seventies, Qui Nhon had been in the south, and in the years after 1975, the last thing on people's minds was to build seaside hotels. How could this be? We asked at the desk how old the hotel was, and we found out that it had been built in 1997! Apparently, the Army architects had settled on one design that they liked, and kept building it over and over again. They must have "antiqued" the hotel to make it look old and venerable. Once I knew what to look for, I saw several more examples of this style in the area.

Driving out of Qui Nhon, it actually didn't seem that bad. In fact, it looked kind of nice. Qui Nhon, I found out later, was the home of classical Vietnamese opera. The people looked all right, and it probably would have been a nice place to stay if we were staying with friends. The hotel industry, on the other hand, is still in an early stage.

We stopped in a restaurant for breakfast, which was right on the water. It was an open pavilion, which was nice, because the day was sunny. The restaurant was across from a shrimp farm, and it was a nice place to sit around and watch the world. We ordered pretty much the same meal as the night before, which we ate at that amazing truck stop. We had fish and rice soup, squids, crabs, and of course, ca phe sua da. Because it was a whole fish, we actually had two huge bowls of the soup, which wasn't such a bad thing. Again, it struck me how imaginative Vietnamese cooking can be. Served differently, it could have been a grilled fish with rice.

As we left the restaurant, I missed the picture of my life. I suppose this happens to every photographer, and not that I'm any kind of photographer, but it definitely happened to me. As we turned the corner out of the restaurant, there was a man in the filling station with his ox cart. You can imagine the captions that would go under a photo like that, but there were two problems. The first was that I wasn't quick enough, and the second was that our driver wasn't slow enough. I asked him to stop, but you can't do that sort of thing on the road in Vietnam. Too many cars would pile up. This happened a number of times, and put me in a really foul mood until I figured out some possible solutions to the problem.