Vietnam then. Home of Pho, too many zeroes on currency denominations and British people seeking a little cultural adventure.
As random nights out go, playing guitar on stage in a Vietnamese bar with the runner up in Vietnam’s inaugural Pop Idol competition – Ngọc Ánh – accompanying me on percussion takes some beating.
The back-story to this: as part of our desire to enjoy Vietnam both culturally and gastronomically, we’d booked the experience of seeing an authentic Vietnamese meal being prepared before eating the meal with the chef’s family. A task that could have been performed in an entirely perfunctory manner by our host, Tiffany, without complaint from us instead turned into one of my all-time holiday highlights.
Tiffany (her adopted English name), a local entrepreneur, may well become a millionaire in a few years (in Western terms, since 1 million dong is equivalent to around £33 at the time of writing). She without doubt possesses the creative, passionate and risk-adverse mindset to succeed. At a young age she’d already owned and sold a coffee bar, now instead focussing on importing and selling Japanese crockery & tableware as well as hosting the occasional curious foreign traveller.
After we’d finished devouring the meal, Tiffany and her Pop Idol husband invited us to join them at their old coffee bar to watch an open-microphone evening of local singers; all with impressive voices, but all eclipsed by the power and passion of Ngọc Ánh’s vocals.
I’d always claim to be distinctly average guitar player – definitely more rhythm than lead – but it’s the love of playing that spurs me on, not the need to improve my technical capabilities. So following Ngọc Ánh’s rousing 4-song set, he invited me to come up to the stage to play. I did so unprepared and without the comfort of hiding behind a boisterous lead singer. My four songs – two from the Chinese Moganshangrila set (“Until Sex” and “CNY U”) sandwiched between two of my own untitled numbers, hastily chosen as the four that were sufficiently varied to carry a tune without backing. Ngọc Ánh’s friend improvised on the Cajon box drum throughout, with the superstar himself joining on percussion on the first song.
We ended the night with our hosts in the Apocalypse Now nightclub, ensuring our musical evening went from acoustic to electronic. One hell of an evening, as they say. Following previous holidays with Rachel, our expectations were high in terms of finding something different; something random and completely unforgettable to do. The bar is set even higher now for future holidays.
With one of Ben’s cousins resident in HCMC, we had an expert guide to take us around a few tourist attractions and to a few excellent restaurants (cheers Paul). The food has been phenomenal.
After three nights in Ho Chi Minh (and an interesting massage), we took a 3.5 journey north to the coastal town of Phan Thiet near the popular tourist destination of Mui Ne.
Having experienced a noisy, sleepless night onboard an overnight train in Malaysia last year, I had a few concerns over taking a similarly “local” train in Vietnam. Fortunately, for the equivalent of about £5, we had a fairly comfortable, uneventful meandering journey though Vietnamese countryside and coastline.
At relatively posh coastal resorts, like ours in Phan Thiet, the temptation is to accept what’s presented without question. However if you never ask “Could you please cook us a bespoke meal for Rachel’s birthday?” along with “Do you mind if we take over the music in your restaurant?” and “Would you mind keeping the restaurant open beyond your normal 10pm closing time” then you’ll never experience an incredibly tasty meal whilst listening to your hastily cobbled-together playlist blasting out though the resort’s unsuspecting sound system until the early hours.
Admittedly the resort was quiet enough to accommodate our celebratory requests. And I’m pretty sure I managed to reset their sound system at the end of the evening.
We thought our resort in Phan Thiet was pretty luxurious; that is until we took our next train journey to our final destination, a beautiful resort just north of Nha Trang.
We’d been deliberately ramping up the “poshness” of each place we stayed in, but our five nights in Nha Trang were probably the most pampered I’ve ever felt on holiday.
When we checked in, the manager asked us what room we’d booked for the four of us. When we told her, with a look of mock disgust she simply stated “Well I won’t see you then!”
She was pretty much correct. Our own two-bedroom villa had a private pool bigger than some hotel swimming pools. It featured room service so accommodating we could repeatedly order buckets of ice to be sent to us.
And it was easily big enough to accommodate the one night with five of us present, as we swapped out Ben for Andrea. So to speak.
After a couple of days of bobbing about and working our way through the extended (by us) room service menu, we ventured into Nha Trang itself to discover a city dominated by Russian language. We’d been told this was a major tourist destination for Russians but hadn’t been quite prepared for this.
When walking into bars or restaurants we were first greeted in Russian before our bemused look gave us away. Even the German beer bar with dirndl-clad ladies and “holding a beer keg at arm’s length until your arm breaks” competitions had Russian as their first language.
I imagine this is what it’s like for British people venturing into certain Spanish beach resorts where British attitudes and palates and are very much at the forefront. I have no idea why you’d want that on your holiday (which is, ostensibly, a holiday to escape from your home country).
We had a final night in HCMC at a grandiose but somewhat grumpily-staffed hotel before flying back to Shanghai.
Rachel calls these trips “fabulous adventures”. We’re not back-packers any more, but we retain that curiosity; that need to explore; that desire to experience local culture wherever we visit. But by God do we demand a little luxury when doing so.
Rachel, Andrea and Ben – here’s to many more of these!