Sunday, February 17, 2013

Never travel during the Chinese New Year: My Nha Trang Story from Vietnam

Before traveling to Vietnam, do ensure that your travel dates are not near ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year and definitely not in the 10 days after Tet. If it is, be ready to pay higher prices for everything (travel, food and accommodation) and sometimes be shooed out of a city just because there are no rooms to sleep in that city. If you are sensible, then you will plan your dates after the holiday season is over else, if you crazy like me, you will be treated to a great adventure. This is my adventure during the Tet holidays when I was made to travel from Mui Ne to Nha Trang to Danang to Hoi An, all in a single day, just because I chose to travel during Tet. Now, you might wonder that the entire world travels during the Christmas/New Year holiday season and we still find places to stay, albeit by paying a higher fee. The Tet, is similar, though it happens on a different scale. It comes in that time of the year when the tourists are still in Vietnam so the rooms are ready fairly booked and then the entire country (rich, middle class and poor) go into holiday mode. People visit their families, go out on day trips, drink all day, go to exotic places, get their photos taken and all the typical holiday stuff. The only difference is that the rest of the world has many holidays and hence the citizens of those countries split their holidays. In Vietnam, there is only one holiday, Tet, and the rest of the year, the Vietnamese work hard.

A Backpacking Break at Nha Trang's Beach, Vietnam
Hence, when Tet comes, the country literally shuts down for 11 days. Even the capital shuts down for 4-5 days. The places that don’t shut down are places catering to the holidaying crowd and they charge a premium for it. If you ask why, they will say ‘Happy New Year’ and expect you to understand it. Food prices go up by about 20%. It is even written on the menu cards in restaurants. Cost of travel goes up 3 to 4 fold. A $6 bus ticket from Mui Ne to Nha Trang cost me $18. The biggest jump takes place in the hotel prices. A $5 hotel can go up to as much as $70 depending on the city and the hotel location.

Nha Trang Marine Drive as seen from Nha Trang Center
The worst place to be traveling to is Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular beach destination and Mui Ne, the adventure beach destination that is close to Ho Chi Minh city. Even before I left Ho Chi Minh city on the 2nd day of the New Year, I knew it would be difficult to travel, but wasn’t aware of the enormity of the crowd. It took me 5 hours to find a place that fit my budget in Mui Ne and after paying 3 times the regular price for a bus ride to Nha Trang, I found out that I got lucky at Mui Ne and Nha Trang is the true thing. I searched for a hotel from 5:30 AM to 10 AM, only to find out that all the hotels were booked in the city. I knew it would be bad as last evening when I had checked the internet, 90% of the places were sold out and the ones that were available were too expensive. Even the hotels that I had called were booked. But, I was not ready for a ‘Sorry we are full’ and ‘It is Happy New Year, we are full…full…full’ kind of statements.

My best purchase_a six dollar hammock_perfect backpacking companion
I was forced to look outside Nha Trang and this led me to book myself on a train to Danang, a coastal city in Central Vietnam. Thankfully, I got some hard sleeper seats. The train was scheduled to leave Nha Trang at half past one in the afternoon and hence I had enough time to kill in Nha Trang, which is a decent looking coastal town. I headed straight to the beach, dropped my bags there, went for a swim with the mighty waves and then paid $1 for a fresh water garden hose bath right on the beach. After freshening up, I fixed up my hammock under the coconut trees to relax for a while while the holidaying crowd whizzed past me. After a short nap, I walked to the nearby Nha Trang center for a wholesome lunch meal while I watched the Nha Trang marine drive from high up.

My train left the Nha Trang station in the afternoon and after 10 and a half hours of breezing through lush green countryside, beautiful coasts and mist covered mountains, I reached the town of Danang. Thankfully, I had caught up on some sleep in the train and thus had enough energy to haggle with the taxi drivers for a ride to Hoi An, about 35 kms from Danang. When I arrived at Hoi An, it was mid night and again I was treated to the same statements of ‘We are full and it is Happy New Year’. Thankfully, a local helped me in finding a good place, though I paid $35 for it. I am sure he got some commission for himself from the hotel staff, but nonetheless, he helped me. As you can see, if you wish to travel during Tet, it will be crazy, very expensive and a real pain. If this doesn’t matter to you, then rock on, else stay put in one place during Tet. Better still, stay out of Vietnam till everything returns to normalcy.

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