What do Ke$ha and a resort in Nha Trang, Vietnam have in common? Their apparent love of utilizing the dollar sign as a legitimate letter of the alphabet. I got a kick out this hotel’s signage on the right side of the building.
However, instead of waking up in the morning feeling like P-Diddy, the Vietnamese of Nha Trang make like Jane Fonda in the early hours, heading beachside for exercise in the sunrise. Nha Trang is Vietnam’s most famous beach, and gained more international popularity after hosting Miss Universe 2008. This sultry getaway became my first stop on my backpacking travels up the coast of Vietnam from HCMC.
My overnight train pulled in around 5:30am, and I quickly found a taxi to my hotel. As we drove past the beachfront, I was surprised to see how many people were running, stretching, and performing what looked like Tai Chi, not only individually but in surprisingly well-coordinated groups.
Several groups of locals as well as Asian tourists had already hit the beach, playing in the waves of the South China Sea. As my friend explained to me, Asians think it’s crazy that westerners tan their bodies in mid-day sun since pale skin is prized in Asia. Therefore, many Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists will jump in early morning or late afternoon, often fully clothed to protect their skin.
Local commuters were already flooding the large street lining the beachfront on motorbikes and bicycles. I checked into my hotel, a stone’s throw away from the shore, and rushed outside to take pictures of the sunrise. On my way to the shore, I almost literally ran into a large group of backpackers fresh from the night bus from Hoi An, looking for the best new place to crash.
Tourism is obviously Nha Trang’s #1 industry, and street hawkers of all kinds gather to reap the benefits of naive tourists, flush with money on their person than some of these people will see in a month. These hawkers can get annoying sometimes when you think, “This is the 6th person on this street who’s tried to sell me a photocopy version of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.” However, these business-savvy peddlers can learn English just by interacting with tourists. One of these individuals happens turned into one of my favorite people in Vietnam: the #1 Lady of Nha Trang beach.
Who is she? A fruit hawker; she sells mangos, dragon fruit, chom-choms, and other tropical fruit to vacationers lounging beachside. This comical businesswoman acquired her title while I was lounging under a beach umbrella with a group of backpacker friends.
The woman walked up to us carrying her produce the traditional Vietnamese way—on a pole supported by her shoulder suspending two baskets full of goods. Ready for a long day under the sun on the beach, she wore a long-sleeved purple zip, orange patterned pants, a conical hat cushioned by a floppy army cap and tied under her chin with a handkerchief. Her eyes were lined with a heavy rim of black.
After we declined her offers for fruit, she wailed, “No money, no honey. Why no buy my fruit?” My good-humored British-Indian friend, sat on a beach chair with her husband and started to joke with our hawker. Pretty soon, this fruit seller was hamming it up. She first pretended to cut my friend’s hubby with her fruit knife, calling him a ladyboy, and offering him a pair of little girls’ flip-flops to wear. Switching gears, she started to compare skin types and said, “See? Same-same! You Vietnamese!” Later, it became compliments, “You work out, and be #1 Indian man!” She tells us her name is Me (pronounced “my”) Coincidentally, I was also given the same Vietnamese name by a charming hair stylist named “Steven.” Me and I bounded over our commonality.
After about 10 minutes, she sits down at the base of my chair. A marathon storyteller, Me continues weaving yarns in broken English, animatedly gesticulating to fill in the language gaps about theft on the beach, the dangers of drinking while swimming, and fat foreign women. We find that although she cannot read or write in English, she learned to speak from 18 years of selling fruit on the beach.
Her stories attract other hawkers to our umbrella bunch, a woman selling sunglasses, and another just comes to listen. She pauses to fill in her Vietnamese spectators, but remains focused on retaining us as her original audience—the white tourists.
After a last attempt to sell us fruit, she departs with her load of produce, kicking up sand with her flip-flops. She left us, not as just another nameless hawker, but as Me, #1 Lady of Nha Trang beach.