15 - Dispatch from the Barber Shop

We have already had the Bus Story, so I can't use this Dispatch to tell about hitchhiking from Tuy Hoa to Nha Trang. Or about the cross-country bus snatching us up off the side of the road, moving some rice sacks and a Buddhist nun to make us a seat. And there was this big pig and weird stuff on the roof - but one Bus Story per trip. That's the rule!

I especially wanted to do this coast by road. Called Vung Ro, I had only seen it from the air. My Birddogs were barely able to reach freeway speeds, and often flew below the lampposts - but peacetime at ground level is necessary to get a really good look. And this coast is a looker! Smooth city-sized white granite boulders stacked down out of the jungle into a deep turquoise sea. Brightly colored fishing boats bob at anchor off untracked beaches - and lanky coconut palms dance in the breeze. It is all I could have remembered - rivaling Big Sur or Amalfi. Even the big pig oinks his approval.

The first time I arrived in Nha Trang, I needed a haircut. I had been in Vietnam for just 2 days and had yet to see a real Vietnamese up close. Just out of flight school, my "Airborne white sidewall" haircut had become a little too fly-boy for the reputation of the colonel to whom I was about to report.

Only option was a street barber with hand clippers and a comb, standing in front of a mirror hung on a fence. I was nervous just being on the street, seeing "Charlie" in every face. Nervous became terror when the straight razor came out. The scare stories fed to us back in training got into my head and I slowly unholstered my .38 under the cape he had clipped around my neck. So young, gullible and green. So long ago.

My barber today is too young to be the same guy, but everything else is unchanged - well except for the young and gun part. There is nowhere else to get a haircut quite like Vietnam. In America he would need medical, dental, chiropractic and massage permits - and if my language skills were any good, a psychiatric one as well. It takes over an hour and costs 2 bucks.

I have to get spiffed up this time to report to Jean. I am expected to do more about this fabulous cuisine than just wash it down with beer on the beach while she attends a fancy hotel's cooking school - she wants me to learn a bit too. After she has spent a month stomping through old mine fields - how can I refuse?

This country has yet to enter the packaged food world - it is all freshly cut, caught, cooked, and consumed. We go to the markets and make lists of herbs and spices. We do dawn at the docks to see the fishing fleet disgorge its catch. We roll spring rolls, doctor dipping sauces - and I eat all my homework.

From Nha Trang we opt for a train ride down the coast on the "Reunification Express." The old French tracks are to be ripped up for a Saigon- Hanoi bullet train, similar to the one California has yakked about for a decade. I will bet on theirs running before ours. The changes they have accomplished in the few years of open markets is astounding. And back in town, we find Saigon still going full speed ahead. But not us … my shoes are shot, Jean is shopped out, visas have expired and our flight left a week ago - and every other one is full until next month.

That ain't so bad as a weather check shows it is still rain and cold at home. There is always more to see here, more to eat, more to ponder - and high thread-count sheets to type another Dispatch while Jean snoozes in her birthweek present (a single day is so limiting!) - the majestic Majestic Hotel. I use to sneak into places like this to join the buffet line, but feel out of place draping my mosquito net over the antique headboard and cutting dragon fruit on the marble tabletop. They note the date off her passport and deliver a cake to the room. Majestic indeed!

If standby works, it all will be over too soon - and mail and messages will slap me back to reality. I enjoyed this trip immensely and hope to be able to ponder what it did for me - and try to pen that into one last Dispatch. Then print up the photos and toss them under the coffee table with all the others.

Knowing that my observations might be read by others, has made this a more productive trip. Thank you. You forced me to be more inquisitive and introspective, certainly more than my first trips here - and I look forward to further thoughts and discussion, with you ... or myself.

- Standby Stew