Like many good things, it is not what I thought I would like; its charm is revealed slowly and is quite unexpected.
It takes a few visits for me to understand and adjust to An Bang beach life. Then I’m hooked and love it, particularly on a Friday night.
Kids are happy at any beach. Happy to wade into crowded water, jump around, splash about in non existent waves, shriek and laugh. As adults Kian and I are slightly more reluctant. After the invigorating surf and wild waters of new Zealand and the fascinating reefs and azure blue of Tonga, Vietnam, is frankly, disappointing. It feels grimy, dull, and, whats more, horribly over crowded.
It’s redeeming feature is its’ breeze. The cool air of the beach entices us to visit regularly after school. An Bang is the nearest beach to us, 2 minutes away from home on the scooters, and though we explore various other beaches – like collapsing Cu Dai nearer town – it becomes our favourite place.
An Bang beach life; participate or observe, but never get bored.
At 3pm, straight after school, the beach is still empty apart from a few roasting tourists, dangerously red under ineffective beach umbrellas. The restaurants that line the beach are sleepy, the scooter parking lots are empty. All is quiet. We take our spot and sip our G&T’s whilst the kids play, waiting for the show to begin.
As the heat dies, and the light becomes golden and gentle, so the beach comes to life. Arriving at anytime after 5pm on a scooter means you will be waved and hussled to get a parking spot (arrive after 7pm and you’ll be lucky if you still find one). The beach vendors start to arrive and set up. There are woman with great piles of blown up inner tubes making giant rubber towers of their wares to hire, others with bright life jackets for hire – few vietnamese children can swim, and those that can must be hindered by the still common practice of swimming fully clothed.
Food vendors arrive, sometimes 3 generations all working together on their pitch. Its an impressive low tech catering operation to witness, and fantastic what foods come out on the beach. They arrive with cupboards & kitchen cabinets, with gas rings, or charcoal burning braziers to cook on, a mass of food, mostly prepared at home, and either mats to claim their area of the beach, of the ubiquitous tiny red plastic kids chairs seen all over Vietnam on most street food stalls and pavement cafes. All this arrives on the back of scooters, piled precariously high, and balanced on shoulders across the beach. Simultaneously families, groups of friends or school children, begin to arrive. Work and school is over, the heat is off, and social time is on.
Within an hour the food stalls are busy, the mats on the beach are full, and the chairs are used in quick succession. Sometimes we join friends down on the mats, sometimes we stay in the calm and pricier reclining chairs with a drink to observe and delight in the busy colour, the explosion of feeding families and the life bursting on the beach. I love it, and start to make Fridays a regular event on An Bang. More wandering sellers pass by, we beckon to the crippled man selling roasted ground nuts, and promise the lady with the silken ginger tofu pudding we will definitely try it some time. (we finally do on our last week) When we’ve eaten with our friend Phi he’s helped explain what some of the mysterious foods are; the sausage meat parcels tied in betel leaves, the dried squid to be grilled, shredded and dipped in chili, the pretty boiled quails eggs, the huge vat of spicy clam porridge – looks quite unappealing to me but her ladle is in constant use from a steady stream of customers. It’s easy to pick and choose what you like and nibble your way through the evening.
Happy punters gather round green plastic matts spread with this Vietnamese smorgasboard. Cold beers or soft drinks, can be bought from ice boxes served in child like plastic beakers. We establish our favourite nibbles are the crackers made from ground rice and coconut, dried in the sun like a pancake, then cooked over coals until puffed up, golden and crispy. Served with a blend of soya sauce and crushed chili paste they taste great with beer.
The lifeguards sit over this colourful human melee in a high wooden stepped seat. They don’t really look ready for action and thankfully we never have to see them try. When it gets really busy, with lots of kids in lifejackets bobbing around, they cordon a swimming area to contain everyone – we orginally thought, cool, it must be a net to keep the frequent jelly fish visitors away, but on inspection see its just a rope. It’s a dense mass of splashing squealing human clumsiness, and the lifeguards bob around in one of the traditional fishing boats keeping a watchful eye.
The traditional fishing boats of this part of the coast look like the most unlikely sea worthy vessels. Like spinning BabaYaga’s these round baskets are manoeuvered by a single paddle stirring through the sea. It must feel so vulnerable out there in the big waves, in a small basket, equipped with old nets and pots, a lamp on board to attract the squid, and not much else. The fisherman go out at sunset or later, little lights bobbing in the darkness. A reminder of our fragility and tenacity to cling to this powerful natural world. The larger commercial operations actually tug groups of the basket boats out to the deeper ocean, dropping them and their 1 or 2 man crew to drift or spin through the night, no safety measures, no radios, and then pick them and thier catch up in the morning. As darkness arrives, the waters begin to empty, families begin to brush off the sand and gather to go.
The beach is like an unmade bed, a place of rampant indulgence, tossled and left. The last sellers still ply their wares to catch the leavers; there’s balloons, led lights and whistles drawing pleading kids, hot doughnuts near the scooter parks, and a fascinating stall of jelly drinks. Weird cubes of tofu and agar jelly with a vast choice of flavoured syrups and sprinkles. We too always move with the crowd. No reason to go, but no reason to stay. We are doing the vietnamese thing now and it would feel odd to hang on, almost uninvited on a darkened emptied beach. In the morning we return. In the 7am gap before school we have the beach to ourselves. It’s like visiting a bi-polar friend on a calm day. Everything has changed. The frantic evening has been washed away, the sea is calm and sparkling, clean and inviting. It’s as if the night before never happened. This is my time to swim. The fishing boat baskets are all pulled up on the shore, evidence that they have been out during the night, but the only sign that there was ever more than that, signs of a party, is the litter picking women strolling the beach and washing the weird blue penguin bins. (who thought of that? penguins to eat litter..in the tropics…) We swim and play and leave refreshed to start another day as the heat begins to gain intensity. We know when we return the beach will be a changed character, a garrulous amazing persona we look forward to seeing again. We are thankful for the calm respite, and time to reflect. Until later then.