After an extraordinary run in the first week of the tour, we are now in the middle of a comparative dip. For the second day running, most of our time is spent on the bus, where most of the group alternates between sleeping (Gabriel Byrne continues to astonish us in this area – but then, he is on his honeymoon), reading (will I ever finish White Teeth?) and gazing out of the window at endless lush plains of rice fields.
Presumably because they have all been planted at a slightly different time, each small field is coloured a slightly different shade of green. The landscape thus becomes a vast patchwork of differing shades of green – more greens than you ever thought possible – interspersed with water buffalos, workers in coolie hats, and the occasional herd of ducks. Sometimes, you will see several dozen ducks being herded across the road in a tight pack, as directed by their very own duck-herd. It is a vaguely comical sight.
We take lunch at a beach restaurant, watching the afternoon catch being dragged up the beach in huge nets, and observing the elegant wedding party who have stopped off for photos. The restaurant owner, a former social worker, gives us a couple of particularly finely made coolie hats and asks us to pass them on to anyone in Nha Trang (our destination) who we think looks particularly deserving of them.
In Nha Trang, at the bottom of the Cham Pongar temple complex (underwhelming, for by now we are all templed out), we spot the ideal recipients. The two aged, wizened, teeth-blackened beggar ladies are absolutely delighted with their smart new hats, trying them on and posing for each other with incongruously girlish, almost coquettish grins. The years roll back, as we catch brief glimpses of former lives.
We check in, and head off en masse for the mud spring baths. Here, we gleefully slosh about in communal pools of thick brown gloop, pouring it over ourselves with plastic pails and savouring the eucalyptus-like aroma, before washing it off under hot jets of salty spring water. This gives us a new toast (Here’s mud in your gusset!), which becomes our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.
There is dining and dancing at the yacht club (not quite as grand as it sounds), where we end up lurching about to insipid Euro-trance with a bunch of pissed-up backpackers and enthusiastic Vietnamese hookers, or else sitting out on the beach front with lethal pina coladas, gazing on with wry amusement at the young couple shamelessly writhing on a beach lounger in the semi-darkness, to an audience of entranced onlookers.
Oh, look! Over there! It isn’t! It is! Fraulein Dings-Bums and party are in town. Cordial greetings are exchanged. Perhaps next time, we should break the ice and make proper conversation.
We never see them again.