Part 3: Sweat and salt
Dawn in Ninh Thuan was featured by brighter light, unfiltered by the smog as in Ho Chi Minh City. At 7, I pulled up the curtain, and the sun had already dyed the tree tops in glorious golden rays. Outside, the center of Phan Rang City was still deep in quietness, a very different atmosphere from what I usually found on Saturday mornings in HCMC. The streets were almost empty. In the noodle shop near our hotel, only a few people quickly finished their breakfasts. Three of us, each ordering a pork noodle with pig foot, were the only tourists there, who slowly enjoyed the noodles and broth, commenting on the taste and texture of each ingredient.
8 o’clock, an INNOVA pulled up outside our hotel, a big middle-aged man, tanned just like everyone else in this city, walked into the reception area to us.
“Chi, right?” – He asked as we were the only ones waiting in the lobby at that time.
“Yes, that’s right.” – I answered. This was always my favorite part – meeting the tour guide I had previously only talked on the phone, to see how much of my imagination was true.
“My name is Huy.” – He said, not that I hadn’t known that before.
My first phone call to a tour company in Ninh Thuan resulted in sky-high prices for an all-inclusive private tour. Shocked, I called the second one, who offered me a price only 1/15 of the first company’s, but no meals, no transportation, no tickets included. It would a bargain if renting a car was too much work in Ninh Thuan. It was then that I came across Mr. Huy and his tour company – Ninh Chu Explorer, who offered tours that perfectly suited my ideas with reasonable prices. He was the founder, and probably the only employee of the company, in charge of all functions from sales, web design, to tour guide. Since three of us would be his only customers at that time, he agreed to customize the itinerary according to my request, adding more stops along the way.
After the quick introduction, Huy gave each of us a straw hat, the type that would go perfectly with my crop top, shorts, and flip-flops – my full beach outfit. But we weren’t going to the beach any time soon.
Heading East from the Phan Rang city center, Huy slowly told us the stories of this land as we drove along April 16th street, one of the main streets of the city and yet it was so deserted. Modern time Ninh Thuan was known simply as the vineyard of Vietnam, famous mostly for its harsh climate and record heat. But it was also home of the President of South Vietnam – Nguyen Van Thieu. Thieu was simply a figure head, running the Republic of Vietnam under the U.S.’s command from 1965 until 1975, when he resigned and left the country a few days before the fall of Sai Gon.
After traveling for about 5 kilometers, we turned left into Yen Ninh street, heading North. Yen Ninh was a long road running along Ninh Chu beach, the “resort paradise” of Ninh Thuan as Huy named it. Along the street, luxurious hotels and resorts lined up, a view totally different from the city center, yet still not that impressive. When I was searching for a hotel to stay, I was torn between two choices – either 3-star hotels in this area by Ninh Chu beach, or motels in the center of Phan Rang city. Surprisingly, either of them would cost me the same. In the end, I followed my friend’s advice to stay within the city center, and visit Ninh Chu beach only.
“During the reign of Nguyen Van Thieu, he tried to promote Ninh Chu beach and his home town of Phan Rang as much as possible.” – Huy continued telling us the history of a chaotic time. – “Before the fall of Sai Gon, and for a while after that actually, Ninh Chu beach here was the most popular beach in South Vietnam. However, things changed in 1995 during a rare event of solar eclipse. At that time, many people flocked to Mui Ne in Binh Thuan, about 100 kilometers south from here, to view the solar eclipse, and they discovered a gorgeous beach there. Due to Mui Ne’s shorter distance from Sai Gon, more and more people chose it as a weekend destination, and Ninh Chu was gradually forgotten.”
“But the beach there is so dirty.” – My aunt commented.
“Unavoidably. The more people there are, the more polluted it is.”
I had never been to Mui Ne, nor could I see Ninh Chu from the car. There was a range of resorts blocking the view, as if the selfish real estate developers wanted to keep the beach for themselves and their resort guests only.
We continued hugging the coastal road till the end of the beach, where we crossed Ninh Chu bridge and entered a completely different setting. No resorts could be seen, instead, salt fields and salt mountains featured this area.
“Now we’re entering the salt kingdom of Ninh Thuan. We just suffered 20 days of rain, so you couldn’t see much here, but during the summer time, when it is really hot and the sky is cloudless, this whole area is covered in white blinding salt fields. The farmer would lead the sea water into a big pond, called Giang pond, and from there into smaller cells where the salt would normally take 3-5 days to form. See those big heaps hidden under black plastic cover? It’s all salt.”
Big heaps was an understatement. I would call them mountains.
“You know how much salt is worth in the market?” – Huy asked.
“2 cents a kilo?” – I guessed. No one in Vietnam used salt anymore. My family bought half a kilo of pure salt years ago, and I think it still just sat there in the kitchen cabin, hidden behind all kinds of other spices and seasonings.
“Nope, wrong. The farmers here sell their hard-earned salt for less than 1 cent a kilo. That’s the unprocessed salt. And yet, supermarkets and food-processing companies still import salt because the quality of salt made here is not high enough.”
1 cent a kilo, and the bowl of pork noodles I had earlier this morning cost 1.5 dollars.
“Why don’t we invest in a salt factory that could produce high-enough quality salt?” – I asked as innocent as a 5-year-old child.
“For such big scale production, the quantity of salt extracted from the sea here is not enough. It’s a headache.”
Suddenly, Cat Thu’s problem with her grandpa’s vineyard seemed trivial. 1 cent per kilo, and how would they find enough buyers to consume all those mountains of salt, if food companies imported salt? I bet the salt here tasted like sweat and sand as well.
It was not my first time visiting poorer areas of Vietnam. My father’s hometown lived on tobacco trees, and every summer during the harvest season, flakes of dried tobacco leaves would float in the wind, flying into their teary eyes. My hometown was known for producing the best cigarette in the country, but who would know when they smoked our cigarette, they were smoking our tears and sweat as well. And of course, the trip to my ex-boyfriend’s hometown, where only tapioca could be seen for a hundred of kilometers, and only sand and deserted land for the next hundred. I even had to ask him what the people here would do for a living, and sadly now I couldn’t recall his answer. Then the time when we visited Thieng Lieng island that politically still belonged to Ho Chi Minh City. Just 1 hour from the hustle of modern Saigon existed a life with no electricity, no running water, no schools, no hospitals, where daily supplies had to be brought from mainland, where every night after 7, all houses fell into darkness, with mosquitoes, rats, and cockroaches rambling, and where the residents lived by producing, well, salt. Every time I saw those lives, those tiny figures slowly working their way against nature and destiny, I felt more deeply the unfairness of life.