In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Babylon Revisited”, Charlie Wales returns to the Ritz Bar in Paris after a long absence. The bar is empty and his old drinking buddies are nowhere to be found. The party is most definitely over; the Paris of the early 20’s, with American expats guzzling away countless carefree nights is gone, never to return. For Charlie Wales, coming back is a bittersweet experience at best.
It’s never easy to return to a place that holds an idealized place in your head. The incongruity between your memory and what you actually see before you can shudder the bones and sour the guts. We often like things the way they were. It’s like your friend’s cute little boy of ten years back, who has now grown into an acne-plagued, indolent adolescent. Your old tricks and charms are of no use; he no longer wants anything to do with you, and if he did, you’d probably have nothing to say, anyway.
To be fair, Mui Ne wasn’t some undiscovered eden when I first rolled up some eight years ago. This long stretch of beach girding a bay beneath a sleepy Vietnamese fishing village had already made it onto the map, and without a doubt there were those who revisited then and complained that the place had already gone to hell with overdevelopment and was now trampled underfoot with herds of yahoos.
But the Mui Ne nearly a decade back WAS a different place. It was far quieter, with less traffic trundling down the one road that connects the fishing village with the small city of Phan Thiet down the coast. Locals still lived on the shore and fished the waters from weaved boats that resembled huge baskets. There were far less overbuilt resorts and hotels crowding the water’s edge. It was much less commercialized and as a result cheaper, but one factor looms high above the rest with regard to now and then: There were practically no Russians.
As our bus chugged out of Phan Thiet and up the hills over looking the beach, I noticed the many shops, restaurants, and tourist agencies along the side of the road advertising exclusively in Cyrillic.
Oh, shit, I thought. The Russians aren’t coming. They’re already here.
And that they are. At first I hoped that we had just entered the one sector of the beach popular with our Slavic cousins, but as we pressed on into the heart of the tourist strip, there even more signs in Russian, easily outnumbering any in English and even giving those in Vietnamese–with all of its strange accent marks and vowel addendums–a run for their money. It was clear that the Russians were more than just a significant group in Mui Ne; they had taken the place over.
Russia and Russians have been on my mind lately due to my last two choices in reading material: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. I love heady Russian writers and studied the Russian drama masters in college (Chekhov, Stanislavski). In many ways I have a great love and respect for Russians, especially their contribution to the world cultural canon. Their weighty influence cannot be denied, and I tip my hat.
But… (Oh-uh, after the disclaimer his true racist stripes come out. i.e: “I have many black friends, BUT I still can’t stand ni…”) …but I am a child of the Cold War, indoctrinated and mind-forged during the hardline years of Ronald Reagan’s America. And while I never remember being overtly taught to hate Russian people, I don’t recall any great love being kindled for them, either. I also can’t help but wonder if all of that propaganda I was subjected to boiled my brain and turned me for the worse. I’ve met some great Russians and swapped stories and drank to the happiness of both nations, but for me and many Westerners, there is still something alien about them, despite the fact that we share a lot of cultural similiarities and are essentially the same, racially. Often, when I pass by groups of Russians in Busan or here, for that matter, a distrustful reptilian voice hisses in my head:
I know this is a racist instinct, and no, I’m not proud, but from the expression on many of their faces, I can’t help but think that they’re thinking the same of me.
The Russians are here in Mui Ne in mobs. On our first day we walked the road down towards the main beach where flurries of kitesurfers do their thing, passing Russian after Russian after Russian. Some were leggy blonde beauties holding hands with young Adonises. Others were bloated, mole-ridden Olgas walking with hulking, speedo-stuffed men with backs like hairy sides of beef. Most go shirtless all the time–including the wondrously obese–who seem to revel in displaying their distended guts and man tits–and almost all smoke, all the time, even in the pool.
International travel is new to Russia, and they’re embracing it with gusto. The nouvea riche rarely travel well, so I shouldn’t be surprised at some of these new visitors’ seeming boorishness. But probably 70 percent of all tourists in Mui Ne are now Russians, and were it any other group in such numbers–Koreans, Germans, Swedes, Americans (God forbid)– I’d have a similiar gripe.
Why are they all in Mui Ne? It is a beautiful, chilled out spot, but that doesn’t explain why thousands of Borises and Svetlanas have descended like it’s summer in the Crimea. I imagine Mui Ne was spotlighted in whatever equlivalent the Russians have to the Lonely Planet guidebook, though it is possible the restaurants and hotels are giving out free shots of Stoli and bowls of borscht upon check-in.
Whatever the reason, they’re here en masse, eating, drinking, smoking, singing, grunting, and displaying acres of Slavic skin for all to take in. They’re spending their newly minted cash as if neither it nor the oil that produces it will ever run out, and you can make damn sure that they don’t give a shit whether this American likes it or not.