20 Aug 2017
I turn over, still half asleep, and become aware of the rustling sounds of movement around me. A soft whisper travels to my right ear – a question: beach? My eyes open to count who else is awake. The two mattresses to the left of me remain still with sleep. The one to their left is up and getting dressed. To my right, the blankets are empty; she must be in the bathroom, changing. I nod and sit up, and then begin scratching in my bag for beach things. My movements stir her awake, to my left. Her eyes, still vacant with the remnants of her dreams, blink twice. Her eyebrows then rise in sudden realisation: beeeeach! ‘Yes,’ I smile, as I get up to leave the room, toothbrush in hand. I slide open the door and spot the rest of them waiting on chairs in the cafe.
This is how it went most mornings in Danang, at Tipi Cafe. All of us volunteers, sleeping in rows, on the floor in the back room. The cafe staff would tiptoe in at 5 am and coax us awake, offering up the morning beach ritual. We’d fight through the tiredness and hop on to the back of their bikes, one by one. Helmets on, swimsuits underneath, sleep brushed decisively out of our eyes. The ride to the beach was always beautiful. Our route went over one of the city’s main bridges, and then along the wide promenade.
The sea in Danang was unbelievably calm, particularly during the early morning. Flat and seemingly endless, this clear pool of blue was warm and non-threatening. It felt like a dream beach, with shadows of distant mountains on the horizon. In corny Vietnamese style, the speakers along the promenade and shore blasted old school love songs at all times of the day. We swam out to meet each other and floated on our backs to the call of Celine Dion.
On the days that our 5 am wake up was just too much to bear, we’d trade in morning beach for an afternoon by the sea. Sketchbooks and snacks scattered over our towels and sarongs, we would spend most of the time in happy reflection. I appreciated the salty fresh air that seemed to only exist along the coast or between the mountains. I doodled next to her as she wrote postcards and the other frolicked in the ocean, never able to get enough of the sea.
The sun didn’t set over the ocean but would filter down through the buildings and trees behind us. In other sections of the beach, we could sometimes spot round basket-weaved fishing boats bobbing over the gentle waves. Families gathered to teach their kids how to swim. Some older men even seemed to be training themselves. They would throw a mostly empty plastic bottle out into the ocean and then race through the water to retrieve it. Beach-goers were dedicated here, finding spots to float or sit along the sand at every hour. No moment too early or too late to partake in the seaside scenes.
Some evenings when we were not on shift at the cafe, we’d come back to the shore and listen to the waves. Drinks and finger foods would go down with conversation and an occasional tune on the ukulele. The dark sky hid the ocean but we could still feel its strength. Nights on the beach are a different kind of magic. It is when the crowds are finally quiet that the sea begins to speak. I loved listening to its song, but I also loved when we would all sing back, together, to soft strumming and hollow echoes. Danang was dreamy from morning to night. But perhaps, it was just the beauty of the beach.