Phantasmagoria aboard the Nha Trang Booze Cruise

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Jack, host/emcee of one of the endless booze cruise vessels operating off the Nha Trang coast, does what he does best shake his rump shamelessly with his shirt off.

While some travelers to Vietnam complain that the country's tourist industry pales in comparison to those of other Southeast Asian destinations, I for one am glad that newcomers to Vietnam can still dig the raw madness of the Nha Trang Booze Cruise.

I was recently placed in the unenviable position of having to entertain an American who came to visit me and my girlfriend, who have been living in Ho Chi Minh City for about a year. We love this friend, don't get me wrong, but her trip overlapped with her birthday and she desperately wanted the occasion to include a uniquely magical experience. 

Without the time to go to Ha Long Bay, or cross over into Cambodia and see the temples of Angkor Wat, we decided to take her to good old Nha Trang. 

I prayed the booze cruise peddled by every hotel and travel agency there would be just as ridiculous as I remembered it.  Foolishly, I believed it might have taken on a more sophisticated air.  Thank God I was wrong.

For a mere seven bucks, you too can experience the strangest snorkeling excursion on planet Earth.

Now the last time I took the trip, back in 2004, it was full of crazy Irish and Kiwi drunkards. This time they had been replaced by super reasonable Singaporean couples, reserved Chinese families, Japanese gentlemen, giggling German girls, well-behaved locals and a scattering of Russians, all of whom couldn't help but be unprepared for the ludicrous vibe of this Nha Trang institution.

I, along with my fellow Americans, were the only ones not to hear, let alone follow, the instruction to put on the life-preservers provided on the boat's benches, but no sooner had we realized our error, the mandatory period had ended and we were out on the glorious East Sea. The first stop was an inlet aquarium, but we elected to skip the chance to peer into the prison cells of exotic oceanic creatures, deciding instead to drink beer and chat with the tour's crew of Vietnamese madmen, chiefly the tour's host/emcee, who was very conveniently called Jack.

Jack, like all the other Nha Trang booze cruise emcees from all the countless companies which offer the alcohol saturated tour, was a complete nutball, finishing off each announcement all of which were sprinkled with unquestionably inappropriate anecdotes, boasts and otherwise bizarre statements by staring into the eyes of one of the prettier female tourists, declaring: "Yah, you girl, I love you long time." 

The next stop was at a coral reef.  The free equipment provided wasn't great, but good enough the hour of snorkeling and doing cannonballs off the top of the boat alone was worth the seven bucks. 

After the hour of swimming, a seafood lunch including shark was served, and then it was time for my favorite part of the Nha Trang tradition, the live karaoke extravaganza.

Unsurprisingly, not every booze cruise vessel has its own Vietnamese dude who knows at least one famous song from every country in the world, so two or three boatloads of us climbed onto a central ship of song, where "The Best Boy Band in Vietnam" (TBBBIV) was introduced by a head cheerleader of sorts, not Jack, but another of Nha Trang's apparently ample supply of Vietnamese dudes extroverted enough to make Mick Jagger look shy.

TBBBIV consisted of one multilingual human singing machine and a drummer, electric guitarist and bass player all bad-asses. The head cheerleader figured out where we were all from; each nationality was summoned to the stage of unfolded boat benches and serenaded with a tune from their homeland, given a microphone and forced to sing and dance. Every time the same hilarity: foreigners wincing with confusion, and then suddenly recognizing their country's answer to "Farajacka."

The one thing that had changed, sadly, was American music has come to be associated with the Backstreet Boys in the Nha Trang Booze Cruise Mind. I quickly intervened, requesting Creedence, as had been sung in the old days.  We all performed wretchedly, unable to remember the words to "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"  Nobody cared.

Two Russian ladies were the clear winners of Nha Trang Booze Cruise Idol, one of them pulling off some kind of polka-troika while holding an infant. 

Back on Captain Jack's boat, we made our way toward God-knows-where and when we got there were served God-knows-what by a crewmember turned floating bartender. Yes, they still have the floating bar! a contraption straight from the cutting room floor of Kevin Costner's "Waterworld," but one which predates that ill-fated film from 1995. I don't know how else to describe the contraption our friend Mr. Huy sat in as the rest of us drifted about in styrofoam rings, ineptly paddling our way back and forth with tiny plastic cups filled with a truly awful concoction that tasted like rice wine and Robitussin, which unavoidably became mixed with seawater as gargantuan Russians kept doing cannonballs and Jack tossed small children into the sea. "Jump Around" blared through the loudspeakers as Jack performed lewd gyrations, unwittingly satirizing some scene from spring break at Lake Havasu circa 1992, going so far as to suspend himself upside down from a boat beam in order to share with it his generous pelvic thrusts.

Everybody wasted, the last stop was an island upon which there was absolutely nothing to do. Fantastic.

As the trip wound down, the boat deejay picked an amazing array of songs before and after Jack led everyone in a round of Happy Birthday to my visiting friend"¦ and treated her to an absolutely atrocious mock striptease, complete with reenactments of Leonardo's worst scenes in "Titanic."

I have only one suggestion to whichever assistant deputy under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism happens to be Czar of the Nha Trang Booze Cruise: move up the floating bar to precede the sing-along nobody should be expected to sing Backstreet Boys' songs sober.

By Josh Tribe, an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City
(The story can be found in the December 7th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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