Adventures in Da Nang

I take a cab ride to the beach. It’s night time and the city is lit up with multicolored lights and the sounds of night life. The area near the beach looks remarkably like Miami Beach. A long, wide ocean front boulevard lined with palm trees, walkways. Sand on one side, and restaurants and bars on the other. People sit all along the path on benches or in the grass, talking and eating. The beach is open and clear, blocked only by the fading light and the distance, giant, glowing Buddha.

Even at night I can see why this is considerd one of the world’s best. The beach stretches kilometres up and down the coast. The sand is clear, almost white, and the sky is black. The air is salty and humid all at once, the water warm like bathwater. I take off my shoes and walk along the shore. I hear the steady sound of waves and the even more steady sound of club music, distant but echoing. Across the bay glows the statue of the massive white marble Lady Buddha, huge and bright against the base of Monkey Mountain.

The boulevard turns neon bright, green and red against the pastel building. Cars begin to honk and for the first time on this trip outnumber the moto bikes.

Other people walk through the surf near me. I pass parents and children splashing water, lovers walking hand in hand, talking in whispers. I spot a lone Japanese man standing facing the water. He wears bright red shorts and a striped polo, looking lost in thought. He kicks the sand once, knocking a wet clump into the waves.

I buy a beer and sit on a beach chair. The umbrellas are still up, shading us from the city lights rather than the sun. It flaps against the breeze. The wind comes in gusts, following the pattern of the waves.

I have Western breakfast the following morning at an AlFresco’s restaurant in town. The only only diner is a big Australian man cracking mean-spirited jokes with the wait staff. It felt good to have eggs. The toast was something else though. Possibly more sand than dough.

After eating, I go exploring. I meet a man named Mr. Tai while walking along the river front. He who owns a motorcycle and a diary and offers to take me on a tour of Da Nang. At first I he was just another one of those guys looking for a quick buck to drive you and drop you off somewhere, but then e shows me the diary. It’s filled with entries written by tourists he has taken around the city. He shows me words of thanks and gratitude written in dozens of languages, most of them in English and French.

At first I was skeptical about his offer to show me the hot spots and landmarks of the city for a very tiny sum, but the journal won me over. There’s no way a 50 something year old man with a basic grasp of English could forge dozens of entries, in different languages, with different voices and hand writing, just to rip me off. That would be the most elaborate con of all time, for the least amount of money ever.

He also has his own business cards. Mr. Tai, the easy rider.

I agree, we shake hands and I hop on the back of another motorcycle, though this man drives with more precaution and consideration than any of the ones I rode back in Hue. He constantly asks if Im okay or if I need anything as he takes me to the tops of bridges, through mountain passes, to clifftop overlooks and beaches. We see the giant lady Buddha as it is called by Westerners, a massive white marble statue atop a hill that faces the city proper. I think its a female version of the Buddha Avalokitesvara (spelling?) who often has a female form in China (Guan Yin? My buddhism 101 is a little rough these days). Either way, its massive and spectacular and makes me think of the Virgin Mary.

We then go through Monkey Mountain, a huge chain of jungle covered hills on an islet adjacent to the city. I see several Monkeys, scurry across roads and into the trees, as we drive, and occasionally slow down.The little bastards are too quick to be photographed today.

On the way back we stop by the shore where a small fleet of multicolored fishing boats are out in the bay casting their nets. Their paint is faded but they still shine bright against the sea. My guide tells me that when he was a boy, the American army had set up a base out here. He remembers seeing them sit and grill food on the beaches when the war was going on. Now there’s a Vietnamese army base in the lot on the other side of the road where the Americans once held camp and in the suburbs that have since sprung around it Foreigners are moving in. Americans, Canadians and Australians are buying land and building houses, gobbling up inexpensive waterfront properties and prime real estate for fractions of what we would pay back home.

Dropping me off at my hotel, I sign on for another longer tour with him tomorrow, one that would take me further South down the coast through marble mountains, the Cham ruins at My Son and the historic city of Hoi An.

I swim in the pool at the villa after lunch, and read in the shade waiting for the heat to pass by. It’s hot but still cooler than Hue, even in the sun. I take another cab into town and hit a bakery selling some strange things that seem like a fusion of French and Vietnamese cooking. Bought a bun filled with grilled taro (sweet potato?), giving it an oddly sweet and starchy flavour. Bought some mini croissants which tasted unlike any butter I’ve ever had – guess we’re spoiled in Quebec. I also picked up something that looked like friend egg wrapped around cabbage and potato.

That evening I relax at the villa. I watch some television and notice that content is heavily censored with regards to violence and nudity. Also, films seem to play at a different, slightly sped up frame rate, even on HBO.

I stand on my balcony with a cold can of Heineken in hand. It’s a cool thirty degrees outside, a good 15 less than during the day. The humidity is nice and low for once too. Beyond the rooftops and trees I can see the lights from a nearby fair, or perhaps small stadium, just on the other side of the water. The Ferris wheel is lit up but silent and still. The first chords from House of the rising sun are plugged in arpeggio, but it’s only a tease. The band switches into something else, same key. A local song perhaps. I don’t understand the words but the chord progression tells me the singer is sad and wanting.

The next morning Mr. Tai is waiting outside the gates of the villa, leaning on his motorcycle and sporting a mean pair of aviators. “Okay?” he asks me. “Okay”, I reply with a thumbs up and we’re off.

We hit Marble Mountain, a mountain which gets it’s name from the marble caverns that run through it. Maybe the mountain is one giant block of marble. At the gates, stores sell overpriced marble souvenirs. We climb the steps and spend two hours going climbing up rocks and more steps, seeing what the spot offers. There are caves, deep in the rock, filled with shrines and sculptures of Buddhas. The air is ripe with incense. Holes in the ceilings from American bombs let natural light tumble into spaces that used to only be lit by candles. Higher up, at the peaks, we stand at lookouts, the highest points in the mostly flat section of land, and enjoy great views of the city and coast.

Noon time sun is approaching, so Mr. Tai drops me off at a beach resort near Hoi An for a few hours until the worst of the heat passes. I sit in the shade, swim in the ocean and enjoy overpriced food and beer (meaning it’s almost what we would pay at home). After a rest, he picks me up for the 20 km drive to the My Son ruins. We pass through rural villages and over small bridges connecting narrow roads between two rice fields. It takes nearly two hours to get to our destination and I’m still not used to riding a motorcycle over bumpy roads. My ass is killing me by the time we arrive.

I’m once again on my own to explore. My Son is a world heritage site. It’s a number of sites at the base of a mountain, home to ruins of temples and related structures built by the Chams, the preceding dynasty and rulers of the lands which are now Vietnam. They were probably a people from Indonesia or the Philippines, and for roughly 1400 years set up kingdoms and cities before being conquered by the Viets from the North. The Cham still exist, but only as a minority people in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The temples at the site were built between 700 and 1100, their peak being something in between when the Cham were at the height of their power. Many of the temples are in tatters, likely due to theft and neglect. Whereas the Viet were Buddhist, the Cham were largely Hindu. Some sculptures of Shiva and other deities remain, carved into the rocks. The buildings themselves are made from red bricks and what looks like sandstone. The art style is similar to what I’ve seen in pictures of Ankor Wat and in old Indonesian architecture. Some structures are still standing, but others are hardly more than mounds beneath dirt and grass.

It looks like some place right out of Indiana Jones.

We drive back to the coast and head into Hoi An. It’s an ancient town, still standing since the time of the Cham where it was an important trade route on the Southern Silk road hundreds of years ago. The town went into decline but has since picked up as the main tourist spot in that part of Vietnam.

The town is built along two sides of the river, right by the ocean. The streets teeming with pedestrians. Merchants move amid them, selling flying toys, food and light sticks which they toss into the air. Rickshaws move in fleets, somehow making their way through the crowds. The drivers yell “beep beep beep” to get people to move out of the way.

Mr. Tai and I share a beer in a restaurant by the waterfront. I learn that he is Catholic, a sizable minority in the country actually (several million or so), and that the reason he knows so much about what the Americans were up to during the way is that his father was a sailor for the South’s side. He keeps a worn photograph of him in his wallet.

The buildings are shades of orange and yellow, with tiled rooftops. Most have balconies overlooking the streets. Plants hang from pots, and lanterns from trees. In the river, boats move up and down. Some fishing, many ferrying tourists up and down the city. There’s an old covered bridge here, along with temples, courtyards and markets.

When it gets dark, all the lanterns come to life. The streets are blue under the moonlight, the people multicolored from all the lights. It somehow gets busier. There are more people than space, and the travel on the bridges slows to a crawl. Shortly after, I regroup with Mr. Tai and we take the long drive back to Da Nang.

The air is cool once again, and the first few patters of rain hit us as we drive. It’s still the dry season, but it’s threatening to end at any moment.

At the villa, I shower and head downstairs where I run into the owner. We sit around the dining room table talking for over an hour about Canada, Vietnam, culture and even a few forays into politics (of which he is well-versed and educated). He sits at the table dressed like a man. When life gets too hectic, he tells me that he shuts down his cellphone, drives out to a monastery and spends three days there. Even though he’s a fairly wealthy business owner, he’s a down to earth man. He loves being able to help around at the monastery, even if it’s just sweeping floors, and enjoying the tranquility of it all. He shares some food with me, which he could only describe as Vietnamese donuts since there is no English word for it – fried dough flavoured with sesame. Delicious. The girl at the register whispers that I’m beautiful and we chuckle.

He encourages me to walk through the gardens, which I do. I spent an hour outside just listening to the night, feeling the wind and watching the bridge change its colours.

The next day at the airport it starts to rain, water is coming down in sheets by the time I land in Ho Chi Minh city. The forecast is rain, every day for the next two weeks. The dry season has come to an end, and so has my trip.


Tombs of Kings and more heat in Hue

Linh wakes me up early and tells me she booked me with a tour bus to go see local sights. Notably, tombs and some temples just outside of the city proper are on the list. I’m barely out of bed (off the floor), before I’m back on the back of a scooter and shuttled Into town just in time to catch the bus at my old hotel.

The bus is full but not too crowded. There’s a good mix of people on board including vVietnamese from other cities, some Japanese and koreans, one American and a very pale and very blone Scandinavian family. I’m no expert at languages but it sounds suspiciously like Swedish when they talk. Then again, half the languages in that part of the world might sound like Swedish if I ever heard them.

At each stop, the tour guide talks. A lot. Mostly he makes amusingly awkward jokes about concubines and virility and tying them to worldly power. Each time he introduces a king, he mentions the number of concubines the king had. One had 500, one had 150. Obviously the one with more was more respected and revered. He also had 400 sons,  where the other fellow had none. 150 women to choose from  and no heir. What a tragedy. He then points out his successor only had 60 concubine. Not very well respected.

I suspect our guide likes talking about concubines more than kings. Can’t blame him for taking the conversation to crany town from time to tkme. This is his job. He probably talks about the same damn kings and their same damn concubines every day.

We hit three tombs and two temples over the course of the day. The tombs are more than wholes in the walls or simple graves. Each one is housed in a massive walled in complex, with gardens and palaces.The tombs tend to show a mix of architecture visons. Since they were built after contact with the french, there is definite french and Italian influence I  the way the courtyards are constructed and fenced in.

The heat gets worse. I buy a water bottle or cold soda water at each stop. The guide wasn’t kidding when in the mornung he said they try to do these in the order from least to most shade so people can survive the hot days. Today is a hot one. 43 degrees Celsius,  plus humidex. Thankfully not as humid as past days, but under the sun when it pops out, it’s pure evil.

Near the end of the tour, Idecide to wait the last sight out in the bus. I can feel a headache coming and fear I might be getting heatstroke.

When the tour ends, I head to the DMZ across the street, bunker down and order two waters, two beers and a pizza. It was one of the odder pizzas I’ve had. It arrived five minutes after I ordered it and didn’t taste like it was frozen. That’s some fast crust. It was good thiugh, especially with a bottle of hotsauce and complimentary dipping sauce. The beers were good too. Nice and cold. Put them away, along with the water in under and hour.

Halfway back in the cab the migraine kicks in. Back at the villa it intensifies,  as well as the urgent need to fall asleep. Mean to cat nap for 15, knocked out for 2 hours. Pretty sure the morning’s activities did give me heatstroke. Don’t feel like a half decent human again until I drink another bottle of water and have a cold shower.

Despit all the insanity with the weather and traffic, part of me is starting to understand this country and warm up to it. At the very least, I find myself marveling that the people out here can persevere from day to day. I suppose you must simply get used to it and find a way to survive and make the best of it. At home we have so much and complain about the pettiest things. Here, most people are too busy working three jobs and selling bananas in the street to keep the lights on. Half the homes don’t even have proper running water and indoor plumbing or even four walls. 

Kinda makes me hate it all the more when students back home bitch and riot over the price of education, while taking full advantage of the cheap and easy living (and drinking) conditions in Montreal.

Prices out here actually make for an interesting conversation piece. Most of the time, prices are usually not listed in stores or restaurants, and definitely never in the markets. The basic rule of thumb is that if you have to ask for the price, you aren’t a local and if you aren’t a local, you have to pay more since they will quote you any number that comes to the top of their head that they think you would be willing to pay. Usually 2 or 3 times the price a local would. For white foreigners, expect 5 to 10 times the price.

Essentially, unless you are a local, good at haggling, and speak the language, you will pay more. Even at government institutes like museums and heritage sites. Every single one has two signs. Local price and foreign price. Same goes for restaurants that do list prices, usually have both a local and a foreign menu with different prices in each.

Even for locals seen to be in the sight of a Westerner can expect their prices to be jacked up. White skin means plenty of money. Whenever I stopped with either Linh and Truc at a roadside restaurant for takeout, they made sure I hid out of sight on the street. If they could buy food for the three of us without being seen with me, the price for our combined meal would be less than a single dish if seen with me.

On my own I’ve paid upwards of 10 dollars for a meal with two cans of local beer. Procured by either Linh or Truc, together we’ve dined until we’re full for a combined total under 4 bucks, with a glass of fresh cane juice each to wash it down.

That turns out to be the last night I spend at the villa as Linh is expecting plenty of more guests. Linh offers to set me up at one of her relatives hotels in town for 20 bucks a night. The place looks a little sketchy out front, and the owner reminds me of a James Bond villain like Dr. No. but what the heck. I stayed at two other hotels, both under 40 bucks.  One was great, one was shit. Let’s roll the dice and see what this gets me.

First up there are no lights in the hallway. Just darkness. I open the door and walk in. I can hear everything in other rooms, from showers to footsteps to conversations. I check out the washroom. There’s no shower curtain or waste basket. Soap comes in two plastic containers which I struggle to open. There are two beds with mismatched lining and covers in the room. One has a squeak to it, and feels suspiciously like a box spring. The other is a cold hard slab. I opt for the slab. Across the room is a scary looking armoire right out of The Conjuring. There’s a fridge,  but it’s warmer in there than outside. The tv struggles to turn on and there’s no sound. Just some silent Australian soccer. Then, out of nowhere, the sound bursts to life like some static hell. Guess I’ll pass on the tv tonight. At least the AC and WiFi work.

Consolation prize: by this time tomorrow I’ll be in leaving one. ity for the next. I’ll be in Da Nang out by the sea in a four star hotel with a bar in the lobby and the beach within walking distance.

Upstairs it sounds like a man walks with a cane and drags his other foot behind him. Place is probably haunted as a bonus. Getting out of Hue seems maevellous. I Can’t wait.


Later that day and the next in Hue

I meet Linh again after lunch. She arrives at the hotel by motorbike with her friend Truc Linh, who happens to share part of the same name as her. Truc is a university professor who lives with his family in a two room house they share with their livestock. He makes 200 dollars a month and is expected to take bribes to supplement his salary. Each day he has to negotiate how many bribes he is willing to take, what he will let students bribe him for, and whether he can convert the bribes into private tutoring instead of grade handouts. In his spare time he taught himself english and is now fluent. Thanks to that and his hard work at applying for grants, he’ll be studying in California for his PhD next year.

They were just at her parents villa, and things are not great over there with regards to maintenance. The property is kind of in shambles at the moment. They spent the morning cleaning the floors, getting rid of three years of dust, and have managed to make two rooms liveable, but the yard is a total mess and the AC might not be working. I tag along with them, riding on the back of Truc’s scooter, as he tells me about local history, his studies and the country in general.

The villa is down a narrow road between a crafts market close to a famous temple. The road is paved with big pieces of cement, lined up after one another and beaten down by years of use and dust. The villa is right at the corner, behind a cement wall with barbed wire at the top. There’s a dog at the gate. His name is No, and he is jittery around visitors. He yaps and yells, and I know then that there’s no way anyone could break in within this dog raising all hell with his siren lungs.

There’s a wide open courtyard leading to the front steps with a raised porch. There are chairs there and a long emptied fish tank. Chickens roam the yard, but fewer than was expected. We think the house sitter probably made away with more than a few of the birds over the years. The yard itself looks like a messy jungle. It’s thick with fruit trees and vines. Durian fruit, khaki, papayas and bananas hang from branches, and dead leaves slump to the ground like torn curtains.

The three of us spend a few hours cleaning the house before we call it a night. I get a ride to a local electronics store awkwardly named”VietThongA” to buy an adapter for my phone. My plugs worked well enough in Japan, but the voltage out here is totally different.  And so is the experience in the store.

At the door we’re greeted by a security guard. Past him we’re met by what are essentially the electronics store equivalent of convention center booth babes. Women just thereto look pretty and make you buy shit. I also notice a table with three cashiers, a manager and possible assistant manager and a handful of sales clerks.  The place is hardly larger than a garage but it’s got over a dozen employees in there.

Truc and Linh inform me that because labour is so cheap and people are so desperate to get any job oftentimes employers will essentially overstock their store with employees bevause, well, they can. The average person makes about a hundred bucks a month in cities, even at stores that sell appliances and devices for roughly the same cost as back home. The difference is instead of being understaffed liked every damn store in Canada, they are over staffed instead.

After my purchase, we took a drive through the old citadel at night. Hue was once the imperial capital and in spite of the destruction that happened here during the war much of the old palaces are still there, though hardly intact. It twas too dark to go into the inner walls of the imperial city, but the outer walls are always open and a road runs between the two, following the moats. At pretty much any time of day, people come here to just hang out. There’s a big courtyard and plenty of green space,a so the locals park their scooters, gather their friends and just chit chat the night away with the remnants of their old capital city in the shadows behind their stove tops.

I stayed at my hotel one more night, the intention that we would eventually clean out that villa well enough for all three of us to stay there. No more work was done that night though, so tomorrow was look iffy.

The sky over Hue th following morning looked like a wet rag. I couldnt tell if it was pollution, humidity, threat of rain, or a bit of all three. I would see that same sky day in and out for most of my time in that citt. The air also felt like a slap in the face. In Japan it felt humid and wet, and by the evening you felt cold  drenched in your own clothes. Here it was different, the air itself felt hot and not just from the humidty,  almost like hot pavement that you were walking through. It was barely 8. Steping out of the hotel, it made for unpleasant welcome. Part of me groaned over the fact I had just checked out of a place with AC and was going to move into one that still didn’t have much in the way of working fans for the next three days.

On the agenda for that day was visiting the citadel during the daytime. I got dropped off there in the afternoon,  after the worst of the heat had passed,  and was free to explore until closing. Outside the gates, people moved about in all directions. Some were visiting the citadel,  some hanging out, some even fishing In the moat. A few kicks were playing soccer against one of the Inner walls.  A security guard sat on a chair watching them with a single eyebrow cocked. Entry wasn’t cheap but it was worth it once I was inside.

The palace must have been gorgeous in its heyday. Even in shambles, meshes of colour, carvings of dragons, and elegant pagodas filled the space with a mystique of its own. It somehow felt forbidden to walk through those gardens, across bridges, around ponds and into bed chambers and temples long unused. Once this was the home of royalty and their attendants,  the palace where the emperor came to hold court and attend to matters of his kingdom, spending the remainder of the time elsewhere in other villas and fortresses around the country.

Linh picks me up send along the way we run out of gas.We push the scooter up to the roadside and she buys gasoline from a woman who keep it in old plastic orange juice jugs.  There are gas statios, but few and far between, so most people who live by the road keep extra gasoline on hand to sell to motorists.

When we’re backat the villa, she goes to pick up Truc and I’m left to my own devices. I’m basically out of fresh clothes, so I do the only thing I can: I wash my clothes in a blue plastic tub in the back yard. As I do, Chickens cluck as they hop from their pen and scurry up the fence. They pick through dead banana leaves looking for food. A rooster in the lot next door caws with jealousy. I wrench my shirts by hand and hang them up to dry in the sun.

Linh drives back wiyh Truc shortly after I’ve finished with the wash. She carries some water, juice and some containers of local vegetarian street food. Inside the styrofoam crate is a mass of thin sliced and fried veggies, tofu flavoured with pepper, sugar and a handful of msg, and some good old sticky rice. As I pick out a big red chili pepper I realize that the average white guy from the west wouldn’t be able to do this. They would die out here unless they could find a pizza hut. Being able to ear spicy food is just about the only survival advantage I have out here. Another day like that under the sun and I would be toast. Thank goodness this is a mostly vegetarian city from what I can tell.

Truc gets the AC working and the three of us eventually bunker down in the one cool room for the nignt. I sleep on the floor, using my blanket for a mattress and Truc does the same. Linh gets the one mattres. It’s her house after all. All things consideeed, the floor feels just fine when you have just enough air conditioning g to forget the heat for a few hours before the rooster in the yard wakes everyone up.