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.