It’s our last motor biking day as we make our way back to Hue today. It promises to be a memorable ride as we travel northwards hugging the coastline. Soon after leaving Hoi An, we travel through Danang, a large city and growing larger as is evident by the plethora of resorts and golf courses built for the enjoyment of foreign travelers.
Ty proudly informs me that there used to be nothing along this stretch of coast other than “very poor people who made a living from fishing”. The government has relocated these people to other areas where they have been given houses and taught other skills so they can earn money. “They are very happy now”, he quips. I can’t help but wonder how happy they are, but am surprised at how positive he is and how supportive of his governments decisions he seems to be. Throughout the trip he has proudly cited examples of how the government helps the people. It’s refreshing to come across people who are not bitterly disappointed with their country and their government, and in fact, it’s the first time I have experienced this throughout my travels around the world.
Soon, we enter “Marble City”, a row of warehouses and shops selling marble statues of all shapes and sizes. The proximity to Marble Mountain means they have a never-ending supply of tourists buying a little piece of their own marble to take home as a souvenir. Ty and Thang park the bikes, give us directions and instructions and off we go to explore the five craggy marble mountaintops covered in jungle and hidden pagodas.
We opt for the stairs instead of the lift and it’s a hot and humid affair climbing so many steps, but after the temples of Angkor Wat, this feels like child’s play. It’s a steep climb with the view over Danang and the sea becoming increasingly better. All along the route are vendors selling drinks, trinkets and souvenirs and offering assistance and guidance. “You go here, you go here”, they shout as they jump up to show us the way. My tourist instinct is to ward them off by saying, “no thank you, I don’t want”, hoping they will leave me alone, but they really don’t want anything in exchange other than to help you find your way and hopefully you will buy a bottle of water from them.
We walk into one of the first caves we encounter, which is fairly small and houses some Buddha statues, incense and offerings. However, I can see a shaft of light coming in at the rear of the cave and my Dori the explorer instinct takes over. Before I know it, I am clambering over rocks and squeezing myself through a narrow, almost vertical hole which takes me out to the top of the cave. A few more rocks to climb and I am standing on top of one of the mountain tops looking out to sea as far as the eye can see. The exercise has got the blood pumping and the sweat oozing, and my clothes stick to my body in the high humidity, but I feel invigorated.
I clamber down and have lost my bearings, so I stroll along following the sound of chanting. The chanting gets louder and I wander into a beautiful, colourful courtyard, with dappled shade and benches. I welcome the chance to sit in the shade and watch the beautiful ceremony unfolding before me. I find myself going into a trance like, meditative state as I let the chanting wash over me. The smell of burning incense floats and swirls around me and I inhale deeply. I sit quietly for a while.
I leave reluctantly as I know there is more to see and make my way into the Huyen Khong Buddhist grotto. Nothing prepares me for the gorgeous setting that I am about to walk into. The grotto is large and as I climb down the stairs into it, I feel my jaw dropping and my mouth hanging wide in wonder. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I begin to take in the detail of the shrines to my right and left. Directly in front, high up and carved directly onto the cave wall, Buddha looks down benevolently at me. A large shaft of natural light beams directly onto his peaceful, knowing face. The smell of incense is intense in the dark, humid enclosure. I let myself slide down and sit, with my back up against the marble walls, and breathe in the serenity, letting the calm envelop and fill me.
It’s a struggle for me to leave, but leave I must. I return to the pagoda where the ceremony is still under way, and settle down to watch a while longer and get myself out of my reverie. When the ceremony ends and the chanting dies down, I take this as my cue to move on. My visit to Marble Mountains has been a memorable surprise.
We resume our travels along the coastal road. Thankfully the seemingly never ending strip of hotels and resorts has come to an end and we can now see the flat, azure blue sea. With the wind on my face and the sun on my back, I couldn’t feel happier if I tried. We stop to watch and photograph as a family pull in a large fishing net. It takes 10 of them to haul it in and a great amount of effort. When the net is finally pulled onto the beach I feel as disappointed as I used to when I opened up a lucky packet as a child. Always expecting a big surprise, the small plastic toy never matched my expectations. The small amount and size of the fish in the net hardly seems worth all the effort to catch them and I wonder how they survive. Maybe the fishermen that have been moved by the government and been taught new skills are better off after all!
The straight, flat roads becomes a windy, uphill one as we motor on into the mountains towards the clouds. I can see the cloud coming over the top and swirling down towards the sea, hugging the mountain slope, and before I know it, the clear, majestic views over the bays and sea becomes obscured and enshrouded and the temperature drops quite a few degrees.
I have been transported into a completely different world. It is grey, misty, cold and mystical. We can see only a few metres in front of us and when we reach the flat top, we stop to support the local vendors. A sweet, hot cup of coffee and a bracelet later, and we are back on the bikes making our way down the other side.
All too soon we join hundreds of other motorists on the main, flat highway and it becomes a trip of endurance before we get to our destination. Fortunately for me, I have a full library of images and experiences in my mind to draw from, and these take me on a number of pleasurable journeys of my own as I shut out the noise of engines, hooting and civilization.