Motorbikes and Mountains

Today I’m taking my life into my hands and renting a motorbike. It’s easy to do through my home stay as Blue Clouds rents them for $5.00 per day and there’s no muss or fuss. In fact, it’s not until half-way through the day that I realize I haven’t even brought my international driver’s permit with me and, oh yeh, I was given and signed absolutely no paperwork. Officially you need a motorbike license to drive a motorbike, unofficially, well, what happens in Vietnam stays in Vietnam.

I’m riding to Marble Mountain, which is approximately thirty-minutes away. You might remember my foray into motorbike rental in Bali and my fear of hills (read Uneasy Rider). The road to Marble Mountain is about as flat as Florida and, while along the coast so there’s no worries there. Still, it’s a less beautiful ride than it sounds like as I’ll view none of the South China Sea on the way as houses, shacks and other buildings block the view. Still, as long as I see no blood today, I’ll consider it a success.

I confidently ride out of town (a pointer I was given by a guide was “ride with confidence” or, my version, fake it ‘til you make it)), turn left at the streetlight and left again at the next streetlight. I seem to be on the correct road which is a huge accomplishment as the map here is fairly bad and, even if it lists a street on the map, there’s not always a street-sign to identify it. This is the long, straight road and my previous motorbike experience seems to have paid off as I’m cruising along at 60-70 kilometers per hour.

I ride down the long and not-so-winding road for about twenty-five minutes. I’ve been told to look for the mountain on my left and have seen nothing. If I find myself lost (an oxymoron), I’ve been told, “Just ask anyone for directions,” so I pull to the side of the road next to a man and ask, “Excuse me, Marble Mountain?” as I point down the road.

He looks at me confused and grunts. I repeat myself louder and slower (because that always helps) and he smiles and shrugs. Hmmmm, this might be harder than I thought. I see a younger person ahead and, as I’ve found the younger people speak better English, I pose the same question and receive the same answer. I search my map and see that Marble Mountain isn’t actually on the map so I can’t even point to it.

With little choice, I proceed forward and see a hill on the left. As I turn in, I see some stairs, some construction and lots of students with partially shaved heads. It seems to be some sort of Buddhist school and lunch is being set up. Individually, many say “Hello,” to which I respond, “Xin Chào” (hello in Vietnamese), and ask if this is Marble Mountain. They giggle and repeat their hellos and speak Vietnamese amongst themselves. Crap!

I climb on my bike and proceed. Five minutes-later I see a small sign near a hill on the right – Marble Mountain! I’m directed to park in front of a shop. The lady says, “You park here and you come look in my shop when you finish.”

I agree, park my bike, and am directed to a ticket window. As I’m having a hip pain issue, I ask about the elevator which I’d been told about. The lady points her finger across the street and says, “You go there.”

I cross the street and see, well, more souvenir shops. I ask about tickets with the elevator and a tiny lady comes out and says, “You follow me.”Marble Mountain AlterWhile I was originally directed just across the street, we walk a few blocks before arriving at the entrance with the elevator. Arriving at the top, I take in the nice view and begin exploring. There are many steps to climb to the various pagodas and caves. I walk past the pagodas, unimpressed. They’re not old and they have no religious meaning for me. I walk up and down countless stairs Marble Mountainleading to some of the five caves where I find altars inside each with donation boxes should I choose to light one of the incense sticks to offer with a prayer. While word has it that during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong hid in here and even had a hospital inside the caves, there are no guides for hire and no printed information is available with any of this history. I leave after an hour, pretty disappointed as the most fun part of the trip was my motorbike ride here.

I arrive at the shop where I parked and, as promised, I walk in and look around, where I find hundreds of marble Buddha statues and some jewelry. I have no intention of buying anything and am only walking through to keep my promise in exchange for the parking spot. The lady follows me around trying to sell me things. I politely decline, telling her that I’m traveling for a year and can’t carry anything with me.

“You buy for friends,” she says.

“No, I have no money,” I respond.

She blocks my way so I can’t leave. I circle to the other side and she weaves her way around the counter to block my way again (help, I’m being held hostage in a tacky souvenir shop!). I firmly tell her I must leave and slide between her and the counter. I grab my helmet and get on my bike as she shouts at me, “You no buy anything!”

Yeh, that’s right. I no buy anything!

Hoi An BeachI continue back – at 70 kilometers an hour, I’m much more comfortable than I was in Bali – following the road towards the beach. There are two beaches in Hoi An; one, Cua Dai had much of it washed away during the last rainy season and the other An Ban is known as the good beach. I ride towards An Ban beach, buy an expensive bottle of water in exchange for parking my bike, and head towards the clear water of this beautiful beach before sitting at one of the beach-side restaurants to enjoy some nice spring rolls which have become a staple of my Vietnamese diet. If you eat something at the beach restaurants you get free use of a beach lounge-chair and umbrella. I take advantage of this and spend some quality time in the ocean as well as lying on a sandbar. This is truly one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to (and I’ve been to many) and I wish I had more time here.

I ride back to the home stay, take a shower and head out to, once again, experience the magic of an evening in Hoi An. Once in town, I grab a cup of mint chocolate-chip ice cream (it’s really hot here and, as this is refreshing and cools me down, there are no calories) and walk through the Ancient Town admiring the lanterns, and people-watching while listening to the classical music which is piped through the streets each night. (If there were birds flittering about following me along this would be a Disney movie).

Pottery GameI head down a street where they’ve just set up the Ancient Pottery Breaking Game. Here, they hang a ceramic pot from a string, and a mask with no eye-holes is placed over your face. You’re handed a stick and told to step forward and take one swing at the pot. If you break the pot, the crowd cheers and you win a prize. I pay my 5,000 Dong and carefully measure my steps leading from the starting point to the pot before they place the mask over my head. I step forward, being careful that my stride is exactly the same as the steps I’d measured and take a swing. Nothing but air.

Pottery GameI’m sure I can do better so I pay another 5,000 Dong to try it again. If I win, I can fit nothing more in my bag so it’s not about the prize, it’s solely about my competitive nature. This time I’m pretty sure I’ve got this; swing higher I tell myself. Mask over my face, six-steps taken, I stand still whispering the mantra swing high and hard. The result is the same as the first. Time to give up and go eat.

I end up back at Sau Restaurant, the wonderful place Eoin, the Irishman, introduced me to the night before. After one beer, an order of shrimp spring rolls, and a duck with lemongrass and chile, I’m ready for bed.

Tomorrow – I fly to Hanoi for a birthday cruise to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

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