Mr Hue picks me up at a sprightly 8am for my motorbike trip from Hue to Hoian. I 've been deliberating whether or not to do it – it costs $63 which is well out of my budget and the local bus only costs $5 to get there in half an hour. Having said that this may be the last part of proper travel I do in Vietnam and as motorbikes seem like they outnumber people 2:1 in this country – what better way to see the country??? The scenic route will stop at blue lagoons, waterfalls, wind up a mountain path, beaches and tomorrow take in the Cham ruins at My Son.
Plus - I'm happy to pay a little more for a driver I trust with a good bike as I have an exceptionally bony bottom!
Mr Hue has a bright red Honda with a lady buddha sticker on the front of it – its the Buddha bike! I watch with trepidation as he manages to strap The Bastard (my backpack) to the back of it and then we get going. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon where villagers live on boats. They rise at 1am in the morning to go out and cast their nets and they are just returning as we arrive around 10.
Although people keep telling me its rainy season in Central Vietnam the clouds have parted and both the sky and the lagoons are a deep navy blue. The water is split into a little patchwork divided by grass paths as far as the eye can see. I ask a couple if i can take their photo and they precariously balance themselves in the boat and beam at me with great toothless grins. In the background paddy fields filled with water glimmer under the sun, strewn with lilly pads and the brown fingers of rice at the end of its season. The great grey shimmering flanks of buffalo slowly wade through them.
We take off again and wind up a hill stopping for a view over the motorway that curls down the hill in a grey ribbon to the beach. Its a much needed break for my bottom. Mr Hue tells me about how much they hate the Chinese. I ask him if its the people or the history and he says “both!”
Vietnamese find the Chinese rude and arrogant. But also China recently invaded after the war with America when Vietnam was its weakest.
He talks again with gentle sadness about the war – how Vietnamese were killing each other (North and South) and how he doesn't receive any money from the government for his losses its only the people in the North that compensation.
Our next stop are the Elephant Waterfalls. In the pictures he's shown me , taken in peak season, they look packed with locals and tourists alike but blissfully – I get the place to myself. They are set high up in the mountains amongst shady pines. A rock shaped like a large elephant sits at the water's mouth and more great smooth stones collect into a series of pools of crystal clear emerald water. I strip off surreptitously... and go for a swim. The water is cool and fresh and the current strong. A gorgeous and tranquil way to relax and refresh.
When we get to the highest point of the mountain we stop to take in views over Langao Beach – a golden crescent moon of sand far below, and admire the deep blue of the south China sea.
At the highest point are bunkers that were used in the civil and American war. The strange slitted towers are pocked with bullet holes. From one side we can lok down to Hue and the other side the town of Danang.
We start to make our descent down the spriralling road until we get to South China Beach at Danang.
"Wheeeeeeee!" i scream and then "um can i hold onto you?"
"Why not?" he says affably. Far out to see is a white Buddha on a hill. I go for a dip. There are a group of teenage boys doing backflips – showing off for my benefit. I wade out into the surf which is warm and frothy then make my way back.
Mr Hue is talking to an older man who has pulled up along side on his motorbike and stares out to sea with solemn eyes. He looks younger than his sixty something years - on the white streaking through a wiry goatee gives away his age. He tells me that he lives in Ho Chi Minh and that he fought in the American (what the Vietnamese refer to as the Vietnam war) as a 19 year old Marine. This is the first time he has been back since the war. He has come to remember his friends and family that he lost in the war. His eyes fill with tears as he tells me about the friends he lost in combat - some who took their own lives.
“We were without food or drink, without ammunition. Some of my friends killed themselves with grenades, because they were without hope.”
He apologies for getting upset. I thank him for sharing his story. Again - with such a bloody and savage recent history I shouldn't be suprised that I have met people still nursing the wounds. It is a sombre end to the afternoon.
We finish the day visiting the Marble mountain. As the sun is setting I head up the hill past a windy village filled with marble statues. There are a tour group from Mauritious with me in sensible travel sandals and pleated shorts. I tag along with them to go in the various caves as the damp, the dripping and the darkening light is beginning to un -nerve me. The buddha cave is eery -the walls and ceiling drip with globules of unseen condensatin, its filled with bats and the smell of incense. Someone I think is a guide shows me where to go, helping me up a stone. I don't feel comfortable as the stones are wet and slippery and i'm in flip flops – he has also brushed his hand against my arse one too many times for it to be an accident. I back off and bark at him. He asks for a tip. Not likely mate.
The rest of the mountain is also set with caves of differing sizes – some filled with Budhha statues. I go into another cavernous one and another “guide” also chats me up whilst handing me incense sticks to light and offer to the statues. I do but i'm feeling uncomfortable. The sun has almost set. Its dark and cold and i'm in a strange shadowy place with men that don't know how to keep their hands to themselves.
I make my way back down the mountain and find Mr Hue and we head into Hoi -an.
He takes me to the hotel where he stays and the staff greet me with a complimentary cup of green tea, macaroons and face wipes. It's needed to get the grime and dirt off the day. I'm given a room next to reception which they assure me will be quiet.
The next day I go upstairs to the roof terrace and take my obligatory banana and chocolate pancake and coffee. When I come down 20 minutes later the cleaners are doing my room which I find suspicous but I pick up my purse and Mr Hue and I get going.
We arrive about an hour later into My son. These ancient ruins are from the Cham civilisation that ruled Vietnam from 200 ad, its a World Unesco Heritage site and its been compared to Angkor Wat – but as i'm heading to the latter in Cambodia I kind of wish i'd saved my time. Entry fee is 60,000 (about 2 quid) and just as I arrive there is a show put on in the cultural centre. A mix of women in exotic sequiny straps make langorous dance moves slowly and listlessly lifting their legs and curling their arms to forms their many handed goddess shapes. Another man comes on – he is a big hit in the local village apparently and plays traditional Cham music on a kind of kazoo through which he manages circular breathing – enabling him to hold a particularly loud raspberryish note for an excruciatingly long time. I can feel the women in front of me clench their cheeks as they smile through gritted teeth. Sitll its only half and hour – which always makes a good show in my book. The rest of My Son is a series of temples that are categorised under letter headings. Some are undergoing restoration. Its a scorching day and the ruins are packed with tourists in their groups with tour guides explaining the history......i go into a cube shaped temple which was used as a tomb. Its pitch black inside and cool. Suddenly a guide outside starts screaming:
“Get out of the temple, everyone out of the temple NOW!!!!”
“Snaaakkkkkeeeees!!! there are snakes in the temple – everyone get out.”
There is a mildly concerned push for the exit until we are outside and can see small green and black stripey snakes winding their way through the brickwork.
Is it worrying that my very first thought is: This would be such a cool way to go...
“Ooh its like Indiana Jones!” I say to the French middle aged women next to me as they elbow past
At the end of the day I get back and go to pay Mr Hue. I realise that 2 million dong (about 60 quid) has been taken from my wallet. I immediately think back to the cleaners who were doing my room whilst I was at breakfast and wished i'd checked it then. I start to doubt myself – the hotel seems very good and the staff are all really nice. Maybe it wasn't 2 million dong maybe i'd spent some of it. Maybe I got short changed along the way . I go back to the hotel and confront them. I've thought to myself that morning “i shouldn't travel carrying all of this money” I just wish I'd checked my purse to see how much exactly I had. Then I could have had it out there and then. I speak to them and the cleaner when I get back and she denies it. There was another middleaged women with her that thinking about it was maybe only pretending to be with the hotel. I'm angry at myself for leaving my wallet out. But i'm still now doubting how much was taken and when. I'm pretty sure when I got my wallet out at My Son I could see the blue notes of the 500 bill in my purse. And i'm pretty sure nothing dropped out and was taken then. Ah well. Its gone. I can't do anything about it now – I just need to learn the lesson. I've become complacent in Asia because its so much safer than everywhere else i've been but the moment your guard goes down this is what happens. And it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.