Since we were so happy with our experience yesterday, Fred arranged another tour with Zoom today. We met Tâm, one of Zoom’s English speaking tour guides, at 8am right outside the ship next to all of the tour busses. Tâm showed us into a very comfortable van and once the driver started down the roadway, he quickly started telling us about the places we’d be seeing during the day.
We started out by taking the longer, more scenic route though Hải Vân Pass . This was so that we could stop at one of the old borders between the north and the south. If you look closely, you can see bullet holes next to Freddy’s head in the first photograph.
Once we drove through the mountains, we took a drive through Da Nang City. We didn’t stop, but we did drive over Dragon Bridge, which opened in 2013. I couldn’t get great photos from the van, but you can get the idea. It’s a really long, serpentine-style yellow dragon that seems to be swimming (or floating) just above the water on the Han River. It’s really quite something. I wish we had gotten to see it at night, since I’m sure it’s really lovely with the lights along its structure.
After our quick tour of the city, we drove to Marble Mountain. Tâm told us about the history of the area and how two kingdoms back in the tenth century fought for control. The Vietnamese eventually conquered the Cham Kingdom, but the area is still influenced by their culture. Today, the Cham people make up only 2-3% of the population in Vietnam and they are known for their talent as sculptors. They take local marble and hammer, chisel, and chip away until they’ve created incredible statues, tables, tea sets, vases, etc. We stopped at a shop and were delighted with the quality and ended up purchasing a few smaller pieces. We could see sculptors working in one area of the shop while we were there.
Once we were happy with our purchase and back in the van, we began to climb higher up the road on Marble Mountain. We knew we’d be hiking, but we weren’t really sure what to expect. Since this was one of Fred’s ports to arrange, I hadn’t done any research at all and he’d just trusted in Zoom to plan something for us. We literally didn’t know what we were doing until we climbed into the van that morning! In any case, it was a hot & humid day, but we weren’t afraid of the few hundred steps that Tâm told us we’d be climbing, so we grabbed our water bottles and headed into the unknown.
At the beginning, we saw the typical tourist vendors and stalls selling the usual merchandise, including some really small marble trinkets of lesser quality than those we viewed earlier.
We started up the stairs …. it was a hot day and I kept feeling lightheaded due to the heat and not eating much for breakfast. I powered through it though, enjoying each and every one of the sights along the way, including a Buddhist sanctuary.
At the sanctuary, we stopped, took off our hats, and asked if it was ok to take photos. Here Tâm told us about the type of Buddhism evident in the mountain sanctuaries that we were seeing, a type of Mahayana Buddhism. He told us about the Buddha, the significance of the number seven in Buddhism, as well as the lotus flower and its symbolism. I’m not going to cover all of that here, but I do recommend looking it up. It wasn’t until I got back to the ship later that I learned how the Marble Mountains were historically a place for the anchorites of Mahayana Buddhism to set up sanctuaries. They definitely have left their mark on the area. It’s truly incredible to see.
This little pagoda was adjacent to the Buddhist sanctuary.
As we got closer to the top of the mountain, there were a few places that required some scrambling. Even though there was no rain and the rocks were completely dry, there were lots of slippery spots in the marble from people using the same footholds over time. It wasn’t really a difficult climb; it just required concentration – and the views at the top were well worth the trouble.
On our way down, we also passed through another sanctuary in Huyen Khong Cave. We all thought this was the most impressive – especially Kyle, who made mental notes on a lot of the fixtures and statues for use later in his creative projects.
We were tired and had worked up an appetite after our hike, so we asked Tâm to take us to get some local food. The kids and I wanted to get Phở, so Tâm took us to a restaurant in Hoi An. When we walked in, they were making spring rolls, so we had to get some of those, too. It was the best Phở I’ve ever eaten. The kids and I all agreed on the spot that Phở is now one of our favorite foods and we have promised to make it at least once a week when we get back to CA.
Hoi An, while a bit touristy, turned out to be a really great area for strolling and people watching. It reminded me of an upscale area like downtown Pasadena where you’d find boutiques, coffee houses, etc, but with a Vietnamese flair. It’s a great place if you’re looking for silk dresses & scarves or tailored suits and leather goods.
We saw juice shops and places with vegan food. Needless to say, we all felt quite at home. The only annoyance was constantly having to pay attention to all of the bicycles. Tâm, while just walking down the street, actually got hit by one bicyclist from behind! It was another tourist, who promptly apologized several times in English – all the while turning beet red. Tâm seemed to take it in stride.
After we walked around a bit, Tâm brought us to Central Market in Hoi An. It was full of fruits, vegetables, spices, local crafts and other great finds. I was already searching for pho ingredients 🙂
We also walked through the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture, a small museum with Cham artifacts and tidbits about the trading history that thrived here between the 16th and 18th centuries.
We also had the opportunity to see a very old bridge in Hoi An known as the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was originally constructed in 1590 (although the one now is not the original). It was really packed with people, so we didn’t walk across it. I did, however, get a couple of photos in the area.
After our walk around Hoi An, it was getting close to the time we needed to head back to the ship. Fred, however, wanted to make a quick stop at one of the local beaches to get an idea of what they’re like, so we made a brief detour to My Khe Beach. With the white sand, warm water (I stuck my foot in), and the buildings along the street opposite, it reminded me of Cocoa Beach in Florida.
We got another look at the Dragon Bridge on our way back through Da Nang, but my phone was put away & it was getting dark, so I didn’t even attempt to get it out. Instead, I watched the insanity going on around us as we drove through the city. It seems that there are at least ten scooters and motorcycles for every car on the road (Tâm, in fact, said I was correct in this observation). It is really difficult to keep track of all of them! I took these shots earlier in the day on our first trip through the city.
I can’t imagine driving in traffic with so many scooters around! Some of them even had large packages, baskets, or trailers attached to their sides & backs – items that stuck out several feet. I saw one guy with more than five extra-large garbage bags that had been carefully balanced on a single scooter! Many of them had more than one person. It was loosely-ordered chaos, but it seems to work for the people there. Tâm explained that it’s much less expensive to drive a motorcycle or scooter than a car, since cars are taxed heavily here. Imported autos can be taxed as much as 300%, so it’s no wonder there are so many scooters and motorcycles.
We really packed a lot in today and everyone was really tired. The kids both slept the entire way back (I took pics, but they would likely kill me if I shared them). We took the tunnel back through the mountains, rather than taking the mountain pass again. The tunnel is about 6km long and traffic was very slow due to it being rush hour in the city, but we still got back with plenty of time to spare. It was a truly wonderful day and I highly recommend the tour that we did. This is one place I’d really love to return one day and spend more time. I hope that I’m fortunate enough that my path leads me back here in the future.