HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Marble Mountains & the My Son ruins

On one of our days in Hoi An we rented two motorbikes and drove out to the Marble Mountains, a group of five mountains made of...well, try to guess...that erupt into view in the middle of the otherwise pancake-flat stretch of land between Hoi An and Da Nang. The mountains are named after five elements: metal, fire, water, wood, and earth, and are home to many temples, shrines, and Buddhist-related statues. There are also caves within, because thousands of Vietnamese sculptors have carved out sections of the peaks to create their statues. Today, the marble is imported from China, and the mountains serve mainly as a tourist or religious pilgrimage site.

The drive to the mountains was easy, as was finding a place to park, thanks to a random woman. We were on the coastal road along the South China Sea when a Vietnamese woman pulled alongside me and asked where we were going. I pointed to the mountains, and she motioned for us to follow her down a cratered street lined with shops selling marble sculptures. We stopped at her shop, and she told us that we could park there for free as long as we looked around the store upon our return. That sounded fine, so we left our bikes with the random stranger and began the ascent up the steps that are carved into the biggest mountain.

We wandered into a cave that contained several carvings and a mentally-challenged young man that kept repeating "Happy Buddha! Lucky Buddha! Photo photo!" over and over again. The handiwork was amazing.

We checked out another, bigger cave, that featured a huge seated Buddha, and then made our way up to the peak of the mountain. The views, although somewhat limited thanks to the low clouds, were still impressive. You could see north to Da Nang and the Son Tra pensinsula, west to the Truong Son mountain range, east over the South China Sea, and south towards Hoi An. I was struck, yet again, by how different the scene would've looked four decades ago. If you had stood on that peak in 1970, you would have seen B-52's and Phantoms taking off from the airbase in Da Nang and heard artillery rumbling off in the distance. Today, all you see are rice paddies, busy roads, and a growing city; the main sounds are the crashing waves of the ocean and the unmistakable noise of construction as a row of 5-star resorts goes up along the beach.

In another 10 or 20 years this place will look like Florida.
After doing some more exploring for a bit, we got our motos at the woman's shop, where we were obligated to buy two tiny marble monkeys, and headed back up to the Son Tra, this time to have a go at the summit road. Lonely Planet had warned that the road was a tricky drive, with iffy road conditions and erratic traffic. At first, I wondered what the writers had been smoking: the road was perfectly smooth and an absolute joy to drive on. About halfway up, however, the new road ended, and the potholed old one took over. We bounced along, climbing ever higher, until we came upon a construction site that was causing water to pour down the road. We decided to turn around, but not before taking in the panoramic view of Da Nang and the surrounding area.

As I was carving my way back down the mountain, I noticed that Anthony was no longer in sight behind me. I made it to the bottom, and just as I was about to turn around to see what was wrong his bike came limping along the road. I immediately noticed that his rear tire was flat. There wasn't anything but industrial port buildings around us, so the only choice was to drive slowly towards Da Nang and hope we would come across a gas station along the way. We spotted a ramshackle sation and pulled over, simply pointing to the tire. The people lounging around the pump pointed us farther down the road, and one woman popped up, got on her bike, and motioned for us to follow her. We drove a couple hundred feet down the road and pulled up to a row of very poor houses, where a man was working on motorbikes. He saw the tire and immediately got to work, his tools stored in an old ammunition box. I wondered if the bullets that the box once held had injured or killed any family members of the people in the crowd that was now gathering to point at the two stupid Westerners. Anthony's bike had a new tire in no time, and we pulled back onto the road after offering many thanks. We were blown away by the kindness of complete strangers that could have just as easily ignored us and left us to our own devices.

On our last day in central Vietnam we checked out of the An Hoi hotel, rented the same motos we had been using, and made our way out of Hoi An towards My Son (pronounced Mee Sun), the site of ruins built by the Champa empire between the 4th and 14th centuries. Sadly, like many historical sites in this part of the country, My Son took a horrific beating during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong used the dense forest around the site as a base, and the U.S. Air Force destroyed most of the ancient remains in an effort to root out the guerillas. What remains is quite fascinating to see, but I would suggest visiting My Son before you see Angkor Wat in Cambodia, because the former pales in comparison to the latter. The structures of My Son are red brick, and some are still in decent condition, but most are largely destroyed; the overgrown bomb craters serving as evidence of why they are in such poor condition. Actually, the sight that amazed us most was the group of four incredibly hot Western girls touring My Son at the same time. As evidence of our high level of maturity, these girls generated much more conversation between Anthony and I than any of the ruins.
The ruins are set amidst some awesome mountains.

Before I close the book on our central Vietnam travels, I should mention the drive from Hoi An to My Son. By the time we reached the ruins I felt like I had driven through a time machine; starting with the 19th century colonial architecture of the Old Town, moving into modern Vietnam, where every road is lined with the same things: small houses, pagodas, shops selling SIM cards and cameras, plastic-chair cafes, and ramshackle pho shops staffed by a middle-aged woman and a few mangy dogs. Upon arriving in My Son we jumped back hundreds of years, and the journey was reversed as we drove back.

The drive also took us past miles of vibrantly green rice paddies, which really are the symbol of rural Vietnam.

A boy and his buffalo.
We were also on National Highway 1, the road that stretches from the Mekong Delta in the deep south to the Chinese border in the far north, for part of the drive. This highway - which has just one lane going in each direction and sometimes a shoulder - is the epitome of insane driving, which is saying something given Vietnam's high standards for bonkers roads. A common scene is to see cars overtaking buses that are already overtaking trucks, taking up the entire width of the highway, the drivers using the proven scientific principle that repeatedly honking your horn will make solid objects in front of you vanish. Meanwhile, the same dark comedy is hurtling down the lane going the opposite direction, creating a high-speed game of chicken that, amazingly, ended without incident every time, just moments before the whole scene was about to turn into a massive explosion of crushed steel and shattered bodies. Add to this potentially catastrophic mix the occasional markets and businesses full of customers along the side of the road and you really get a sense of how safe the highways back in the U.S. are.

Still, despite the dangers of the roads here, we arrived safely and soundly at every destination, usually on our old motorbikes. In fact, those motos represent a perfect metaphor for travel in Vietnam. The speedometers were broken and my fuel gauge mostly forgot that it was supposed to tell me how much gas was left in the tank, but they delivered us everywhere problem-free. (Well, except for Anthony's flats.) In this country, it isn't about the comfort of the journey, but what you experience along the way that matters. Whether its slurping up a bowl of noodles with some locals, having every passing kid say "hello!" to you, or helping an elderly woman push her heavy scooter up the ramp into her home, you get far more out of a trip here than you do on the safe but boring roads of most of the Western world. Vietnam. It's always an experience.


  1. Beautiful. I was there in 2009 with my son, after teaching in HCMC. thanks for sharing :)

  2. You're welcome! Thanks for visiting!