Published: May 2nd 2012April 25th 2012
Sit back on a sleeper bus straight out of Harry Potter (crazy driver and near-misses included) and relax...for a fifteen minute ride to the side of the highway where I'm dropped off on the outskirts of Danang. It's the midpoint of Vietnam. I have been here for 15 days and I only have 13 left.
Danang is ugly. Hate to say it, but it is. Industrial and pushing for development, it's hard to decide if the greyness comes from cloud cover or pollution. Probably a mixture of both. Riding on a motorbike from the highway into the city is like crossing a desert of half finished buildings, gaping structures through which sand flies to sting the eyes of my driver. But he swerves with style.
Very few Western faces show themselves in the streets, the city too new to be of any interest or to have an enticing ancient history. The bars ain't cheap either. We get stares, my Dutch travel companion and I, her skin as white as cream mine now more like caramel. Vietnamese woman love light skin and cover most their bodies when going in the sun (which is inescapable here). They wear elbow length gloves, mittens, knee high socks, and masks covering all but their eyes and I am continuously amazed at how they can stand the layers in this heat, but to them light skin equates to beauty. They hide in shade while light-skinned tourists move to the sun to get darker, which is a dynamic I sometimes find disconcerting.
We head 10km back south to explore the Marble Mountains. Not peaks in the sense of the Rockies back home, these five impressive rock faces rise out of a new area of development like green shoots searching for fresh air. Their names derive from the elements, with Thuy Son or Water being the most visited and most accessible since an elevator was built to bypass the older, pilgrimage-worn stairs. At the base a village of marble craftsmen workshops spills out into the street and the dust coats everything, including, I fear my lungs. Walking down the road is like passing a battle field of Asian statues, some majestically soaring above our heads, colossal Buddhas lending their blessings as we pass with lions roaring in our faces while others are half finished or shattered to pieces on the ground, green jade and white marble still shining beneath layers of dust.
The steps carved into the side of the mountain are uneven, some made for giants others for an infant's legs. Walking with head down to make sure my feet are placed on something solid I nearly run right into the welcoming gate Ong Chon, its outward face riddled with bullet holes, behind which is the first of many pagodas tucked away up here above the city. Within the caves of the mountain are a series of Hindu and Buddhist temples, some connected by tree lined paths others via cramped passageways through the rock. Round Buddha gazes down unsmiling from a niche fifty feet above my head and Siddhartha raises a hand that could crush me beneath its thumb to bless the many who come here not as tourists but as pilgrims. Though the air is cooler up here there is a sense of concentration, like mystical powers roam the caverns and the pressure of the years and history within the mountain makes me feel claustrophobic. Standing at the mouth of a Viet Cong cave, looking down into a cathedral-like space I feel intensely that I don't belong here. Maybe it's the smell of incense that burns the back of my throat or the bizarre altars littered with offerings to gods I don't comprehend that push me to move down the mountain, feeling much less enlightened then when I started.