From my ninth floor perch, I’m looking out on one of the meanest storms I have ever witnessed. I can’t imagine that there can be so much water in the heavens that can fall in one storm here. The thunder is tremendous and the lightning flashes expose the buildings otherwise cloaked in the deep black of night. A bolt zig-zags its way to the ground somewhere near the river not too far from here, and with each new flash the sky seems to rip open a little more violently. The street in front of the hotel that slopes down toward the river is a raging, swelling stream of run-off about two-feet deep flowing toward the Han. Not too many brave souls out on cycle or car right now. Most of those about huddle in groups under the awnings of the shops that line the street. Others on the flooded street careen into the water and stall out. The rain is so heavy at times that it cascades down my window like a waterfall. It is only 9:30, but lights are going out all over the area now. The thunder is coming in long rolls that finish with a loud clap somewhere not too distant. And through all of this you can still hear beeps of motorcycles and cars below. Neither rain, thunder or lightning can fully drown out that sound from this city.
The rains are beginning to subside now and the thunder grows more distant. I should probably not be sitting by the window even now, but these awesome acts of nature are too compelling to witness any other way. In an hour it will all be gone– and the the city will be a little cooler by any measure.
I should have known it was not a good sign as I was picked up at the Villa Hue Hotel by a rattle-trap excuse of a vehicle. You know, the kind that should have been retired 10 years ago, or had actually died but no one knew it yet. The smell of diesel and stale cigarette smoke was nauseating. We picked up four Russian women and their luggage as well and off we went to meet the minibus that was to take us to Danang. We poured out of the car at a “bus stop” on the side of the road that was littered with wood, rubber and garbage. Finally, twenty minutes later an already overcrowded bus arrived to be greeted by five pairs of rolling eyes. We loaded our stuff on the bus and literally crawled our way over people and luggage to the seats in the back of the bus. Everyone laughed— never mind— it is only a two-hour trip. The landscape on the way is supposed to be some of the most beautiful in Vietnam with mountains and valleys on one side that eventually meet the bays and beaches along the South China Sea It is fantastic, but it can’t compare to the mountains and terraced slopes of Sapa in the north.
Almost all of us got out at Danang bus station. A metered-taxi driver told me that the trip to the hotel was “10 dollar same same.” “No way,” said I. But it IS metered, for all that was worth, and motorcycle was not an option at that point. Well, by the time we got to the hotel, it was the equivalent of three dollars. I pointed this out to him, but he just looked at me seriously and said, “Yes, yes. Same same ten dollar.” Well I gave him the 55,000 dong ($3.00) and he seemed to be happy enough.
The next day I wandered the city as I usually do when I get to someplace new. I spent a lot of time dodging the persistent cyclo (rickshaw) and motorcycle taxis drivers. In the afternoon, I found myself at the Cham Museum down by the river. The Cham people were the indigenous people living here until the Viets conquered them in the 14th century. They were, indeed are, a Hindu-influenced civilization. The remaining art, largely taken from the holy city of Mee Soan (My Son) consists of sandstone statues and architectural features from the old buildings. The sign at the museum said that permission had to be granted by the museum if you wanted to take pictures, but that did not seem to interfere with the tourists there snapping away right in front of the very same staff. Of course, I joined them! The statues alone were awesome. I returned along the water front to watch the people catching fish. One man called me over to show me his haul. As he opened his covered pail, he gave out a whooping, “Ah ha!” The look of excited triumph on his face said it all. Thumbs up was all I could do!
On Tuesday, I took the local bus to the old port town of Hoi An. It really was beautiful and interesting architecturally as it was an old trading port largely influenced by the Chinese and Japanese merchants who lived there between 200-400 years ago. But the town is far too overrun with tourists to hold my interest for too long. I talked to one of the restaurateurs, a guy who socked away a little money during the war to open his establishment in better times. During the Vietnam War, he was a taster for one of the south Vietnamese generals, who was obviously not poisoned! He was a real character, singing old French songs for his diners. He evidently has a reputation as a chef as he has been to Europe showcasing Vietnamese cooking many times. It was fun roaming through the town just talking to people and taking in the buildings. When the heat, humidity and the threatening rains were too much to ignore, I climbed on the local bus for the 45-minute trip bound back to Danang.
The next day, I hired a car to take me out to the old Cham ruins at My Son (Mee Soan), about 90 minutes out of Danang. We started actually at Marble Mountain. A five-peaked “mountainette” (deserving more respect than a hill, but not quite Mt. Everest)! It was made of—-you guessed it— marble! I climbed the initial 150+ very steep steps to get to the top and then somehow still found it in me to explore the other peaks as well. Each peak has a unique pagoda on it with its equally unique view of the area surrounding it. When you descend on the other side, you are greeted by the endless hawkers trying to persuade you to enter their shop to buy some such marble product or another!
By 1 o’clock we are at My Son. I intended to take about an hour and a half there before pushing on to other ruins, but this was not to be the case. As at Ankor Wat, the ruins are surrounded by some of the most quieting, meditative, natural settings— mountains, hills and streams bubbling under footbridges everywhere you go. The pathways that lead you to the various sites of the ruins in the area are well-maintained if not exactly well-marked. A light rain began and I took shelter in one of the Kalan towers where the Brahmins once prayed. I took advantage of the solitude there to meditate. It was just unreal. There is such a power in that place still.
As if to confirm this, I emerged and there was a small colorful crowd of people in native costume in front of the ruins. They were Cham people from the south who came to have a spirit ceremony to invite their ancestors to come and celebrate with them. They were so inviting and allowed me to video a good part of it, including the dancing and prayers. One,who spoke some English, explained what they were doing. The traditional music for the dancing was amazing. It was well past 4 by the time I found my way back to the car and the trip back to Danang.
The final evening before I took off for Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) I had dinner at Seven, a moderately priced better restaurant serving Vietnamese fare. It was absolutely delicious food. The manager, Mr. Houang, came out to talk. His father was a helicopter pilot in the war and was killed when he was shot down. Mr. Houang was fourteen at the time and had to help support his family. The war is still very present here, even if the people are trying to move on in their own individual ways.