In our quest to see the entirety of Central Vietnam in a single day, Dan and I must move quickly – it’s already almost noon we’re only halfway done!
Having survived a near-death free fall from the top of Marble Mountain to the bottom, it’s time to head south to heavenly Hoi An.
11:47am: Hoi An Ancient Town
We drop my bags off at my hotel, park the bikes, and continue on foot to Hoi An’s Ancient Town.
The city is set along the banks of the Thu Bồn River, its well-preserved ancient town bursting with colorful buildings and narrow, winding streets that make you feel you’ve stepped into another time and place.
120,000 dong ($6) gains you entrance into the five “attractions,” of your choice.
We check out….
- The Japanese Bridge
- The Museum of History and Culture
- The Tan Ky family house (200 years old and the ancestors of the original family still live here!)
- The Cam Pho communal house, where Chinese immigrants held meetings and discussed town matters
- The Quong Cong Temple, where huge circular spirals of incense are always burning to bless those who have purchased a “place” in the temple
After a quick lunch of traditional Cao Lau, a Hoi An specialty noodle dish made with pork, fresh greens, peanuts, and mint leaves, we are off to our last destination – the incomparable My Son ruins!
2:12pm My Son
The Champa ruins at My Son date back to the 2nd century. This collection of Hindu temples is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in Central Vietnam, and according to Dan, is supposed to be “the most beautiful place in the entire country.”
Pronounced “MEE sun,” My Son is about 50 kilometers from Hoi An.
We learn that the site shuts down at 5pm.
“How long will it take us to get to My Son?” we ask my hotel concierge.
“Two, two and a half hours” she says. “You’d better leave now.”
We exchange a look that says “There’s no way it’s going to take us over two hours to go 50 kilometers!”, hop on our bikes, and head southwest towards the sun.
4:52pm My Son?
It’s been nearly three hours since we’ve left Hoi An, and neither Dan, I, or our combined smartphone powers have been able to get us closer to our goal.
Names of streets appear then disappear, or change completely, or never existed in the first place.
Highways suddenly end, turns are missed, roundabouts send us back where we came from.
But we’re on the right track now, we think. I hope.
The sun is inching ever closer to the horizon. I’m tired and stressed that it’s so late, but the incredible surroundings make it difficult to succumb to negativity.
We’ve been up and over an enormous mountain that offered sweeping views of endless green fields and colorful towns.
We’ve seen gravestones painted like Christmas presents, bright altars lined up along the perimeter of lush rice paddies.
We’ve descended said mountain into a secret valley where locals plough their fields with the help of beefy buffalo, and children’s eyes bulge at the sight of white skin.
Dan’s GPS steers us down a dirt road that’s becoming increasingly narrow, increasingly rocky.
We pass a group of construction workers and then there is nothing, just us, the road, fields in Vietnamese green and blue mountains like Japanese brush paintings.
The road becomes more of a path – the kind you walk on, not drive a motorbike upon.
We stop to double check our phones. Yep, according to King Google this is the way. And we’re close, maybe just another five kilometers.
If we get there before the strike of 5pm, maybe we can bribe the ticket taker to let us in, if only for a few minutes.
We’ve not lost hope! Let’s go! Let’s do this! Let’s….
Start the motorbike already.
Dan disappears around the bend, and I struggle with the ignition.
It’s not turning over.
I wait a second, breathe, then try again.
Am I doing it wrong? This is my first day on a motorbike, after all, and there does seem to be a delicate finesse required as one presses the left handle while revving the right.
I try doing it wrong on purpose. I try doing it backwards. I try waiting. I try again.
Dan is long gone, out of site beyond the curve of the road, and I am alone, all alone in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the central coast of Vietnam.
The sun is starting to set, and there is a chill in the air at this higher elevation. I’m in nothing but a tank top, with nothing else to keep me warm.
Seconds tick by. Then minutes. Dan doesn’t return.
I watch my thoughts with interest. These are the moments in which I thrive. My mind can make a mountain out of a molehill, but when faced with an actual mountain, I become instantly present, instantly calm. Someone cutting in line in front of me at the airport gets me more riled up than this….
This being the strong possibility of being stranded on a dirt road leading to nowhere, unforgiving rock face to my right, sweeping fields of nothingness to my left.
“I wonder how cold it will be if I have to sleep outside tonight?” I think.
“If I walk back now and try to find help, will someone steal my bike?” I think.
“Dan’s not coming back for me” I think. “I’ve slowed him down all day.”
And truly, I have. Something about Dan made me relax, to point of indulging in solo travel sloppiness. I was so relieved to have a travel partner, if only for a day, that I relied entirely upon Dan for my survival.
He watched as I lost control of the motorbike while parked, the heavy burden crashing to the ground in front of a group of locals.
He saved me when twice I tried to pay for a 10,000 dong bottle of water with a 100,000 dong note (they look so similar!)
Something about Dan made me let go, let my guard down, take a much-needed break from a constant state of self protection.
And now he is gone.
I begin to worry about paying for two hotel rooms tonight – my room back in Hoi An and whatever room I can find after walking to wherever the nearest hotel might be.
My phone is about to die.
I start to shiver from the mountain air, and have resigned myself to leaving the bike and continuing back the way we came on foot, when….
A blue silhouette appears around the bend, backlit by the setting sun, a lone figure against fields of brilliant green.
He is running up the road toward me, an Adonis kicking up dust, a savior from some ancient dimension sent to rescue a maiden in distress.
I almost cry with relief, but Dan would never go for that, so I play it cool and wait patiently as he catches his breath – he’d gotten a few miles up the road before he noticed I was no longer behind him.
The bike is indeed dead, very dead, and just as we’re weighing our options as to what could possibly be done in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Vietnam, we hear a rumbling sound.
This road, this path, is definitely not made for motorbikes, and it’s most definitely not made for cars, let alone giant flatbed trucks.
And yet there it is – this truck that just happens to pull up right when we need help, just happens to be the kind of truck meant for hauling large items, just happens to be completely empty with a bed just dying for a dead motorbike.
With much hand gesturing, we get two Vietnamese construction-worker-angels to load the bike into their truck bed and drive me back to town while Dan follows behind on his motorbike.
They take me to the only motorbike repair shop in town, then drive off into the sunset as if they’d never existed.
“You didn’t thank them” says Dan.
The repair shop owner takes one look at the bike, one look at me, and grabs the key from my hand.
He places it into the ignition, puts a practiced palm on the handles, and starts the bike instantly.
Dan and I stare in shock. The owner – and surrounding children who’ve gathered to gawk – laughs heartily. He turns the bike off and turns it on again, just to rub it in.
7:45pm Back in Hoi An
Dan and I commiserate over dinner. Our mission has been a partial failure which, to a Wisconsinite like Dan, is a total and utter travel fail.
“Hey, three out of four isn’t bad!” I say.
“My Son was the only thing I really wanted to see” says Dan.
At least we got to see Marble Mountain. And the charming ancient town of Hoi An. And some seriously breathtaking countryside that we never would have seen if we hadn’t gotten lost.
The moral of the story?
It’s stupid to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. You end up feeling rushed and stressed, and you don’t begin to scratch the surface of what your destination really has to offer.
Plus, you’ll probably end up lost in the middle of nowhere with a dead motorbike.
For Part 1 of A Morning at Marble Mountain, click here.
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1. Technically, can you can see Da Nang, Marble Mountain, Hoi An and My son in a single day.
2. It's better to see less stuff than to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. We didn't have nearly enough time in Hoi An, and were so rushed that we ended up getting totally lost on the way to My Son.
3. I am infinitely grateful to a pair of construction-worker-angels who came to our rescue when my motorbike died in the middle of nowhere.
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