The second I hear Dan’s voice I know I know him.
“California!” I shout, pointing at him in the middle of a hotel lobby in Da Nang, Vietnam.
“Wrong” he says. “Weak guess,” he says, and I instantly like him.
How ironic that I guessed he’s from my home-away-from-home, when it turns out he’s from my home-home, the great state of Wisconsin.
After having a very typical “Oh-my-God-you’re-from-Wisconsin-too?!” discussion, which inevitably includes phrases like “Miller Park!” and “Don’t you miss cheese?” and “Isn’t it funny how PBR is now a hipster thing?,” I learn that Dan is in Asia to teach English.
On a break between teaching gigs in South Korea and China, he has exactly 2 weeks to see Vietnam. And in true Sconie style, Dan is determined to use those 2 weeks to see all of Vietnam.
The next day I find myself renting a motorbike for the first time in my life and hoping to God Dan knows what he’s talking about when he says it’s “really easy” to ride.
7:23am China Beach, Da Nang
We start at China Beach in Da Nang because our hotel owner says that each day just after sunrise, hundreds of Vietnamese take to the sea for their morning swim. “A spectacle!” he says.
Our reward for waking up at this ungodly hour is half a dozen swimmers and a couple of dudes kicking around a soccer ball on the beach.
“Fail” says Dan. “I’m in charge now.”
It’s all I can do to keep up with his speeding motorbike as it soars down the highway that hugs the coastline between Da Nang and Hoi An.
8:40am Marble Museum and outdoor showroom
Before we arrive at Marble Mountain, the next stop on our list, we’re distracted by an outdoor museum filled with enormous marble statues of all shapes and sizes.
There are many such places lining the road to Hoi An, which boasts 5-star resorts on the ocean-side of the road, and marble shop after marble shop on the mountain-side of the road.
It’s free to walk around and check out the statues, and we get the idea that purchasing one would easily cost billions of dong.
Before leaving we see a group of women polishing the marble, and one who even seems to be making adjustments to the size and shape of one of the statues with a power tool of some sort.
I fancy her an exquisite artiste, though from looking at how the women are dressed and seeing their lack of a proper workspace, I assume the brilliant artistes are getting paid less than artiste wages.
9:01am On to Marble Mountain!
Not to be confused with Monkey Mountain, home to the biggest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam, Marble Mountain is south of Da Nang and is exactly what it sounds like – a giant mountain made of marble.
The hill juts out of the earth suddenly, as if someone had been slowly carving away at her foothills for centuries (and people have – where do you think all the marble statues come from?)
Dan’s stuff is back at the hotel in Da Nang, but I’m staying in Hoi An this week and have all of my worldly possessions balanced precariously on the motorbike.
We park and find that there are no lockers, so I stash my backpack with the parking attendant and opt to carry my laptop case – filled with computer, chargers, my DSLR camera, and anything else remotely valuable – up the mountain with me.
Marble Mountain is filled with labyrinths and caves and temples built into the slippery rock. You can see and feel the marble beneath your feet, and have to be careful so as not to slip and slide all the way down to the ground!
Dan leads me into a cave and through a narrow opening in the rock that may or may not be an official climbing area.
This guy is from Wisconsin, which means I’ll never hear the end of it if I punk out, so I squeeze through the narrow rock tunnel, shoving my giant bag in front of me and pushing it upwards with my hands.
Next thing I know, we’re climbing upwards at an incredibly steep incline, and the entirety of Central Vietnam suddenly sparkles into view. A large, flat rock juts out above all the others, and Dan is quick to leap upon it.
“Get up here!” he says, do-see-do-ing with me since the rock is only large enough for one person.
Alright, it’s no Nepal, but I do sort of feel on top of the world.
Until I have to get back down.
Climbing up was easy, but in order to get back down I must leap from one rock to another. The problem? Said rocks are a good 5 feet apart, the space between revealing a 500-meter drop to a cartoonish-looking receptacle of sharp marble spikes below.
I picture myself splayed across those spikes, each one stabbed through various major arteries. I imagine Dan attending my funeral in Wisconsin and trying to explain to my mother how I perished on top of Marble Mountain.
“No big deal” says Dan.
“C’mon, we’re wasting time!” says Dan.
I dance back and forth, about to make the leap, then thinking better of it, then working up my courage again.
It takes a good five minutes, but I finally get a running start and shoot my legs in front of me, landing hard on the rock face and scraping my legs up in the process.
“Was that so hard?” says Dan, shaking his head.
Yes. Yes it was.
I’m antsy to get back on the road, knowing we have a lot left to see.
“Five more minutes” says Dan, turning the corner to enter yet another cave. He disappears briefly then reappears, waving for me to follow him.
And I’m so glad I did.
Huyen Khong Cave is easily the largest cave I’ve ever been in, and the most beautiful. It is positively massive, with an enormous Buddha statue carved into the rock face, floating high upon the cave wall above our heads.
Candles illuminate the din, the face of the Buddha in shadow except for a few rays of sunlight that stream in from cracks in the cave ceiling.
We are afforded a solid two minutes of solitude here before a mass of tourists break the silence, but in those two minutes neither of us speaks. The energy is palpable – a sacred place.
For some reason, Chinese characters have been carved into the rock face just to the right of the Buddha.
Dan is studying Chinese for his upcoming work assignment, and is eager to look up the meaning.
We throw out guesses, expecting no less than the profound, wise words of the Buddha or some poetry from Lao Tzu.
“I found the translation” says Dan.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“It means, ‘big, dark cave’” says Dan.
God, I love Vietnam.
Check back for part 2 of this series where Dan and I head to Hoi An and My Son on our 1-day lightning fast tour of Central Vietnam.
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1. Marble Mountain is definitely worth seeing - it's about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang and is filled with beautiful temples, statues, and incredible caves.
2. Make SURE you wear slip-resistant shoes - the marble is incredibly slippery!
3. If you park "for free" at one of the many marble shops, you will be pressured heavily to buy something. If you don't, you'll probably be charged for parking. (luckily the parking and entrance fees are only a few dollars.)
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!