Having been thoroughly drenched for what seemed like ages in Huế we had taken the decision to hire a guide and driver for a couple of days to get us out of the city to see some more of the countryside and hopefully get us away from the rain.
First up on the agenda was going to be a drive down the coast southward to Hoi An to visit this favourite on the tourist trail. To get there we we would be driving up and over the Hai Van Pass or translated into english “ocean cloud pass”. This is approximately a 21 km long mountain pass on the National Road 1A. Its name refers to the mists that rise from the sea, reducing visibility. Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet. The twisting road on the pass has long been a challenge for drivers traveling between the cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng.
We were not going to be disappointed on either front as our driver struggled to find the correct gears ascending the pass and managed to hit almost every pot hole in the dilapidated tarmac upon descent!
Hai Van Pass has been of major strategic importance throughout the history of Vietnam and for a long time represented a major barrier to any land army that attempted to move between the northern and central regions of the country. Today amid the swirling mist and rain you can still see the remains of a more recent military presence on the pass in the form of bullet hole riddled pill boxes and gun emplacements left from The Vietnam War. I clambered around the remains at the col for a few minutes with only a couple of wild dogs for company before beating a wet retreat back to the car as the wind and rain began to get the better of me.
Whilst drying off in the back seat of the car we headed down the other side of the pass, down into the central regions plateaux toward first the city of Đà Nẵng and then onto Hoi An.
We passed along the seafront of Đà Nẵng a town made famous through countless American Vietnam War movies and the spot where American troops first landed in force at what they quaintly called ‘China Beach’. A few miles further on and we would finally be in Hoi An.
Before leaving for Vietnam many people told me that their favourite place while visiting Vietnam had been Hoi An, so we figured we had to see it even if only for a few hours that a day trip affords. Hoi An is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and the Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, so we were really looking forward to exploring it.
The town centre is a no go area for vehicles so having parked up we left the driver and guide behind and set out to make our own way around this beautiful little town. The Japanese Covered Bridge has become a symbol for the town and seemed an obvious place to head for. The bridge is a beautiful example of the Japanese architecture of the period connecting Tran Phu St with Nguyen. Built in the early seventeenth century the bridge really is a thing of beauty but unfortunately we were not the only ones to think so and the area was heaving with tourists from all over the world. In fact Hoi An had more tourists than anywhere else we had thus far visited in Vietnam.
We wandered along the waterfront and around the street market dodging the rickshaws and cyclo’s that seemed intent to attack us from every conceivable angle. After having stopped for some lunch we slowly ambled around the many shops and trinket stalls hugging the tiny narrow streets. It was a lovely way to spend a lazy hazy south-east asian afternoon!
Hoi An is also famous for its many temples and pagodas which are all remnants of the town’s trading past and most reflect a strong Chinese influence. Many served as assembly halls for Chinese communities from different parts of the country – hence the names, Hainanese Assembly Hall, Cantonese Assembly Hall, Fujian (Phuc Kien) Assembly Hall. We ventured in and out of the temples into their darkness and then stumbling back out again into the strong sunshine of the afternoon until we were all templed out.
The clock was ticking though and so reluctantly we had to leave Hoi An after way too short a visit – we swore to return someday – but we had our next destination still to discover and one that I personally was really looking forward to; the famous “Marble Mountains”.
I had read all about these mountains before the trip the Marble Mountains or “Five elements mountains” are a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located south of Đà Nẵng. The five ‘mountains’ are named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels, and it’s even possible to climb to the summit of one of the peaks. Several buddhist sanctuaries also reside within the mountains.
Thuy Son is the most rewarding mountain. We started at the base of the 156 step stairway to the summit. First we stopped at the Tam Thai Pagoda then further on encountered the start of the caves. Stopping to get our breath after the steep and slippery (as its marble) steps up we suddenly began to realise what all the fuss was about with these mountains. The summit plateaux is like a lost world. Buddhist temples mix with dark caves and hanging vines to create a scene strait out of a boys own book.
By far the most impressive cave though is Huyen Khong, where sunlight streams down through weathered holes in the ceiling illuminating a large seated Buddha carved into the recesses of this ginormous cave. The whole cave is an ancient temple to buddhism but was also once used for less peaceful reasons as a Viet-Cong hideout during the war.
Within the cave are massive unbelievable stone temples carved straight out of the rock with carvings adjourning the cave walls, plus statues and offerings in every direction, the whole scene is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. It’s hard not to be in awe of your surroundings and it’s certainly one of the most unique places I have ever visited and I am sure I won’t forget it for years to come.
Having snapped off literally dozens of photos and gazed up for so long at the sunlit gaps in the roof that I had neck ache it was time once again to leave. With one last lingering look back down the steps into this awe-inspiring cave we left passing through another buddhist temple making for the steps to descend back to the stone cutters village that sprawled around the base of the mountain and our driver and car ready to head back north to Hué.
The day had been long but full of wonders and the weather had been kind to us on the whole so we left as happy campers heading back along National Road 1A north, back to our hotel in dreary wet and grey Hué.
Tomorrow we would head in an entirely different direction though tomorrow we would head west towards the border-land with Laos and the hills and jungles of the infamous DMZ, but that’s all for the next blog post!
You can see more photos from my Indochina Adventure on Flickr by clicking on this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/sets/72157629031722105/