Monday, 30 April 2018

Vietnam, day 18: Mounting the Marvellous Mountains Most Marbelous

Hoi An, Vietnam
31 May, 2017
Anticipating a long day ahead of us, we made a beeline for Hoi An Roastery to tuck into some much needed breakfast. 
Yannick indulged in a coconut ice cream coffee with a side of croissant, while I had my customary green tea.
It was still rather early, and there was hardly anyone else out and about. We managed to find the hotel that Bridget and Jance were staying in, and were seated in the foyer in grand carved wooden chairs to await the tour guide for our trip to the Marble Mountains! Shortly, we were greeted by our guide, who was called Snail, and ushered into the van to begin the drive.

Though mainly uneventful, the last ten minutes or so of the drive provided brilliant views of the sea. 

The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five pinnacles, each named after one of the elements (fire, water, earth, wood, and metal). Our tour began at Thuy Son, the water mountain. The stone steps leading up the mountainside were steep and narrow, and I tried my best to pretend that my breathing was no heavier than normal to keep up appearances of (nonexistent) fitness.

Before I was able to catch my breath, it was dashed away even more by the breathtaking pagoda that was nestled amongst the cliffs and trees. Allegedly some of the pagodas on Thuy date back to the seventeenth century, though I'm not sure which ones. The detail of the designs and the brilliant green roof tiles were stunning.

Legend has it that long ago, a dragon emerged from the sea and laid an egg. After a thousand days and nights, the egg hatched to reveal a beautiful woman. She fucked off somewhere [citation needed], but the egg shell fragments grew and became the five mountains of Marble fame. Doncha just love myths? They're so weird! You can't make this shit up. (Or can you?)

Across a nearby moat was a lil gazebo which contained a statue of the Lady Buddha. We'll be seeing more of her later.

Then Snail led us into a cave! You'd think that might take a while, but he was a speedy terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc (#teamsnail). The air was clouded with incense, and statues of various worship-worthy historical and spiritual figures loomed from the swirling vapours. It was nice to be able to escape inside a cave for a bit, as the temperatures had reached nearly 40C and we were sweating profusely. 

Continuing up the extremely narrow stairs and scrambling through a crack in the rock (loftily named the Gate of Heaven) we emerged into daylight at the summit of the mountain! While gazing up at the glorious pagoda, we were bewildered by a strange barking noise which sort of sounded like animal noises played through tinny speakers. Upon inspecting the rocky pool that the sounds were emanating from, we discovered that there were in fact no low quality speakers, but rather actual frogs. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed that frogs could make those croaks. 

See! Those mountains totally look like eggshells right? Right. 

Next up was an archway that led to a sun-dappled walkway and a shrine. There was a gaggle of schoolchildren in this area, and some were whispering between themselves and glancing at me. The one with the most courage approached me and asked if she could take my photo. We posed for a selfie, and then the floodgates opened and I was inundated by the rest of the group lining up to take photos with me as well! I'm not entirely sure why they wanted my photo, but I did feel like I finally achieved my fifteen minutes of fame. Now I shall sink into insignificance for the remaining three quarters of my life.

Heading back inside the mountain, we stopped amongst a circle of shrines to learn many facts. I answered some pop quiz questions correctly and received many high fives! #teamsnail. We rubbed a lucky Buddha's belly and then trekked down a lot of stairs to reach the tour van. The stairs were very jungly and we were surprised by a couple of huge centipedes snaking their way along the steps. 

When I say huge, I mean huge. It was twice as long as a stapler, and not those mini neon-coloured ones that girls had in high school. According to Snail, they're not an indigenous species, and were brought to Vietnam to be used as fishing bait. As with most introduced species, their populations became a bit out of control (lookin' at you, gorse). They are venomous, causing dizziness and fever in humans, and death in small mammals.

From there, we were driven to a so-called marble factory, which just seemed to be a tourist shop filled with statues. As the Marble Mountains contain (surprise surprise) marble, as well as limestone, the purchase of ornaments constitutes a large portion of tourist spending. Whether these statues were made with marble from the area, or even marble at all, I was dubious of. A more cost-effective method would be to bulk import from a cheap seller and then pass the statues off as artisanal. After using the factory's toilet, we popped down the road to a noodle shop where we were provided with lunch. Snail was very nice, and made sure that I got a special tofu dish rather than the meat options that everyone else got. Sadly, it was then time to bid farewell to Snail, and we joined #teamturtle.

Unfortunately I'm sketchy on the details of this next part, but we saw another cave (Am Phu) with shrines and the like. Team Turtle was double the size of our last tour group, and we found the info less interesting so we wandered a bit away from the others. This cave had been designed to signify the eighteen levels of hell, and strangely enough (from what I can tell online) Am Phu resides inside Thuy Son. I'm not sure why we didn't visit Am Phu before lunch, when we were right there at the same mountain! But anyway, the decorations seemed much more gaudy, with neon lights and badly crafted figures. Turtle was telling stories for a long time, and we became very bored. The best part of visiting Am Phu was punching a gong we found. Perhaps we unknowingly summoned a demon. Once we all piled back into the van to move onto the next destination, Turtle asked if anyone had seen Bob. After a frantic search of the carpark, Bob the old Aussie dude turned up and we were able to carry on, resting assured that no one had been kidnapped or lost in the depths of hell. 

Further along the coast, we alighted at Monkey Mountain, where an enormous statue of the Lady Buddha was being spray-painted by two workmen (if you look closely you can see them suspended from long ropes near the hem of her robe).

We wandered about the courtyards and the temple, where I was once again asked to pose for a photo. This time I posed with a whole family, and felt a bit out of place. How would they explain who I am to people looking at the photo? Am I now immortalised forever on this family's mantlepiece, smiling on Monkey Mountain with strangers? It was a fairly surreal experience. As Yannick enjoyed an ice cream, we gazed out over the countryside and the South China Sea.

Later that evening, we emerged napped and showered from our hotel ready for dinner. Attempting to procure a table at Ms Ly 22, we were informed that they were very busy, and that we could return in twenty minutes. We took the opportunity to wander about Hoi An some more, and see all the beautiful lanterns.

Dinner was well worth the wait! I chowed down on a green papaya salad that was super delicious (and made with soy sauce rather than fish sauce - yay!), while Yannick sampled two local specialties: white rose, and Cao Lao, a Japanese-style noodle dish with pork and croutons. Seeing that they offered the Ancient Hoi An cocktail, we felt obliged to order one! Oddly, it was very different from the one we had the night before, but still extremely tasty. It was a lovely ending to a long day.