My guide for the day stopped the motorbike at the side of this muddy, rural road somewhere in east Vietnam and peed against a post next to an overgrown war memorial. “47 villagers were shot here when the Americans came,” he said, to disguise the crackling of warm liquid on leaves. “They slaughtered everyone in the village – men, women, children, dogs.”
“How horrible,” I said.
“Yes, yes, but that was long time ago. Now it is OK. We have forgiven them. Indiana Jones is very good movies. Very fun. And my son likes Transformers. We love America now.”
I resisted the urge to ask him if he also thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a good movie because I didn’t want to spoil the mood. Instead I took a photo of the memorial because I thought I should, as well as a photo of my guide peeing because I thought it was funny, and a photo of a water buffalo in the rice paddy next to the memorial because I thought it was neat.
Today had been a lot better than expected. I think my guide’s name was Bom, but that doesn’t seem like a real name so I probably misheard. He drove me around on what I know was a Honda motorcycle and I think was a 125CC engine. He said he was part of the “Easy Rider” group of tour operators and he’d shown me a big book of handwritten testimonials from other travellers who’d ridden around with him. They included more exclamation marks than any rational person would use so I suspected the reviews were either fake or written at gunpoint.
Anyway, I didn’t get to write a review, but I did get to visit three places around the area:
Hoi An, or Hội An if you’re prepared to go to the effort of copy-pasting the accented character from Wikipedia, is an ancient port city in Vietnam and a World Heritage Site. I’d heard people say “oh, three days there isn’t enough” and “oh my god, Hoi An is beautiful, definitely my favourite place in Vietnam. And my personal favourite, “I know someone who planned to spend two days in Hoi An four years ago but got so drawn in by the charm of the place that he’s still there now and has opened a restaurant called Pete’s Noodle Shack.”
I could see the attraction. It was a quiet town, friendly to tourists without having the locals shove handfuls of jewellery in your face saying, “hello sir! you buy! two dollar! sir!” Several restaurants had signs outside offering cooking classes and a lot of tourists were getting around town by rented bicycle. The place had a simple charm, like Hugh Grant in the early 2000s. I couldn’t find Pete’s Noodle Shack though.
Second up was My Son, the “Angkor Wat of Vietnam” as Bom had put it. I was here before I saw the real deal in Cambodia and I was awestruck. When I arrived there was nobody else around, and although a few obnoxious American backpackers did show up, they didn’t spoil the atmosphere.
As I skirted the outside of the temples, walking in the longer grass, I was a little concerned there were probably snakes slithering around ready to sink their teeth into my ankle the first chance they got. Thankfully, none did and we hit the road again…
I’m sure Bom didn’t take me the most direct route from My Son back to Da Nang and Marble Mountains. He took me along some roads that were more mud than solid ground, then we had to find a detour around a fallen tree in the road, and then onto a “raft” on the river that was designed for ferrying motorbikes. Despite the fact we were miles from a main road, we were about the 7th bike there.
Finally, after that unnecessary but totally awesome detour through rural Vietnamese life, and after Bom had stopped for a bathroom break next to that war memorial, we were back in the city, and at the base of Marble Mountains. I ventured up, snapping a few photos of a giant Buddha on the way up and of the view over the city when I reached the top.
It had been a perfect day. My entire trip was time-limited and I wasn’t expecting to squeeze much out of east Vietnam, but Hoi An, My Son and Marble Mountains in one day was a job done but with a lot of gaps, like an electrician coming to your house to put in a new fuse box but leaving lots of loose wiring – another visit is necessary to finish the job. Although my not returning to Vietnam anytime soon isn’t a safety hazard, so that was a pretty poor analogy really.
Anyway, the moral of the story is that war is bad, unless you have Indiana Jones movies to watch to make yourself feel better.