Scooters rush across the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam
I'd planned my Vietnam trip dividing my time between the north, center, and south equally. After Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, it was off to Da Nang by plane. Distances are huge in this north-south oriented country. Given a choice of a more than 12-hour train or bus ride, or a one-hour flight, it was an easy decision. What's more, domestic flights in Vietnam are very affordable, at less than $100 a piece. I do have to say my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang was the noisiest I have ever been on in my many decades of flying. Tons of kids, and passengers that shrieked every time we hit an air pocket, made me put in the ear buds early and try to tune out my fellow passengers.
A couple dragons carved by the ancient Cham people in the Cham Architecture Museum
A quick taxi ride to my hotel, and I unpacked for my three days in central Vietnam. The only real sight I'd planned for Da Nang itself was the Cham Architecture museum. I had only an hour left before closing time, so I hopped a cab there to maximize my time. The Cham are the cousins/enemies of the Khmer, who built Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat. The statues and stone carvings in the museums are very similar to what I'd seen in Angkor years ago -- and you may have seen Angelina Jolie dodging around in the movie Tomb Raider. I would see similar carvings the next day when I visited the ruined Cham temple complex at My Son.
A line of asparas -- Hindu dancing priestesses -- in a Cham carving
I wandered around the museum, snapping photos at depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahman (Hindu gods), and their assorted colleagues and servants, such as the great bird Garuda, water snake Nagas, and temple lions. Halfway through, I did a Homer Simpson and remembered my tripod allowing better shots in the museum's low lighting. The museum director was getting interviewed by a TV crew. The camera man laughed when he shook hands with him and joked, "Ho Chi Minh." The director did indeed have that Colonel Sanders of KFC appearance. I saved the gift shop for last as I'd glimpsed some pretty cool looking statues in there while wandering the museum. I thought they'd be ticked off since I was shopping 5 minutes before closing. On the contrary, the two ladies were eager to sell, and cut the price of the aspara statuette (Hindu priestess dancer) that I wanted in half. I could even pay by credit card, which for me always makes the deal better.
Da Nang's colorful Dragon Bridge
On the way back to my hotel I wandered along the riverfront. Da Nang's riverfront was the first true pedestrian-friendly place I'd strolled in either Vietnam or Taiwan. Joggers, parents with babies in strollers, and families all enjoyed the wide brick pavement, river views, and pretty slanting, late-afternoon sunlight. I wandered out onto the Dragon Bridge with its gaudy yellow stylized dragon snaking its way along the bridge's uprights. Colorful boats were lined up along the opposite bank, which are used for evening river cruises. Returning to the river walk, I came upon a half dozen clusters of men encircling paired chess players in friendly competition. At first I thought it was checkers, but it was later explained to me the flat disks represent chess pieces. Another interesting difference was they use the intersections of the board's grid -- not the inside of the squares themselves -- for placement of the pieces. A friendly Vietnamese college student wanted to practice his English, so offered to walk along with me and explain what I was seeing. He pointed out the modern marble and glazed ceramic statues, and identified each and recounted the story behind them.
Men crowd around one of the chess games going on along the river walk in Da Nang, Vietnam
I was the beneficiary of an even more generous offer by a local the next morning. Learning of my plans to purchase a tour to My Son ruins, Van offered to take me there (and my planned destination for that day, Hoi An) for free. She said shed always wanted to visit My Son, and if I paid her entrance fee, she'd shuttle me around. Plus, her friend -- an American Vietnam War vet who'd married a local and lived in Hoi An -- could join us when we got to that town. One thing holding me back was the prospect of buzzing through Vietnam's chaotic traffic on the back of a motorbike. Traffic lights are few and far between, and routinely ignored where they do exist. Imagine every intersection in town is a four-way stop -- without the stop signs, and everybody thinking it is their turn -- and you have some picture what traffic is like in Vietnam. It works, though, because drivers defer to interlopers once they get a nose in, unlike in the U.S. where there'd be more T-bones than in a Brazilian steak house if anyone tried that.
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam
So, should I? I decided that part of international travel is experiencing another culture. And the scooter is definitely part of Vietnam's culture. Countless other travelers have hopped on the back of a motorbike and survived the experience. I figured I liked the ring of "worldwidemike" better than worldwidewimp, so decided to take Van up on her offer. She assured me she was a good driver, not the type to barrel along recklessly. There were definitely dome butterflies when we took off into Da Nang's whirligig of traffic, especially when we made left turns in the face of an onrushing phalanx of cars, trucks and scooters. Van proved true to her word, driving as cautiously as I could have hoped for during our day of her taxiing me around.
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam
My butt was pretty sore, though, an hour and a half later, when we finally pulled up at the visitors center in My Son. I should have popped a couple of the Ibuprofen I'd brought along on the trip beforehand. My 51-year-old body and my previous herniated disk meant anything after the first half hour on back of the bike was distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't sharply painful, just a nagging wish to be able to stretch my legs from their position. So, it felt good to wander the museum at the visitors center, and then walk down the path of paving stones to the ancient ruins.
Cham statues carved into the face of ruined temples at My Son, Vietnam
Although not as sprawling or as intact as Angkor Wat, the temple complex at My Son was much bigger than I'd expected. You walk from the various groupings of ruined temples as opposed to driving between them in Cambodia. Some of the temples are merely vertical piles of the reddish bricks the Cham used to construct their temples between the 4th and 10th century A.D. Others are semi-ruined shells with sandstone carvings of Hindu gods, demons, and animals from their mythology lined up on the outside. Still others are fairly intact, with interiors you can enter and gaze upward at their corbeled vaulted ceilings. Lines of apsaras, those lithe priestess dancers, cavorted in sandstone and brick in rows along the exteriors. Pacing from temple to temple was often shaded from the bright sun by the encroaching forest, but it was still muggy and hot. Sweat sprung out from every pore on my skin, it seemed, but the humidity defeated my body' attempt to cool itself. An occasional breeze was a welcome respite -- more welcome than the swigs of my by now lukewarm water.
Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam
I hate keep comparing My Son to Angkor, but they are similar. This site is also a UNESCO World Heritage one, but does not have as much of that strangling, vine and tree-covered feel of a lost city being reclaimed by he jungle. The temples are more in forest clearings, and sunlight strikes reddish fire from the bricks. The richly-carved temple exteriors are highlighted in bold relief by the sun's rays. My favorite exterior carving was the row of growling, befanged dogs guarding Temple Complex G. A couple of the complexes are more ruined than others, though. The cause of their destruction is mostly bombs that were dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. One of the several tour groups paused nearby at one of these sites, and I listened in on the guide's English commentary. It struck me as a distinctly one-sided view of the events. Van wondered why anyone would purposely destroy a historic sight like My Son. I cautioned her that there are two sides to every conflict, that it takes two to make a fight. Does the fault lie with the combatant who dropped the bombs? Or does the side who made the conscious decision to shelter amidst a historical treasure share the blame? I drew a parallel to the Iraq War, where America had the initial policy to not target mosques. The insurgents seized upon that to store weapons and hide there. Whose fault is it when subsequent air strikes are launched against those mosques? She said my point made sense.
My favorite carvings at My Son, Vietnam
We concluded our visit by watching a local group perform a few traditional Cham dances. It was interesting to see the asparas I'd seen in the museum and at the site come to life in the form of slender costumed dancers. Their movements exactly mimicked the poses of the carvings I'd seen. Van was amused more by the male dancers who tried to match the young girls' grace. I thought they did well, except when they tried to conclude the performance by hoisting one of the girls high in the air. Their struggles proved they needed either needed a little more practice or some additional protein in their diet!
Like temple carvings come to life, locals perform traditional Cham dances
My backside wasn't looking forward to getting back on the motorbike. So, I actually welcomed the brief rainstorm that forced us to take shelter in a cafe for about 15 minutes. Van had made the trip to Hoi An on her scooter many times, but never from My Son. She made a wrong turn or two and added a bit of time to the trip. It was no biggie, though, as I was getting used to riding on the back of her bike. Or numb. One or the other! We arrived at Hoi An as the sun was coming out in the early afternoon. This is another -- you guessed it -- UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the ancient ports of Vietnam, and the Old Town is well preserved with intact homes of 17th century merchants, temples, and charming covered bridges. I mentioned to Van that we may run into the Australians from my Ha Long Bay cruise, as they were staying here. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of entering the Old Quarter, I spotted them having lunch in a cafe. We connected and shared stories a bit. Then it was on to our own exploration of Hoi An.
The river is at the heart of the ancient port town of Hoi An
There were plenty of tourists -- including Western families with young children -- exploring the streets, as well. It was relaxing to stroll the streets, shop a bit, check out the historic homes, marvel at an ornate temple, and stop for a cold drink when it grew too hot. Van's American friend, Richard, wouldn't be able to join us until dinner. So, we killed time while I took pictures of the houses, riverfront, and colorful temples. Once I met him, Richard proved to be an amazingly informative insight to Vietnamese culture. He teaches English at a handful of local schools and maintains a friendly relationship with his former students, which include Van. Not only has he married a Vietnamese lady, he has built a home for his in-laws, and fully immersed himself in the culture. We talked on and on, and it became obvious to me why he is so well loved by his students. He is a caring leader, who consciously sets out to improve the lives of those around him.
Flower-lined streets are a feature of the charming Old Town of Hoi An
Our night ride back the short distance to Da Nang was uneventful. Vietnamese love to decorate their bridges, Las Vegas style, with neon lights. It made for a colorful kaleidoscope of a ride back to my hotel. Van and I joked about the looks the other locals on scooters gave us. She said they probably thought I was her uncle teaching her how to drive a motorbike. I wondered if they were thinking I was some old, Western dude fishing for a young, Vietnamese bride, instead. The little kids waved when they saw my Western face, while the young men honked their horns and grinned. I thanked Van as I creakily dismounted for motorbike, and handed back her extra helmet. I was tired and sore. It had been a full day, though, and it was glad I accepted her offer and took the risk of a day of sightseeing in Vietnam on scooterback.
Sun sets on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An