Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Confucius says no more caves

HUE: The bus from Hoi An to Hue hadn't been going more than 20 minutes before they dropped us at the touristy Marble Mountains. Right in front of the bus was a large cave entrance. We had 30 minutes there even though we were just keen to get going. I decided to venture into the cave though Rob opted to stay put. I bought a ticket (nothing is for free here, but it was only $1) for this cave experience and ventured on in.

It turns out that it was just me and the bats. I could hear them above me as I climbed the steps further into the dimly lit interior. Perhaps no one else went in because it was crap? There was a certain Buddhist or Taoist or the hybrid version people subscribe to here slant about the place with statues of deities peeping out from niches. The further in I went, the darker it got. The cave opened into chamber and a fetid smell around me grew stronger; bat shit.

Steps led down on the opposite side of the cavern. Horrible scenes were depicted on either side and I realised that this represented a path to hell. What have I got myself in to here I thought. I was by myself in the semi dark, with scenes showing torture by demons, and I was having second thoughts. As I paused on the steps to contemplate this I realised that less than a foot from me in the gloomy light there was something worse than the concrete demons. A spindly legged spider bigger than my hand.

Cave dwelling spider
The spider next to my gingerly placed lens cap

This was almost too much. I took a few photos and after a bit further got out. Fortunately the rest of the trip has been nothing as bad my cave experience. And apart from a few crap bus trips it has been an amazing time in central Vietnam. There have been boat trips, bike riding, old world heritage towns to roam, ancient temple ruins to explore and vibrant cities built in a medieval style citadel to see.

Hoi An had been the perfect place to slow down after the journey to get there. We were squished into buses on the journey to and from Buon Ma Thuot, as we made our way along the Ho Chi Minh Road. Along the HCM road (which is named after one of the many routes that guns and supplies were smuggled south during the Vietnam war), we broke the trip at Kon Tum.

Kon Tum is a small town surrounded by various hill tribe groups. Unfortunately, even though Lonely Planet waxed lyrical over the town and said it was the "friendliest in Vietnam", as Rob's sister pointed out that is like the travel of real estate jargon, meaning boring and uninteresting. And she was right - apart from a couple of nice cafes and the chance to wander around hill tribe settlements (not villages) on the edge of town, there was nothing to do. Nasty touts at the bus station weren't so "friendly" either. Instead of two nights there it was hastily rearranged and we were back on a cramped bus the day after arrival.

We were two of five people squeezed into four seats at the back of the bus - but the trip down to Danang, en route to Hoi An, could have been worse. The bus took us through stunning scenery - following the HCM trail, the road wove with a river up and down through mountainous jungle, sparsely inhabited. We also survived the local bus from Danang to Hoi An grinding slowly along and making us pay double - a popular local scam apparently. Finally arriving at our destination was a bit of an anticlimax: we wandered around the wrong part of town in the heat of the day with our packs on looking fruitlessly for a hotel.

Lanterns 2
Lanterns in Hoi An

But that was the worst of it over. We spent four nights in Hoi An, just relaxing and enjoying a place where there were real French style pastries. We also took a day trip out to My Son, a world heritage site of temples built by the Chams in a pre Angkor period. I ventured off also to have a look at the southern end of China Beach to bring back memories of the 80s TV show.

Now in Hue we have been venturing out on bikes through more world heritage sites in and around the city; the tombs are of emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty. The citadel surrounding the city itself has keep us busy.

A plastic bag is a lot of fun
Girls playing in Hue

So even though we have a 9 hour bus trip tomorrow to Laos, we are currently pacing our trip like the Confucian bowl: in a traditional merchant's house we visited in old Hoi An, a Vietnamese lady explained the meaning behind this bowl, which has a hole in its base. If you fill it 3/4 full with water, the water stays in the bowl. If you try and fill it 100%, the water drains away through the hole. If you are too greedy and overfill your bowl, you will end up losing the lot. The good with the bad. The caves, and long buses, with bikes, new foods and cheap beers.

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