The alarm went off at 4.15am and I hauled my still travel weary body out of bed. What the hell am I doing? I asked myself as I splashed some water on my face. I am too old for this sh#t, was stuck on repeat in my sleep deprived brain. I had booked an early morning tour from Hoi An out to the My Son Holyland on the back of a motorcycle.
As we entered the hotel lobby we startled the poor guy on reception who was obviously second’s earlier sound asleep on the desk. “Good Morning Mr Steve”, he said trying to compose himself and look awake and professional. He handed us a small brown paper bag each and told us he had personally packed a special breakfast for us, concerned we would miss breakfast. We thanked him for his kind consideration and continued through to hotel entry to wait for pickup.
We didn’t have to wait long before we heard the sound of a couple of bigger motorbikes in the distance, they soon appeared out of the darkness and came to a stop next to us. Our guide, Hai and his friend, Van stepped off their bikes and removed their helmets. Despite the early hour we were greeted with huge infectious smiles that I am becoming accustom to seeing in Vietnam.
Handshakes and introductions completed we were soon on the back of the bikes blasting through the normally crowded narrow alleyways of the old quarter in Hoi An, usually reserved only for pedestrians. In the cool predawn air the rumble of bikes engine reverberated loudly off the close building walls, the colourful brightly lit silk lanterns whizzed by overhead. It was like riding down a kaleidoscope I use to play with when I was 5 years old.
Wow what an experience, I was definitely wide awake now.
On the outskirts of Hoi An we came to a stop next to the river. Here in the early hours before dawn the fishermen come to sell their catch to local stall holders. There was a light drizzle falling and in front of me was a sea of brightly coloured plastic ponchos and clothing under stark white florescence lightbulbs that were strung between hastily erected umbrellas and tents.
Everywhere you looked there were bowls, tubs, baskets and crates all overflowing with the catch of the day waiting to be sold. There was every size and type of creature from the sea you could possibly imagine and many that defied description.
That couldn’t possibly be edible, surely?
There was a buzz in the air as hundreds of very serious looking Vietnamese women were locked in financial battle. Buyers and sellers each determined to extract the best possible deal from their opponent. Unlike the regular tourist markets elsewhere in Vietnam not one person tried to sell me anything, this I found quite puzzling, it’s as if I was suddenly a ghost.
However unlike a ghost I soon learned that no matter where I stood fumbling ineptly trying to get the correct settings on my camera in the darkness, I was in the wrong place. After beginning to feel like the ball in a life-sized game of Vietnamese ping-pong we retreated to the bikes to continue our journey to the temples.
The My Son Temples are about an hour’s drive from Hoi An and are surrounded by mountain ranges and dense tropical jungle. The My Son Sanctuary is a UNESCO world heritage site and consists of a collection of Hindu temples and monuments constructed between the 4th and the 13th century AD dedicated to the god Shiva. It is surprising that any of the fired brick and stone temples are still standing when you see the size of the bomb craters nearby. The United States heavily bombed the site at the start of the Vietnam War as they suspected the VC of hiding in the temples.
When you carefully look at these buildings it becomes very clear, very quickly just how incredibly old they are. The deep red brown carved bricks are covered with a mosaic of white stains, weathering, erosion, moss and lichen which could only be the result of centuries of exposure.
It was now I was really glad we had started so early, being literally the only people there really added to the surreal experience. Quietly standing in the early mist as it flowed around us, you could almost hear the whispers of the lost Champa people, it was like they were still there and praying to their God.
As we left the My Son complex we saw that the group tour buses had stated to arrive. Delivering their cargoes of soon to be very sweaty tourists. It was still early but, the temperature and humidity had already started to climb to an uncomfortable level, so we headed to a local restaurant for some drinks and breakfast number two.
After slurping a spicy noodle soup and washing it down with the obligatory standard Vietnamese coffee we were fuelled up and ready to go again. Thinking the tour was over and we were on our way back to the hotel, I was surprised when we suddenly turned off the road and headed down a small laneway in a different direction. Off down winding narrow paths across small bridges around the edges of the rice paddy fields we rode. We dodged and weaved our way around the farmers working, water buffalo pulling carts, chickens squawking and small children riding to school. I was very glad I was only a passenger and was able to look around and take in the crazy chaos that is life in Vietnam.
We stopped a number of times and through our guide we talked to various people along the way, taking the time to learn a little about their lives and answered any questions they had of us. Despite the language barrier I found the Vietnamese very welcoming and naturally curious people who have a wonderful almost Aussie sense of humour.
Our journey was suddenly truncated by the Thu Bon River with no bridge in site we rode down a small track to the river’s edge where a number of other motorbikes and scooters where already waiting. It was not until I removed my helmet that I saw the wooden barge about 200 metres away on the opposite bank.
With a practised ease and the chug, chug of the small diesel motor it quickly crossed the river and was soon in front of us ready to offload. As there was only one ramp to shore I thought it would be some time before all the bikes would be off. Once again I was in for a lesson in Vietnamese simplicity and efficiency. Each bike stayed put and they just moved the boat a little forward until each bike in turn was in line with the ramp. Down and off it sped and on went the next one that was waiting, within minutes we were all loaded and heading back off across the river.
We continued our journey back through the vibrant green seas of the rice fields being lovingly tendered by those that rely heavily on the crop just to survive. I did get the feeling that the rural villagers and farmers struggled to understand why on earth a couple of Aussies would choose to visit their backyard. We knew our ride was coming to an end as we passed the fish market now deserted, all packed until tomorrow morning’s frenzy.
To say thank you for a wonderful morning’s excursion we had with lunch and a couple of beers with Hai and Van in Hoi An then grabbed a taxi back to the hotel for a swim and an afternoon snooze.