Stage 4: Hoi An – Danang – Hai Van Pass – Hue – Hai Van Pass (325km)
Coming down to Hoi An from the Ho Chi Minh Highway was like returning to civilisation from the Lost World. Although I had only been away from the coast for five days, it felt like a short lifetime, and the confrontation with traffic, people, noise and bright lights was a startling reminder that I was back. For the week to follow I explored Hoi An, Danang and Hue, three of Vietnam’s most popular and attractive towns. I also rode the famous Hai Van Pass, twice. It seemed strange timing then, that a wave of homesickness chose this week to hit me like a truck.
My entry into Hoi An coincided with a happy six months of being on the road. I struggled to put my finger on why thoughts of home would worry me now. Perhaps it had to do with the abject isolation of the past days, where I had seen less than a handful of fellow travelers, and only then from a distance. Perhaps it was because of the stark contrast of the simplicity with which people in the central highlands live, compared to everything that I accumulate and take for granted. Maybe I was daunted by the expanse of road that still lay in front of me, with its very long list of things that could go wrong in complete isolation, and the concern that I start each morning unsure if I will make it to the night. Perhaps it had to do with arriving alone at a destination that is experienced better shared. What ever the cause, I moped around all of the best features of these three towns, weighed down with a loneliness that hasn’t bothered me at all since I left Australia.
My head is generally full of noise; a jumble of questions and commentary as I try to process the world around me and my place in it. But for my week on the coast, I couldn’t deny the inner voice that was louder and clearer than the rest. It heckled me relentlessly, mocking my judgement, criticising my decision making, and demanding answers to questions that started simple, but got harder. What am I looking for, and why do I expect to find it in Asia? Why can’t I ever be satisfied with what I have, and settle down like everyone else does? Why have I jeopardised my job and potentially my career to be here? Why do I drift away from friends as though they mean nothing, when they are actually so important to me? Why do I set fire to every close relationship I find myself in, just to watch it burn? Why have I walked out on my family at one of the few times in my life that they have actually needed me? It was heavy talk that weighed me down while I tried to walk the light step of a happy traveler.
Despite the white noise in my head, my eyes did see some great things, my camera doing the job of remembering them for me. Hoi An is undeniably beautiful. It’s coloured lanterns and ochre-yellow, heritage buildings are reflected in its mirror-topped river, and make for a vivid contrast to a landscape that is otherwise washed in every shade of green. I walked its streets visiting temple after ancient house after museum until I thought I might short-circuit from heritage overload. And then, with my defences lower than usual, I managed to get collared by an expert street spruiker, who quick as a flash was measuring up my gargantuan frame for some tailored clothes that I really didn’t need. While I was trying to work out how I’d managed to get so coerced, I was just quickly shoe-horned into a canoe by a hunched, elderly, betel-chewing woman, to be taken on a romantic row along the river – just her, me and her invoice. Hoi An is an wonderfully atmospheric town, if not a potential dyslexic nightmare (Hoi An and An Hoi sit directly opposite the river Hoai, and Ha Noi isn’t so far away to the north). It is easy to see why so many people regard it as their favourite destination in Vietnam.
Being more of a city than a town, Danang had slightly less cultural appeal. It’s most remarkable feature is the cluster of marble mountains a few miles to the south. These bizarre karst spires are riddled with caves, temples, archways and stairs. Standing inside the incredibly serene cave temple, the crowds suddenly departed, and sun broke through the clouds to fill the cavern with beams of light through the natural ceiling window. It was an inspiring moment that in a movie would have been accompanied with provocative music and someone’s epiphany. Unfortunately, I remained epiphany-less. As unique as they are, not all of the marble mountains are held sacred. The locals delight in blowing some of them up to excavate enormous chunks of rock, from which they carve incredibly detailed sculptures of religious icons, animals and tombstones. These line the streets in an impressive, although slightly less eco-friendly kind of way.
The driving options between Danang and Hue are either the dirty, crowded and seriously dangerous national highway 1A, or the Hai Van Pass – that road that featured on that Top Gear episode. It’s a no brainer for anyone riding a motorbike, so after carefully plotting my course and checking the weather forecasts, I set out with confidence that I was about to see something special. But, in keeping with the week that I was having I hit a fog that I could barely see through at the base of the hills. This progressed as I climbed the range, becoming a horizontal rain that tried to blast me off the cliff to become a part of the scenery that I knew was there but couldn’t see. Cold, wet, tired and miserable, I arrived in Hue looking a little like a bronze statue from the waist down, bare legs plastered in mud, my bags musty and mouldering. It was nothing like the fun that Jeremy Clarkson had, and it prompted me to repeat the trip in reverse a few days later.
Washed off, rested, fed and determined, I tackled Hue on foot. Historically, this was the imperial seat of Vietnam, and the heavily fortified citadel is its renowned attraction. The sheer magnitude of the complex is mind boggling. Everything about its enormous city walls, moat, flag tower and temples screams unlimited wealth, unlimited time, and unlimited expendable workforce. Predating modern machinery by a few hundred years, it represents and incredible feat of engineering. Despite striding out with a purpose that I didn’t feel, it took me almost two days to fully explore the citadel. Even though more than half of it was obliterated by bombing in Vietnam’s various wars.
Despite the variety of attractions that I immersed myself in during that week, I couldn’t shake the despondency that had settled on me. I seriously considered selling my bike and organising a ticket for home. I’m still not really sure how to recognise when a holiday has run its course – when it is time to say enough is enough, and acknowledge that home is calling. I decided to stay unpacked in Hue to rest for one more night, to stare at the ceiling until the wee hours, hoping that the voice would sleep so that I could.