After spending two weeks in the south of Vietnam, with Dalat having been the highlight to that point, we took a flight to Da Nang in central Vietnam. We heard that Da Nang was another beach resort town, so we decided to stay in Hoi An, a 30 minute drive south. There are a few options to get from Da Nang Airport to Hoi An, either a relatively expensive taxi, by public bus, by a free shuttle that only runs at 8am, or by minibus. We opted for the last option, even though it was a bit pricier than busing ($12) but we had read online that getting to the public bus can be a bit of a hassle for not much savings.
The ancient town in Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there is an entrance fee of roughly $6 to be paid for any visitors. The ticket is valid for a week and allows you to enter a few sites and temples, so make sure to hang on to it. Some people bragged about getting into the ancient town without paying, which seems very possible at night since nobody was checking tickets, but the money you spend on the ticket goes toward preservation of the site, so paying is the right thing to do. We wandered through the ancient town for a while, admiring the old but beautifully restored buildings. The sites were interesting but flooded with tourists everywhere, most working at getting clothing tailored for themselves. Hoi An is known for its tailored clothes and tourists flock to the town to get everything from dresses to suits to shorts made. It was starting to rain so we decided to return to the homestay and come back at night, when the old town of Hoi An is light up by hundreds of colorful lanterns.
When we returned in the evening, the old town had become even more crowded than during the day. Nevertheless, it was beautiful as many of the streets and old houses were lit up by tons of lanterns in different colors and shapes. At the river running through the old town, women were selling paper lanterns with a candle for people to buy and let float downstream. We walked around for a while before having dinner at a restaurant with draft beer for only 5,000 dong (22 cents USD). We learned later that there was another place outside of the ancient town selling draft beer for only 13 cents per glass, unfortunately we didn’t manage to got there before we left Hoi An. Besides the awesome beer prices, the local food in Hoi An was pretty good too. We tried a yummy dish called white rose (sort of steamed dumplings with pork and crab), wontons, and street food donuts filled with peanuts. The only problem with the local specialties was the portions were the size of an appetizer, so it was never enough to just have those.
Through our time in Vietnam we had seen pictures of amazing looking temples at all of the information centers. We were told they were an ancient Champa temple complex an hour from Hoi An, and were part of the reason we chose to visit the city. The temples were built between the 4th and 14th centuries and are the most impressive in Vietnam. We paid $5 each for the 2 hour round trip bus ride to the temple complex, including a guide, but not including the 150,000 dong entrance fee. As we had opted for the cheapest option to get to My Son, we ended up with a huge group to visit the temples. We didn’t feel like hanging around the group and the guide, so we set out to explore the temple by ourselves, which wasn’t a problem.
Just after the entrance to the temple complex, there were small buggies waiting to take us to the actual temples, as they were about 2km away. From there it was only a short walk to the first group of temples in the My Son complex. The complex had been divided in 4 sections, with each having temples in different states of restoration. The first section of temples ended up being our favorite as they were virtually untouched from their original state and were as old as 1,700 years.
During the Second Indochina War the Viet Cong had set up a base in My Son, and unfortunately the site was bombed heavily in the war, destroying most of the temples. Out of the greater than 70 temples that were excavated by the French during their colonial reign in Vietnam, only a handful still stand. There are still craters throughout the site where bombs exploded, reminding visitors of the not so distant past.
If visiting My Son is something important to you or a main reason for visiting Vietnam, you may opt to take a taxi around sunrise or later in the afternoon since tourist buses run constantly throughout the day. The site was fine when we got there around 10am, but was quickly overrun with hundreds and hundreds of visitors. While My Son is really impressive, also keep in mind it isn’t Borobudur, Angkor, or Bagan, what still stands is relatively small and can be seen in an hour or two. If the place wasn’t so busy we could have made a half day of it, but as it was two hours was plenty.
On the drive from Da Nang to Hoi An we passed an interesting set of mountains that we were told were called the Marble Mountains. We booked a trip to the Marble Mountains from Hoi An (it was raining hard so we skipped renting a scooter) for $10 each and were picked up at our homestay by a minibus. It turned out to only be the two of us and one expat from the US who lives in Saigon on the trip. As we neared the base of one of the mountains we saw stores lining the roads, all selling marble statues. Our guide told us that they extract the marble from the are and, as we assumed from the name, the mountains are made entirely of marble.
The mountain we visited was home to Buddhist temples and a pagoda that houses the body of a recently deceased monk. A stairway that we took was made of marble, making it very slippery in the heavy rain, and it brought us to a large Buddha statue. We were told that the statue was relatively new, having been completed six years prior. Moving on we came across a much more interesting Buddha which was carved from the mountain inside a shallow cave. The cave had holes in the top, allowing light to shine on the sculpture.
Heading further into the mountain we came to a chamber inside of a longer cave that was absolutely stunning. A set of stairs lead down to the floor in the massive chamber and directly opposite where we stood was a seated Buddha high above the ground, carved from the rock wall. Our guide told us that the holes in the roof of the cave were partially natural and partially enlarged by bombs from the war.
After a tour of the main chamber, including seeing a fountain of lucky water that dripped from a nook in the cave and filled a small pool, we went outside and climbed more slippery stairs on our walk to “heaven”. In prior times the monks believed that ascending the mountain was akin to ascending to heaven, and we walked right up to the very top. The views were nice, however without the clouds and rain, plus lack of urban sprawl back then would have made them much nicer. We descended pretty quickly since the rain was coming down hard and headed to the next stop for the day, Monkey Mountain.
Monkey Mountain sounded interesting when we heard about it, being home to the rare red mouth monkey and a former French and then US base during their wars in Vietnam. When we arrived we found our surroundings to be a bit less romantic than they had sounded. We stopped in a semi busy parking lot and were shown the path to go see a giant Lady Buddha statue that had been completed a few years prior. Soaking wet, we looked up and saw what was indeed, a very giant female Buddha.
Standing at 67 meters, the giant Lady Buddha is the tallest Buddha in Vietnam and has 17 floors inside that can be climbed, but not by visitors when we were there. Our guide told us that the Lady Buddha that is virtually everywhere you look in the country, wasn’t born on earth, but is a heavenly being. Buddha himself was born on earth and grew from a child to an adult, but Lady Buddha was never a child. Waving goodbye to the large lady, we ran to escape the rain and later to move onto our next stop in Vietnam which also happened to be our favorite, Phong Nha National Park!