Ty has grown obsessed with the idea of a scooter. Of riding one. Of owning one. Of being on one. Of being adjacent to one. In his mind, I imagine there is a vision of him with a black helmet, a coat with a scorpion embossed on the back, of an epic steeple chase across the continent. On his initiative, we decide to spend a day scooting, although both Faith and I are reluctant to drive them ourselves. Faith’s concern is probably just nerves, and they ride together on one scooter to save on costs. My concerns are more realistic, as leaving me alone on a scooter means I would almost certainly crash it, break both of my legs, and somehow end up tangled in seaweed.
We set off in different directions, Faith and Ty on their scooter, while I ride on an impressive motorcycle owned and driven by an elderly Vietnamese man who refuses to tell me his name. I look out to the horizon: the first stop has to be the Marble Mountains.
They make marble things there.
The mountains are notable for the expensive rocks contained within, but also for a hiking trail leading into and around the biggest mountain, as well as two caves lodged within.
The hell cave is deep within the ground. Obsidian steps lead off a path and burrow directly into the dark, curving and twisting away from the light outside. The stone is slick and damp, and it feels likely that numerous tourists have slipped and fallen to their deaths here, their corpses surely swallowed into the dim and that which lurks there. Stalactites drip from the ceiling and all around the cave are dark, twisted statues, red demon faces and gnarled limbs reaching out at interlopers. A small shrine rests in one corner, a solitary flame burning in its depths. It is strangely warm down here.
In a cavalcade of metaphor, the only way to get through the heaven cave is to scramble and scuff yourself over a wall of jagged rocks. You stumble through black tunnels and over difficult terrain, pushing yourself ever higher, scratching open your limbs and covering yourself in earth, in ash, in sweat and grime. There are no stairs in this particular cave. We old our cell phones and iPods aloft, illuminating our coarse, difficult path.
Light eventually breaks through the cracks, and crags open to day. We are atop the marble mountains, and around us stretches Da Nang, the beaches, the sea. Great coastal roads limber along, and we see hundreds of motorcycles zip past at noon.
Our mood dips only slightly as people corral us directly into a marble shop and pressure us to buy enormous, expensive statuary. Upon escape, Driver curiously asks what we might do next. A journey down to Hue? A visit to Monkey Peninsula, perhaps? Faith and Ty had previously suggested puttering down there, but several locals had warned them off. “Don’t go to Monkey Peninsula,” they said. “They murdered all of the monkeys.”
I was off on the road, with only an elderly, anonymous man to accompany me. The world was my oyster, the sun was high, and the skies were clear. Asphalt spread before us. We could go wherever I wanted.
There are times that I forget that my interests tend to be pretty niche, but this afternoon certainly reminded me of that fact. Left to my own devices, I first pointed into the western sky and demanded that we race off to the Cham museum, which commemorated the nearby My Son holy land and contained dozens of Hindu relics from bygone eras. The idea of ancient Hindu Vietnamese excited me, thrilled me intellectually. I felt certain that this particular faction of academic intrigue must also be shared by other members of the public, that before the Cham museum there would be an enormous line, packed with hundreds of hungry tourists and students ready to devour centuries of local history. People would be wearing sun-visors and carrying parasols to ward off the sun, as the line would be so long that entry into the museum would likely be limited and slow. Our names would be placed in the lottery for entry to the museum. I would form bonds with my linemates. We would sing songs of non-queued times.
We arrive at a desolate old building, where a ticket-booth attendant jumps in surprise and fear at my presence. I pay the meagre admission fee and wander in, my flipflops echoing across ancient stone and empty halls. Here is Garuda, there is Uma, naga friezes slither in the corners of every room. The mid-afternoon sun pours in through the cheap windows. These old stone gods are too weathered, too strong and aged already to require any bourgeois, climate-controlled glass cases. You could get up close to the relics, come face to face with the ancients. You could climb up on Ganesh’s back and pretend to ride him if you wanted, though you probably shouldn’t, because he’s a holy relic and all.
I emerge from the museum beaming, a bewildering response for Driver. I pass by a group of elderly German travelers being led around by a tour-guide, and both their presence and mine seems to endlessly bewilder the man tasked with scooting my weird ass around town all day.
After a brief lunch, I convince Driver to further cater to my various religion-major whims, and we see all the major temples of Da Nang. Buddha scorches my retinas, a perfect afterimage of serene zen grace stamped across the back of my eyeballs from prolonged exposure. My shoes are barely ever on my feet as I move from temple to temple to temple.
Driver seems to have gotten my number. “We can go to special temple now,” he remarks. Mystery is in his eyes. We arrive at a deserted building, and I wonder if I (or Driver, for that matter) are technically allowed on this property. Or if he has grown bored with my travel interests, and plans to kill me. The gardens are slightly overrun, no shoes or sandals rest on the outside steps. If there are monks who attend to this property, they are not present.
At the centre, at the altar, is a giant globe. It is a hazy blue, occasionally occluded by clouds and bursts of stars. Ridges form along the sphere. At its centre, looking out to the assembled crowd of ghosts, is a singular, floating eye. Its gaze may or may not follow me around the room. I cannot place the symbol, nor do I want to. I don’t know if anyone has ever entered this room before me. It feels like an untouched place, like maybe it was transported in from another dimension, like maybe the transition didn’t take. It is dim here, and weird, and just what I want. I imagine that when I go outside, the driver will be gone, or never have existed, and that suddenly my name will be Derek and the sky will be purple. It’s that kind of a building. It’s that kind of a place.