We wake up in the sun-filled room in Hoi An, having driven here the previous day from the city of Da Nang. It was probably the most amazing Vietnamese city, being the golden middle between North and South. After the first night there we decided that the time has come for us to rent a bike, as it was the first time on this trip that I felt safe on the Vietnamese streets. Taking the long road south of the city, we get to the most famous little town in the country, Hoi An.
The previous night we roamed around Hoi An’s old town, a crowded little tourist trap masqueraded as a historic port town. This, however, did not dampen our moods. As we woke up the next morning, we were bent on making the day count like none other. This was to be the last day before we faced the greatest decision, sign teaching contracts in Hanoi and stay for at least six more months (as we were running out of money), or head home. I wasn’t sure we were ready for either choice, and today was to be all about letting the answer come to us.
The Hidden Beach
We skip the hostel breakfast (yes, I said that ‘a free breakfast is a free breakfast’, but life is more about exceptions than rules, also, don’t trust anything I say). Nemanja packs the little things we have with us and I put on whatever. I surprise myself because I always assumed that the best days had to start with the perfect dress, a tiara or a great hair day. This was none of those. We get on the bike, and head for the beach. Driving through central Vietnam, in the morning hours of a sunny day, passing fields and villages, down the empty roads, with no one to hinder us, no one to spoil the pure natural beauty of the country are moments forged in perfection. We get to the hidden beach skillfully named “Hidden Beach”; so, we get to the hidden “Hidden Beach” and order breakfast at the pub, officially starting our day.
It’s half past eight. In the distance, fishermen in their boats are discernible only through the camera’s zoom. The small one-man boats are unlike what I’ve seen before, resembling large walnut shells, giving an authentic feel to the whole morning fishing scene. Young men skillfully steer the boats, drawing nets full of fish that have come from somewhere beyond these shores. Far away behind them, the distant mountains are barely visible through the hot air. The water is silky smooth; it favours them, and us. Out there, we catch the shapes of large ships, rushing through the sea, and serving as contrast to the tale of lone anglers. Vietnam in a nutshell.
I walk into the water, across the hot white sand, and just keep walking. A 100m off the shore, all sand under my feet and water meeting the horizon in front. It’s warm and peaceful. An occasional wave surprises us just enough to make it interesting.
Half an hour later, I go back out, settle in my shade and order a fresh coconut! The darling old woman grabs a machete and starts hacking away at the green ball with exquisite precision. With my coconut and straw in hand, beautiful sea in front, I take the mandatory Instagram photos from the angle that makes my thighs look thin! Yes! The coconut tastes crap, of course, all of these things do, but we all pretend they are delicious because someone once created that illusion and we can’t break it. In these moments, everything must be perfect, or else our lives suck and we can’t let others think that. Therefore, I drink the imperfect coconut, of course, laughing at my ridiculous self and the first world problems of this moment, thinking how nothing could really make my life not perfect. I was so wonderfully happy.
At almost 10 o’clock we grab our things, get the bike and head north towards Da Nang. Despite my primary negative attitude towards driving in Vietnam, here I was, eating my words. It was freaking amazing! Of course, we weren’t in Vietnam, because the Da Nang area had nothing of the Vietnamese characteristics we have encountered so far. Going up the main road, along the perfect endless stretches of sandy beaches and luxury resorts, we saw a whole new side of Vietnam. Soon, in the distance, the white city, on the white shores, rising like a mirage through the slightly humid hot air. As if it would disappear any moment now – it was so perfect. We really weren’t in Vietnam anymore.
I can’t help but wonder if Da Nang area was truly such a magical place, or was the impression such because it was filtered through our eyes. Were our questions finally answered? Were we finally ready to be truly happy? It is most likely that the new, free-spirited attitude, combined with Nemanja’s addictive joy at driving a bike, and the natural and cultural beauty of the whole are, all contributed to such an impression. What’s more, being on a bike prevented us from having to have contact with Vietnamese people of whom we had a terrible impression, probably because they were terrible towards us. Finally, the ultimate joy was knowing that Top Gear passed along these roads, travelling from Hoi An, same as us. That was a precious happy thought.
Son Tra Mountain
Passing the city, heading towards the Son Tra Peninsula, the first sight we came across was the Man Thai Fishing Village, located just before the start of the mountain rise. The scene was both beautiful and eerie with the traditional boats anchored in the bay, and Da Nang rising in the background.
As we continued on our way, round the many bends of the Son Tra Peninsula, we arrived at the mountain’s jewel, the Son Tra Linh Ung Pagoda, guarded by the giant statue of Lady Buddha. This could be the most wonderful of all the sights we have visited in Vietnam, and definitely a gem of the Da Nang area.
The whole park, the temple with its pristine gardens, 67m tall Goddess of Mercy statue and stunning views, were a place for rest and exploration. Standing on the steps to the main pagoda, I could see devotees praying under the strong smell of incense flowing outside, into the fresh air. Along the doors to the temple, visitors lined their shoes, leaving them to wait in the outside world.
Around the corner, down the small steps, Lady Buddha stands as the tall guardian of the mountain, looking over us with merciful eyes and a spirit of calm. There are no entrance fees, no sellers, nothing fake or insincere. A truly magical place to be, and that’s exactly how we felt – magical.
At half past one, we were faced with a decision. During the ride back to Da Nang, we wondered whether to continue our journey towards the famed Hai Van Pass. We had 4 hours left to have lunch, return to the hostel and catch the 14 hour train back to Hanoi where our lives were to continue one way or another. With the joy of further exploration, but also the desire to postpone thinking about the reality outside of Da Nang which would definitely sink in as soon as we got off this bike, we made our way to the Hai Van Pass.
The Hai Van Pass
Many centuries ago, the 20km long Hai Van Pass was the border between the Kingdom of Champa and Vietnam, and was later used as a strategic point by the French, and in the Vietnamese-American war. Today it’s a road famed for its bends and views, made especially famous by Top Gear.
The sky was the most magnificent of blues, in the distance blurred by waves of hot air. The sun shone, lighting up the bushes and trees lining the road. Far away, at sea level, Da Nang glistening, with its white towers and busy life. Every other second, my breath is taken away by the scenery, the view, the camaraderie of the riders sharing the road, and the goats and cows randomly crossing the fast straights.
We soon reach the peak, and without stopping we go further, towards Hue. We were both looking for a certain something, a scene, a moment like no other. We needed to follow the road, but also make it back on schedule. We rode on as I kept checking the time, with the worm of worry eating away at me. Every minute I would say a minute more, and so we drove, not knowing if we would find that something we were looking for. And then, we reached the full circle.
There it was, just around another unlikely bend, the view that brought us to Vietnam. All the worry about going back, making it on time, missing something, rushing, was useless. Worry is like that, it changes nothing except one’s ability to be in the present. Worry will never change the road. It will lead you where you need to be.
What mattered was that we did keep on that road, persistent, both up and down the mountain, around the sharp and smooth bends, over potholes, past other drivers, around domestic animals, all of them smiling; both the drivers and the animals, and us. On our way, with the invisible finish line ahead, we drove with the pure joy of being connected, with our partner on the bike, the country, the spirit, the world.
In the Top Gear Vietnam Special, Clarkson, May and Hammond drive from Saigon to Hanoi, and passing through central Vietnam take the same road. From Hoi An, through Da Nang towards Hue, struggling up the Hai Van pass. Then they stopped. The three wise men stood, in awe of the scene before them, resembling a painting. On the water, a small fishing boat, and in the background the new industrial bridge. Clarkson called it the perfect metaphor for Vietnam. And there we were. Looking at the same perfect metaphor for Vietnam and life, on the very spot they stood. The old slowly making room for the new.
And we cried.
We parked the bike, stood on the side of the road and cried. Another important moment, another best day of our lives and again them as its most important part. On this trip, and all others, we always seem to walk in their steps and drive on their roads and what does it all mean?!! Maybe we are crazy and obsessed? Maybe. Probably! But maybe, they are our unlikely teachers who inspire us to go and travel and follow a stupid idea to leave Serbia and spend all our money on a trip to Vietnam and for what? For the realization that we had to leave in order to come back.
Standing on that road, with Nemanja, and in some past present moment with them, I realized the irrelevance of my worries and pain. It all paled. I realized that I really didn’t give a fuck about what others thought, if they judged me, or faked caring for me, or laughed behind my back or read my blog posts and called me crazy and detached from reality and a witch and a bitch, and disapproved of my hairy legs and wrinkly clothes, and opinions and preferences and life and existence.
Living life is like riding a bike. You go, move forward, leaving some part of the road behind. And evolution and life are about change and going forward, and we cannot move forward without leaving something in the past. Standing by the side of that road, in the moment of true clarity, I knew it, honestly and perfectly, that I had to put myself first and follow whatever path I was on. I also knew what forgiveness was for, so I forgave them all. Finally, I was strong enough to go home.
We return to Hanoi, and book the tickets for next day. Almost 40 hours later, we land in the wonderful mess that are our lives in Serbia. We wouldn’t change them for the world!
Is there a trip that changed your life? Tell me all about it bellow! 🙂