I arrived in Da Nang well-rested, but very dirty (between the day at Perfume Pagoda and overnight on the train with no shower, I'm amazed people were not running in the other direction at my approach). I decided to take a taxi to Hoi An, because although it was a bit pricier than the bus, I needed the luxury at this point. So when a man approached me and offered to take me there for $5 (I had assumed I'd have to fork over $15), I agreed.
Then he escorted me to his motorbike.
I had avoided these in Hanoi because I was terrified of them. I hesitated as Hai, my driver, took my bag and started to strap it on the back, responding to my admitting to being American by telling the story of how he was shot twice during the Vietnam War as a South Vietnamese (the ones who helped the US) soldier. He even pointed to the front of his bike that had a "Proud to be American" eagle sticker on it. He was so friendly, and I had already agreed to go with him, that when he handed me the helmet, although I must have been completely white with fear, I hopped on the back, assumed a death grip on the handlebars and prayed for a quick, death-free voyage.
Once the ride started, I saw that the traffic in Da Nang was nowhere near the nightmare that was the capital city. Hai explained that he'd take me out to the coastal road because we could see some of the war sites along the old DMZ and My Khe beach(popularized by the television show China Beach) and then around the Marble Mountains. He said it would take longer, but assured me that it was still the same price. He noticed my camera and asked if I wanted to stop and take some pictures around the beach. His driving and relaxed, straight-forward manner started to put me at ease.
When we arrived at the Marble Mountains, he encouraged me to go explore them for as long as I wanted. He said he'd wait at the base while I took a hike through the park and took some photos. I felt bad for making him wait, but I was very excited because I'd wanted to see the Marble Mountains while I was in Hoi An, and wasn't sure I would have time to make a side trip out to them. Plus, as it was already mid-afternoon at this point and I thought I'd have to waste my whole day in transport, the opportunity to turn the journey into a sight-seeing excursion for no extra money (except the generous tip I was now planning to give him), delighted me.
I was trying to go quickly because I didn't want Hai to have to wait too long, but in the end, there was just so much to see that I took over two hours, including the time I spent purchasing a very nice present for my parents from one of the marble craftsmen at the base of the mountain.
Finally, as we headed through the countryside towards Hoi An, I began to relax completely. I realized that this more rural, traditional part of Vietnam was what I had been yearning for after months in the concrete jungles of Daegu.
I arranged a day tour for the next day with Hai, wishing I had enough time and money to do one of his week-long central highlands tours. I had discovered the true joy of solo travel--that unexpected opportunity, that chance you can seize upon without consulting another who might balk at the time or the expense of the unplanned undertaking. As I settled into my first night in the lovely town of Hoi An, after a much needed shower and relaxing dinner with some girls I met on my trip to Ha Long Bay, I was bursting with excitement about the next day's voyage. Feeling for the first time in a long time, truly free.
Check out the rest of the day's album: