Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam
“Hello, hello. Where you going to now?”
This has been a fairly common question in our few days in Vietnam, usually followed by an offer like, “Taxi?” or “Hotel?”
Today, it was followed by, “Buddha buddha,” and a big hand gesture to follow.
“We are just walking, thank you,” we replied.
“Buddha! Buddha! Come.”
We looked across the road, toward a small, green mountain, guarded by a golden yellow building and the same neat rows of parked motorbikes that make every establishment in Vietnam seem like a moto dealership.
As we entered the complex, walking quickly, I talked over my shoulder to Alex.
“How much do you suppose we’ll pay for this?”
I tried multiple times to tell the man ‘Thank you so much, we will go alone from here.’ But he was not about it.
“How can we ditch this guy??” I asked Alex.
We passed a table of 6 Vietnamese men, playing what looked to be some form of checkers, and drinking beer. While they spoke to our impromptu guide and laughed as we passed, I did my best to greet them in Vietnamese: “Xin Chao.”
“Chao, Chao,” they greeted me back, chuckling.
We saw in front of us something that seemed liked an outdoor cafeteria, with tables in long lines, everyone moving among each other to get food and find a seat.
“Alright….I guess let’s just go with it,” I told Alex over my shoulder, still moving through the streams of people, no tell-tale signs of tourists to be found.
A second later our guide ducked into a hole in the side of the mountain, slightly larger than himself. We followed.
“Buddha,” he said, pointing ahead and switching on a dim flashlight.
We followed him through the drippy tunnel, into an open cave, where a marble Buddha statue sat in a glass case, fronted by offerings of incense and fruit. The guide gestured for us to bow. We did as we were told. He gave us each a stick of lit incense, and gestured for us to place it with the others, in front of the Buddha. We did.
We stood there quietly for a moment, just us three in this cave temple, silently staring at the Buddha. I noticed my ears were ringing, perhaps an after-effect from the crush and chatter of tourist crowds at Water Mountain- the main ‘attraction’ of pagodas, temples, and tea houses in the Marble Mountains- which we had left just about 15 minutes earlier. We had taken our time there as well, visiting each cave and marveling at the huge marble statues. But the shorts-and-tank-top clad tourists, all hustling for a picture, and talking loudly about finding a snack made this holy site feel more like an amusement park.
After leaving Water Mountain, knowing that there were other Marble Mountains, we went exploring. We walked west until the road ended, turned left until we reached the next big road, turned right. At the end of this road is where we met our guide.
Now, he shone his light on a face carved into the rock, another carved into a slimy stalagmite. He led us back toward the entrance, holding back a large stick of incense stuck in a side path so we could enter a new tunnel. There too we found small shrines surrounded by offerings. We left that cave. We climbed a ladder to a small rock platform to find another small shrine, more offerings.
Within five minutes we were back in the open air, and he gestured for us to climb a set of stone steps, then walked the other direction.
“Huh..maybe he wasn’t expecting money,” I said, naively and not quite believing myself.
Set into the rock face next to the steps were more small shrines, all abundant with offerings: now fresh cut flowers, cakes, cookies, bottles of water, and incense and fruit. We reached the top of the stairs and stayed there, on the outskirts of the activity, unsure of what was appropriate. A small group ate on a mat on the floor of the stone platform. A group of women- some in gray robes, others in street clothes- knelt in front of a large Lady Buddha that was surrounded by more offerings than all of the others we had seen so far. More and more people arrived at the top of the stairway. One of the women in gray robes played a singing bowl, which seemed to indicate the start of prayer, as the women began chanting and bowing. More women streamed up the steps, one giving loud high-pitched shouts at intervals, some carrying spiral-bound books that seemed to contain prayers, all carrying offerings.
“They’re praying,” I said. “Let’s not be in their space.”
But as I turned to go, I hesitated. I debated quickly in my head whether or not our presence was disruptive or disrespectful. I looked around, trying to gauge people’s faces or see if anyone was staring at us, urging us to leave. Nobody was. People were praying, people were putting down offerings, people were eating together.
We stayed only for a few more minutes, helping elderly women down the steps as they passed us to descend. Soon enough, we too turned for our descent. About halfway down, one of those elderly women grabbed my hand tightly, and we went together, me as her mobile railing. I nearly slipped once and her hand flew to her heart, in that universal gesture of quick-passing worry. When we reached the bottom, she squeezed and patted my hand, nodding, bowing, smiling before she disappeared into the stream of people.
Alex and I turned to go.
And there was our guide.
“Money,” he said, rubbing his fingers together, as if he couldn’t let us forget for too long the universal element that makes a tourist a tourist, no matter how far afield one may wander.