Friday 12 November 2010

Go on Mỹ Sơn

And behold, for on the morning of the seventh day He woke, and there was no more rain.

But be careful what you wish for. It turns out that as well as dampening my spirits, the rain has been keeping hordes of tourists locked up in the resorts that circle the old town. Now they roam free; it's like some activists busted out the denizens of the local zoo, and the charming side of Hoi An that shone through the drizzle is suddenly overrun.

The locals have stepped things up a gear too, and are competing fiercely for the extra dollars. Walking down the street being greeted by each person trying to flog me something, I feel obliged to offer cheery replies. From every shadow, alleyway and shop front comes another salutation and entreaty to buy something else I don't want.
Keep walking...
-Hello please
-Hello thank you
Next one:
-You want buy something from my shop?
-No thank you
From behind a tailor's dummy:
-You want buy nice clothes mister?
-No thank you
-Taxi for you?
-No thanks

-Boat trip for you my friend?
-No thanks, I get sea sick
Still walking...
-Motorbike tour?
Keep going...
-No thank you, I've already eaten
-Massage for you sir?
-No I'm fine thanks
-You want eat in my restaurant
-No thank you, not hungry

-Nice shoes for you mister?
-Don't wear shoes, thank you
-Hire motorbike?
-No thanks
Keep walking. Stop. Turn back...
-How much for half day?
I hand over the cash (about £2.50) and he hands over the keys, together with a crash helmet that offers about as much protection as, and is slightly less fetching than, an upturned salad bowl. With a hand scribbled map stuffed in my pocket, I set about getting as far away as I can in as short a time possible.

Okay, so it's not Hanoi or Saigon, but it's still crazy. Oncoming trucks and buses, dust, fumes, people carrying trees on their bicycles. Cows, dogs, chickens, old women, kids. It's like playing Paperboy but in real life and a lot faster. I get the hang of it after a few tentative minutes. The trick is not to ride too fast, and to remember that you only need the throttle, brake and the horn. Other extras, like mirrors and indicators, are completely superfluous.

Settled into the rhythm of things, I really begin to enjoy myself. In the hour and a bit I'm on the road, I don't see a single other tourist. And by the time I reach my destination, the ancient Cham temple complex of Mỹ Sơn they've all left there for the day as well. I'm in stunning surroundings, wandering in and out of the ruins, and there is not a soul to be seen; just invisible crickets and frogs for company.

It's probably not the most visually impressive of the many historic sites I've been to on my travels, but it's still impressive. The temples and tombs date from between the 4th and 14th centuries. For a thousand years, this was the greatest religious site in the Kingdom of Champa, a once great seafaring empire that controlled central and southern Vietnam but was eventually squeezed out by the north. In 1969 the site was subjected to US carpet bombing, and remains surrounded by unexploded ordinance. It's hard to tell what accounts for this, but most of the statues I see have been decapitated.

It happens to all Great empires in the end.

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