13 July 2009

Ba Na: The hills are alive - with the sound of tourists

The wind is gushing against my face, my hair is flying in the wind and my bum comfortably planted on the back seat of a Honda scooter: Never was going on a day trip to the mountains so sexy!

Racing so fast on the causeway that my helmet keeps slipping off in order to escape the already quickly heating morning sun, and later cautiously slithering between long inert lorries that drive as if they were motorcyclists while endangering the real ones with their indecisive driving behaviour, Aike, his girlfriend Nhung and I are on the one-hour-ride to Ba Na Hill Station, about 48km west of Da Nang.

What used to be a mountain resort developed by the French in the 1920s and after a brief heyday in the 1930s became a victim of the war, has more recently been revived by the erection of a cable car which boasts two world records: 1) Longest single-strip system in the world and 2) Largest gap in height between departure and arrival station

Already at the lower station, one can see that while most foreign tourists would have received a flyer at the airport, 98% of all visitors are actually local or Asian. Should be interesting to observe them from the eyes of an anthropologist.

While we are standing in the queue for boarding the cable car, the slightly echoed sound of a running cable wheel and the clonk of steel reminds me of skiing trips in the Alps and Aike must have read my mind for he chided, "Just like in Austria, isn't it?", knowing my tendency to compare things to my home country already, haha! As our cable car is approaching, I read the company sign on the pillar and guess who built the whole thing, GUESS!!! Doppelmayr Ropeway Technologies from Wolfurt, Austria!

From the cabin you can have a good view of the surrounding hills and Da Nang beach and below, a waterfall. I wonder how they built this thing amidst the thick undergrowth in the heat. We bet the height of the station, for fun and I guess 1300m and win (it's 1500m) - I know my mountains! ;)

Quite a great sight until you reach the top station, abuzz with local tourists in their sun hats, shuttle buses for the lazy as express ride to the giant Buddha on the top. In the back, the rather romantic sound of a construction site for a second, higher cable car so you can actually skip the "boring" walk in the trees and the risk of getting tanned - how convenient... Clearly, one can see that the motive was not to promote appreciation of local nature but ego and greed. It's like Aike blogged about the temples in Chiang Mai: "The Buddha is big business" As to why one would build a cable car in the height of tourist season close to the height of the rainy season, I don't know. Maybe it was actually scheduled to finish earlier this year...?

Trying to avoid the concrete roads, in an attempt not to get hit by one of minibus shuttles full of stereotypical visitors, we take the (concrete) stairs up into the forest instead and as it turns out, my flip-flop footwear is among the more better within the spectrum, judiging from some pencil-heeled, ultra-mini skirted girls who somehow got lost and ended up on this hill. I wonder later if they ever get as scrutinised in public with their (also) Asian boyfriends for dressing so suggestively whereas Aike and Nhung at least dress decently for local standards. I will elaborate on why this is relevant in a while.

Our first stop is a temple for Quán Âm (or Guan Yin, her more widely known Chinese name), the popular bodhisattva of compassion, who I quite like. Her Christian version would probably be the Virgin Mary.

Next, we venture up to another temple where a monk rings a singing bowl (not sure about correct translation for Klangschale). Outside is a little fountain with little sculptures including monkey-God Hanuman, illustrating the stories of the Mahayana. Later additions include young kids conquering the rock wall behind and climbing around the scenes and small soft drink bottles and plastic wraps swimming in there, complementing the story with a more recent accentuation. On the other side of the temple, a hotel with what appears to be a publicly used toilet. What a great and secluded place for a spiritual get-away... Buy one (Buddha) and get 1000 (tourists) for free. AND you can play Tennis too!!!

The Buddha, a majestically meditating white figure, is surrounded by picnicking locals who protection from the tanning sun in his shadow, kids who climb the reliefs in the high footstone under the gigantic statue and (large!) Asian families posing proudly for group pictures (plural, sic!).

The sun suddenly burns very strongly on us, now that we have reached the "summit" while it reached its zenith - a perfect time to have lunch in the busy eatery under the marquees. The half-full leftover plates of some Asian visitors make it difficult for us to figure out whether the group of the abandoned table will come back or if it indeed is free for us to sit down. As it turns out, eating only 40-50% of your meal is a way of showing you can afford to do so. While Filipinos like to at least take home what they can't eat and while in some countries eating all that is served to you when in somebody's house is a sign of greed, it appears that some people don't have any relation to their food, where it comes from and poor people.

Nhung has bought some lovely Rambutans for the trip and makes me try them for the first time! These "hairy" fruits (rambut means hair in Malay/Indonesian) are indeed delicious, being of similar taste and consistency as lychees! At the same time, she is tasting my imported Malaysian Dodol (a coconut molasse kind of sweet), Durian flavour, and is trying to convince Aike that it's really edible, haha (trying Durian is a running joke with foreigners, for while a delicacy in Asia, it has a sickening smell and aftertaste for the unrefined Western tongue). I ask her to commemorate this Rambutan premiere by taking a picture of me which turns the attention to the khaki-coloured uniformed police man sitting on the table behind me with his back on us, shamelessly downing his rice wine or whatever alcohol it was. We muse a bit on why he would drink during his duty: Maybe he is on break? Maybe it's his free day and he doesn't have any other clothes to wear? - Ah, the irony with communism...

We have a look at a ruin of what appears to be a former French house. It has an eery feel with its roof missing and what is left of the walls covered in plants with black plaster underneath, as if it caught fire after bombed from the air. Locals don't mind though, napping in the littered space around it or having a long phone conversation on their mobile.

It's our last stop and by the time we're on the way down back to the hill station in the afternoon, it starts to shower down on us. Good I brought a broken umbrella. We run to the roofed porch of a small hut to seek shelter together with some other Asian tourists on three square metres. Nhung rammages for the last Rambutans while we wait for the rain to stop and one of the Northern Vietnamese tourists (their accent is so different that even she can't grasp all of the words) points towards the Rambutan and at her, saying something unintelligible. She, at first unsuspecting, offers them two Rambutan which they take eagerly. The group starts talking quite visibly about us, in front of us, while curiously moving their pink-capped heads around (a tour group) to look at us. Suddenly, I get poked on my arm and an elderly woman says sth to me I don't understand. Then another person pokes at me from the other side, making my head turn around sharply at them. Finally, an old man who seems to be the leader pokes again at me, points at Aike, then at me and crosses his fingers. He's asking if we're together/married. I say no, he's just a friend. I already had a feeling where this was going, having read Aike's posts about the harassment he and Nhung had been receiving for her going out with a foreigner. Even Lonely Planet acknowledges that this frequently happens. I probably added that I live in Malaysia, so there would not be any misunderstanding of them believing the tall blonde Dutch guy is dating two Asian girls at the same time. Nhung is getting poked too and she tells them to stop doing that, in English, pretending she does not speak Vietnamese. The mob gossips some more and some smile, a hostile smile. Finally the rain eases a bit and they take the opporunity to run down and catch up with their tour bus. We perturbed and annoyed, decide to move down to Quan Am's temple and seek shelter with her instead, lest they come back and she shall indeed save us indeed from any further pestering and send us a bit of sunshine as the clouds around us clear. That was when Nhung explains that the Rambutan is the symbol for HIV/AIDS because it looks like the virus that foreigners are being associated with for their promiscuity and presumed nymphomania (and before marriage at that! Obviously all these foreigners are corrupting our girls). Man, all these people who think like them should move to Thailand to deter all the real sex tourists.

We decide to sit some more in the calming presence of Quan Am with the view over the other hills. Some cheerful younger Asians come (Japanese?) and want Aike to snap a picture of them. When they discover he speeks their language, they excitedly pose for a picture with him in the middle. Happened to him before, Aike laughingly admits.

Right when we decide to get a move, it starts to rain again and what they said about this mountain having all four seasons in one day, suddenly rings quite true, especially as the misty clouds suddenly are back to envelop us with a visibility of three metres, entirely covering the station, a five minute walk away. I think of the Mists of Avalon.

Eventually, we do make it to the station - where we are made to wait 1.5 hours in the queue, the cable car service temporarily stopped. Interestingly, nobody gives information, nobody asks questions and everybody just complacently accepts that they have to wait for an unknown period of time for an unknown reason. The communist government conditioned them well. I wonder what would happen if I tried an anthropological experiment and shouted to the guard across the hall to tell us what is going on. Would I get kicked out? Would I encourage other people to follow suit? Of course, nobody is running around to sell drinks or food - in other words, make the business of the week. Nhung, tired and bored, is reading my Vietnam book so it is to Aike that I complain in German that the woman behind me is literally trying to overstep me in the narrow barricaded queue to get to what she claims is her husband. She actually asks me after putting all her weight suggestively on my backpack for an hour or so while bitching about me and a lot of things in general with her daughter, if she can go to her husband, pointing at the third person in front of us who is smiling nervously at me. Annoyed by her constant pushing, I flat-out said no. How do I know this is her husband? Clearly, if they were so eager to get together, the husband wouldn't mind going back to join his wife and children. Aike suggests that maybe he actually is secretely grateful to me for keeping his bubbly wife at bay and giving him a break and Nhung laughingly agrees. Shortly before they get the whole thing running again (lightening warning, good to know it's not just the rain that kept a double world record Austrian cable car from service), she just pushes passed me, shrilly laughes at while yanking her reluctant husband towards her in victory. Her son with the husband, sees this as an invitation to go back to his sister past me. Before he can return to his parents, I open my umbrella horizontally side-ways as if to dry it and block his way, haha! SERIOUSLY, as if one minute earlier would decide whether or not they would get off this mountain or have to spend the night (which perhaps, is not too far fetched a possibility).

Unfortunately, once we reach the motorcycle car park, we discover that one of our helmets had been stolen. The irony is of course that you PAY the people from the guard house to take care of your stuff. I suspect the helmet probably disappeared very soon after we arrived, probably another message for the foreigner who is not going on a trip with one Asian girl but with yet another Asian-looking girl. I really hope for Nhung and Aike that it gets at least a bit better once they move to urban Ho Chi Minh City.

Otherwise, a great trip on an ugly mountain!

(Watch this post, pictures following soon!)

2 courageous comments!:

Aike said...

Thanks! :)

Anonymous said...


just signed up and wanted to say hello while I read through the posts

hopefully this is just what im looking for, looks like i have a lot to read.