Our destination is unknown upon departure. We’ve rented a motorcycle and left from Hoi An knowing only that we were heading to the mountain with the elevator. An odd sentence, to be sure. Yesterday, driving back down the highway returning from Danang to Hoi An with the wind whipping wild around our cheap bucket helmets, we’d spotted it at a distance. A tube, stretching into the sky like something out of a sci-fi flick.
“What the hell is that,” I scream in Dean’s ear over the whistling wind.
“Where?” he looks and drifts across the road.
“No don’t! It’s an elevator.”
“Where?” Still drifting.
“We’ll come back tomorrow…”
The next morning, leaving early in the morning to get ahead of both the traffic and the sun (our sunburnt motorcycle legs thanked us) we head back down the highway to the mystery elevator on the side of a mountain. At the bottom, and following the signs, we learn that it is indeed an elevator, and the mountain in question is one of five. The Marble Mountains, rocky outcrops bursting unexpectedly from the tangle of Vietnamese suburbia its something of a surreal mark on the landscape. We buy tickets for both the elevator and the mountain top (admittedly opting out of the significant stairs but hey, how many times do you get to ride a mountain elevator?). Past the security guard, through the elevator doors and like Charlie in Wonka’s chocolate factory: up, up, up we go. I find myself at an off moment of surreal thinking, half wonderment of travel, half ingenuity of man. I was at the bottom of the mountain, and now I am at the top. In the middle was a brief period in which I tried to believe (with reasonable success) that I was Charlie and my boyfriend was an amalgamation of Wonka and Grandpa Joe and here we were, cruising towards the edge of the known world.
But in the end, I’m just going up an elevator.
That isn’t to say that what awaits us at the top is anything other than completely out of the ordinary. Temples and pagodas sit, almost scattered in a pattern across levels and landings on the top of Marble Mountains. Pathways and staircases weave around them as ribbons might on the outside of the present you’ve been waiting for. In the shade of the trees, everything looks just a little bit magical, perfectly dappled and hidden from the world.
The path we walk is far from organised. We climb up and down the stairs looking for adventure more than a workout (although in the end we get both). What we find is this…
Beautiful temples, amazing pagodas and (to our great surprise) caves. Lots and lots of caves, varying in depth and size, but absolutely filled with religious artefacts from shrines and grottos to monstrous statues of the buddha and entire incense houses. Inside the caves, the incense washes over us like a wave, catching in our nostrils with the gentle dampness and earthy smell of the caves themselves. In one cave, although I admit the memory now feels more like a dream, we enter after clambering up slippery stairs and and find only a small shrine with a little sitting buddha. Then in the corner of my eye I see a sign, an arrow directing us further into the depths of the mountain. So, like any good traveler, we follow the signs.
The pathway through the rock is narrow, and I scape my elbows on the rough sides of the tunnel. Distracted by the momentary darkness, I nearly crash into the person in front of me when they suddenly stop. But what a sight to stop for. Opening out into one of the largest naturally occurring caverns I think I’ve ever been in, the tunnel bursts out into the open. The air is thick and damp, but fresh air cuts through the darkness along a ray of sunlight from a hole in the top of the cavern. By the time it gets to the bottom, a good ten or fifteen metres, its lost direction changing from a sharp ray to a gentle smattering of gold on the cavern floor. As our eyes adjust from the sheer daylight to the deep shadows, I see on the far wall an enormous buddha set into a grotto high up on the cave wall. To my right, an incense house is lit up brighter an a house in a blackout, spewing out incense like a spiritual fog. I wander about in silence, thinking more and more about the incredible engineering of a place like this. For religion is seems, nothing is impossible to ancient builders.
Emerging back into the light again, we’re directed by a few local women selling drinks outside the cave to a place they call Heaven. Admittedly, their English is a little rusty (but then again my Vietnamese is non-existent) but we’re pretty sure that’s the gist of it.
“Down there hell,” she kept saying, pointing back down the mountain towards civilisation. “Up there heaven,” she points to yet another winding staircase leading out of sight towards the top of Marble Mountains.
Can’t really give up an opportunity to see heaven right?
So up we go again, and with every step the staircase becomes more narrow and more steep, leaving us as we approach the top climbing more than we are walking, and ever aware of the precipitous drop that awaits on either side of the wobbly railing. There are others on the path, some of the have stopped, perhaps too tired or phobic to go on. For a few moments there is some awkward scrambling around and over the top of one another trying to get up the stairs without falling off the mountain. It’s a long hard climb to the top, but when we get there, onto the dinner plate shaped landing perched on the peak of Marble Mountains, its easy to see why its worth it.
Laid out in front of us, the coastline of Danang complete with gentle waves drawn in like scribbled afterthoughts on the ocean. Below us, the villages and towns stretch out the the beach and backwards in clumps towards the horizon. The breeze up here is strong, and too close to the edge feels much to close to heaven for me. But we sit up there just the same, enjoying our comparative solidarity so high above the hustle and bustle of Vietnam. This, I think, must be what birds feel like coasting on a gentle breeze above our heads. It is a feeling almost beyond description. Our legs still aching from the climb, and casually not looking forward to our decent, we sit and enjoy. Forgetting for a moment where we are, and understanding only that this place is singular in its uniqueness. Below our feet the wonders hide inside Marble Mountains, and above us the clouds await the inevitable breeze that moves them to their next resting place. And so do we.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.