A religious moment
On an incredible, stock-still, sparkling day the ripple-free East Sea mirrored like a monstrous pane of glass. As I stood at the peak of Monkey Mountain my gaze was drawn to the heat haze on the horizon as it yielded the only movement. Above this, I scanned a glorious gradation of deep cobalt blues smeared with fine white streaks, a heaven on earth, an empyrean descended. From my unsurpassable vantage this panorama loomed roundly and powerfully.
Not a word was spoken. As if unable to breathe on this 39-degree day the world was, oh so happily, listless.
For a few minutes I felt I knew why people come to Monkey Mountain. They come to feel the immensity of nature, its sweep and its transformative power. They come to feel closer to God and God’s mysteries, even if that’s not how they’d put it. They come to experience time standing still.
‘Another ham salad roll, Stuart?’
In a trice I tumbled back to earth and the clock started ticking again.
The peak of Monkey Mountain features some of the steepest inclines in SE Asia and its roads wind through what was once extraordinary lush rainforest. Agent Orange devastated the area during the American War and much of the Son Tra Peninsula vegetation these days is a shrubby replacement.
Nonetheless, it’s a ripper of a drive, curving sharply and climbing abruptly, so much so that standard bikes won’t make it with a pillion. Our jeep stuttered with fuel pump problems as it ascended to the highest ridges but on this day we were lucky.
We were twice blessed. Blessed because the jeep limped on and made it to the top. And blessed because the top of the mountain, which served up a viewing day second-to-none, is commonly shrouded in mists, even on hot days. Looking northwards we could even make out Lang Co Beach poking its nose out on the other side of Hai Van Pass.
Like an old horse headed for home, our driver, seemingly unaware of gravity’s assistance, left his plodding fuel-pump problems behind as we careened down the other side of the mountain. It’s quite a circuit with many sharp descents and hairpin bends and, even though the road is considerably narrower and rougher on the southern side, we flew down with the wild undergrowth slapping and scraping against the side of the jeep and the shoulder bag I’d positioned in defense.
Descending like meteors, it occurred to me that the chances of spotting some of the primates, after which the mountain is famously named, including the very rare, Red-shanked Duoc, were pretty small.
On this sauna of a day we reached a massive Lady Buddha marble statue near the base of the mountain. Almost twice the size of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer (67-meters), this Boddhisattva of Mercy is a spiritual protector from natural disasters, especially typhoons.
Built just at the start of the present decade, she’s become the icon of Da Nang. If you go to China Beach, you’ll see her, looking over you, whether or not you get anywhere near the Son Tra Peninsula.
Behind her is the impressive Ling Ung – Bai But Pagoda, an active monastery and pilgrimage site, especially for domestic tourists.
Hoi An Motor Bike Adventures
Our Hoi An Motor Bike Adventures guide, an Australian called Lee, somehow knew just when to speak and when to keep quiet. On the way to Monkey Mountain, among many sights, we dropped by a 1000-year-old Cham tower. We took in Hill 55 too, a US sniper training facility during the American War where North Vietnamese war hero, Chien Thang Bo Bo (from the French War), is honoured in bronze and marble.
Thanks to Lee, by the end of the day our knowledge had grown substantially: from the new mechanical rice harvesters to export figures to the history of Vietnamese burial practice; from the ancient Champa Kingdom to the recent devastation of Agent Orange and hundreds of fascinating snippets about the French and American Wars. There wasn’t much we asked about that Lee couldn’t deal with and it was all delivered in a laconic, easy-going, Australian way.
– Go mid-week if you can. You won’t regret the many moments you’ll have to yourself in this stunning, protected National Park.
– Track down the former US helicopter landing site and scale the highest, easy-to-reach, vantage point where the figure of Confucius is depicted playing chess. The first stop provides the vista towards Da Nang and the breathtaking ribbon of China Beach trailing all the way to Hoi An. The second throws up a 360 degree opportunity that supplies a genuine Julie Andrews moment.
– Don’t miss the 800-year-old banyan tree which, at 25 meters tall and seemingly half that distance in width, enjoys its own micro-climate. Its vast canopy is supported by numerous, sturdy lateral roots sprouting from on high that eventually find a home in the earth below. Such a remarkable tree in Vietnam is thought to be spiritually powerful and a bringer of good fortune.
Revised and updated March 2018