International Womens Day on Marble Mountain
The woman on a motorbike follows me with the usual questions.
“Where you go”? “Where you from”? “You here during war”?
I try to answer her queries politely. After all, this is Da Nang which has a genteel quality in its hustlers and salespeople.
I tell her I am from the US and that I know Da Nang well (this is my 6th or 7th visit) and that I did not serve in the war.
“Yeah, yeah” she answers. “So you come to my shop and buy; it is Women’s Day.”
Indeed it is International Women’s Day, one of two such days celebrated annually in Vietnam. But this alone does not put me in a mood to buy overpriced marble on the slopes of the famous Marble Mountain.
Instead, I think of an old colleague, Ken, whose memories of Marble Mountain, just above the beaches of Da Nang, are quite different from my own.
In 1968 Ken was here not as a tourist but in the Special Forces of the US Army. To him Marble Mountain represents the war; daily battles between the Viet Cong and the US and South Vietnamese soldiers. Embodied in the lyrics of Billy Joel “we held the coastline, they held the highlands” Marble mountain symbolized not tourism, touts and salespeople but life and death.
“Why you come to Vietnam?” the woman on the motorbike continued. I tried to explain but my reasons for coming to her country do not connect with her reality.
I learn that her name is Linh and she follows me up the path to the top of the mountain. She provides running commentary; “Path to heaven here; careful; path to hell over there”. She is 41 but looks older, divorced from an abusive husband, and a mother of a 15 year old.
“No war now” she added; “Today, you, me, same, same; friends”. “Here sleeping Buddha, there laying Buddha, here hospital during war, American bomb there, you buy water maybe.” With each site and running commentary there is the not so subtle message “today Women’s day; no money no tourist so you buy from my shop – okay?”
I tell her I am not interested yet she continues to share the secret places of Marble Mountain. I see the pagodas, hidden Buddha’s, caves and other special places that represent the eras of life, death and worship here. I see the hospitals where the Viet Cong tended to their wounded and the places where American bombs and mortars fell. I am transfixed.
On the way back down I visit Linhs’ shop. It is overpriced and the products inferior. She offers me fat Buddha’s in marble for exorbitant prices. She wells up at my refusal indicating that she has not made a sale all day long. I console her, nod in understanding but then say no again and gently away.
Sweet breezes are blowing off of South China Beach. I turn to look back at the mountain in the moonlight. The full moon is rising and I stop for a beer in a roadside café. I think again of Ken. I think of Linh. And I think of all those who fought on both sides of the war and those who struggle every day and am filled with awe, with sadness and with respect.