Hue, March 27, 28; Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park area March 29 – April 2, 2016
We hiked 4 kilometres (km) into a cave and the ceiling height where we stand is 70 metres high (22 stories). Our head lamps provide the only beam of light in the pitch blackness. Fine moisture and sand particles float through the air obscuring our vision. We kill the lights for two full minutes and remain silent. Suddenly, our ears start to ring from the silence, and our proprioception (the ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium) detects something is awfully strange. We begin to sway, only the ground is not moving. It feels eerie, it feels weird, it tingles, it is perhaps…
the coolest thing we have ever done?
But first we were in Hue to visit the Imperial Palace UNESCO Heritage site. One review of Hue we read from a young, backpacker-party-scene traveler stated “would have rather had a pedicure”, but Hue ended up being a terrific experience for us. The weather was terrible and it rained, but that only added to the mystery that unfolded as we toured the remaining 28 of 160 buildings that were not obliterated by bombing in the American war. Pictures will never capture the atmosphere as we walked over moats to crazy, thick fortified walls that once protected this beautiful gem. Lonely Planet suggests saving a half day to tour this facility, we spent ¾ and could have easily used more time.
During our brief time in Hue, we took a rice and noodle break and enjoyed awesome Italian food at the “Little Italy Restaurant” (go figure). We treated ourselves to a movie matinee when it rained (Batman vs Superman – such a strange concept – spoiler alert, Superman dies!). We stayed at a homestay where the young couple with their little 4-year-old son literally slept on a foamy on the living room floor (aka, the hotel lobby), and shared the dormitory bathroom with the guests! We learned that electrical safety standards are poor (to say the least) as we showered with a CFL bulb dangling from a power cable less than a foot above the shower head. We met an eight-year-old girl who wanted to sit with us during a lunch break and practice her English. We sat together for half an hour and learned that her favorite singer is Taylor Swift. We checked out the local market…complete with rats!
Alas, our quick stop in Hue came to an end and we were off to the home of another UNESCO World Heritage site – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (Phong Nha). Our bus driver from Hue to Phong Nha was interesting. We have read “Vietnam bus drivers – your life in their hands” and he did not let the expression go to waste. He passed on blind, up hills with the Hyundai’s gutless engine struggling and screeching under the load of a full bus. The springs bounced up and down making us feel like a bobble head doll on the dash of a 1967 shag-carpeted El Camino. He thought he was more bullish than a group of water buffaloes crossing the highway – the buffalos won. Of course, there was the obligatory honking at everything in his path. (Please … someone make it stop). A British man on the bus tells the driver to slow down, which worked for a short while.
Phong Nha area is home to several amazing caving experiences. They have the largest cave in the world (Son Doong Cave only discovered in 2009 and featured in National Geographic magazine a few years ago), Paradise Cave (discovered in 2005), the longest underground river cave and Phong Nha has the largest combined caverns and passageways. It was only opened to the public in the past ten years. Development is brisk, hotels are popping up all over and we are so grateful to experience this incredible spot before tourism changes it forever.
We arrived in Phong Nha to the sweetest Vietnamese person we have met so far. Her name is Huyen and she managed our homestay. We always request a quiet room in advance stating “we are 2 mature adults”. When Huyen meets us, the first thing she says is “you’re not old”. She guesses we are 35 years old – bless her! Huyen loves practicing her English and we grab a seat on the lobby cushions to chit chat. A couple of hours go by and soon we are joined by another traveler, his name is Johnny from Milwaukee. Huyen does not want to get married and have babies (as is tradition, and she will anyway) as she is more modern and doesn’t want to wreck her body. She sits beside Christine, touches her tummy, and hugs her all the time saying “you do not have an old lady body, you have a girl body”.
Now, we never want to leave.
A few more hours go by and the homestay owners walk past us several times. They say, in Vietnamese, to Huyen that they cannot believe we are still sitting there chatting, and they smile while looking over at us. Dusk begins to set in and we still have not seen the limestone mountains nestled around us. We are joined by another traveler, Elaine from Malaysia. Huyen with her non-traditional short hair pulls out her wig for the days she wants long hair and suddenly we are laughing hysterically when we see what I would look like with hair… oh, what I would do for a man bun! The sun goes down, seven hours pass and our first awesome day in Phong Nha was spent sitting on green little sofas in a lobby filled with life and laughter.
We read that accommodations in this town would not be the best. There are numerous complaints of everything feeling damp. We were not surprised to see mold stains on the ceiling, a mattress wrapped in plastic that crumpled every time we moved and the feeling that someone wet the bed (it was not me!). Top sheets are no longer provided as we moved north and the thought of sleeping under an unwashed, heavily used (who knows for what) blanket had me grossed out sufficiently to loose the first night of sleep (perhaps the damp bed also contributed to the lack of sleep). Exposed wiring in the room heated up our charging electronics and the MacBook Air was whirling and vibrating even though it does not contain a hard drive. Charging was completed in stages for fear of destroying our electronics.
But who cares, the room will be forgotten, these experiences will live forever.
We spend our first day taking a three-hour boat tour of Phong Nha cave. The longest wet cave in Asia, the trip was our first introduction to serious caves. As we chugged down the Son River in our 14 passenger dragon boat, we were wowed by the views of fishermen on the river, children playing along the shore, water buffalo taking mud bathes and village buildings framed by 400-500-million-year old limestone mountains (the oldest in Asia). In the distance, we see the river flow into a hole in the side of the mountain. As we approached the opening, the boat engine was shut off. We coasted peacefully through the entrance of the cave before the forward propulsion switched to hand rowing – Venice, eat your heart out!
A video of entering the cave…
And another inside the cave…
In the afternoon, we walked down a road that we suspect white folks rarely head down. Authentic Vietnam at its finest, cows grazed on the side of the road, old ladies sat stoically staring at us as we walked by and a group of men sat on the traditional red plastic chair while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Our faces hurt from smiling, saying “hello” over and over again while high-fiving the local kids that were so happy to see us. We were introduced to a game of shuttle cock and Christine played “paddy cake” with a very cute little girl. The little boys kept touching my beard while saying something in Vietnamese that I could not understand. A younger man, with what I suspect was Down’s Syndrome, held my hand so tight for quite awhile and kept speaking to me in Vietnamese while pointing up at a mountain. Sadly, I have no idea what he was saying. In the evening, we hung out with Huyen and Johnny again and met another traveler from South Korea. We received a brief lesson on the South Korean alphabet and she wrote (as displayed in the photo) Canada, Christine, Mark on a piece of paper.
Check out these 2 videos of us and the local kids…
A phenomenal day, we snuggled in for the night in our wet, moist bed.
March 31st, our alarm goes off at 6:00am for a wallet-busting tour we debated signing up for. Thank goodness we signed on the dotted line, this is a day that we will remember until the day we die. A 7 km hike one way (14 km total) into Paradise Cave. The tourists came prepared with backpacks, synthetic or wool clothing and hiking boots by Columbia, Merrell, North Face, or Scarpa. The tour guide and porters wore their cotton shirts and sandals/flip flops. The first 1.5 km are set up for tourists and have beautiful lighting and boardwalks allowing visitors to see the phenomenal stalagmite (‘g’ from ground) and stalactite (‘c’ from ceiling) formations. When the boardwalk ended, the security guard sitting at the end of the boardwalk allowed only 18 of us equipped with safety helmets and a headlamp each to proceed further into the cave for a day filled with mystery, excitement, adventure, swimming and lunch 7 km under ground.
To give you an idea when I state those were the 14 best km of our life, when it came time to either take a row boat or swim across a small lake to the trail on the other side, Christine was down to her bra and undies quicker than if I had asked her to undress. Strangers on the tour were prancing around in their underwear. We were all so intrigued by the ability to swim underground that no one cared, there was just 18 people in this cave all day and we had the entire place to ourselves. By the end of the day, we were muddy, sweaty, stinky, but we had just made the best investment of our lives. That evening, I receive an email message from Fitbit congratulating us on receiving a “Skyscraper climb” award, we climbed over 90 stories and did not even know it.
That evening Huyen invites us for dinner Vietnamese-style. The mat gets rolled out onto the kitchen floor and plates of food were served. We sat and ate dinner just feet away from where I saw a giant rat crawling around the day before. Afterwards, Johnny, Christine and myself head to the local Capture Café and purchase some desserts to share with our host who has never, ever had carrot cake (even though it is literally two blocks down from the homestay). We return with chocolate cake, carrot cake, and banana loaf for sharing. Although she is a self-admitted chocoholic, it is the cream cheese icing on the carrot cake that wins her over and the cake is devoured.
The following day, we rent bikes, head out into the villages and bike to a farm stay known for great grub and beer overlooking rice fields and mountains in the distance. As we rode along a mixture of asphalt, mud and clay roads, the local kids were quick again to high five and say hello as we rode by them. Several enjoyed running behind the bikes, pushing the bikes and jumping on board to hitch a ride. Even Christine had an older lady smiling from cheek-to-cheek running behind her pushing the bike while her flip flops flopped loudly behind her. Local ladies wanted to have their picture taken with Christine and I noticed the Vietnamese men in these rural areas kept looking at her. I am not sure what their little grins meant. Probably best that way.
Check out these 2 adorable videos…
Not our usual mountain bike!
Phong Nha is the highlight of Vietnam for us. Check it out if you get the chance, just do not wait too long, this beauty is going to explode in popularity.
Clothed and clean … Mark and Christine
Sample Expenses for Phong Nha (all in Vietnamese Dong, varies between 15,500 and 17,500 dong for 1 Canadian dollar)
- 130,000 Dinner (underwhelming 2 veg curries, ginger tea, hot chocolate)
- 130,000 grilled egg and cheese sandwich with potatoes, PB French toast and fruit.
- 160,000 dinner (Vietnamese mung bean Dahl and Veggie burger, 1 beer)
- 60,000 lunch (veggie humus sandwich with salad at Capture)
- 50,000 carrot cake… Delicious baking… Finally!
- 40,000 muffin
- 100,000 for 2 chai tea with milk
- 180,000 dinner (2 veggie burgers (1 with fries, 1 with onion rings) & glass of Dalat wine and bottle of beer)
- 260,000 lunch on our bike ride (phong Nha Farmstay – hamburger, tuna sandwich, 3 beers)
- 15,000 can of beer
- 10,000 1.5L water
- 17 USD Homestay (super damp, mouldy bathroom).. free breakfast
- 390,000 Phong Nha tour by boat, shared boat ride
- 4,900,000 Paradise cave 7 hr hike for 2
- 100,000 bike rentals for 2
- 400,000 for 2 from Hue to Phong Nha
- 400,000 Sleeper bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi, Vietnam for 2
Sample Expenses for Hue (all in Vietnamese Dong, varies between 15,500 and 17,500 dong for 1 Canadian dollar)
- 40,000 for 2 ice cream bars out of desperation
- 50,000 pre-dinner at Lotteria (fish burger, small fries, and pop)… 8 year old Vietnamese girl joined us to practice her English
- 110,000 second dinner (1 matcha latte, 1 yoka raspberry, 2 banh my sandwiches 20,000 each)
- 274,000 dinner treat (Lasagna 109000, calzone 125000, big beer 40000… All delicious!)
- 80,000 lunch (2 milkshakes and 1 sandwich)
- 70,000 for 2 green tea lattes
- 7,400 for water 1.5 L
- 1,380 Oreos
- 19 CDN Lucky Homestay with free breakfast
- 160,000 matinee movie (Batman vs Superman)
- 300,000 admission for 2 at Imperial Palace
- 21,000 for 2 bars of Soap
- 178,000 bus for 2 to Hue