Phong Nha

28 Sep

After Halong Bay we spent two more nights in Hanoi for some laundry and chill time. During this time we made it to a Vietnamese Women Museum and Hoa Lo Prison, the prison used for political prisoners by the French colonists between 1886  and 1901 and later for U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War, when it became known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. We also made it to a famous pho spot we had been waiting to try – Pho Bat Dan – an Anthony Bourdain approved stop. Luckily, we figured out a broad structure for the rest of our travels through Vietnam including places to stay and buses to take courtesy of one of the workers in our hostel (shout out to Justin at Downtown Backpackers Hostel Hanoi). Our next stop would be Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a protected area south of Hanoi in the northern part of central Vietnam known for its many limestone caves.

To get to Phong Nha you take an overnight sleeper bus, the most popular form of travel throughout Vietnam for backpackers. I have heard some pretty colorful stories and varied reviews about sleeper buses, but ya gotta do what you gotta do. A man arrived at our hostel at around 6 pm and walked us to a bus on the street where we threw our bags underneath and were quickly shuffled on. He yelled for us to take our shoes off before getting on the bus and shoved people that were going to Phong Nha to the back of the bus (the bus makes two stops, the first in Phong Nha and the second further on in Hue). The bus drove away pretty promptly and after about five minutes, when we were just getting settled, he pulled over again and yelled for people going to Phong Nha to get off and wait for the next bus. We quickly pulled ourselves off the top bunk of the sleeper bus beds and shuffled to the front (why they made us go to the back of the bus initially I do not know). Now, all our bags underneath the bus were under even more bags so we yelled at the bus driver to send one of his comrades to help us as I sweatily tried to rip bags off of mine by myself. When someone finally came under to help, the bus driver started to pull away while I had one foot on the street and one in the bus attempting to save my bag. Cue me yelling at the bus driver and everyone having a freak out. From what I have learned so far, bus drivers and their minions may be the least friendly people in all of  Vietnam, supported by later bus experiences I had as well. It is now the norm for a bus driver to yell at me to take my shoes off before entering the bus and me to yell right back so he can have a turn to hear how unbearable it is. Delicacy has never been a strength of mine. 

After waiting for some time another bus showed up to take us to Phong Nha, for real this time. Although I tried to sleep I kept waking up from the terrible driving and anxious nightmares that people were stealing my things. The bus arrived in Phong Nha at around 4:00 am, right across from our hostel Easy Tiger. The security guard at the hostel let us all in and directed us to a set up of an excessive amount of hammocks and told us to sleep, which would have been great if it weren’t cold and if I was on anti-malaria pills. However, I did get to sleep for a few hours before the hostel came to life and I treated my hanger with a potato pumpkin hash and eggs.  The owner (or so we think) of the hostel gave us a talk at 9:00 am debriefing us on some of the history of the area and providing information on how we can visit the caves without paying for unnecessarily expensive tours. Phong Nha, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also has historical significance. During the Vietnam war the namesake cave, Phong Nha Cave, was an important site along the Ho Chi Minh trail for storing supplies en route to the South. The cave functioned as a shelter for weapons and even as a hospital for wounded soldiers. It remained a secret for a short time and once the Americans discovered that the Vietnamese were using it for their efforts, they launched aerial bombings on the cave in an attempt to destroy it, but failed miserably leaving only superficial marks on the exterior entrance of the cave. The surrounding civilian area was hit relentlessly by bombs causing immense suffering in the area and craters that remain visible to this day. After the very informative talk, a group of us took a boat to the cave which travels down the river and into the entrance of the cave. Trying to imagine the commotion that occurred on the outside of the cave and the amount of work that went on inside the cave is nearly impossible. The boat lets you out on the inside of the cave and you walk around to the entrance before getting back on the boat. The cave was beautiful and clearly such an important piece of history. It was a good introduction to the caves of the national park, especially since we were so tired and did not want to do anything particularly active. We went back to the hostel after for a swim and and laid by the pool for a nap.

The following day we were surprised to find that Jess, a friend of ours from our Mai Chau trip, had arrived at our hostel. The three of us set out to visit the two most popular caves – Paradise Cave and Dark Cave – riding on the back of Easy Riders bikes. The Easy riders are local Vietnamese people who speak very minimal English but will drive you around the national park and to the caves you wish to visit, all for around 15 dollars. The owner of the hostel told us that they established the Easy Riders after the park became a UNESCO site as a way to employ those who previously lived by means of the park, such as collecting lumber or hunting. Our first visit was to Paradise Cave, which involved walking up a mountain for about 20 minutes to reach the entrance. The cave is completely stunning and filled with walkways and steps adorned with little lights that really allow you to get around the main caverns and see the cave. The cave is so massive that it take a solid half hour to get through the walkways and back. It was definitely the highlight of the cave experience for me. The Dark Cave , on the other hand, offers a more adventurous experience. The cave was more recently discovered and consequently does not have all the lights and infrastructure of other caves. To get to the cave entrance, we zip-lined to the opposite side of the river, followed by a swim through super cold river waters to the cave entrance, wearing a life vest and a hard hat equipped with a flashlight. You then navigate through the dark cave using the light on your head until you reach a really slippery, sandy and muddy area that turns into a mud bath. The water is so dense that you simply just float and it is pretty difficult to get your feet back on the ground. After about 20 minutes of bathing in the mud, which was ridiculously fun and good for the inner childish soul, we canoed back to the location we zip lined from and used different zip lines to drop into the river simply for fun. 

Since it was dark by the time we were leaving, the bikers drove us back to the hostel, during which time a massive downpour started. We arrived back at the hostel so drenched that our shoes had puddles of water in them. And here started the string of relentlessly rainy days in Phong Nah. The following day we had intended to go biking down the little peninsula visiting a bunch of local spots, but the rain literally did not stop. The caves were closed ton this day and for a few days thereafter as well, which had us feeling extremely lucky that we had visited them the day before. While our final day in Phong Nah was a literal wash, it was super relaxing to just chill at the hostel and listen to the the rain, finish my book, fit in a quick workout and start on the wine at 4:00 PM.Afternn wine turned into night beers and singing along with a local band. The combination proved itself lethal when our 3:30 AM wake up call hit for a 4:00 AM bus that naturally did not show up until 5:30. Safe to say I actually slept on this bus that got us to Hue at about 8:30 AM for our next adventure.


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