National Park Tour

I arrived in Dong Hoi relatively well-rested (it’s loud and bumpy on the train) and ready to start my day. With just a 10 minutes delay the train was also remarkable on time. Something that changes the further South the train travels (as I have noticed the last couple of days).

My pre-arranged driver was waiting with a sign for me. Since I was the only one arriving it was quite expensive (500k Dong = 20€) for the 45 minutes ride. But I was not in the mood to wait for the bus only to later pay for a taxi after all to take me to the Farmstay. It’s so far out that there was just no public transportation.

Around 7:30 we pulled up in front of the Farmstay and there were lots of people already milling around. I got greeted by Guillaume, shown to my dorm room and had a quick shower.

I had booked a dorm room to save a bit after spending a lot up North and due to the expensive cave tours. I would be sharing the room with an Australian guy and a German couple. My first mixed dorm on the trip and I liked it a lot.

The tour I had booked for the day started at 8:30am which left ample time to get accommodated to my new surroundings and have breakfast. At the breakfast area I saw one woman sitting alone and asked if I could join her. And sometimes chance plays a wonderful trick on you. Veronica happened to be the mother of Ben, the owner of the Farmstay. Furthermore she had worked for seven years in Vienna and lived just around the corner from me. And during our morning talk she mentioned that she would make a tour with the Easy Riders to Hue and the other woman who had initiated the trip was going to Hoi An. If that would interest me? And since I had been wondering how I was ever going to leave from here, I said yes. I had really no idea what I had agreed to but it sounded like a plan. Plus I liked Veronica from the first and felt comfortable around her. If she could climb on a bike, so could I.

Eventually my national park tour started and we drove into Phong Nha and picked up some more people from the Backpacker hostel in the village and then drove into the National Park. We had a couple of stops where a local guide explained a lot about the karst formations and some flooding that had happened just a couple of years ago. Apparently the water went as high as the bridge we were standing on.

      During the Vietnam War the Americans would bomb this area to achieve road blocks. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was going right through the Park. Here you can still see where the rock was hit.

Next stop for us then was a cave where 8 young people looked for shelter during one of the attacks and were buried alive.

After that it was on to the Paradise Cave, a cave that really deserved its name. The first kilometer into the cave is open to the public and perfectly illuminated.

                  

I am not a religious person (and even less so after reading the Zealot book; review is coming soon) but this cave was awe inspiring and I could almost start believing again. Truly a spiritual experience.

Once outside it was time for lunch (again not great, really don’t know why the food was always so bland on the tours since Vietnam offers so much good food) and then we were off to the Dark Cave.

No pictures from there because we started our tour in bathing suites and nothing else. First there was zip lining over the river (a first for me and it felt hilarious! When was the last time I did something for the first time?), then we had to swim into the cave. We had all been given life jackets and helmets with a lamp. These were switched on upon entering the cave, the cave after all was not called Dark Cave for nothing.

The trail started to get muddier and narrower as we walked along. In the beginning I really tried to stay clean but after a while I had no choice since it was slippery and I had to hold on to just not fall. I had wanted to keep a pristine butt, which was alll for nothing in the end because we ended in a mud bath; and the shrieking and laughing told me there was no escape. The mud felt as dense as the Dead Sea. I could float on it without going under.

We all closed our head lamps and tried to shut up for a minute but that didn’t work. When your group consists mostly of girls in their early twenties there is not a chance for a minute of silence. Especially not when every movement in the mud produced a fart sound.

Eventually we left the mud pool and walked back, cleaned ourselves in an underground river and then had to swim through it for about 10 minutes just to be told on the other side that we would have to turn around and swim through it again but without the light. Oh, and yes there were eels and other animals in the river. Great, we all had to do it since the exit lay in that direction. Once done, it felt good though, very liberating.

Outside the cave we kayaked back to the zip lining place. I was placed together with Christiane, a girl from Germany also traveling alone after finishing her PhD in neuroscience. There were always some very nice people on the road with me to share a day or more.

Christiane and I made it back to the start not with a lot of help from my side though. As I told you I am just not made for kayaking. But once there we tried another round of zip lining only this time I jumped into the river during it.

We finished the tour off with refreshments next to the river while we waited for the rain to abate. It had been the perfect first day in Phong Nha.

Back at the Farmstay I had an early dinner (kitchen was only open until 8pm) and went to bed. I was exhausted after all my adventures. Yours, Pollybert

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Final days in Hanoi

I shared the night train from Sa Pa to Hanoi with an English guy. While talking we discovered that last November he had been to the caves and the same hotel where I was headed. He told me it had been his best experience during his month in Vietnam. Sounded really good to me!

We only stayed the two of us for the first minute of the train ride. Once the train moved our compartment door opened and five people stood in the door. Not for long though because the grandmother and the oldest soon were sitting already on my bunk before I could say hello. The mother with the youngest on her arm and the middle one next to her kept standing but asked in halting English if we could move up so that the she and kids could stay on the lower bunks.

Of course we acquiesced in the move, what else was there to do? Once on the upper bed though I noticed that the AC was so cold that I got a brain freeze just from lying underneath it. I had to move my pillow from the window to the door with the result that I now had the light in my eyes. But it was at least less cold in my face. The mother apparently felt cold too and got the conductor to fix the problem. This was done by taping some paper over the AC outlet. The conductor though must have also done something else because within 10 minutes the compartment had sauna temperatures.

We removed the paper from the AC again but with no success, the heat wave continued. The little one didn’t like it either and started crying which she did continually during the short night. The AC finally decided to work again about 30 minutes before our arrival in Hanoi. Then it was again on frost modus.

The night from hell ended at 4:30 in the morning with our arrival. I couldn’t have been happier than when I saw the face of the bell boy who had also accompanied me to the train station. He put me in a taxi and I was back in no time at the Golden Sun Suites Hotel, installed in a room that had been vacated sometimes during the night and fast asleep.

I missed breakfast that morning but this was also managed in grace by the hotel. I left the room with all my luggage after 10am and the staff got me some coffee and fruits while I waited for my room to be ready.

While sitting in the extended breakfast area/lobby I met Dudley again, a South African I had seen and talked to shortly before going up to Sa Pa. He basically followed in my footsteps and was going there this evening.

We started talking about good places to see in Vietnam (I find this is the easiest way to decide on where to go. Talk to other travelers if you are as lazy as me and don’t want to read the guide book). He had a couple of suggestions, later even brought his notebook down, showed me the pictures and provided me with contacts. So when my room was ready we had agreed on a dinner date before his departure to Sa Pa.

I spent most of my day in my room and just loved it. With the AC on low it was cool but not cold while outside the heat and humidity made tourists look like puddles of sweat. I worked on the blog and restored some pictures on posts from Nepal (I had a lot of trouble with the blog on my trip so far) and while there are still pictures missing on some posts from China, I am getting there. I also uploaded a couple of new posts, all in all a very productive though lazy day.

Around 5pm I eventually left the hotel; it’s really bad if one doesn’t get outside at all, and strolled around a bit. I was unsure if I wanted to buy something; I had been eyeing some loose pants but in the end I decided against it. I really had enough stuff with me already, there was no point in adding more.

Shortly after 6pm I met Dudley and we settled on the highest building around the lake to have a great view with the dinner. I chose Bo Luc Lac, a dish I knew from Vienna. What came then had nothing to do with the dish I knew and also nothing with the original (at least according to Google). Again I had landed in a tourist trap around the lake. At least it tasted good, that was already more than at the last place.

  

For the next morning I had booked a city tour, again very lazy of me since the afternoon program was around the Hoàn Kiém Lake and the Literature Temple. Both things I have seen. But the morning was at the other end of the city, at the West lake and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As it turned out it was a brilliant idea after all since I met some Indian guys who had great tips for Saigon and Cambodia.

We started at the West Lake with the Tran Quoc Pagoda. In front of the entrance you could buy small turtles to let them free in the lake.

  

After a short visit to the temple inside and a closer look upon the pagoda we left for the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Not only can you visit the mausoleum but also, his house on stilts, his cars, the One Pillar Pagoda and the president’s palace. All for the price of one ticket and a line up for only 45 minutes. Inside the mausoleum there was no lingering allowed, one had to be quiet and respectful and just move along. No pictures were allowed of the great man.


Our guide let us line up alone but waited for us after the mausoleum. The rest of the complex was done in group modus again.

I missed the president’s palace while I was talking to the Indians but at the garage we caught up with the group. The cars in his garage were all gifts from communist countries I think.

 Moving further into the complex we passed the house on stilts and the pagoda.

Next stop after the Ho Chi Minh complex was a 20 minutes halt at a handicapped workshop right across the street. It really annoyed me that we went there, it was the same as at the tour to Ha Long Bay. After 10 minutes I was bored and asked to be taken to the bus. I rather wanted to sit down there and read my book. Almost all other passengers followed my lead and eventually we left earlier. (Maybe I should start a revolution?)

After this unscheduled stop we went to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and a lot of them were introduced here. The museum had also a large outdoor facility where the different housing structures could be visited.

                

Then it was already time for lunch which we had somewhere in the old quarter and was again not great. After the meal I said goodbye to my group, lots of valuable information in hand. I spent the rest of my last day wandering around in the sweltering heat, hopping in between in cool cafes for a refreshment stop.

My train south left shortly after 8pm and sometime in the early morning I would arrive at Dong Hoi. I was praying for a quiet night and no kids in my compartment. Yours, Pollybert