Biker chicks

Sunday was the day we left Phong Nha. Beth and I met by Phuoc, the leader of the bikers, and our two drivers. Mine was called Chung.

  

Right away I noticed that I felt comfortable enough to take pictures with Chung driving. But the first stop was not far away. We picked up Veronica and Jo and had a coffee ourselves at the Riverside Cafe. Beth had asked for a stop here to try the supposedly best coffee. And I can tell you it was fabulous. Three kinds of different beans and a hint of chocolate. The white stuff at the bottom is condensed milk so I didn’t stir it. The last couple of drops were too sweet then from the milk.

Love the coffee maker btw. Bought myself one later, but I heard they are also sold all over HCMC (Saigon), so if you want one let me know.

About five minutes into our tour Beth driver noticed that his front tyre had too little air. So we all stopped and waited, while he turned around and fixed the bike.

  

After this involuntary break of 20 minutes we were on the road again. The road actually being the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the national park. And I noticed that except the motor nothing on this bike worked.

But that didn’t matter, I had the fullest confidence in my driver and also in Phuoc’s ability about organizing the whole trip. And I was right, these three days were fabulous.

We stopped every 30-40 minutes to drink some water that Phuoc had stored in his saddle bags with enough to ice to keep it refreshing, including some lychee. The road was very scenic and just driving through the park was a pleasure. After the first kilometers I knew I had made a very good decision in coming with these women.

The small whitish band in the back is a sandy beach.

We stopped somewhere on the road for lunch and a short while later we were off again.

            

And then the rain was upon us but for this eventuality they were prepared. I first thought there was really no need for all this rain gear, but about two minutes after we got dressed it started to rain cats and dogs.

  So dressed like the smurfs (except for Beth’s driver who forgot his rain gear and looked like a drowned rat) we arrived in Khe Sanh, a place with a lot of history for the Vietnamese.

But before we got to this part we checked into our hotel for the night; I shared my room with Beth and I couldn’t have asked for a more considerate roommate.

We met and went for dinner just two doors down from our hotel. Phuoc had called ahead and ordered their specialty, chicken in sticky rice. As you can see the whole chicken is covered in the sticky rice. As far as I know the chicken is pre-cooked/roasted, then covered with the rice and then deep-fried again. I think the chicken might have appreciated another 5 minutes in the oven, but the sticky rice was perfect. And you had to dip it in a salt – pepper mix which was with lime juice. So good, you can’t imagine!
      

And this is how our table looked afterwards.

I am still sad that I couldn’t finish the rice. So good! Yours, Pollybert

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More of Paradise

Day 2 at the Farmstay turned out differently than planned. I had booked the Paradise Cave Trek, which would be a 7km trek in the cave that I had seen yesterday, but someone cancelled. I was now alone and there was a minimum of 2 persons per tour. So I signed up for the next day and thought about what to do with this lovely day. It was hot and humid again, Vietnam showed its best side.

I started by bringing my laptop to the common area and updated the blog all morning (to later hear that I should use the spell check more often), but after lunch I decided to call it a day and jumped into the pool. It was so refreshing although the water was far from cool, but way better than the outside.

I also saw Veronica again who told me that the tour was on but that we would start a day later which meant an extra day for me at the Farmstay. She also told me that we would be a group of four. Sounded like fun to me, still had no idea exactly where we would be going. Not that it really mattered.

Then I got on a bicycle and went in search of the Pub with cold beer. The girls at the reception gave me a map, explained the way in detail (only turn left after you have passed the school; you have to go over a bridge and then turn right …) and I was on my way. Of course I got lost twice. I passed the school, turned left and wondered after 15 minutes why the road was not going anywhere. So I turned around and noticed I should have only gone a bit further, there was even a sign for the pub to turn left. Maybe the girls leave this part out so that there is a bit of a challenge for the tourists?

This would not have been necessary for me since I lost my way again. I had turned right before I crossed the bridge. And of course it was a downhill part and I had to push the bicycle up after. Did I mention that the bicycle had only one gear and that the kickstand always fell down? And that a good part of the way to the pub was uphill and I had to push the bike (and not just the involuntary detour part)?

Once I arrived at the pub I was hot and sweaty and needed this beer to refresh. I met two New Zealanders there, parked in a hammock and waiting for their chicken. One of them had killed the chicken before and they were waiting since two hours for it to be cooked. I quite like the idea of killing your own food, gives the whole thing a new perspective. But no way I would wait for two hours and then eat one chicken alone. It was already around 5pm and sunset in this area was maybe a good hour later. Since I missed this chance of killing my own food, I think I have to come back in the area.

So I just finished my beer (and it was cold as promised), hopped on my bicycle and started my way back. Which was astonishingly quick without the detours. I made it back before sunset.

    

The girls from the reception later told me that they had their doubts if I made it back. Thanks for this great show of confidence! I so like it that I proved them differently.

The next morning then I finally started with the Paradise Cave trek.

Again we entered the cave with all other tourists but at the end we climbed over a ladder to go down from the deck to the cave floor.

We were a group of 10 from all over the world. And our guide was a local who has worked in the caves since three years. The first thing he showed us were helictites (the stalactites grow also sideways). I had never even heard before that this was possible.

There are not a lot of pictures from this trek since it was too dark and we only had headlamps. But the cave was not one big continuing space but rather different sized chambers. Some of them as big as a football field.

One time he told us to switch of the lamp and walk in the dark. I saw the empty space ahead of me and knew I could walk at least two minutes straight and not hit anything. But when I walked in the dark I was afraid and pushed my arms out to the side not to run into anything. When we switched on the light I was far behind the group.

But there were other cool things to see and experience as well.

I like the group photo best, the iPhone camera is really made for pictures in the dark, haha.

On one stalagnate (that’s when a stalagmite and a stalactite have grown together) our guide played a short concert. To listen to it please click here!

The track became slippery and narrow, then sandy and soft again and eventually there was a river that needed to be crossed which we did by boat. Since the boat obviously had a leak this was repaired with a bit of mud.

Feeling all confident now, we got in. The sloppy repair work held, so the guys really knew what they were doing (we had two extra guides with us who spoke no English but were helping hands on the track).

Eventually there was the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. I couldn’t believe my eyes it just looked so amazing.

After being for hours in the dark cave with only the head lamps as light source the sunshine was such an miraculous sight. We sat down on a huge slab of rock and had our lunch here. The two extra guides had been carrying it all the way. And the best surprise after lunch was the small pool behind the rocks where we all went for a swim.

The way back was almost the same (same, same but different) because now we passed a shallow pool were cave pearls grew.

  

Another thing I didn’t even know existed, they looked beautiful and fragile.

After that it was just the same trek back, taking the boat again and getting wet feet while crawling a narrow path that was also low. And while I might be small, my backpack was big (what for I brought that exactly is a mystery to me now), so I constantly touched the ceiling and got unsteady).

But I and everyone else made it back in one piece and the trek was a wonderful experience.

When I came back to the Farmstay I went into the pool first and then stretched on the sun bed and relaxed. Just in time for sunset I was ready again to take some pictures.

  

So what to do with an unexpected extra day? Exactly, nothing! Since the Internet was not working properly for me on that day I just read my book, met Beth, a woman from Australia who initiated the bike trip, and later met Willemeijn, a Dutch girls. With her I spent the afternoon talking at the pool and had a great time.

Another beautiful sunset and then this day of doing nothing was over. Time flies when you are having fun. Yours, Pollybert

  

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