Phong Nha: Hot chocolate & whiskey

Mysterious.Magical.Majestic

The journey North from Hoi An was the first of many on the back of our trusty Honda Win, complete with all black paint job and red star decal (because me and Sarah where just not happy until we could share our new-found love of communism with the world, it’s already attracted many approving nods.) It took a good while getting used to having the combined weight of our sacks and Sarah on the back, it’s true I wouldn’t want to ride in slow rush hour traffic through Saigon so stacked, but we eventually made good speed. A good job because anyone who cares to glance at the map will notice it’s a bloody long way from Hoi An to Phonga Nha, especially when you’ve got the weight of a small elephant to carry and just over 110cc’s worth of cyclinder to power us along. So it was only right that our first journey should be over tha Hai Van Pass between Hoi An and the city of Hue where we would be taking our lunch break within the walls of the ancient City.

Its a stunning section of highway that has since been made redundant thanks to a new highway built parallel, meaning the only vehicles present were, like us, just there for the fun of it. Eliminating the everprescent danger in Vietnam (or India, Nepal, Cambodia etc.) of a brainless coach driver overtaking on a blind bend and being faced with two lanes of oncoming traffic with nothing but a sheer drop to the side. Truthfully it was the highlight of a long tough day in the saddle but I would recommend doing it to anyone. On driving enjoyment alone though I would say the road I described in Kampot, Cambodia up to Bokor National Park takes the prize even if it doesn’t quite match the beautiful vistas of the Vietnamese coast. As mentioned we paid a flying visit to the ancient city of Hue, conscious that we still had a long way to go. There are worse places to eat lunch, the “citadel” is dotted with gardens and temples with the odd war relic thrown in for good measure. We resumed our journey north on the Ho Chi Minh trail before eventually arriving into Phong Nha soaked through and having spent 11 hours on the road, bums/backs screaming, ready for a shower and bed.

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We came to Phong Nha on the strength of a suggestion from a friend who had raged about the caves in and around the National Park so out of the numerous caves to choose from we headed in the direction of paradise cave (a safe bet I think you’ll agree) through the astoundingly beautiful and eerily misty karst mountains, jutting up either side of the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was a fair old climb first up and then down but the sight that greeted us upon entry into the rather non descript cave entrance was something I am not likely to forget. A wooden staircase descended far down into the depths of an enormous cavern illuminated along its entire length which gave me the feeling I had landed into the set of an extravagant science fiction film. Paradise cave is the longest in the world and only the first kilometre is illuminated out of the staggering thirty one kilometres, but we spent hours gazing at the un-earthly interior, what topped of the experience was that we had the cave completely to ourselves right up to the point we left when a rowdy Chinese tour group arrived. I even managed to convince Sarah to hop over the fence and join me in exploring further into the inky blackness that I had experienced in Mae Sot, but Sarah was less than keen on the “natural” cave experience.

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The weather forced us into buying some rather fetching polka dot ponchos for the return journey, and Sarah took to wearing plastic bags on her hands but nothing could dampen our spirits while we were driving through such stunning scenery. That evening was Chinese New Year but the town was dissapointingly flat. So far we’ve witnessed Thais and Indians making any excuse to have a tear up, not the case in Vietnam. We did get one guy shouting at us to “go” while throwing dirt at us which almost earned him a hip flask to the face. Tourists were warned not to go wandering at night because the New Year fireworks show was being delivered by slightly worse for wear villagers detonating grenades a few kilometres out of the village.. because fireworks are for girls.

The next morning we were wandering around in search of boats willing to take us to Phong Nha cave when we were invited in by a lovely family for Tet snacks and beers. It’s one of the best things about travelling, sitting cross legged sharing a beer with a complete stranger in their wooden shack trying to communicate while their kids run around playing with the chickens. They were a lovely family and we wished them all the best for the new year before securing a boat to take us into the cave. The only access to the cave was by boat and it was a peacful but mysterious journey into the heart of the mountain, less spectacular than the previous day but no less forgettable thanks to the means of transportation. We were dropped off towards the end so we could explore on foot, again completely alone, the beautiful array of stalagmites and stalactites. We headed back to the only bar still open in town to wile away the day drinking hot chocolate and whiskey and munching on the delicious seafood spring rolls. It’s an early start again for the next leg of our journey north towards Halong Bay, and I can say with no uncertain terms I will be adding “drove through Vietnam during  Tet” on my list of life accomplishments.

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Now we continue north to Ha Long Bay witha stop over halfway at Ninh Binh.

Untill then. Tạm biệt!

Photos here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/127744759@N08/rQ8C76

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