Ellen, Alex and Sarah with the guys from Oxalis before heading of for their trek
I have to confess now - Phong Nha is my favorite place in Vietnam. The natural beauty of the national park, in particular the caves is unrivalled and the recent wartime history provides another edge to the place. Everyone I meet that is thinking of going to Vietnam I urge to visit here. Unfortunately Lonely PLanet have also picked up on the place and have the listed both the national park and the farmstay in their top ten lists of places to go to in the recently published edition. The area is already the second most visited place for local tourists - LP featuring it will mean a crush of foreigners. Tthere goes the neighbourhood!
When we arrived the previous evening we were graciously recieved by the owners of the farmstay - aussie Ben and his viet partner Bich. The farmstay is recently built and located some 15 kms from the caves and other features of the national park. Its a colonial style building perched on the edge of the large valley of green rice paddy - picture perfect Vietnam. The farmstay has about 12 double rooms for guests as well as dorm-style accomodation next door for the backpacker. No
guesses to where Gina and I, and Ellen and Alex chose for our beds.
Shortly after arrival, Ellen and Alex were briefed by the folk from Oxalis tours. A couple of recently discovered caves had just been opened to caving expeditions and Oxalis had the sole license to run tourists in and out of the place. Another cave is yet to be opened to the public due to ongoing scientific evaluation - its apparently the largest cave in the world and can fit the Empire State building into its major cavern. Google "National Geographic Son Doong" if you want to check it out. Ellen and Alex were going to embark on the overnight trek to Hang Em (Swallow cave). Its a 15 km hike into the park to cave, pitch a hamock in the cave and sleep overnight before hiking back out of the park. Ellen and Alex were very excited by the days ahead and the briefing only heightened their excitement. The guys are to be joined by another teenager from Alaska called Sarah. In the evening they chat around a fire lit at the rear of the farmstay, and the chatter only heightens their excitement.
next morning an old US army jeep appears at the front of the farmstay. Its the Oxalis Tours vehicle of choice and after a few snaps and hugs the kids disappear down the red mud track to their adventure. Gina and I join farmstay owner Ben and a couple of other guests for an impromptu bike ride around the local villages. Each morning Ben and Bich have to organise the guests into activities for the day. These are usually bike or motorbike rides into the national park or if the travellers aren't too interested in doing it themselves, a drive by minibus. The organisation of the tours takes an inordinate amount of time as travellers, in particular backpackers, who aren't always the most agreeable folk. As there are anything up to 30 guests staying each day the organising is akin to herding cats.
Anyway our little group head off for just a small circuit nearby the farmstay. Its a pleasant ride but the greasy red mud tracks do make it a little more difficult than it needs to be. We visit the home of one of Ben's staff - Su Yim - before moving up the track to the
"Pub with Cold Beer". Its a small house cum cafe run by a nice lady that Ben has encouraged to grow her business. She has bought a fridge to keep her drinks cool - in return, Ben advertises her little business in his tour literature which guarrantees a steady procession of thirsty riders each day. Our cold beers are accompanied by freshly roasted peanuts which are complimentary, and straight from the local garden. We head on to a couple of other little places like this on tour, each seems to have the stamp of Ben on it. At the last place before our return to the farmstay we run into a small troop of oddbods doing the Ho Chi Minh highway all the way up to Hanoi by motorbikes. I say oddbods because of how they functioned as a group. The 6 of them (Canadians, Germans and Soth Africans) came together a couple of days ago in and around Hoi An. Each of them got something very striking tailored for the bike ride up north, gayly coloured suits and the like. That was quite fun but the unusual thing about them was the way their leader, a rather charismatic Candian called Dave seemed to have a spell over them all. He towered over all of them and had an odd aura. His royal blue suit with brass buttons and distinct piping on the shoulders was rather fetching. They certainly made an impression wherever they would go - we later found out that Ben was quite relieved that they would not be coming to the farmstay.
The next day Gina and I ventured a little further a field, again by bike and this time accompanied by a young dutch couple Ruud and Miriam, who weare re quite pleasant but preferr to keep their own company. This is particularly the case back at the farmstay in the evening. Normally this is the time when travelers come back from their respective tours and share highlights of the day. As the beer flows and new guests come to stay, it can get fairly gregarious. And its something that Ben and Bich have fostered, and also have to participate in seven days a week.
Our day consists of ride into Phong Nha national park to take a boat ride to the cave that shares the national parks name. Its a good cave, accessed only by boat. The most interesting aspect of the cave, apart from the gay lighting being the scarring on the cliff face above the cave entrance. The north vietnamese used the cave as a base during the war and the americans would target it by missiles delivered from the air.
After the cave exploration we take the bike back through some poorer villages on the northern side of the river that flows from the cave and national park. The villages are noticeably poorer (shabby wooden houses etc) and we later learn its because most are Roman Catholic. We pass by three quite ornate churches given the surrounds on our way to a small ferry that delivers back to the right side of the river. On our return we are joined by Ellen and Alex who are quite weary but gushing with excitement and just a sprig of pride in doing their trek.
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