2 to 3 March - Phong Nha to Hanoi

Published: April 15th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

With Ellen and Alex back, the last full day of our stay at Phong Nha is a trip out to Paradise Cave. I did this tour on a previous visit to Phong Nha on the back of Ben's motorbike and had an incredible time. I was really keen to share the experience with Gina and Ellen. I think that Ben sensed this and so he left the scheduling of this tour until Ellen and Alex had returned from their trek to Hang Em. Knowing that this tour would be the peak of the visit to Phong Nha was great but I was a bit trepidatious at the thought that we would have to do it on scooters albeit in a group. Ben sometimes rolls out a minivan for these tours but our group size was too big this time. Instead it was the jeep for the woosies and motorbikes and scooters for the rest. So my first time in charge of a scooter....with Gina on the back.

So with a quick practice ride from the parking bay to the front of the homestay, Gina hops on the back and we were off, Lucky I am a very good observer of things so we had no problems...until we hit the greasy, bumpy track and the dodgy gear pedal. It wasn't until a further fifteen minutes that we hit our first serious descent that I realised that we very little brake functionality. Through all this Gina was surprisingly encouraging and after about 2 hours of riding I started to feel a little at ease and the stiffness in my elbows settled. Alex took Ellen on the back of another motorbike and showed all the experience all the years of riding on a farm. Ben led the tour in his former US Marine Corps jeep and about 7 motorbikes followed him. A wheat farmer named Pete, a serial visitor to the farmstay was charged with tagging along at the back as our minder. Very good of him.

We first make our way to "Eight Ladies Cave", a small shrine and cave commemorating the lives of 8 fighters who were killed when an american jet fired a missile trapping them in their cave in last days of the war. The cave and shrine are located on the Victory Highway, also called Highway 20 because the average age of the viet fighters on this road was 20. This was in fact the Ho Chi Minh trail. Anyway the cave and shrine are revered across Vietnam and a bit of a pilgramage place. If you tell Viet that you came here they will be pleased.

Next stop was the Paradise Cave, only recently discovered, surveyed and opened to the public. Whilst the Phong Nha cave that Gina and I had visited the previous day has a long history of people visiting and inhabiting the cave (it even has Cham graffitti) Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005 by the British Cave Society. The talk is that locals knew about the cave for years before that but had lost it and it only really gets "discovered" when a bunch of whities say its there. When it was surveyed by the Brits it was thought to be the largest cave in the world. It has been overtaken by other caves in the national park. Anyway its truly stunning cave with a great array of stalactites and stalagmites. A German corporation has helped fund the management of the cave so that it is accessible to tourists in a way that protects its unique heritage value. Our group park our bikes about 2 kms from the cave entrance. We make our way on foot and by golf buggy to the base of the entry point. From here its about 500 steps up to the cave entrance before a descent by wooden steps and boardwalk, through a narrow entrance into a spectacular grotto. You only really appreciate the grotto when you are down inside. We spend a pleasant half hour or so making our way to the end of the permitted area by boardwalk - we pass many groups led by guides conversing in Korean, French and in particular Vietnamese.

After leaving the cave we head for an eco trail for a swim - despite the mild start to the day its warmed up appreciably particularly the hike up to the entrance of paradise cave. On the way to the cave, we ride through narrow ravines separating the karst outcrops that make up the national park. The karst is covered in dense jungle vegetation except on the cliff faces where it is too steep for the vegetation to take hold. The road is narrowing as we make our way in a delicate single file - it eventually comes out in Laos but by that stage the road is virtually unuseable, particularly when wet. Ben warns us that we might see some rare Black Langurs - an endangered species of monkey that is being looked after by a German funded NGO in the area. Ben's talk is standard for the ride and he admits to seeing only one or two of them before - however this time our group comes to a halt as we oggle about 8 of the monkeys swinging around in tree canopy about 100 metres from the roadside.

We stop a little further down the road on the edge of the national park and those that brought swimmers take a dip in the cool waters of the river that comes from the cave system. The river is quite large here and a rich turquoise green, probably from the mineral content. Gina and I look on with a bit of envy as we didn't bring our bathers - the young ones cool off, Ellen does laps out in the middle of the river around an imaginary grid she has marked out. Ben spots the manager of the National Park and races off to show him the latest Lonely Planet and urge to gear up for the tourist storm that will be coming soon.

Refreshed, we make our way back to the farmstay having had a very memorable day. We take the highway back instead of the meandering track through the villages that we took in the morning. From the elevation of the highway we can see the large bomb craters in the paddy field, despite the years they are a vivid reminder of the war.

After we return to the farmstay, Alex and Ellen scrub themselves for the night bus to Hanoi. It turns out to be 12 hours of torture, riding in a cramped hammock with the driver belting out a torrent of loud viet techno until the wee hours. Alex swears it was the worst night of sleep that he can remember - at least that ones under the belt. Again Gina and I opt for the flight the next day.

The next day before our check out, Gina and I decide to go for a bike ride in an easterly direction away from the National Park. Our ride takes on small bummpy tracks around the fringe of the rice paddy fields that stretch out from the farmstay. We notice that further east we travel, the poorer the villages appear - grimey and unkept with little signs of the development and building that is going on nearer the national park.

On the way back we stop at a little cafe that was recommended to us by Veronica, the mother of Ben, the farmstay manager. The cafe owner, Ong Day joins us and we converse in snatches of Viet and English. We pass a phrasebook that Ong Day owns between us to help with the conversation. And we manage to go on for about an hour and with great delight in discovering the details of each others families.

We eventually return to the farmstay, say our goodbyes to Ben and Bich and make our way to Dong Hoi airport for the short bumpy flight to Hanoi. We were very happy for the time we spent there, particularly the previous day, knowing that the place will soon be deluged by countless tourists thanks to Lonely Planet. Before then though Ben and Bich will need to get some new beds because the one thing that lets the place down are the killer beds.


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