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Published: December 7th 2012
On December 4, Scott and I left Hue via local bus for the rural and remote Phong Na Farmstay located just outside of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in north central Vietnam. Taking the local bus, we found out, is quite different from booking a trip with a private company. For example, if you were to take one of these buses, here's what you might expect: 1) it's more of a van than a bus, 2) it runs on Vietnamese time - if you get to the station at 10:00 a.m. thinking the bus leaves at 10:30, be prepared to wait a few hours, 3) it's used primarily by locals, so verbal communication is going to be pretty difficult, 4) there may be a stack of styrofoam boxes in the front, the contents of which is a complete mystery, and the bus driver may pull over periodically to drop them off to random people or at random places, next to an unoccupied gas pump for example, 5) similarly, the driver may pull over next to a person standing on the side of the road who will then hand him a wad of cash before the driver continues on his way, 6)
a bathroom break consists of the driver stopping on the side of the road at someone's request so they can run off into the bushes (or stand right next to the bus) and relieve themselves...you get the idea. Though we had no clue what was going on half the time, or if the driver actually knew where we wanted to be dropped off, our 4-ish hour ride didn't fail to entertain us. It was actually an interesting cultural experience, and, despite our doubts, the friendly and charismatic bus driver knew exactly where to drop us off.
When we reached the Farmstay, which was basically an awesome hostel run by an Australian man and his Vietnamese wife in a tiny village surrounded by rice paddies, we were hungry (the bus didn't stop for lunch) and exhausted. We were greeted by a middle-aged Australian man (not the owner) - quite possibly the most laid back person I've ever met in my life - who showed us to our 2 bed dorm and then led us to the common area/restaurant where we ate a delicious late lunch. The place seemed almost abandoned when we got there, but we later found out everyone
else was out on the day's excursion and would return soon after our arrival. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing. We read, watched the sun set over the farm and nearby mountains from a hammock on the porch, and attempted but failed to succeed at playing pool. We went to bed pretty early since we'd signed up for the next day's 8:30 a.m. biking/cave tour.
Day two turned out to be the most adventurous and terrifying day thusfar in Vietnam, if not my entire life. And no, I'm not exaggerating. It began with a leisurely bike ride through the village, led by our tour guide and Leeds native, Ben. It was difficult to focus on the road with all the amazing scenery surrounding us - limestone mountains overgrown with greenery, farms, cattle and water buffalo roaming the streets...After a short while we reached a small family restaurant where we would leave our bikes for the time being and return to for lunch. Near the restaurant was the riverside hub for the dragon boat cave tours, next on our agenda for the day. There were about 8 of us - an Australian couple, an English couple,
two Americans who both happened to live in California, and Scott and me. We left Ben behind to wait on us, and we all hopped onto one of the boats and were on our way down the river. Again, the scenery was astounding, with huge mountains lining the river. Eventually, we reached Phong Nha Cave. Though the entrance looked like a tight squeeze, our driver navigated us through easily and suddenly we were inside the cave walls, in awe of all the limestone formations, many of which resembled drip-castles made of sand. The cave was lit in some places, making it easier for us to see our surroundings, and at certain points we were even able to get out of the boat and walk along the bank, admiring the formations up close. One area contained some ancient cave writings, which was very cool. Ben later told us that the cave had served as a hospital and hideout for boats during the American War and had endured several bombing attempts.
After touring the cave, we rode our boat back the way we came and met up with Ben at the restaurant for lunch. Then it was up to us to
decide how to continue our excursion. We could either ride back to the Farmstay, hang out in the village and ride around or go check out the nearby primate reserve. The whole group was all for seeing some monkeys, so Ben gave us great (terrible) directions and drew us up a helpful (completely inaccurate) map of where to go, telling us something along the lines of "go straight, then turn left, then go straight until you get to the yellow house...well I think it's yellow...yeah just turn after the yellow house, you can't miss it." Taking his word for it, we began our bicycle adventure, riding further and further into the middle of nowhere - we were almost positive we'd crossed over into Laos at one point - until we finally resigned ourselves to the fact that we were lost. We weren't giving up though, so we picked a direction and rode on, and then POP! What sounded like a gunshot aimed directly toward me turned out to be my back tire blowing and going completely flat. Uh oh. Now we were lost, and I no longer had a functioning bike. *Insert expletive here* Being the gentlemen that they were,
two of the guys offered to tow my bike between them, each holding one of the handlebars as they rode, and Scott let me sit on the second-person seat on his bike and ride while he steered. This balancing act thoroughly frightened me, but it was better than walking! Though this arrangement worked for awhile, we were still lost and the guys began to tire and have a difficult time hauling my bike along. Reluctantly, we decided it was time to use one of the group member's smart phones to call the Farmstay. The call was broken up and full of static, but we somehow managed to relay the nature of our situation to whoever was on the other line.
After what seemed like an eternity, Ben showed up on one of the Farmstay's vintage motorcycles bringing with him nothing but a few rain jackets. Though it had drizzled a bit earlier and some of us were wearing our rain gear, none of us needed rain jackets, we needed directions and some sort of vehicle that wasn't a motorcycle to transport my bike back to the Farmstay. A bit confused and annoyed, Ben led us to the primate reserve
(we hid my bike in the bushes for the time being, and I continued to tag along with Scott), and, to our good luck, we actually saw some monkeys. This was the last of my good luck for the day. Since all we had was Ben and his motorcycle, and all the other Farmstay vehicles were in use, here's the brilliant plan we came up with: the guys continue to tow my bike between them back to the restaurant where we'd eaten lunch, which was next door to a mechanic. The mechanic would fix my bike. I would ride with Ben on the back of his motorcycle, and we'd all meet up and have a beer. Then I'd ride my fixed bicycle back to the Farmstay. Here's what ACTUALLY happened...
Since we were on a motorcycle, which goes much faster than a motobike I found out, Ben and I left the others in the dust. We were zooming along at probably 60 mph, and, to be honest, I was enjoying my first motorcycle experience. However, there was a sense of dread in the back of my mind - maybe it was my conscience telling me how much my parents
would flip out if they knew what I was doing at that moment. As we slowed almost to a stop to turn a corner, the bike suddenly jolted and skidded a bit, nearly knocking me off the back. Luckily I was holding on tightly, so I managed not to fall. Ben and I got off and examined the bike, finding that the chain had somehow come off. It took some teamwork, but we were finally able to return the chain to its proper place. Semi-jokingly, I made Ben test the bike out before I got back on. It seemed to be back in working order, so, though a bit unnerved, I hopped back on, and we continued speeding along towards the restaurant. Then it happened. The fears I was trying to bury in the back of my mind became a reality. One moment we were cruising at about 45-50 mph, and the next moment I was in the air. The chain had come off again, causing the bike to come to a sudden halt, spin 180 degrees and land in a ditch on the side of the road, Ben halfway pinned underneath it. I suppose it was the abrupt stop
that sent me flying, or perhaps the skidding and spinning, but I found myself face down on the pavement in the middle of the road, arms outstretched in front of me. I was wearing a helmet, but somehow I'd managed to keep from hitting my head or landing on my face by making sure my hands hit the ground first. Due to the slightly chilly weather and the drizzle earlier in the day, I was wearing my rainjacket, jeans and hiking boots. If I'd been wearing shorts and/or only the t-shirt I had on underneath my jacket, things would most definitely have been much worse. Aside from scrapes on my hands and one elbow, as well as some serious soreness in the following days, I was unharmed. Ben was just as lucky. The bike landed in a way that didn't crush him, thank goodness, and he walked away with fewer scratches than me.
Despite my surviving and walking away from the accident, I was completely shaken up and a little hysterical. My jacket was ripped at the elbow and red with blood from my small wound, I was soaked and covered in mud, and my hands stung with road rash. Almost immediately, Ben and I were surrounded by locals from the village who had heard or seen what had happened. Though I couldn't understand them, I could tell they were concerned and trying to comfort me by the looks on their faces. One woman brought us a big bowl of water to clean our scrapes with, and another man, a friend of the Farmstay staff who spoke English, offered to take us to his nearby office so he could take a look at the bike and I could have a place to sit and regain my composure. Once there, his wife, whose kindness and compassion I was/am extremely thankful for, gave me some sweetened green tea to get some sugar in me in case I became lightheaded as well as some water. She then cleaned my cuts gently with a wet rag and sat with me until Ben (who was less shaken up than me) could go fetch Scott from the restaurant. When Scott arrived, I had calmed down a bit, but I still broke down in tears and had another mini-freak out before we left. Thankfully, I didn't have to ride anything with two wheels again that night, since the owner of the Farmstay came to pick us up in his jeep. I ended the night with a hot shower and a vow to stay away from motorcycles for the forseeable future. I didn't let the experience get me down too much, though, because the next day Scott and I would be joining another excursion that I was really excited about - a tour of the national park and Paradise Cave that, I made sure, did not involve bicycles, motobikes, or motorcycles in any way. To be continued...
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