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Published: September 21st 2014
Today was easily one of the nicest days of my life. Why? Because sometimes all you need is a reminder that life is simple, and simple things are beautiful and can make you very happy.
I travelled from Hue to Phong Nha with Andrew, whom I met in the hostel in Hanoi. Phong Nha National Park has many caves, and you basically come here to explore caves. Many caves are still being discovered in this area on an annual if not weekly basis. Just 4 years ago, the largest cave in the world was discovered here. A trek in this cave takes 7 days.
Let's talk about caves. I love caves. Which makes little sense since I'm intensely claustrophobic, but then again I'm also ridiculously stubborn .... so, I came here. To explore caves. Which I love. We looked through the hostel's menu of tours, did the math, concluded the tours were too pricey, and decided to outsmart tourism by renting scooters and exploring by ourselves. The hostel guy tried to talk us out of it, detailing vivid stories of scooter accidents, involving pot-holes, buffalos, trucks and gungho riders who ended up with their chest split open. He wasn't exaggerating about the conditions of the road - and I'll get to that.
I had always vowed never to ride a bike in Viet Nam, but then again I also thought my life would be different. At breakfast, we met another Andrew who was keen to do the same. He had bought a bike in Hanoi, and is biking down Viet Nam. Many foreigners do this. I have been approached by many foreigners, with varying amounts of 'memories' (i.e., bruises and scabs), trying desperately to sell their bikes at the end of their trip. Andrew squared and I set off on scooters - I love riding bikes. You feel free, the sun on your skin, the smell of the surroundings (in this case 1/3 parts food, another third buffalo dung, and thick black exhaust from the trucks/tour buses, and a little extra of the smell of the rice fields). Not to forget the wind on your sking makes you feel like you're hardcore doing a thousand km/h, when really it's only about 40-50km/h. Yes, I go slow. I guess it helps the guys having a girl in the group, coz it forces them to go slowly.
It's about 15km to the collection of caves. The condition of the roads weren't bad at all, though there were tons of pot-holes. The buses and cars give way to no one. They just honk when they are behind you to let you know to beware, they honk when they're approaching you from the front to alert you, they honk while overtaking each other with you also on the same level as them - they basically do whatever they please using honking as an excuse that it's ok since you've been warned. One thing is for sure though, everyone gives way to a water buffalo. You don't mess with those. They're big. Really big. And they walk wherever they wish. Andrew the First noted that the buffalos tend to walk on the correct side of the road, expressing that the buffalos obey the road rules more than the Vietnamese. Along the way, kids run out in groups from where they were playing in front of their wooden huts to wave at us. Loads of children and teenagers were riding their bicycles home, school bags in a basket on the front, and often with a friend on the back - the passanger just lets their legs dangle down. They wave too. They ride in a horizontal row on the road, blocking our paths - but nothing that a 'honk' doesn't fix. People lay corn cobs and peanuts filling out the entire length of their driveways, to dry. The scenary is of rice fields, with mountains in the distance, and lush greenary. Where we cross over bridges, water buffalos are hanging out knee deep in the river.
The first cave we visited was Paradise cave. Magnificent cave. You have to walk ages up the hill and even before you approach the entrance to the cave, it feels like there's air-con coming from somewhere.Walking into the cave is fantastic: finally the cool air. We walk the steps down and can smell pee - a reminder you're in SE Asia. Apart from this though, they seem to have cleaned it up pretty well because the stalacmites and stalactites are beige, even the ceiling (?) of the cave isn't black and there are no caves. It's hard to explain the impressiveness of this cave, and the pictures don't do it justice. It's huuuge. It goes on forever. During the various wars, Vietnamese would hide in these caves and store their weapons.
The second cave is called the Dark Cave. We had been warned by other backpackers that "you will get muddy" and "wear a bikini only". Prepared as I am, I came with only a white top and my 'good' shorts. So I went to a convenience store in the morning and bought a red t-shirt, complete with red shorts. Size 12, they were. More like size for 12 year old boys. I looked like a 12 year old lifeguard, and even better - I couldn't wear underwear. When we got to the caves, I noticed that my sizeable bum had torn the seams and made a hole 'down-there' at the bottom of my pants. This day was turning into pure adventure. First stop was a zipline from a tower, over a river to the other side. Did I mention I am scared of heights too? Perfect. It was super fun, though!. We get across the it seems we were the last guests of the day, and the guide could only repeat 'hurry up!'. No pressure. We then had to swim through muddy and very cold lake to get to the cave. The cave was dark, and slippery. We wade through thigh-deep water, with our head-torch on, crawling over sharp rocks and boulders. If you listen really carefully, you can hear th rocks screaming 'law-suit', had this been in the U.S. or Europe. What we heard loud and clear, however, was 'hurry up'. Thai, our guide, leads us to our 'first challenge'. Wait what? I thought I was going sight-seeing. We start by walking over soft mud, that just gets thicker and thicker and climb over more boulders. Then he says to me: "slide" and proceeds to slide down a small hill of mud. It's dark and I don't see what I'm about to fall into. 'Hurry up' - I wanted to slap him. I hear the rocks echo 'law-suit, law-suit' as I expect to crack my bum open at the end of the slide. I slide down right into a deep puddl of mud, mud splashing everywhere, I was saturated in mud from top to toe, including my eyes. We keep going through thicker and thicker pools of mud until we reach another cave, where he asks us to lie in the mud pool and turns out the light. It was so peaceful and quiet and wonderful. Did you know that when you lie on mud, you float? You're welcome. He switches on the torch and we spend a good ten minutes observing the stalacmites. Millions of years to form, and there we were, disturbing them by carrying out a challenge.
We keep crawling through body-wide tunnels until we hit water, and we manage to clean ourselves off a bit. He then takes us into an even darker cave (if that's possible), and gets in a canoe. We're delighted at a boat ride, but he paddles off and tells us to start swimming. Righto then, we swim. And swim, knocking my knees on stalactites, until we get to the other side. He once again switches off the ride and says, ok - if you're lucky, I'll see you on the other side and canoes back. This is the strangest guide ever. Back we swim and I think of the Loch Ness monster and my mind starts playing tricks on me.
Once outside, we swim through the river. At this stage I should note that I wouldn't be caught dead swimming through the water buffalo poop infested muddy rivers of Viet Nam, but when you've just been saturated in mud, nothing else seems to matter. We go on another zipline, the type you hang on to with your hands and let go at the end, falling straight into the cold river. I loved it. We did that about a gazillion more times, and then rode back to the hostel watching the lightning line the sky. Of course it rains. It rains everywhere I go ;-). On the way back, the traffic was quieter, and the school children were replaced with the working class going home on their bicycles. Even more water buffalos were walking on the streets, as they too went home.
I guess it doesn't seem particularly extraordinary, but to me watching the daily life and the children waving, while feeling the breeze and being allowed to enter million-year old caves, not to mention jumping around in nature, attributed to a pretty damn good day.
The next day, we took a bus at 6:30am, back to Hue, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail's - DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), which begins here in Central Viet Nam. Viet Nam was split into 2 leading to the horrendous Viet Nam War. We saw the Vinh Moc tunnels that the Vietnamese dug to escape from the U.S. carpet bombings for 5 years between 1960/70s. 350 people lived in these tunnels (sometimes up to 400m deep), 17 children were born. The tunnels are at their highest 175cm and as narrow as 1.5 people, lit only with lanterns. There are small 'rooms' along the tunnel - more like holes dug into the side of the tunnels, which served as rooms, bathroom (only 1 for 350 people), a maternity 'room' and a meeting area.
- I lost my 4th pair of earphones in 5 weeks. Well done me. And I was just thinking to myself on the bus, man these are good earphones.
- Don't take sleeper buses. Scary.
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