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Published: January 28th 2017
Before you visit, you research. You peruse maps, blogs and tourist sites. You um and ah over the best places to visit. With Vietnam in mind Hoi An is a given. When you have no fixed itinerary it is good to hear about places that are a little less travelled. Not entirely off the beaten track of course but enough to give you the desire to go and see. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is one of those places. We set off from Hue in a more than small mini-van. With seats definitely designed for smaller Asian frames we were glad we hadn't had that last Banh My!
We had chosen the more expensive option as the route was through the DMZ which we had some curiosity about but not enough to warrant a day tour. 'They will drop you off at your hotel,' said the receptionist and off we went. The DMZ passed in a blur of rain and a hazy photo showing the blue and yellow bridge demarcating the North and the South. Not even a slight slowing down! First piece of misinformation. When we reached Phong Na town we were unceremoniously dumped in the middle some 4km
from our lodging. 'Too far', said the tour guide. Graeme stuck to his guns as we could not possibly see how motorbikes could get us and two fairly hefty suitcases to our abode. 'We paid for drop off to our hotel,' and by speaking to the tour company we were shuffled onto another van and dropped off right outside.
Tu Lan homestay was a friendly spot run by Thung and his sister-in-law Nuan who welcomed us with beaming smiles and hot coffee. After an early start and the bus journey we elected not to go out on a motorbike immediately which proved to be a mistake as this was the only dry time we had there.
In the pouring rain the next day we braved the elements and with water lashing into us we made our way to Phong Nha cave. Unfortunately we missed the ticket office and headed off along the river bank through a muddy track to the cave where of course we could not enter as you had to purchase a ticket and arrive by boat. We headed back after watching a four wheel drive extricate itself from the mud and eventually found the ill-signed
A vision in silver, (the tin lady perhaps?) accosted us and in familiar accents asked if we wanted to join her family to visit the cave as it was the same price for the boat no matter how many were on it. We joined in and so started a tag team of locations as we ran into them on many occasions even in different cities, some planned, some not.
Phong Nha, often spoken of as the least impressive of the local caves, was to my mind exceedingly spectacular. The slow boat trip through the cavern poled by the lady boatperson added to the magnificence and as we were the only boat who braved the rain it felt like a private spectacle.
The next day dawned as wet as the first and we decided we had to do the circle route to see the karst mountains in the National Park. I had opined that the view from our window was enough, but no, we got back on a motorbike, trusty ponchos on, and off we went. When my friend Nola and I used to cycle to work together it sometimes rained really hard. 'It makes me feel
alive,' she would say as the rain trickled down our faces and dripped off the back of our helmets down our shirts. It was definitely one of those moments.
We passed our friends from yesterday similarly kitted out in various shades of poncho and did an about turn. We arrived at the Dark Cave together and even the youngsters declined the opportunity to zipline, swim and mudbath. It might have had something to do with the grey people who emerged close to suffering hypothermia as we hummed and hawed. A hot coffee around a fire, steaming clothes and all set us up for a further exploration and we set off in convoy to Paradise Cave.
You can only appreciate so many stalactites and stalagmites but we did our best. Unfortunately our hour long stay meant we were greeted with an empty petrol tank on Kevin's bike as it had dripped away not even creating any kind of stalagmite just a telltale rainbow in the puddles.
We followed again in convoy, coasting and hoping to make it back but the bike gave up luckily just before a petrol stop outside the National Park. Wet and elated we arrived
back in pitch black to Phong Nha. Alive? You betcha!
Roasted sweet potatoes and bananas on the fire at Tu Lan restored us and we attempted to dry out some of the wet clothes some with more success than others. In the morning I found that one of my shoes had been roasted, crisp and aromatic, toasty shoelaces and compressed fabric! I squeezed my foot in and reduced the shoe's life by a few weeks! Not going to make the three months in Asia I fear.
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