Phong Nha, Oh, thật đẹp!

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June 4th 2022
Published: June 5th 2022
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Abby took the lead on this one:

We arrived in Phong Nha at 5am, just in time to see a breathtaking sunrise and rainbow over the mountains, the oldest karst mountains in Asia.

We're starting to wear down a little, so we used some of our time in Phong Nha, the adventure capital of Vietnam, to rest.  We began by having a beer and watching the sun rise, and then getting another couple hours of sleep.
For lunch we made the hairy motorbike trip a few kilometres out into the country to try the famous peanut chicken at "The Pub with Cold Beer," a little oasis overlooking the river with a swimming pool, shady hammocks, and you guessed it: ice cold beer, which isn't easy to come by around these parts.

Chickens are killed to order, and you have the option to kill your own. If you'd like you can pluck and butcher it, but we felt that was better left to the professionals. I did catch and kill the chicken myself though, because I think it's important to have experiences that bring you closer to your food, especially as a meat eater.

I was expecting some
On the way to lunchOn the way to lunchOn the way to lunch

Shooing away plenty of cows, while we're at it.
sort of guillotine style set up like I've seen at some farms, but this was pretty old school. I sat on a wooden stool about two inches from the ground, so my long legs made it difficult. The chef/owner, Nugh (I'm surely spelling that wrong) helped me position the chicken onto a small stone slab with a metal bowl under it, and showed me where to cut with the cleaver.

Thankfully, I think i did a pretty nice job with one swift, strong cut. I held him for a couple minutes to drain the blood, and then let Nugh take over. Some folks reading this might feel uneasy about it, but I assure you it was a very peaceful experience. The chicken was taken from a coup where it roamed surrounded by a little garden. It didn't struggle, or cry out, but I felt its life slip away warmly, in just a matter of seconds, very calmly. It's certainly nothing compared to what they go through in a massive factory farm.

The river appeared to be a bit of a hike to access, unfortunately, so we lounged with our cold beers in the swimming pool, until some groups
Peppercorn from the gardenPeppercorn from the gardenPeppercorn from the garden

They are famous for the peanut sauce, but you also get a sauce of fresh crushed peppercorn, salt, and chilis. THAT is the stuff.
of neighborhood kids started to take over. Nate executed a sweet can opener into the pool, in an attempt to show the kids something new and make some friends. Those kids were definitely laughing at us and not with us. But hey, at least we are making people laugh.

After that, back to the bungalow for more pool beers, and more moonshine. We had been dying for a banh mi since we arrived in vietnam, so we tried a random spot by our hotel. We had a roast pork sandwich that was basically a fried onion sandwich. I think we got screwed on that one.
We met a young Finnish man who was travelling alone. He bought a Motorbike in Hanoi with plans to sell it in Saigon. That is, before going to Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines. Most tourists we meet here are from Europe, Canada or Isreal, and are travelling for months or years at a time. Must be nice. Not that im BITTER or anything, but
... Must. Be. Nice.

The next day we booked a tour, our first guided tour. You cant see most of the main attractions without one.
Phong Nha is
Got em!Got em!Got em!

I caught em. Way easier than my varsity volleyball days catching chickens in an open gymnasium.
home to the largest cave in the world, but it takes days of trekking through jungle and 3,000 USD to enter it.

There are over 300 caves here, roughly 400 million years old but many of them were just discovered about fifteen years ago.

Paradise cave is the largest dry cave. Dark cave takes tourists swimming in pitch darkness, through sand baths and slides. There are many tour options to choose from, but most involve travelling in a large group with a large rowboat (we'll call them dragon boats), trekking through jungle, ziplining swimming, or all of the above.

We opted for a kayak tour of Phong Nha Cave. The dragon boats take groups of tourists about 1 km through the underground river of this cave, home to the longest underground river in the world. But, we love to kayak and there are parts of the cave you can only see by kayaking through passageways of the underground river and hiking back into it with a guide. With this tour, we were able to go over 7 km deep into the cave.
If you only have one day in Phong Nha, I would highly recommend this tour, because it has a lot of the attractions the other tours have all in one day: spelunking, swimming in the dark, sand bath, clay mask, scrawlings of Cham people on cave walls, and a wide diversity of cave formations, some of them absolutely massive.

Our guide, Hio (sp?) was phenomenal. With a cheerful disposition, he provided details about how some of the more curious formations came to be, every step of the way. The tour starts by entering the mouth of the cave by kayak, an opening created by an American bomb. (There is a lot of history here, but that will be an entire new blog entry). We weaved through larger blue dragon boats filled with orange life-vested tourists. Many of the children shouted "hello!"s and began to take video, to which Nate shouted, "look at the caves! Your parents pay good money for you to see caves!" A couple of parents laughed in agreement and gave a thumbs up. These tours can be expensive!

We veered off the main tourist track in our kayaks into a small opening. The lights placed to light up the cave walls ended, and we turned the lamps on our helmets
It was nugh's birthday!!!It was nugh's birthday!!!It was nugh's birthday!!!

The chef/owner's daughter let us know it was her mom's birthday. She had to work, but you know we threw down on some shots of lychee wine. And so continues the moonshine tour lol.
on. We came to a sand bar after about 400 m, parked the kayaks and walked (more like, climbed) through the cave. We spent about six hours climbing and kayaking deep inside the cave in total, and my mind never was able to register that we were indoors. It felt like being in a rocky canyon outdoors on a very dark night. There were many times the shadows played tricks with my eyes, and the light of my headlamp couldn't pierce the darkness far enough to reach the top. We stopped for lunch near a series of small pools and ate sticky rice with chicken, fresh local peppercorns and salt, spring onion omelette, cucumber, plums, lychee, and sweet bread with sesame seeds and a bright purple swirl of potato puree.
Hio had us turn our headlamps off for a moment just to experience the profound darkness and silence of being so far from the light of day.

When we reached a junction, he pointed to the mouth of each path, and said, "you go here, you go to hell, you go here, you go to heaven." Just as with most things he said, he said it with a laugh. He explained that the small entrance to a tunnel on the right leads to a sudden, steep drop off 50 meters deep, into a what is essentially a river of quicksand. He wasn't kidding. You really need a guide for these massive caves.

Then more climbing over sharp, razor thin rocks and bulbous ,slippery boulders to reach an underground stream. Hio and I swam against the current of some rapids, to a small clearing. He pointed to an entrance on the other side, and said the Royal Cave Association sent a team of 14 people with scuba gear to see how far the tunnel went. After one month and three days, the journey became too dangerous and they had to turn back. No one is quite sure how far the tunnel goes.
We climbed up (high!) Onto a cluster of boulders. We scraped the clay from the ceiling and spread it onto our faces. "Good for the skin" he said. Then he made a hole in the sand and covered me with maybe twenty pounds of sand, complete, of course, with sand boobs. "We make this right for you" he said. Haha sand boobs, again: #ForeveraClassic.

We both laid there in silence for about five minutes, feeling the cool weight of the soft sand and the quiet. Then more climbing, back to the cold river, and back to Nate, whostayed behind on this one, which is a bummer, because I thought it was the coolest part. But that poor guy had been struggling in wet sneakers for hours, because they didnt have his size in the spelunking shoes (they're jellies, y'all). He was a trooper throughout the trip, though, because although i found out later he wasn't a big fan of the tour generally, he kept his spirits high because he could tell I was having a good time.
We climbed back to our kayaks and entered the way we came in. We were able to stroll through some of the dry part of the cave and meet Hio with our kayaks on the other side.

Oh and I got to see some great critters! Cave crickets with loooooooong antennae and distinct sexual dimorphism (males gold, females white). Also a white centipede, and a large white spider. Also, lots and lots more spiders I didn't tell nate about while in the cave. Hehe!

Nate wanted to know if there were any fish deep in the cave. Hio said "eel". Apparently he has seen eel up to a meter long, probably 25 kilos. We asked if they bite and he said, "not very much". And Ireally wish he had told us that after we swam in that dark cave river, and not before.

Generally, it's hard to put into words what it was like spending a day in the dark, exploring the largest wet cave with most complex underwater river system in the world. It was certainly a stark contrast to the first week we have spent in Vietnam: absolute excruiating, paralyzing, constant heat and humidity. The day blurred together a bit, in and out of the kayak, climbing and swimming in long, winding jaunts. The entrance seemed too perfect to be real, like an amusement park ride, then just the two of us with a guide making our way 2 km through a dark tunnel for it to suddenly open up to high canyons and large boulders...just massive. Its hard to describe. But we got our own, private tour and it was amazing. Tip your guide well! They work hard.

The tour goes from
Ol' fish soup cant fit into the helmetsOl' fish soup cant fit into the helmetsOl' fish soup cant fit into the helmets

Nate is 6'2", so...nothing fits him here. His knees are crushed under tables, theh never have his shoe size...i feel for him but i got quite a kick out of him trying to fit this helmet on his big ol melon.
about 8am to 3pm, and after all that spelunking (i feel like we offically spelunked, right? We did do a level 3 out out of 6) we were ready for a break. So, more beers in a cold pool, looking out as the boats pass along the river.

We shared the pool with a family from a small town outside of Saigon on their summer vacation. Nate is always ready to make friends, whether they are 4 years old or 40, and whether they want to be his friend at first or not. We chatted with this very nice family for a while, mainly the little ones (5, 9, 13). Their parents seemed more than happy for their kids to have a free babysitter and English lesson for an hour or so. They sang us their school song, and we learned their favorite superheroes (Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman/Superman, Captain America).

We didnt have the best luck finding good food in this town. A lot of it seems to be trying to appeal to Westerners: hamburgers, pizza, "Vietnamese nachos." This makes sense as most of the tourism infrastructure has been developed in the last fifteen years or so.
We went to a hotel restaurant that Nate had his eye on, and had a spectacular smoked duck salad with apple, smoked duck pizza, prawn spring rolls, pumpkin soup, and then some admittedly dry, flavorless chicken.
Beat again and off to bed. Tomorrow: Hue, the Imperial City.

(Nate's only input: you could easily burn a week in Phong Nha doing adventure tourism. The weather is a reprieve from most of coastal Vietnam. The kayak tour, is not a fucking KAYAK tour. 80% spelunking. NEVER GOING BACK! Hah! Just joking. It was an awesome experience, in the absolute most literal sense!)

Additional photos below
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Our view from the pool in our bungalow (hotel).Our view from the pool in our bungalow (hotel).
Our view from the pool in our bungalow (hotel).

Hidden river bungalows or carambola bungalows are great spots on the river but close to town. Theyre run by two brothers, Ha (carambola), and Hum (hidden river).

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