I arrived in Dong Hoi relatively well-rested (it’s loud and bumpy on the train) and ready to start my day. With just a 10 minutes delay the train was also remarkable on time. Something that changes the further South the train travels (as I have noticed the last couple of days).
My pre-arranged driver was waiting with a sign for me. Since I was the only one arriving it was quite expensive (500k Dong = 20€) for the 45 minutes ride. But I was not in the mood to wait for the bus only to later pay for a taxi after all to take me to the Farmstay. It’s so far out that there was just no public transportation.
Around 7:30 we pulled up in front of the Farmstay and there were lots of people already milling around. I got greeted by Guillaume, shown to my dorm room and had a quick shower.
I had booked a dorm room to save a bit after spending a lot up North and due to the expensive cave tours. I would be sharing the room with an Australian guy and a German couple. My first mixed dorm on the trip and I liked it a lot.
The tour I had booked for the day started at 8:30am which left ample time to get accommodated to my new surroundings and have breakfast. At the breakfast area I saw one woman sitting alone and asked if I could join her. And sometimes chance plays a wonderful trick on you. Veronica happened to be the mother of Ben, the owner of the Farmstay. Furthermore she had worked for seven years in Vienna and lived just around the corner from me. And during our morning talk she mentioned that she would make a tour with the Easy Riders to Hue and the other woman who had initiated the trip was going to Hoi An. If that would interest me? And since I had been wondering how I was ever going to leave from here, I said yes. I had really no idea what I had agreed to but it sounded like a plan. Plus I liked Veronica from the first and felt comfortable around her. If she could climb on a bike, so could I.
Eventually my national park tour started and we drove into Phong Nha and picked up some more people from the Backpacker hostel in the village and then drove into the National Park. We had a couple of stops where a local guide explained a lot about the karst formations and some flooding that had happened just a couple of years ago. Apparently the water went as high as the bridge we were standing on.
During the Vietnam War the Americans would bomb this area to achieve road blocks. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was going right through the Park. Here you can still see where the rock was hit.
Next stop for us then was a cave where 8 young people looked for shelter during one of the attacks and were buried alive.
After that it was on to the Paradise Cave, a cave that really deserved its name. The first kilometer into the cave is open to the public and perfectly illuminated.
I am not a religious person (and even less so after reading the Zealot book; review is coming soon) but this cave was awe inspiring and I could almost start believing again. Truly a spiritual experience.
Once outside it was time for lunch (again not great, really don’t know why the food was always so bland on the tours since Vietnam offers so much good food) and then we were off to the Dark Cave.
No pictures from there because we started our tour in bathing suites and nothing else. First there was zip lining over the river (a first for me and it felt hilarious! When was the last time I did something for the first time?), then we had to swim into the cave. We had all been given life jackets and helmets with a lamp. These were switched on upon entering the cave, the cave after all was not called Dark Cave for nothing.
The trail started to get muddier and narrower as we walked along. In the beginning I really tried to stay clean but after a while I had no choice since it was slippery and I had to hold on to just not fall. I had wanted to keep a pristine butt, which was alll for nothing in the end because we ended in a mud bath; and the shrieking and laughing told me there was no escape. The mud felt as dense as the Dead Sea. I could float on it without going under.
We all closed our head lamps and tried to shut up for a minute but that didn’t work. When your group consists mostly of girls in their early twenties there is not a chance for a minute of silence. Especially not when every movement in the mud produced a fart sound.
Eventually we left the mud pool and walked back, cleaned ourselves in an underground river and then had to swim through it for about 10 minutes just to be told on the other side that we would have to turn around and swim through it again but without the light. Oh, and yes there were eels and other animals in the river. Great, we all had to do it since the exit lay in that direction. Once done, it felt good though, very liberating.
Outside the cave we kayaked back to the zip lining place. I was placed together with Christiane, a girl from Germany also traveling alone after finishing her PhD in neuroscience. There were always some very nice people on the road with me to share a day or more.
Christiane and I made it back to the start not with a lot of help from my side though. As I told you I am just not made for kayaking. But once there we tried another round of zip lining only this time I jumped into the river during it.
We finished the tour off with refreshments next to the river while we waited for the rain to abate. It had been the perfect first day in Phong Nha.
Back at the Farmstay I had an early dinner (kitchen was only open until 8pm) and went to bed. I was exhausted after all my adventures. Yours, Pollybert