The largest caves in the world!
17.02.2012 - 20.02.2012 23 °C
Luckily a guy was waiting for us at the train station to take us to the Farm Stay we had booked. It was a 40km journey and the driver spoke excellent English and told us about some of the history of the area as we drove past rice fields on Highway 1 (The main road that runs the length of Vietnam North to south).
The farmstay came into sight and it was a sight for sore eyes. It was a beautiful large house in an amazing location and we were instantly greeted by the owners Ben and Bich. Ben is an x-pat Australian and his wife Bich is Vietnamese. They instantly made us feel welcome and their staff were constantly smiling and asking how you were and if you needed anything. The room we got was the mid price one @$25 and it was very clean and homely.
A few of the guys and Ben asked if we were interested in going for a motorbike ride in the surrounding area for the afternoon, so we said what the heck and signed up. We were given an old shitter of a bike that had no rear suspension and I’m not sure the front wheel was even attached to the handlebars as it felt so loose. We struggled over incredibly rough and muddy ground for a while but the bike kept bouncing along and grinding the bottom on the ground so Ben swapped us for a 2 stroke old Russian Minsk. The suspension on this felt so much better and the wheels all felt connected which was a start. This one however had zero power below about 10,00rpm and then had a quick squirt before running out of breath again! It was hilariously funny for a while but eventually it refused to go up hills and then we ran out of fuel. Ben came back and managed to get some fuel out of another bike to fire up the minsk again and swapped us back to the original heap. Jayne decided to sit on with Ben as at least that bike didn’t try to throw her off every time you hit a bump.
Now on my own on the bike I will refer to as ‘The Bentley’ it actually felt quite good! It had quite a bit of mumbo and with just me on it was almost controllable. I enjoyed the rest of the trip so much more after this, including a river crossing knee deep
before a cold beer in a locals house
and a dip in the river to cool off.
The way back was loads of fun the bike bumping around and me drifting it around corners with the surface changing from concrete to gravel to sand all in metres of each other at times.
Back at the Farm stay we treated ourselves to the first cheeseburger in months as we were happy to have made it back safe and sound and were totally knackered.
The guys in the hotel watched Top Gear Vietnam and then a documentary on the worlds biggest cave, which is nearby. We all decided to do a few trips in the next couple of days to explore some of the caves in the area, starting with Phong Nha Cave, which as I write this is the worlds biggest cave open to the public.
Phong Nha Cave
14 of us from the farm stay hired push bikes in the morning for a 7km ride through local villages to get to the boat which would take us to Phong Nha cave – the cave is 55km long and is the largest cave in the world which is open to the public although you are only allowed into the first 1km. It was only fully mapped for the first time in 1990 by British cavers with a Vietnamese guide. The name Phong Nha means Cave of Teeth due to the stalactites in the entrance, however these were blown apart by the Americans who fired rockets into the cave entrance in an attempt to prevent the Vietcong from storing weapons etc inside during the war.
The cyle ride to the town was great with the local children being as enthusiastic as ever shouting “helloooo” as soon as they saw us ‘white potato frys’ coming. Ben met us at a little restaurant where we were to leave our bikes for the afternoon – he then bought our tickets for us (to make sure we weren’t being ripped off) before sending us to one of the local boats. It was a bit like the Thai long boats but with dining room chairs lined up inside for seats!
The boat trip to the cave entrance took about 20mins then we continued 1km into the cave which was very impressive, even with it’s strange gaudy lighting.
It was eerily quiet as the boat switched off it’s engines and the driver began to row instead, just the gentle splash of the oars echoing around the cave.
After 20 mins or so we were allowed to get off the boat to wander around inside.
We also managed to find some ancient writing on the walls that Ben had told us about – some of it thought to be from monks 1000s of years ago and some of the writings are from soldiers in the war when the caves were used as hospitals.
After returning from the boat, we met back up with Ben and had a delicious set meal at the restaurant before cycling home. We did feel like celebrities as every local person waved and smiled shouting “helloooo” although Chris did take slight offence to the 2 little boys who pulled a piece of string across the road in front of us and after we slammed the brakes on held out their hand and shouted “money?”
Chris stayed up that night drinking with Ben, the owner until 3am listening to all his crazy stories of how he made the farmstay become reality.
For our last day at the farm stay, 8 of us hired motorbikes again, well, the 4 guys rode and the girls hung on to the back! For some reason, Chris decided we would be enjoying the delights of the crappy old bike with the enthusiastic suspension and the wobbly front wheel again (Chris - I liked the Bentley!). It was great fun though for 30km as we made our way through the national park and around the twisty turny roads following the ridges of tree covered rocks and mountains.
We were told to sweet talk the rangers into letting us through with our motorbikes which was no problem, we even got a smile out of them. The road eventually took us to the car park entrance to Paradise cave. This is not one of the biggest caves in the area (only 27km long!), but the part which is open to the public is far larger and more impressive then yesterday’s Phong Nha cave. We paid a small fee and set off up the 400 or so steps which led to the cave entrance. This cave is a dry cave and there is a huge wooden walkway which takes you through about 1km of the most beautiful rock formations I am sure we will ever have the privilege of seeing.
Also, we only saw a handful of other tourists on our visit which was a huge improvement to the conveyor belt at the Halong Bay caves.
Back at the guard’s station, we were told there is another cave to explore – Dark Cave, but this time the entrance can only be reached by kayak and as the name suggests, we would need torches. The kayaks looked dodgy at best, so we left as much of our gear as possible with the rangers, taking only our valuables in Chris’s dry bag and wobbled off downstream for a couple of hundred meters.
Eventually we saw the entrance so pulled the kayaks of doom up onto nearby rocks to stop them drifting away and walked/waded into the cave.
It was, well ...... dark!
Luckily we had a few head torches between us so we turned them on as the walkway came to an end and we entered into the non touristy part of the cave. It turned a corner soon after entering it which made the darkness even thicker and we struggled over the sharp rocks and through several pools of water until reaching a very large expanse of water. There was no dry route, the only way onward was to swim and the torches couldn't penetrate the darkness far enough to see the end so there was no way of telling how far it went on for.
As the strongest swimmers, myself and a German guy called Kris were nominated to swim across to check out if we could make it to other side. It was a very eery swim as it was pitch black, save the 1 head torch we took across with us. There are blind eels, shrimp and little white fish in the water which we could feel every now and then and we could hear bats squeaking all around us. It seemed like it would never end but then the other side became visible and was just 100 meters or so ahead. We managed to climb out onto a very sharp, rocky ledge and shouted for the others to come across. Only Chris and Kevin braved it with the other girls staying on the relative safety of the dark rocks with the remaining head torch.
From here the sharp rocks of the cave floor continued on but there was no way we could make it – not in a swim suit and with bare feet anyway, so after taking some pics, we all headed back.
The girls were relieved to see us return and after a quick drying off with the one towel we had between 6, we collected the Kayaks and wobbled them back out of the cave mouth. The rangers were happy to see us return their inflatable nightmares and so we changed into dry clothes and rode the motor bikes back to the farm stay.
What a fab few days we had enjoyed – it was certainly a highlight of our travels and we are very lucky to have visited the National Park before it becomes too touristy!! (Ben's Farmstay appeared in the Lonely Planet only this week so this will no doubt bring an influx of tourists into the area from now on) However, it was time to continue southwards so we arranged to leave the farm on the 5.30am local bus the next morning and swapped our lovely cosy double room for 2 dorm beds for the night, to save some money.
Best few days ever !!
Travelling Vietnam is a real roller coaster ride. As soon as you think the place is the most amazing place in the world it throws a curve ball at you and something or someone makes you hate the place. The next day was definitely rated as a ‘Hate Vietnam’ day. The local bus was a mini bus and, as is customary here, the tourists are made to sit in the back and the locals sit at the front. So I was squished into the back, in the corner with no room to move and a motorbike wedged up my arse (they somehow squashed a moped behind the back seats!?!!). The 15 person bus was soon filled with 22 people (and a motorbike) as we screamed down Highway 1 in the most terrifying 6 hours of our lives. The Vietnamese have a unique style of driving where the only rule seems to be that small or slow vehicles yield to large or fast vehicles. They generally drive on the right and overtake, wherever, however and whenever they fancy, whether there is something coming the other way or not. Anything goes really, as long as they beep the horns like maniacs whilst they do it. The only moment that induced screams from the WHOLE minibus was when the driver ran over a large dog, at least that’s what we hope it was. We didn’t see clearly from the back, but the bumps felt very ‘organic’ and everyone looked quite shocked afterwards. I witnessed a dead man in the road (motorbike accident) on our way to Halong Bay last week and was hoping not to have to see that again for a while if I can help it.
We eventually rocked up in Da Nang where we changed onto a local bus only getting charged double this time, which is good going really and we weren’t in the mood to argue. The bus took us to Hoi An where we walked 10mins or so before we came across the Hop Yen hotel which had been recommended to us by some people we met at Ben’s. The room was nice enough, large and with 2 double beds so we had a shower and a well needed snooze before we set out to meet up with our Dutch friends Martjn and Bier who we had met in Australia and promised to meet up with somewhere in Vietnam.
It was great to see them again and we had a meal and some beers and a long catch up. We said goodnight and arranged to meet them again for breakfast the next day. I booked myself a hair appointment for the next morning for a much needed full head of colour (my hair seems to have gone a weird gingery colour in places after being in the sun for so long) and we walked back to the hotel for a lovely long sleep – or so we thought! We actually opened the door to our room to find that it was/had been on fire for quite some time. Thick acrid black smoke bellowed out and we shouted down to reception to come quickly. They don’t particularly care much for health and safety in Vietnam so smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are non-existent. So are electrical checks it would seem! On inspection after the smoke cleared, it was the wall mounted fan which I had unsuccessfully tried to turn on earlier, which had eventually just set fire to itself instead! Awesome! The scariest part being, if we hadn’t met Martjn and Bier, we may just have stayed asleep – and probably never woken up! :-o
We were told by the hotel, we could have the room above instead, as long as we didn’t mind waiting half hour or so for the rising smoke to clear – WTF! NO THANKS! Deciding a cardboard box would actually be safer for the night, we walked out of the hotel, not before I threw all my clothes which were black and smelt of the acrid smoke on to the reception floor and told them to clean it all. After 30mins of trudging around the nicer hotels in the rain with no luck, we eventually settled for a cheap room in another small hotel – Hummph. Didn’t sleep too well, although we have decided to try and buy a smoke alarm from somewhere to carry with us from now on. Bloody Vietnam!
Woke up still alive the next day which was a good start – so I headed off for my hair appointment. I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t expect too much from my £12 head of colour so I was extremely happy when it actually turned out blooming brilliant. They pay far more attention to you here than at home, checking the colour every 5mins and you get to lie down while they do it! In the mean time, Chris had booked us into Martjn and Biers hotel which is the same price but far newer, with all rooms having doors which lead outside (escape routes now a major priority!).
Hoi An is very famous for it’s 500 tailor shops – they are master copiers and will make anything you ask of them, as long as you can draw a picture or show them a photo, they will measure you up and make it for you. Chris and Martjn both found the same picture of a Hugo Boss suit which they loved and decided to have the same suit made – in the same colours (gay much?). So that afternoon we all headed out for what turned out to be a 3 day shopping spree. It was fantastic! Callum had also had a suit made and recommended a shop called Tony the Tailors so we made our way there after trying a few others along the way. I bought myself a little grey dress made from (faux) suede for £18, a red silk Chinese style dress also for £18
, 2 pairs of shorts for £9 each and 2 pairs of sandals for £7 each, all of which I picked the fabrics for and are perfectly tailored to me. Chris and Martjn’s suits and shirts also looked amazing and cost a mere $100 for the cashmere tailored suit and 3 tailored shirts!
We decided not to carry it all around with us for the next 6 weeks so the ladies in the shop called the post office who sent a lady over with a large box and some scales who packed all 6kgs of it up in front of us. Hopefully it will all get home in one piece and before we do!!