Thursday, January 30, 2014

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Parks cave tour

Day 17 - Thursday, November 21
Distance - 0 kms = total for day ~ 0 hrs by bike
Trip Odometer =  1843 kms
Route - Phong Nha caves tour excursion
Hotel - Phong Nha Farmstay (700,000d = $35)
Weather -  Dry and cloudy.

We had booked our cave excursion at the Farmstay the night before, therefore we were all set for our 8:30am departure with a few other travellers staying there.  We both loaded up on a delicious breakfast and promptly hopped on the passenger van which sat in the Farmstay drive.  Our first stop was in the village of Son Trach where we loaded up a bunch of other travellers who were staying at various hotels in the town.  Turns out, the owners of the Phong Nha Farmstay also own a travellers hostel in the town (the Tiger something??).  They recently turned their dorm rooms at the Farmstay into private rooms and suggested to folks who want more of a budget option to stay at their hostel in the town of Son Trach.

Amanda's new friend eyeing up her tasty breakfast at the Farmstay...

Our tour guide asked us why the cliff face above wasn't covered with thick foliage typical of Vietnamese hillsides, mountains and cliff faces.  Funny enough, I had just read the night before that US bombers would bomb the cliffs in order to expose secret cave systems.  The cliff above was bombed during the war and has yet to recover.

Above:  The River that flows with blood and diesel.

We had 2 tour guides for the day, a local Vietnamese guy named Hung, and a Vietnamese-American (above) named Dean who had been living and working at the FarmStay for a few years.  He is originally from Seattle and had a wealth of knowledge about the area, about the war, and about the cave systems alike.  Both of these guides were a pleasure to be around for the day.

We then stopped at a war shrine known as the Eight Lady Cave.  Apparently 8 people (turns out, they weren't all ladies) got trapped in a cave after a bomb blast and they died there.

Above:  Dean from Seattle was explaining details about the 8 Lady Cave.  The National Park had a monument made for the people who lost their lives.  It explained their ages and the villages they were originally from.  You can see a bomb casing hanging in the tree to the left:  Ironically enough, these were used as early warning signals, locals would hit them with a stick and they would send off a gong-like-sound that would echo through the jungle.  Vietnamese villagers would also not speak in the jungle as they heard rumours that the American military had areas wire tapped, therefore they used simple and effective techniques as an alternative to verbal communication.

When arriving to the Paradise Cave (one of Phong Nha National Park's premier cave systems), we were whisked off in 'Jurassic Park' style buggies which followed simple, concrete pathways to a system of stairs (just over 500!) which brought us to the entrance of the cave system.  We were both very impressed with how set-up and efficient this tour was.

The Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005.  It wasn't until very recently in 2011that it was opened to the public.  The cave system is over 31 kms in length and we were able to explore the first 1 km which was surprisingly vast.  Travellers were also able to book custom multi-day trips in this cave system with private guides.

Above:  This sign showed the 1km that we were about to discover with the inset map explaining the full 31.4 km cave system.

Upon entering, our jaws dropped with the size and scope of this cave system.  Amazing.  We followed a boardwalk style staircase deep into the main chamber and it was so large, it was breathtaking.  They had a great lighting system that followed the boardwalks, lighting the walls and features just enough to see the details.

Photographs really don't do this cave system any justice.

We followed a series of boardwalks the full 1 km into the cave.  It often pinched down and then would open up into another chamber and cavern, it was incredible.  The caves were extremely clean, with rubbish bins and seating areas with benches for tourists wanting a quick rest.

After visiting a few of the cave systems in the Ha Long Bay area in the north, we were both very impressed with the Paradise Cave in the Phong Nha National Park.  It was a tour that is not to be missed, well worth it.

I had also heard before our trip to Vietnam, that the longest cave system in the world was recently opened to public and it is also in Vietnam.  It is called the Son Doong Cave and it even has a fast flowing river within.  In early 2013 a group went into the cave system for 7 days, 6 nights at a $3000US price tag per person.  They are limiting access to the Son Doong Cave with a high price tag and a limited number of visits per year.

I found a nice, little, 2 smoker custom en route to the toilets after the tour.

Next up was the Dark Cave.  The Dark Cave was accessed by paddling inflatable kayaks along a mellow river to the entrance, entering via a boardwalk and then swimming into the cave with only headlamps for light.  It was a adventurous change from the lit-up Paradise cave system.

We were provided with PFDs, hard hats with headlamps, half-paddles ('cause thats all you need I guess) and sturdy one-size-fits-all Vietnamese footwear... we were SET!

'High-Ho, High-Ho... Off to the Dark-Cave we gooooooo!'

Entrance to the Dark Cave...

Our Vietnamese Guide 'Hung' getting down and dirty in the Dark Cave.

The Dark Cave was excellent.  We swam along sections to get deeper into the cave and then we were brought along narrow, muddy, off-shoot tunnels that brought us up into other room systems before descending back into the main cavern which eventually brought us back to the entrance.

The full-day tour was fantastic.  We arrived back to the Phong Nha Farmstay happy and spent.  I decided to go with a pasta special for supper and it was great.  The main hall (lobby, restaurant, bar, lounge area) of the Farmstay had a warm atmosphere complete with fire pit on one side.  Both nights we were there, we had nice conversations with fellow travellers about our various trips throughout Vietnam and where we were all headed to next.

We both would have loved another day at the FarmStay to unwind and relax, but tomorrow, we would be back on the road, back on the bikes and this time, heading east to the South China Sea and back to the coast which we last visited when we were in Ha Long Bay at the beginning of our trip.

A couple of the guys who worked at the FarmStay suggested a great route for us east into the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), up past the Vinh Moc Tunnels and then south to Hue along a more rural route - rather than taking the busy, hectic Hwy #1.  We were pleased to get some good info and excited to follow this route.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Phong Nha Farmstay - our Oasis

Day 16 - Wednesday, November 20
Distance - 142 kms = total for day ~ 3.5 hrs
Trip Odometer =  1843 kms
Route - Huong Khe - Phong Nha Farmstay.  South from Huong Khe on HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) to Son Trach (for lunch) then to Phong Nha Farmstay.
Hotel - Phong Nha Farmstay (600,000d = $30)
Weather -  Dry and cloudy and then wet and cold.  By lunch it cleared up which was good.

We had a fairly quick zip to the Phong Nha Farmstay, our welcomed oasis.  It was wet, yet again, but we managed to pound down the kms throughout the morning on the HCMT.  We arrived to the town of Son Trach at lunchtime so we pulled up to one of the many street stalls in the main market area and sat down for a hot lunch before proceeding the final few kilometers to the Farmstay.

I had made a reservation at the Phong Nha Farmstay online as it was stated that they fill up quickly due to their popularity.  There were also a range of accommodation options in the town of Son Trach, but we wanted the luxury of the travellers paradise at the Farmstay.

As it is stated clearly on both their website and on Trip Advisor, the Phong Nha Farmstay isn't really a 'farmstay' per-say, but instead a lovely traveler's oasis set in amongst rural farmland within this area of Vietnam (we weren't sleeping in barns with the local pigs and chickens if that is what you think of when you hear 'farmstay').  They offer a plethora of tours and trips that can be booked right from the hotel reception.  Also, seeing that it is in a rural location, they offer a wonderful restaurant at the Farmstay with a variety of western and Vietnamese options in addition to a wide assortment of cocktails, spirits, wines and beers.

Our plan was to stay at the Farmstay for x2 nights and to tour the Phong Nha cave systems in the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park the following day.  We booked this through one of the day long tours the Farmstay offers as we wanted to be on auto-pilot as tourists for the day.  

Phong Nha Farmstay

The owners are an Australian and Vietnamese couple and the Farmstay is located right in the village where Bich grew up.  It employs all of her immediate family and many others from the Village and surrounding area.  This is Ben and Bich's Ural pictured above.  Ben mentioned that he took the family (they have x1 boy) on a trip throughout the north on this bike and it sounds like they covered a loop similar to our route in the north.

Next day - tour through the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park visiting the Paradise Cave, 8 lady temple, and kayaking into the Dark Cave - a full day adventure off the bikes... can't wait!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Yen Cat to Huong Khe

Day 15 - Tuesday, November 19
Distance - 240 kms = total for day ~ 6-7 hrs
Trip Odometer =  1701 kms
Route - Yen Cat - Huong Khe.  South from Yen Cat on HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) Hwy #15 to Huong Khe.
Hotel - Khach San Son Ha (250,000d = $12.50)
Weather -  Started out dry and cloudy and then got dark, darker and then wet, wet, wet, 'soggy-bottom-boys-wet', and then a bit more wet, some very cold, and finally soaked.

Undoubtedly, unequivocally, and fully-completely our wettest day yet.  Our theme song for the day was 'Soaked to the Bone', which had absolutely no harmony, lyrics, and character like that of 'Bad to the Bone'.  Now, it didn't rain all day long, but when it did, it ramped right up and it became that cold-wet as well which makes riding a motorbike quite the challenge both physically and mentally.

On a positive note, we woke up in the morning from our Twilight Zone Hotel and we were in the same reality, still in Vietnam, both alive, and both very happy to get back on the road.  Sorry Yen Cat, but you didn't make the cut on our Top-20-in-'Nam experiences, better luck next time.

In the morning not too far south of Yen Cat, we came across this overturned rock truck.  It was hard to say how long it had been there, but we didn't see any ambulance or police, just a few people milling about.  It took up most of the road, but when theres a will, theres a way,... all traffic just seem to work their way around it and that was that, traffic was still flowing on the #15.  

The rain started shortly after the overturned truck and continued for a good hour or so of riding.  When pulling into the town of Pho Chau for our later afternoon lunch break, we were both quite cold.  We were anticipating a typical large bowl of Pho for lunch, but instead, they were serving something different at the family run restaurant we stopped at.  We had a really tasty alternative which was a combination of rice with pork, fried cucumbers and assorted veggies.  It was a delicious meal and the family was great, really interactive with us.  I'm guessing this was their daughter below and their grand daughter who was the entertainment at the lunch party.

I ordered a hot coffee and proceeded to ask for some extra hot water to top it up, mainly an attempt to warm my core temperature and also to dilute the extremely strong, syrupy-like consistency of the normal Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk.  The extra hot water came, but the owner and his wife were also pointing at the coffee poster on the wall motioning that the coffee is often served on ice.  

Not before too long, I was double-fisting my hot coffee with an iced coffee as well, they were really interested in showing me all the types of ways coffee is served in Vietnam, and they wanted me to try all of them.  Seeing that Amanda doesn't drink coffee, I had to step up to the plate and try them all.

After a great deal of 'cảm ơn bạn' (thank-you), we paid up and then put all of our layers back on for the cold road south.  I had a very generous caffeine buzz flowing through my veins before getting back on the road.  

We arrived to Huong Khe in mid afternoon with time to hunt around for a hotel.  Huong Khe was a much larger town than that of Yen Cat, so we stopped at a bank machine as our supply of 'dong' was running low.  We then toured around town looking for a hotel.  Huong Khe has a man-made lake right in the middle of town which makes it much more appealing and picturesque.  We toured around the lake and found a few hotel options.

We stopped at the first hotel which had a 'palace' type feel and inquired at the front desk to look at a room.  They immediately asked for our passports and I motioned that we only wanted to 'look' at a room.  Amanda even had this phrase on her iPhone from the day before and she showed the translated phrase to the man and woman at the front desk.  It was painstakingly difficult to communicate that we only wanted to look at a room.  We ended up checking out a few different rooms, and in all cases, we came across puddles on the floors and black mould on some of the walls.  We thanked them and told them we would go and look at another hotel before making our decision.  As we were getting back on our bikes, the manager came out and asked us what the problem was.  We gestured that all was good and that we were going to look at rooms in another hotel before making our decision.

The same thing happened at another location.  The front desk staff were great, they got the message that we just wanted to 'look', there seemed to be good communication at this one, but the manager had an offended look on his face when we decided to push on.  I was fine with moving on from this place as the manager seemed like a jack-ass from the beginning anyway.

Our take is that we had time to look, there were a few options in town, so why not be like Goldilocks and find the right situation for us.

Our third option was going to be the best it was going to get in the town of Huong Khe, it was the Son Ha Hotel.  Unfortunately, the room was somewhat dank and that was even before we threw all of our sopping wet gear throughout.  Again, it was the best option we found, so we decided to go with it as it was a place to crash for the night.  

Huong Khe was quite nice situated with a fairly large lake right in the centre of town.  It reminded me of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.  We decided to stop at a restaurant to eat which was alongside the lake and as we proceeded to sit down, a young man came out and gestured to us that we were not welcome to sit down.  This wasn't in a negative manner, I was assuming that they were technically closed or something of the sort.

We headed two doors down and sat at another establishment.  We had a young teenage girl come to us as we sat and the first thing Amanda asked her was if they had WiFi.  She gestured yes and Amanda typed a phrase on her iPhone.  Even in the midst of a perfect 'Google Translation, the young girl's teenaged angst seemed to prevail.  Awkwardness followed, she made a call and then passed her phone to me... sure enough, there was a guy at the other end speaking broken english and I told him we were looking for dinner. 

My guess - this town rarely sees foreign tourists.  BUT, I had the feeling that Huong Khe was in fact, a tourist town.  With its situation on the lake, all of the choices of hotels, and the plethora of restaurants and stands lining the lake, I'm sure Huong Khe is a go-to destination for local tourists when the seasons and weather is right.  I think we arrived in the low-season.

(Above) - Our Son Ha Hotel.

We both enjoyed the experiences we had with communication, whether it be looking at a hotel room or ordering food.  This was sometimes frustrating when we felt we were clear with our communication and then adding the help from good old Google Translate.  The bottom line was that if our communication wasn't clear at the receiving end, then we were back to square one, sitting there waving our arms and smiling, making shoveling motions towards our mouths like cavemen... minus the grunting.  

We would always end up with food or a room, but sometimes the 'getting' there with communication was more exhausting than the day on the bikes... it was all part of the adventure.

We knew our next night was going to be in Phong Nha National Park and our plan was to stay at the Phong Nha Farmstay - a combination Aussie/Vietnamese owned hostel complete with tour guides and meat pies... I was fairly certain that at the Farmstay we would be able to order with ease, and most definitely with the same smiles.