Quick update: I’m writing you from a coffee shop in Ninh Binh, Vietnam where I’ve been plagued with a nasty cold and some form of a stomach bug. Last night I took the sleeper bus from Phong Nha, which is about 400 km south of Ninh Binh. The bus was nightmarish and once again without fail, it dropped me in a deserted part of Ninh Binh at 5:00am. I panicked, as it was dark and there was no one around. I waited on the street for the sun to rise and then caught [what I think was] a cab to my hostel. Thankfully, I’m safe! Sick, but safe.
Phong Nha is a small region, just 4 hours north of Hue. It’s known in Vietnam as”cave country,” which is home to 300 discovered caves with [I’m sure] more that have yet to be discovered. During the Vietnam-American war, Phong Nha was the most heavily bombed area with over 19 million bombs dropped by the Americans. It is believed that about ⅓ of those bombs never went off, leaving millions of unexplored land mines underground. Because of this, you are not allowed to hike in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park without a licensed tour guide.
Phong Nha cave acted as a hideout for the VietCong to transport supplies from the North to the South. During the war, there were dozens of pontoons inside the cave at a time as well as a hospital to treat injured soldiers. At night, the pontoons and soldiers would make their way out of the cave and down the river. The saying goes “the Americans seized by day and the Vietamese seized by night.”
We had the opportunity to visit Phong Nha cave, which can only be accessed by boat. Once we entered the mouth of the cave, the engine was cut and we were paddled through the historical cave. You can still see bomb residue on the outside of the cave where the Americans tried to bomb it.
We got back to our hostel to find a live cover band playing all the crowd favorites that evening and into the night. We sang and danced and drank and had way too much fun. The night ended with more drinks and drinking games at Andy’s – Phong Nha’s only real bar. We even got free motorbike rides there! It was awesome.
The next morning, the squad and I made our way via Zach and Shea’s motorbike to Paradise Cave. Paradise Cave, which was only discovered in 2005, extends for 31km and is considered to be the largest dry cave in the world. This cave was absolutely breathtaking with white crystal stalactites everywhere you turned. I like to think of Paradise cave as the Sistine Chapel of caves. It was remarkable.
After walking through Paradise Cave, we headed to Dark Cave which we were told was the adventurous cave. Shortly after arriving, we put on harnesses, lifejackets, helmets and headlamps and ziplined 500m across the water to the entrance of the cave. We swam into the cave, turned on our headlamps (as there is no artificial light in the cave, hence the name) and walked through for part of the way. We then swam some more until we reached the mud bath…perhaps my favorite part of the cave! We played around in the mud, painting each other, floating (you can’t sink!) and just clowning around. By the time we got out, we were covered from head to toe in mud. We then trekked back the way we came and hopped in kayaks to get back to the base. The whole thing felt like an episode of Survivor, as we raced each other back in our kayaks. Dark Cave was such an adrenaline rush and I wish I had more photos to document the whole experience! But I don’t, so I’ll leave you with this.
On our way back from Dark Cave, one of the motorbikes died and so were left stranded in the middle of the Phong Nha-Ke Bong national park while we waited on a mechanic to repair it. The sun was setting, it was getting cold and we needed to be back at the hostel so our friend could catch his bus. But it was so hard to be frustrated about the situation when we had views like this…
We said goodbye to our friend James that night and all passed out by 9pm. The next day we slept in and made our way to Bong Lai Valley which is just a few kilometers away from our hostel. We had only intended on going to this place called the “Pub with Cold Beer” (very original name, am I right?) which was made famous because you kill your own chicken. On our way to the Pub with Cold Beer, we decided to stop at “The Duck Stop” for a well-deserved beer. The boy whose family lived there fed us snacks, cooled us off with water from their well, and let us feed their ducks and chickens. Oh let me not forget about the two adorable little pups that were just 12 days old. We played and snuggled with them and had an amazing time. It was most definitely the highlight of the day!
At first, I wasn’t anticipating on going to Phong Nha, let alone spending 4 days there! I’ll always remember this beautiful town, great friends, and kindness of the people who live there. Thanks for all of the memories, Phong Nha and Easy Tiger!