After my day of chilling, it was time for some action. Every morning, the hostel hosted a ‘cave talk’, where they’d give out information on the caves and how best to go around. During the talk, I met some Dutchies who had the same plan as me (renting a scooter and visiting some caves) so we decided to explore together. However, during the talk it became clear that we would need quite some time to visit both caves we wanted to visit, and because the cave talk took quire some time, we decided to head to the Phong Nha cave first, and then push our original plans back one day. We met some people everywhere to share the cost of the boat that would get us to the cave with, and somewhere somehow while arranging a boat, the group decided I would be tour guide for the day. We started the day off as a group of 9, and halfway through there were only 5 of us left, so I’m not sure if I was the perfect choice for tour guide… Ah well.
We started off in the boat, going around the cave, and then we got dropped off inside the cave to explore for ourselves, and I have to admit it was quite impressive!
There was another cave close by, so we went there as well. It was quite a climb, especially in the burning sun. 2 of the group didn’t notice that the second cave was reachable from the first one,so they were waiting at the boat already. Being the tour guide, I had to pick them up. Ran down, found them, guided them back up, and then we went to the cave with the entire group. So I wasn’t a completely horrible tour guide in the end. When we got up to the cave, we were all bathing in sweat, but luckily the cave itself was rather cold, so we survived. The inside of the cave was way bigger than I expected, so while I thought that we would just enjoy a view inside the cave, we actually walked quite some lap in the cave itself.
After finishing the lap, we headed back down to our boat, that took us back to main land. It was lunchtime by now, so we went best BBQ pork in the world (probably)”, and I have to agree with them, they were probably right! After the BBQ pork we got back to the hostel, spent some time in the pool and then I jumped in to a hammock again. I need to install a hammock in my room back home. That night, I met some new friendly people at the hostel, met a girl with whom I could finally geek out again after 2 months of not geeking out to anyone, and I loved it.
The next morning, Iris, Lilian (the Dutchies from the day before), Dot (the American girl with whom I geeked out the night before) and me went to rent a scooter, and drive to the Dark Cave. It was great! It wasn’t just a cave, there were all kinds of activities involved when you bought a ticket. The first one was the longest zipline in Vietnam, that took you from one side of the river to the other. Then we swam in the way to cold water for way too long, because we had to wait for more people, otherwise they didn’t want to do the tour.. Bordering hyperthermia, we finally got out and went into the cave. We climbed through it, and apart from the torches on our helmets, it was pitch black. After some climbing, we ended up in a mud bath. It was weird. It was very shallow, but if you tried to lay down, you couldn’t feel the ground. The mud would make you float way more than normal water did, so it felt like there were tiny leprechauns holding you up. The bath completely ruined my swim shorts, which turned from blue/white to blue/brown, but other than that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it! After washing ourselves off, and walking to the entrance again, we had a problem. Zip lines only work one way. Luckily there were kayaks that we could use, so we kayaked ourselves back to the start of the zipline. There, we had the opportunity to try out a zipline that randomly stops above the water, so where you have to jump off, and while I usually very much dislike doing anything like that, I really enjoyed it this time around. After we were done playing around we had some lunch with the original group, but we also extended the group a bit with other people we met during the dark cave trip, but that we shared the hostel with as well. Together with everyone we went to the Paradise Cave. The road there was amazing, beautiful views everywhere, mountains that were imported from the movie Avatar and/or a fairytale, and acceptable roads (that weren’t always that great). When we arrived there, we were greeted by one of the biggest caves in the world. I didn’t think it was the most interesting cave I’ve seen, but the sheer size of it was really impressive!
Exhausted, we got back to the hostel. It has been a long day and we had been quite busy the entire time. We jumped in the pool, showered for a bit, and then had dinner with the group. We ate somewhere, and I got DIY-spring rolls. And they were delicious!
Originally I had planned to go to Hanoi after Phong Nha, but Iris had invited me to come with her to a trekking way up north, near the Chinese border. She showed some pictures of the trekking, and I was immediately sold. So instead of heading to Hanoi, I joined Lilian and Iris for a bit, and we took the bus to Tam Coc that night. When we arrived in Tam Coc, it was between 3 and 4AM, which wasn’t too great… Luckily the hostel had a 24-hour reception, but we had to find it first. It was located in the middle of rice fields, so with Google maps and our phones as flashlights we walked through rice fields, and hoped to get to the hostel. Luckily we managed pretty well, so we got there, checked in, and went to sleep.
The next morning we (the group had grown by two, because we met some people on the bus) rented scooters once again, and drove ourselves around the area. Once again amazing landscapes everywhere we looked. The thing I like most about Vietnam is the fact that everywhere you look, the locals are just minding their own business. And that makes for some pretty great pictures! We started off getting a boat tour through a couple of caves (a few of which were so low that they almost beheaded me), then went to a pagoda, and we ended up with climbing a mountain to see the sunset. Unfortunately, the sun set on the wrong side of the mountain, so other than the sky coloring nicely because of the sunset, we didn’t actually see the sun disappear under the horizon. After all that we drove ourselves back to the hostel, and played some card games and had some fun.
Checked out the next morning already, took a taxi to the nearest slightly bigger city, and from there we took the local bus to Hanoi. When we got there, we met up with Bas (another Dutchie that was going to join Iris and me on the trekking) and we arranged night bus tickets to Ha Giang. We had a few hours to kill in Hanoi so we went to the women’s museum. It was really impressive to learn how little the average street vendor earns, and generally to just learn about the lives and statuses of the women in Vietnam. After the museum we tried out some local delicacies, and then we went back to the travel agency we booked our bus to Ha Giang from, and went to the bus terminal.
The travel agency had told us the bus left at 8PM, so we were there at 7 already, but it turned out the bus didn’t leave until 9.. And normally I don’t fit in night busses, but this one was even smaller than the average one. It just didn’t work, so I almost didn’t sleep. Luckily the hostel we arrived at around 3AM allowed you to book half a night for half the price, so I ended up sleeping decently well in the end.
When we woke up we immediately rented scooters, because the plan was to drive around on scooters for 3 days, and do a 2 day trekking in between. The landscapes we saw while driving around where the most amazing ones yet. After a very long day of driving on our brand new scooters (mine had only done 2km ever) we arrived in Dong Van. Hardly any tourists, almost on the Chinese border, and only nice people. The original reason we heard about this place was because there was a Dutch guy volunteering at the hostel we stayed at, so we met up with him, chatted with him for a bit, and chilled out the rest of the night.
(Sorry, still don’t have the ability to turn the pictures)
It was an early morning, because trekking! The first day we walked quite a distance, past all kinds of tiny local villages. The people that lived there had almost never seen foreigners (if ever) and they were just as excited to see us as we were to see them. Our guide brought candies, so every time we wanted to make a local kid smile, we could hand out some candy. (This is the first place ever where handing out candies to random children as an adult is not weird apparently). The first day we got invited once to a local family, and there we got offered ‘corn wine’. A horribly strong alcoholic beverage that is so strong that no-one in his right mind should call it wine. But everyone round here calls it so, and we kept on getting offered shot after shot, without being able to say no…
That night we ended up at the home stay owned by our guides uncle, and we were the second group ever to stay there. I had a horrible night due to beds that made concrete feel soft, and the entire family (including TV) waking up around 6 with the sole mission of making as much noise as possible, in order to wake me up. This might have been a bit too authentic for me. But I survived, we had breakfast (which was really nice) and started walking again. Around 9:30 we got invited to someone’s home again, and of course, there was the ‘wine’ again. Great start of the day… Then, somewhat further, we decided to convince the guide to go another path, and to head to the (supposedly) amazing view, instead of heading to the next local village. The guide kept on telling us he was sooo tired on the way up, but we all decided that it was way worth it. The view was amazing! After that, our guide (being a local) guide us through the mountains. At first, the path was small, then it got smaller, and after a while it just disappeared. So our guide had a wooden stick and a knife, and with that he cut away the overhanging leaves, to clear a path for us. I’m confident we’re the first tourists to ever have walked that path. After walking for a bit again, we arrived at the Chinese border. Spent some minutes I’m China, walked further, got to another border crossing, spent another minute in China, and then we headed to one of our guide’s friends. Got some more wine, got ‘black pork’, which is one of the local delicacies (and for a good reason) and then it was time to head back. We got picked up by a car after a while, because it was way too far and too uninteresting to walk all the way back to the hostel. At the hostel we talked about the trekking with the Dutch volunteer for a bit, and gave him some pointers on what to adjust/improve, to make it even more awesome. I’ve enjoyed it very much, but every now and then we could see/feel that we were only one of the first groups ever to do the trekking, and there were things that still could be fixed. And after that we ended the night with card games and a game of pool (on a very much unreliable pool table, which made the game quire interesting)
The next day we went for part 2 of driving the scooters. We first went to the palace of a previous king of the Hmong People (a local minority), walked around for a bit there, and afterwards went to a city even further north, only a few kilometers away from China. We climbed a big monument/pillar/thing there, enjoyed the view, then went to China for a few minutes again, and then drove ourselves back to Dong Van, where tonight will be our last night, before we head back to Ha Giang tomorrow, past one of the most beautiful mountain passes of Vietnam. I’m excited!