Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.
Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.
The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.
The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.
The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.
Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.
The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.
Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.
The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.
I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.
We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.
We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.
Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.
Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.
The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.
The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.
Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.
The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.
Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.
My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.