The road out of Hue was similar to the one into Hue: rain. So much rain. All it does in this part of the country is rain. It rains heavy. It rains persistently. And it rains everywhere. No matter how much you wrap yourself and your gear in plastic, the rain still seeps in and ruins everything. That said, Hue was fun because everyone there was sort of resigned to their wet fate. So we drank a good deal and went to night clubs and played Jenga. I also had some time to catch up on some reading and writing.
Anyway, Yuvey and I set out for Phong Nha after a few days in Hue, with the plan to stop for the night in a small village called Khe Sanh. Not sure if you’ve heard of this place, but I guess there was a huge battle there during the war. There was supposed to be an old U.S. Army base too, but I didn’t see any.
When we arrived at a guesthouse in Khe Sanh I went to go retrieve my passport (as it’s customary to leave it with hotels as a sort of collateral) and my heart skipped a beat: I realized that I had left it at the hostel in Hue—180 km southeast. I panicked and called the hostel and the receptionists were super friendly. They were apologetic that they forgot to hand it to me when I left, and arranged to have it delivered to Phong Nha, specifically to the hostel where we were planning to stay, a place called EZ Tiger. This is a rare example of Vietnamese efficiency.
The next day we set out for a long journey to Phong Nha (roughly 200 km). There was some rain but there was one clear stretch through the mountains along the Vietnam-Laos border that was absolutely stunning. You could see some Laotian villages in the distance and the expanse of the vista seemed endless.
Later in the afternoon, Yuvey and I met a German dude named Andre and we’ve been riding with him ever since. Imagine that: A German, an Israeli, and an American riding motorbikes through Vietnam. Sounds like the setup to a joke.
Anyway, Phong Nha is (to date) the most beautiful region of Vietnam that I’ve seen. It’s strewn with what seems like thousands of these sharp, steep, craggy limestone mountains that rise out of flatlands like giant gravestones. These strange formations have something to do with why so many cave systems have formed here. The region is home to Sơn Đoòng Cave, which is the largest known cave passage in the world. (It was featured in the “Caves” episode of Planet Earth.) Unfortunately, that one is closed to tourists who are unwilling to pay $3,000, but we did get a chance to see a couple other caves.
The first, Paradise Cave, was pretty interesting, with boardwalks, lights, and stairways that allow you to traverse the whole thing without getting your hands dirty or your shoes wet. The second, the Dark Cave, was much more exciting.
Here’s how that excursion went down: We started by leaving all our gear, even our sandals, in lockers. Then we zip-lined across a river to the cave opening, which we entered by literally swimming into it. Once inside, we climbed onto some rocks and flicked on our headlamps. We turned a corner and it was near total darkness. From there we intermittently waded and swam deeper into the cave until we reached a region where our guide told us to ditch our life jackets. From there we proceeded down a narrow corridor, deeper into the cave (mind you, this system has absolutely zero infrastructure). We were walking in our bare feet the whole time, and it started to get muddier and muddier until the mud itself became more like the consistency of clay—it would puff and fart when you stepped in and out of it it.
Eventually we reached a small area about the size of a living room with a mud pool in the center of it. By now we were all pretty much covered in the stuff, so we just committed fully and bathed in the gooey substance up to our necks. It was really interesting because this type of mud makes you completely buoyant, as if you’re floating in the Dead Sea. You can sit in a lotus position, for example, and the mud will support you without effort, almost like you’re levitating. It was really pretty amazing. After some time, the guide told us all to turn out our headlamps to experience the darkness. I’ve never experienced such a complete lack of light. It was absolutely total—nothing. Really fascinating.
Anyway, after about 20 minutes we headed back out the way we came, climbed onto some kayaks and rowed our way back to the station, then did one last zip line directly into the river for fun. The whole thing cost about $16 per person. One of the best times I’ve had here.
The ride back to the hostel—which we of course did on our bikes, me and Yuvey—was also beautiful. More scenic riding through the mountains with almost no one on the roads. We got back to the hostel and drank with other tourists and participated in the open mic. We spent three nights in Phong Nha. It was a fun time overall.
The day we left we, hit more rain on the way to a town called Pho Chao. It was a typical town, nothing much to report. I am currently writing this from another, almost identical small town called Thai Hoa.
We had some bike troubles today: First, the engine on Andre’s bike had a loose bearing and had to be completed disassembled and rebuilt, which took a few hours and delayed us a bit. About 15 km up the road my rear tire went flat and I had to ride it 2km, pretty much on the wheel frame, to the next mechanic. That took another couple hours of sitting around (but at least it wasn’t raining). Then, about 50 km later, my exhaust started popping and I had to pull over to a mechanic to reattach the exhaust gasket and install a new spark plug. We still made it to town just as the sun was coming down.
There’s nothing much to do in these places—we’re just gunning it to our next destination: Ninh Binh, which we should reach tomorrow (Wednesday evening Vietnam time). Then it’s on to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay. I should arrive in Hanoi (my final destination) mid-next week.