Caves, bats, jungles, mosquitoes, sweat, trekking, swimming, and hospitality—if these make your ears whistle with pleasure, Phong Nha, Vietnam is the destination you want. Besides being home to the largest cave in the world (Son Doong Cave), it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with hundreds of caves and, well, too many other things to list here (just click on that link). I’ll write briefly about my three day experience in Phong Nha, which took place during July 2018.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about Ha Giang where I utilized Flamingo Travel for booking accommodations, transport, and a tour, they were also able to book me an overnight train from Hanoi down to the city of Dong Hoi. They also recommended a place to stay—Phong Nha Farmstay—who will arrange to pick you up from the train station (approximately 40 minutes away from the train station in Dong Hoi). I want to take this moment to say how much I enjoyed the hospitality at the Farmstay. The entire staff was incredibly nice and accommodating (they will set up all the tours you may want during your stay, which should be NO shorter than three days, four nights). I especially enjoyed how Hien and May indulged my warped sense of humor, banter, and evening drinking (which some may describe as overconsumption). I’d venture to say they’re almost as cool as me. 😉
I took a one day trekking and cave exploring tour, which was helmed by the wonderful Phuong from Jungle Boss Tours. The tour included Paradise Cave, a trek through the jungle, lunch, a visit to a sacred temple, a 600 meter swim in the Tra Ang cave, capped off with a beer on the ride back to the farmstay. If and when I return to Phong Nha, I will book a longer expedition, but I think the one day tour is a good start and not too physically strenuous.
The other free day I had (the first day there was a rainout), I visited Phong Nha Cave, which is accessed via dragon boat. This was heavily populated with tourists despite the heavy downpour. The cave itself is beautiful and well worth a half-day visit if you need to fill some time. Unfortunately for me, because of the rain, many of the other caves in the area were unavailable. So I suppose my piece of advice is to plan accordingly, i.e. avoid rainy season.
With respect to clothing and shoes, bring items that you may not wear ever again. Also, I highly recommend a waterproof bag for your trek in addition to a must-have mosquito repellent and adequate sunblock. The farmstay does provide overnight laundry service, which proved quite helpful. However, my shoes (already hurting and not quite recovered from Ha Giang) took another environmental beatdown.
The last highlight I will mention is a large dinner that the farmstay and their excellent chef puts together once a week at a very reasonable cost. Because of the number of drinks I consumed, I can’t recall how many dishes were served, but I do remember the entire meal giving my taste buds “palategasms.” Also, the co-owner Ben from Australia (don’t hold that against him) bought me a glass of wonderful rice wine, so of course, he gets a shout-out from me.
Phong Nha, Vietnam has something for everyone and will satisfy the person looking for extreme adventures to the person seeking a more relaxed vacation destination.
There are many “must see” places to visit in Vietnam as natural beauty is ubiquitous throughout the country; however, in my opinion, the one area that everyone should visit is the mountainous region of Ha Giang, a.k.a. The Northern Loop. The awe-inspiring views that you will witness very well may change your human existence. Below, I will provide a few details about the trip including contact information for the travel agency I utilized.
There are various options for reaching the province of Ha Giang so I won’t go into all of those particulars. I was recommended a travel agency by a friend who has been living in Vietnam for a number of years. The travel agency is called Flamingo Travel. The owner’s name is Hung and he and his staff were extremely helpful (their main operation is located in Hanoi; although they do have other locations in Vietnam). There are a few different options for the Northern Loop: You can rent a motorbike yourself and explore on your own, you can rent a motorbike with a tour guide and explore the loop for a few days (including off road trails) or you can rent a motorbike and tour guide as an easy-rider (meaning you sit on the back of the motorbike). You should choose the option that best suits your adventurous self; however, unless you can speak Vietnameses, I HIGHLY recommend hiring a tour guide as you can easily get lost and very few people speak English in this region (there are quite of few people indigenous to the mountain towns who don’t speak Vietnamese).
The wonderful folks at Flamingo Travel will accommodate whatever option you’d like to choose. They will set up your bus ride to and from Ha Giang and book your homestays at the various check-in points throughout the loop. These homestays usually include dinner and breakfast options. Typically, I’m a hotel guy, but these homestays provided a more authentic experience (especially after the 10th shot of homemade rice wine).
The travel agency will also provide rain and motorbike gear for your trip. A bit of advice, I’d recommend you bring shoes that you’ll no longer want after a trip as they will get rained on, extremely muddy, and very likely, ruined. Depending on the number of days you choose for the trip, bringing the right amount of clothes could be a challenge, but some of the home-stays do offer laundry service (I recommend you ask the staff at Flamingo what you should bring).
I chose the easy-rider option for my trip and although being on the back of a bike wasn’t ideal physically, the ability to gaze at the magnificent natural beauty without having to pay attention to the road was worth it for my first trip (if taking subsequent trips, I’d definitely rent a motorbike, but plan a longer trip so I could make more stops). My tour guide’s name was Thang (you can check out his great Instagram account @thang_pham_van_ which is full of amazing photos from the various tours he gives in Vietnam) and he is more adventurous than I am, which normally might worry someone like me, but the routes and detours he took were well worth the physically soreness that accompanied the sometimes bumpy and broken roads (and the occasional riverbed crossing). He’s done the Northern Loop trip hundreds of times, but he was obviously still entranced by the landscape (it’s refreshing to see someone enjoy their job that much).
You’re going to meet locals. You’re going to drink lots of rice wine. You’re going to get dirty and wet and rained on. You’re going to be sore. You’re going to eat the amazing local fare. You’re going to stare at scenery that you’ll attempt to capture with a camera but the pictures won’t do this magnificent terrain justice (although I tried my best). But most important of all, you’re going to feel peace and awe and stillness and fresh air and wonderment and fulfillment. My advice: Go visit this area before the tourist get a hold of it.
If you’re interested in visiting Singapore (especially on a budget), please read my friend’s excellent travel blog by clicking on the following link – HowFarIllPho.com
Hannah also has an assortment of other posts about Vietnam, which all are well written and informative. I’ll be posting her blogs from time to time and I may even write a travel blog or two when I’m in the mood.
I’ve been reading my ‘published’ poems on my timeline from last year and it would be an understatement to say that I was in a dark crooked place. With that said, I find the writings interesting and important for my self-reflection. Most of us don’t maintain a journal about our daily musings or document what happened to us or how we reacted to something on a particular day. I took a bit of a personal/professional risk publishing what I was thinking, but I don’t regret the decision at all (nor should you regret any decision since you should take that opportunity to learn from mistakes). Although some (or most) of what I wrote could be construed as vile or offensive, the words were in my head, and instead of keeping those thoughts and feelings trapped where they would fester, ferment, foment, and eventually lead to an event that couldn’t be ‘unliked’ or ‘deleted’, I decided to post them to the world. The responses were certainly mixed, but knowing that some people responded and related made me feel less alone. Considering we’re tribal creatures, there may not be anything more important than connection to someone that feels something similar. (sidebar: this is one reason why politics can be so divisive, but that’s a topic for another day.)
So, as I continue to evolve and my writings search for new inspiration, I challenge you to self-analyze, write, read, evolve and avoid becoming complacent. You’d be doing yourself a disservice. Actually, not only you, but your friends and family that care about you and look to you for stability and guidance. You may not be able to offer the world what a person in an extremely powerful position can offer, but you may be able to offer one person something that could change their life. Never forget about that one person, because that one person may turn out to be the one person that can change the world.
(JDR) One of the late nights drinking booze in the hotel lobby with the crew, it was decided that I’d be joining a group for a trip to Phu Quoc island. This was a post-TESOL-course celebration. I had planned on looking for a job straight away, but the allure of the island pictures and the thought of a few days away from the busyness of the city, convinced me to join (the half-dozen beers probably helped as well). The group decided to stay at a hostel, but fuck if I was going to be staying at hostel (never have, never will). I booked a bungalow on the beach, a room with two beds, and large enough to easily accommodate three to four people. I need my living space (and space from people).
The night before our trip, it was someone’s brilliant idea to go out and try to pull an “all-nighter.” I don’t have any recollection of the evening. The next morning, I do recall the attendant for the airline telling me I smelled like “drunk”, and despite my efforts to convince her otherwise, I think she may have been right. Our flight was early, like EARLY (6:30 a.m. or something like that) and I was knackered, shattered, and all sorts of ready to give up on life. My body doesn’t always agree with my child-like brain.
The flight to Phu Quoc island from Ho Chi Minh City is only 45 minutes, which meant we arrived before check-in time to our respective short-term residences. As I mentioned, I was staying at a bungalow. Once I arrived, they owners were kind enough to let me store my luggage and change into my beach gear so that I could go chill on the beach (their ‘private’ beach). I immediately went to their restaurant and sat at a table with a view of the ocean. It was extremely peaceful and quiet, but I did notice that this was a place that may have been for couples. Nevertheless, I welcomed the serenity.
The “others” as I’ll call them (a total of seven, I believe) were unable to check-in at their hostel. I eventually walked down to the beach closer to where they were staying (about a ten minute walk). It became apparent as I walked closer to their area of the beach, that it started to resemble a beach on the Jersey Shore (not people, but rubbish). After an hour or so, we made a decision to head back to my bungalow and the ‘private beach’. It’s at this point that the choices made on this trip would begin a nosedive beneath the depths of hell (I even gave a what’s up headnod to Satan on the way down).
Drunk Dan and Innocent Dan found a place to buy beer in bulk. The chairs reserved for the guests of the bungalow were soon confiscated by the ‘others’. (The group was unaware that I’d be charged for them using the chairs.) By 11:00 a.m., the group had overtaken the private beach and the restaurant. We were wasted, but some more than others. The group was loud, obnoxious, drunk, and unaware that it was not even noon. We were met with glances that I could only decipher as “What The Fuck!?”
Eventually, my room was ready for me to pass out for a much needed rest. The others left to go check-in to their hostel (the thought of sharing a big room with people you don’t know just disgusts me, but to each their own). Several hours later, we reconvened for dinner at a western style restaurant with fruity drinks and pizza.
(HS) When you finish a vaguely stressful TESOL course in Ho Chi Minh city, what are you to do? Go on the lash, of course. And the only thing better than lashing in Ho Chi Minh City is lashing on Phu Quoc island, a paradisicial island a mere hour long flight away from our newfound hometown. What started out as a girls’ trip for three to get away from the boys (seriously, we all laugh at dick jokes, but would it kill ya to vary it a little?!) turned into a party of nine- definitely for the better, as it turned out.
The night before our 6am flight, almost all of us went out, and many of the group hadn’t even been to bed by the time we boarded. Although I had been in lame, I-should-go-back-and-pack party, I was still knackered, so god knows how the others felt. However, heroically, everyone powered through.
Going through airport security was something of a novelty for me; compared to the super-strict UK, I was surprised to discover that in Vietnam, it’s fine to walk through airport security with pretty much anything except a knife in your hand luggage (from whiskey to leftover Indian food to a cigarette tucked behind your ear, carpenter-style, it’s all good). Taking advantage of this, my friend and I shared some of his aforementioned whiskey on the flight (he stole my window seat, so he owed me) and nobody batted an eyelid.
Once we arrived on the island, we checked into our hostel (and Jonathan into his fancy beach bungalow, a safe distance away from us plebs) and hit the beach at around 8am, where the first order of business was, surprise surprise, beer. We swam a little and wandered around for a while until we found Jonathan’s stretch of beach to ruin. Within an hour, I was both drunk and sunburnt; a true Brit abroad. We passed much of the morning pissing off the bungalow owners with our rowdiness. Belly-buttons were licked (never doing that again), truths were revealed and it was made clear that we were not particularly welcome to return to that stretch of beach any time soon.
A particular delight that morning was the experience of getting to know Dan (mentioned in BJ’s previous posts) a little better. It was the third time he’d been drunk, but to be honest it seemed more like he was high: “I don’t understand words anymore. What do words even mean?” he slurred, in wide-eyed hazy worriment. “Why are those ants on the floor so big?” (To be fair, they were pretty sizeable. But still.)
By lunchtime, we agreed we’d pissed off the owners of Jonathan’s place enough and that it was probably best if we all got a few hours’ rest before the night to come. We headed back to our accommodation to shower, nap and await the arrival of Amey, a friend of one of the group who was supposed to join us on our flight but had gotten too carried away the night before to do so- I liked her already.
(JDR) After dinner, I suggested we should go to this hookah bar (they call it shisha) that I saw on my way to the restaurant. We were all feeling better from the nap and the re-hydration of booze. It was agreed upon that hookah would be the stop. First thing I notice is a bottle of absinthe (um, yes please!). I bought a shot. But then wondered, “Can I just buy the bottle like I would in the States?” And YES, yes I could. Boom! A bottle of absinthe, two big boy hookahs and we were off to the races. I was soon enough pouring shots for patrons as they entered the lounge. We were given access to the music selection (always a big deal for me). The night was turning blissful. I was dancing. We were loud, but in a place where it’s okay to be loud, and making friends with fellow travelers. Unfortunately, the night was coming to an end (we shut the bar down).
Upon leaving the bar, the rain was coming down at a steady pace (not a downpour, but enough to where you’d be comfortably wet after a few minutes, and when I say comfortably, I mean my nipples are visible through my drenched shirt). I began the journey to my bungalow, which was only a mere five minutes away. However, in the midst of darkness, with the rain and absinthe drunkenness, I ended up on the beach, but not close to my bungalow. The next 30 – 45 minutes of my life would be in the hands of some Greek God (or Goddess).
I recall trudging through the wet sand in a new pair of shoes (purchased at Nordstroms before my trip) with heavy steps, ankle deep in sand puddles. Somewhere along the way, I lost my shirt. I found myself wading in the shallow parts of the beach. Soon thereafter, my leg was bloody from an apparent fall, but I was laying on the edge of the beach as the waves crashed upon me, in a futile attempt to wash away my infinite sins. I was in an absinthe daze, floundering around like a fish out of water, looking like I was snared by a fishing hook, gasping for a breath of soberness and familiarity. Finally, I somehow made it back to my bungalow, shirtless, numb, dumb, and incomprehensible, even to myself.
Yes, this was just the first day. Not all of this trip can be summarized in one blog, and thus another will be dedicated to this trip (foreshadowing: a monkey runs across the road, Jonathan on a motorbike, lunch on a floating restaurant, lunch with the most adorable couple in the world, and a laughing gas balloon). Stay tuned.
Thank you to Hannah Stephenson for her contribution to this blog. Please go read her blog @ How Far I’ll Pho for some wonderful writings. Despite her resting “huh” face, she can be quite smart at times (and a literature major, so the writing isn’t half-bad either).