I’ve never been bad at good byes. They always hurt but knowing I won’t be seeing someone for a while makes me make the most of those last few moments instead of rushing it and/or running away.
One of the biggest perks of traveling for me is meeting people that I would most likely never have met otherwise. People with jobs way different than mine, with a lifestyle or culture a complete opposite to mine or from different continents/country than where I come from, and it’s a fine experience exchanging life stories and comparing how the same things are done differently in different places.
I’ve never been one for much small talk and filling silence with useless chatter. In fact, I really appreciate silence. Over the last couple of years, since I started meditating and practicing mindfulness, my tolerance to people talking just for something to do has gone down tremendously. I cringe from forced conversations. I make new connections if they happen naturally, have conversations if they happen naturally. This coupled with absolutely loving me-time means I can go days enjoying solitude without trying to find people to hang out with. Of course, the whole concept of ‘solitude’ takes on a different meaning when you are a in a dorm of 6 or sometimes 12 people. For me, it’s become more about emotional solitude rather than needing to be alone in my room like back in London. It’s almost like building a bubble around myself in a room full of other people. This too isn’t forced which means that I won’t resist a conversation with the fellow travelers in my room if it happens. But I “recharge” in this quiet period and it helps me connect with the right people in a more meaningful way. And when I do meet people such people and spend a few days or a few weeks with them it’s quality time. I learn something new. I grow a bit more. And when the time comes to say good-bye, like it always does, it is sad. Yes I am happy that I met them but I am also sad that it’s over. I am learning to take it in stride coz it’s not the first or the last of good-byes. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, even if it’s just a little bit. But that’s part of traveling, meeting new people and forming new bonds, hoping that you’ll stay in touch and get a chance to meet again someday in the future. And I am grateful that I have this opportunity, I wouldn’t change it for anything!
After a bit over 1.5months in Vietnam I am finally in Cambodia. We booked the trip from Phu Quoc, in Vietnam, to Kampot in Cambodia through a tour so all our visa stuff was taken care of, at a price obviously. The ferry from Phu Quoc to Ha Tien (at the Vietnamese border) was pretty uneventful unless you count the locals retching due to sickness or other locals filming the same scene of the inside of the tiny boat for nearly 10mins-15mins! From Ha Tien it was a simple bus ride to Kampot.
Kampot is an hr away from Vietnam but it feels SO different. Once we crossed the border it seemed like the landscape just opened up. The roads were wide, in a better condition, there was less pollution, the rice paddies huge. The food here is different too. There’s not much of a street food scene in Kampot (and probably not in the rest of Cambodia from what I’ve heard) but restaurants and cafes have Cambodian, Italian, Mexican and Asian food which is probably due to the big expat community here. The people too look very different to their Vietnamese neighbours. Their features are so different and some are fair and some so dark, you can really tell that Vietnamese and Cambodians come from 2 very different races unlike say Indians and Pakistanis who would look similar to anyone who is not from the region. It’s incredible.
Anyways, it seems like a chose a very “good” time to come to Kampot. The city has had no water since the last 4 days and there won’t be any for the next 5 days! I know backpacking is about traveling rough but god, anything less than 2 showers a day and I get major grumpy. But after a night in a no-water hostel, I was lucky to find one just outside the town that somehow has water. And I moved there first thing the next morning!
Bokor National park
The 2 guys that I traveled from Phu Quoc with and I decided to rent 2 bikes and ride around the Bokor National Park. We were supposed to rent scooters but these guys came back with dirt bikes! The bikes looked a tad intimidating and I was worried coz I had never been one before but it turned out to be a blast, thanks to Joel riding skills! I even enjoyed the speed which was a first for me.
So anyways, we rode a total of around 90kms in the park. The day was overcast but that didn’t stop us enjoying the ride through roads that would twist and turn at amazing angles and the scary hair pin bends. It was stunning to be surrounded by mountains covered in lush green trees.
There’s no trekking in the national park but just some stops along the way which are a bit ‘meh’ but I think this park is all about the view and not the touristy stops. My favourite was being able to see the Phu Quoc island where we’d just come from!
So Joel and I decided to go for a hike in the Kep National Park. Kep is around 30mins from Kampot so we rented bikes (a scooter this time!) and set off around 11am. The hike trail was well laid out and it was a fairly easy walk except the mid day sun beating down on us which made it very tiring.
We did a 5km loop and decided to head to the famous crab market for some lunch. I opted for Sauteed Crab with Kampot pepper and spring onions. It was delicious! I’ve never eaten crab in a shell so it was super messy but so worth it!
If you ever find yourself in Kampot you must visit Ciao, which is an Italian street food stall run but an Italian guy who decided he didn’t want to pay rent for a restaurant anymore. We tried the pizza, ravioli and gnocchi and they were fantastic!
Also check out the Rusty Keyhole by the riverside which is run by a British expat. The variety of food, the quality, the price and the riverside location are fabulous. I lost count of how often I went there during my 4 day stay in Kampot. Oh and they’ve won 2 awards for the best ribs in Cambodia. I don’t care about awards but the ribs were simply delicious!
Phu Quoc island is my last stop in Vietnam! I’ve spent 5 days on this island. I came here without any expectations as I had heard mixed reviews about this place. Some people loved it, some hated it, some thought it was so-so. I realized I’d have to come here and find out for myself. I am certainly glad I did. The major part of this island is still a forest, a lot of areas still have just dirt roads and there are so many beaches, some good but some really dirty. Phu Quoc has real potential to be a stunning island. If the smaller beaches were cleaned up, if the national park had some hiking trails and if there was a road by the coast throughout the island it would be perfect. As it stands, there’s more focus on building resorts which means that more trees/forests will be felled. This is obviously needed for the island to grow but it has to be contained, I just hope somebody who matters knows when to stop.
So anyways, of the 5 days on the island, I spent about 3 days just relaxing. I stayed in a really good hostel with loads of hammocks and a beach just 2 minute walk away and I made the most of both these arrangements.
On other days, I took a tour for the south part of the islands. We visited pearl farms, fish sauce factory (which smelled disgusting but I managed not to throw up!), pepper farm (where we tasted delicious mangoes sprinkled with fresh ground peppers mixed with different spices), coconut prison (where the US army used to hold and torture the Viet Cong), a pagoda and the beautiful Sao beach. Each stop was short but it was still interesting to learn a little about each.
Another day I went with some Canadians on a bike ride to the northern part of the island. This was so much fun! The path we took didn’t have much of a road a lot of the times, it was mostly just dirt roads and then we hit some really tricky spots where it felt like an off-roading experience but on a scooter! It was just incredible. I had to hold on to the bike with both hands, trying my best not to fly off my bike and somehow I found it super funny and I could not stop laughing, may be it was just the nerves. lol Bits of it were scary too, like when we had to ride our bike on a bridge made of bamboos and a couple of these came loose! Stephan coined this ride as ‘Tandem Off-roading’ 😀
One (other) thing I really I really liked about this island is the people. They were very friendly. One evening I went to a restaurant (it was just tables put up on a massive patio and the family cooking for customers) and I was sitting by myself waiting for my food and this group of locals on another table asked me to join them. We had a nice conversation and they insisted on buying me dinner and drinks! I’ve had a local man walking up to me in a restaurant simply to say hi and to welcome me to his country. It’s always very comforting to know that there are people who are genuinely nice without wanting anything in return. I’m glad I visited Phu Quoc!
I didn’t spend more than 1.5days in the Mekong Delta. I guess I was let down by my expectations, my bad. The city that I stayed in is called Can Tho, it’s the biggest city in the delta and it felt like any other riverside town/city. What I had in mind is tiny towns surrounded by rice paddies and small rivers surrounded by coconut trees and mangroves. I’m sure this is what the real Delta looks like but these are more off the beaten path and hence more expensive for accommodation and not that safe if you are traveling alone (based on what the locals told me). So I gave these a skip.
I did the only other thing I was keen on, visit the floating markets. This was a real treat despite having to wake up at 5am. Even that early the city was awake. People were busy preparing their food carts, loading fruit onto their stands or sitting in cafes enjoying their morning coffee. We took a boat to Cai Rang which is the biggest floating market in the delta and is about 7kms from Can Tho. It was a very pretty and peaceful boat ride to the market especially coz we set off just before sunrise.
On the way there we enjoyed watching people living on houses on the river, hanging up their laundry or eating their morning meal or brushing their teeth.
By the time we got to Cai Rang market, it was in full flow. We didn’t buy anything here coz it was a wholesale market. We then made our way to the Phong Dien market, another 10kms away. This is a retail market and we spent some time here, trying a lot of fresh seasonal fruit and fried vegetable crisps. I bought 3 mangoes for 10,000VND whereas I’d been buying 1 for 7,000 elsewhere in Vietnam! I was so happy!
Even though the markets were great fun there was something missing. These are called the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta and we were there at what is said to be the ‘best’ time in the morning, it didn’t feel that busy or that big. May be it was an off day or perhaps the size of the market is hyped up, I’ll never know.
Anyways, from the markets the boat took us through tiny canals, we took a walk in the plantations and then stopped for coffee/snacks in a shack by the river. After 5 hours on the boat it was time to head back to Can Tho. By then I was super tired and the boat was soooo slow so that the 2hrs boat ride back got a bit too much. Especially seeing that most of the boats were faster than ours! Lol but it was a good day anyways.
I would have loved to spend more time in the delta, but I wanted to take the locals advice about safety seriously and I wasn’t willing to spend $25 for a tour (It doesn’t sound much but a good meal costs $1!)
So after being up at 5am on 2 days in a row I was ready to chill on the beach in Phu Quo, my next and final stop in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh has completely shattered my stand of “I don’t like cities”. I cannot pin point what it is about this place but I love it here. There are so many contrasts in the city, from fancy-ish restaurants to street food stalls, from the glittering high rise buildings to the tiny shacks, from Starbucks to coffee carts, from dessert cafes to hand pulled sweet carts, HCM has got the best of both worlds.
There are more motorbikes here than I have ever seen in my life (coming from an Indian, this counts for something). In the evenings, when you are at a big intersection and all you will see is heads covered with helmets as far as the eye can see. And of course, there are cars and busses and bicycles. But you can see the systematic way in which people ride/drive, you can see the order (unlike in India where the order can only be seen/followed by locals but not by outsiders) and this makes it easier to walk around the city.
And the food, oh the glorious food! I made a list of everything I’ve eaten in the city but decided against putting it on here because you’ll either get bored reading the names or hate me for eating delicious food. But if you know me, then trust me when I say, it’s worth coming to Ho Chi Minh just for the food.
As if all the above wasn’t enough to have a pleasant stay I was fortunate to have amazing company. It was Sev’s last few days in the country so I got to spend that time with him. I also met a fabulous group of Indians who were staying in my hostel. They were the non-stereotypical types and funny, intelligent and really nice bunch of guys, with whom I spent a some 3-4days exploring the city and having long conversations about anything and everything from photography, law, war, to life, food, treks, etc. I am really grateful to have met them and if things work out, m hoping to see them again in India.
Tourists come to HCM for a few days but to really experience this city, you need at least a week. I was lucky to have 10days.
In terms of the sights in the city, there’s quite a bit to see and do.
I spent 1 day visiting the Reunification Palace, Post office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Phap Hoa pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.
The palace didn’t even look like a palace, just a big museum sort of building so we gave that a skip. The War Remnants museum was amazing. There are displays of jets, helicopters and tanks, a whole floor dedicated to war history and then 2 floors that are dedicated to photographs, some taken during the war and a lot of them were of people who were affected by the chemicals used during the war. After seeing the pictures on one floor I could not take it anymore, it was too horrific, too sad, too graphic. But no visitor/tourist should miss this museum, it shows how low humanity can stoop to prove themselves right when they are utterly wrong. This war, like many others, is something people should not forget and not repeat in the future.
I enjoyed the river side Phap Hoa pagoda as well, it’s not on any tourist map and we just happened to come across it while walking around. Wanting to get some respite from the heat I walked into the 3 storeyed building, which was very quiet with may be 2 people in there but there was a good breeze flowing from the river and I just dozed off on the floor for like an hour or so. When I woke up there were a few monks there, going about doing their job. But they were very good natured about me sleeping there and just grinned when they saw me wake up!
Cu Chi Tunnels – This 120km network of underground tunnels, spread over 3 levels are the tunnels which the Vietnamese used as hiding spots and also where they lived for 25yrs during the war with the USA. Even though it was 2hr drive and most of it was very touristy and the mosquitoes were relentless, I enjoyed going into the tunnels. These were low enough that you had to stoop really freaking low and narrow enough that my shoulders were rubbing the walls on both sides. Definitely not for the claustrophobic!
China Town – I didn’t find china town very different to any other place in Ho Chi Minh, if anything it was a bit dirtier, but I went there for the pagodas and it was definitely worth it. The Chinese pagodas are very different to the Vietnamese Buddhist ones, they have stronger colours with lots of bold red, gold and black, definitely worth visiting.
These were sort of the highlights of the attractions. Rest of my time was spent eating, drinking fresh fruit smoothies, having delicious iced coffees, getting full body massage, etc.
Dalat is a city in the southern part of central highlands of Vietnam. It is close to 5000ft above sea level and is much cooler than the rest of the places I’ve visited so far. In fact, Da Lat means “City of eternal spring” as the valleys are covered in mist all year round.
Da Lat streets and markets, which resemble a small French town, spread out around the big Xuan Huong lake, are dotted with vendors selling fruit and flowers and homemade strawberry and mulberry jams.
I am here during the wet season so it rains pretty much everyday but unlike the monsoons in India the time of the rains is very predictable. The days usually starts with a lot of sunshine which gives me time to be enjoy the city before noon when it starts getting cloudy. It continues to get darker while the rain gods tease me with thunder and then an hour later the heavens open up for a couple of hours. This too passes for the sun to come out again. Unlike the rest of Vietnam where it’s hot and humid all day long, Da Lat enjoys much cooler mornings and evenings which has provided me with much needed respite from the heat of the last few weeks.
There’s quite a bit to do around Da Lat which led me to extend my stay here by a day or two. I spent one looong day on the motorbike, riding 120kms through twisting roads on pinewood covered hills, visiting Truc Lam Pagoda pagoda, the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lang Bianc village and the Elephant waterfalls.
There’s also the Crazy House which is listed as one of the worlds most bizarre houses. The house resembles a giant tree and has multiple rooms on a few levels all interconnected by stairs that feel like a maze. Definitely an interesting experience and worth going to.
Another day was dedicated to simply walking around the town (and the massive night market) to sample street food. This day was super fun coz as it turns out Sev is as much of a foodie as me so by sharing dishes we were able to eat Mi Quang noodles, cookies smeared with fresh strawberry jam, steamed pancakes, rice pancakes, bahn mi, chicken vermicelli, fried sweet buns with sesame seeds and fried dough sticks dipped in ice cream all in one day! Even though this was spread out over lunch and dinner we were surprised at how much food we could gobble down! But I think we burned a lot of it off by walking around the town (I am pretty good at deluding myself sometimes).
All in all, a wonderful stay in a beautiful city, something that should not to be missed on a trip to Vietnam!
I had heard about the number of Russians in Nha Trang but you have to see it to believe it. Vietnam’s wartime alliance with Russia and a direct flight between Russia and Nha Trang means that you see more Russians than Vietnamese in this city (okay, m exaggerating but there are a lot of white faces here!). The street signs, the menus in restaurants, shop names etc all have Russian translations. In fact, Sev and I passed an outdoor cinema that was showing Ice Age in Russian! Lol. I was told that you frequently get stopped by Russian tourists (to ask for directions for eg) but they speak to you in Russian and when they realize you don’t speak their language they get confused, like they don’t get it how you don’t speak Russian in Nha Trang. LOL!
The city itself feels like beach side resorts in Tenerife for eg, you have really big hotels along the beach and lots of cafes & restaurants along the promenade. The sights within the city aren’t very many. There is a cathedral, the Long Son Pagoda and the Cham Towers, all of which can be done in half a day.
The lure for me are sights just outside the city and of course, the street food. I’ve tried delicious sea food pancakes for 10,000VND that’s a little under $0.5 and the best beef pho yet for just $1.5!
Outside the city there is the Chua Suoi Do Pagoda which is around 17kms to the west of Nha Trang and is set in the mountains. I’ve seen better pagodas but the bike ride to the countryside and then the walk up the mountains was definitely worth it.
On the same day I decided to go to the Ba Ho waterfalls which is around 27kms north of Nha Trang. There were 3 sets of waterfalls that you can swim in, I decided to stop after the first one coz I had no incentive to go further. But I’ve realized that the more time I spend around a water body the more I crave to learn how to swim (something I really want to do this trip!). The ride from the pagoda to the waterfalls there was pretty shit as most of the road was under construction AND it was the start of Vietnamese public holidays so the traffic and pollution was terrible. At the end of the 90km ride, when I reached the hostel I saw that my face was caked black with dust, yuck! Of course, I had been walking around the town without realizing what my face looks like! No wonder people were looking at me funny! 😀 But the return trip from the waterfalls to the city, along the coast was pretty good!
Thinking back, my favourite things to see/do in Vietnam have been when I was on the bike, regardless of who was riding. It’s just the best way to get to some away from all the noise and get off the beaten tracks. Some people buy bikes and ride the whole length of the country, for me it would be too much, I prefer renting bikes for the day.
Another day I decided to go to Long Beach which is deemed as the best beach in Nha Trang and it is around 27kms south of the city. Long Beach was pretty $hit. I overshot the beach by 10kms (coz places are not sign posted very well) and I had to ride back that additional distance but I just couldn’t find the beach. When I finally found it (I had ridden 40+kms by then), it was FULL of Vietnamese people (I chose a public holiday of all days to go there, silly me) so it was cramped, noisy and dirty, to say the least. I managed to find a lounge chair for myself but as soon as I sat down I was asked to leave coz it was for locals only! When I finally found a seat, I put my headphones on and played Sudoku on my phone while sipping on my favourite fresh mango juice. 45mins later I decided to head back to Nha Trang. On the ride back I told myself that my day could have been worse (at least I had mango juice and the snicker bar to salvage my day) and (unfortunately) I was right! I found out that day that there’s been some fraud (of 9000pounds!!) on my credit card (which is my only travel card). After calling my bank they cancelled my card but said they could only send me a new card to my UK address (which is thankfully my friend’s address) which means I have to ask my friend to send that card to an address in Vietnam. Not so straightforward as it means that I have to plan the next 2 weeks of my trip which is a pain coz I’ve been planning max 2 days in advance. And also, I need to figure out how to keep going on the cash I have left without incurring heavy fees by using my debit card. So this was easily the shittiest day of my trip but hey, it seriously could have been even worse! In hindsight, I reckon if I had gone to Long Beach on a quieter day I would have enjoyed it! For now, I am ready for Da Lat.
Hoi An, where do I begin? Let’s just say that I L.O.V.E Hoi An.
Located in central Vietnam, this pretty town has everything going for it. From it’s Old Town which is recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (where the streets are for walking & cycling only), to beautiful houses & buildings, to quaint cafes and riverside restaurants to a beach only about 3kms away. Hoi An has it all and still manages to retain a very peaceful atmosphere. “Hoi An” correctly translates into “peaceful meeting place” in English.
I stayed in this town for 5 days and enjoyed every bit of it. It was great luck that that my hostel was fabulous as well. Well, it was actually a villa which had one dorm but there was no bunk beds, just single beds so it was a very comfortable 5 nights.
I fell ill on the way to Hoi An. I was running a fever, had an upset stomach and a terrible headache. But once I recovered, most of my days were spent cycling around the town (with my travel buddy from Hue), riding at the same slow pace as life moves in this town, visiting some beautiful historical houses, relaxing at riverside cafes (or chilling in a hammock in a restaurant at the end of the town where there were no tourists at all) to sunbathing on the beach to eating delicious food.
I’ve noticed that the more south you go in Vietnam, the better the food gets. In the north, in Hanoi for eg, I did not have the courage to eat street food. It was partly coz I wasn’t ready for it and partly coz the stalls looked so dirty. But it gets better as you move down the country. In Hoi An itself, I’ve eaten delicious chicken pho, white rose dumplings, fried wantons, fresh spring rolls with shrimps and the delicious bahn mi ever!
We took a day trip to ride the Hai Van pass which is the highest pass in Vietnam (500m above sea level). It is a 21km stretch of mountainous winding roads and hair pin curves offering stunning views and forms a boundary between North and South Vietnam.
The roads sometimes pass through heavy mists that rise from the sea, giving it the name “Hai Van” which “Sea Clouds”. This isn’t a destination, just 21km of beauty at it’s best, of lush greenery against the stunning blue sea and well worth a trip from Hoi An -> Danang -> Hai Van. The day was loooong as we rode a total of 150km but I was lucky that Sev (my travel buddy) didn’t mind riding the whole way as I wasn’t well enough to ride at all. On the way to Hai Van pass we stopped in Danang for a coffee and let me tell you, I had the best iced coffee ever! I’ve never enjoyed coffee more (or never missed green tea less). The little I saw of Danang I wasn’t sad that I skipped it in my itinerary, it’s just a big, well developed city, with a lot of resorts and shopping centers, worth it if you want to be in a city but there are more beautiful places in Vietnam.
One (more) thing that Hoi An is really famous for is cheap tailoring. You can get anything made from suits to leather handbags to shoes to leather jackets (for as little as $50!!) and god knows what else. A shopper’s paradise. Me? I avoided all this coz I can’t stand shopping unless it’s absolutely necessary.
A sad thing about Vietnam though can be the money mindedness of people. It’s very much about the money they can get from you. The sheer number of people trying (more like harassing) to sell you things or trying to charge sometimes twice or 3 times the actual cost is a bit sad. For me, it’s got to a stage where if a local asks me the usual opening question of “where are u from?” my first thought is “I wonder what are they going to try and sell to me now”. Having said that, I still believe that the Vietnamese are really friendly and nice and with some luck you’ll meet some genuinely nice people who want nothing more than to know a bit about you.
Hue, located along the Perfume river in central Vietnam, is the country’s former imperial capital. It is also the city where the famous Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh comes from.
My 2.5days in Hue went by in a blur. 4 people, including me, in my dorm arrived in Hue on the same day and we were staying for around the same time so we ended up seeing the town together which was fab! Hue is the most developed city I have across since the start of my trip and there is quite a bit to see. It was sweltering hot the day I got there (40degrees C with a feel of 48!!) but we braved going out for lunch (which was one of the most uncomfortable afternoons ever!). The humidity was maddening, walking in the intense heat, with sweat pouring and dripping off me was hard work! Somehow, the French and the Dutch in my group were fine which was embarrassing coz I should be more accustomed to the heat than them right? Anyways, after lunch we head out to the Imperial City which is a walled fortress and palace in the city of Hue. We chose the main bits we wanted to see like the Imperial enclosure which is a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces and the main buildings of state. Too much of it was in ruins and without any guide/map it was all about wandering around the ruins and trying to make sense of it (which we obviously couldn’t).
We also saw the To Mieu Temple Complex which has been restored and is pretty impressive in my opinion. There was lots more to the citadel but after 2hrs in the heat we’d had enough and decided to head back to the hostel.
The next day we went to see the royal tombs, around 12-16kms the city, which is a must see if you are in Hue. We rented motorbikes for the day and started our day with a ride along the Perfume river to visit the Thien Mu pagoda.
From there it was another 20kms to Tomb of Tu Duc. This tomb was designed by the emperor himself. There are areas of this complex that were used for hunting, some buildings that were used as temples, some where the emperor’s concubines used to live, etc and finally his tomb.
It was a pretty big complex and still in good condition but still not as impressive as described by Lonely Planet. We did get to see a live Vietnamese singing performance which I thought was pretty cool.
The other tomb we went to, Tomb of Khai Dinh, was my favourite.
This tomb’s exterior gives it a gothic air, which clashes well with the colourful mosaic interior, and is set amidst green mountains. This tomb, though not as big, was more impressive than the former.
There are 7 tombs in total but we decided to stop at 2 and head for lunch at a local restaurant. The menu wasn’t in English but luckily one of the customers was sweet enough to help us with ordering food. After lunch, it was time to head to the beach which was around 30kms away. It wasn’t the best time to go there as it was a very misty and cloudy day and the beach wasn’t that spectacular. Saying that, we managed to find a secluded part of the beach used solely for fishing boats. We climbed into one of the (parked) boats and just relaxed for the next hour or with the sound of waves in the background!
On the last day in Hue we only had a few hours before we took the bus to Hoi An so we simply walked around the massive Dong Ba market, ate delicious fish and rice for lunch and took the bus, ready for the next stop.
Having spoken to a lot of people about things to do and places to see in Vietnam, a few of them talk about the Phong Nha Caves near the town of Dong Hoi but not many people recommended going to Phong Nha Ke Bang (PNKB) National Park itself, which is where the caves are located. I decided to stay at the park to save the hassle of taking a day trip from Dong Hoi.
PNKB national park is a UNESCO world heritage site and was created to protect the worlds 2 largest karst regions with over 300 caves (and not just one cave as I thought)!
After taking an 8hr sleeper bus and arriving at the park at 5am I decided to get some sleep before I could do sight seeing. Once I was well rested, I was recommended to ride around the national park and then see the caves later in the day. I’ve been wanting to ride a bike since I got to Vietnam and I decided to give it a go. I did the short loop (around 60k) around the park and was blown away by the beauty of the karsts, it just doesn’t stop surprising me!
A lot of the roads I rode on weaved in and out of these rock formations but there are times when you are riding on the roads made on the karsts themselves. The 2hr bike ride was made up of non existent traffic, stunning beauty, lots and lots of butterflies fluttering past, and most of the times all I could hear is my bike and the loud noise made by the insects.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Caves is the second largest cave in Vietnam and holds the record for the longest underground river. It is Viet Nam’s longest underground cave network, has the tallest cave entrance, the most beautiful underground beach, the most stalagmites and stalactites, and the deepest dry cave. These caves are also rich in history as sites that harbored those loyal to the King during the first resistance to French as well as a preparation site for those going to the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the War of Resistance Against the United States. The journey to the caves began with an amazing 25min boat ride. Once at the mouth of the cave, the motor boat was turned off and the boat was rowed by 2 tiny women for the next 45mins-1hr. The cave is HUGE and minimally lit so as to not spoil the natural effect. The cave is known for the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Limestone stalactites take a 1000yrs to grow under 10cms and some formations in the caves were at least 25ft high!
It was an amazing experience to see the caves while imagining how people must have lived there (or rather hid there) during the resistance against the French and later the US. Towards the end of the boat ride, we were let off onto one of the beaches within the cave from where we could see some more stalactites and stalagmites before walking out and taking the return journey by boat.
This cave is very different to the Phong Nha (PN) cave. The roof of the PN cave is higher, the cave is minimally lit, in a lot of places the lighting is natural, it is located at the foot of the mountain and the cave can only be viewed while on the boat. Paradise cave on the other hand bigger, wider, is ‘in’ the mountain (we first had to climb up the mountain and then climb down the cave), and the size of the cave is simply staggering. The cave is lit by a lot of lights (but without which it would be pitch black) and a walkway has been created right from the start to the end of the caves. The stalactites and the stalagmite formations was even more spectacular, some as high as 40ft!
I am glad I toured both caves as they are totally different but equally fabulous! So basically, the beautiful caves along with the stunning national park has so far been a hightlight of my trip