Biking around Phong Nha

We left Hanoi at around 7:30pm on 6th January 2018 and arrived into Phong Nha at 5am on the 7th via a sleeper bus. The sleeper bus had three rows of reclined seats/beds that were in bunk bed form so it could fit a lot of people in it. It was actually quite comfy and we settled in easily for the 10 hour journey ahead of us. You already know you’re not getting an amazing sleep on these types of buses and I probably got around three hours but that wasn’t the end of the world. By the time the bus was full, you couldn’t see the floor from people’s bags so getting to the toilet or even off the bus at our stop was a challenge involving climbing over everything!

We would be staying in Phong Nha, an area which consists of one main street and then villages full of cows and rice fields and a dense but beautiful national park full of jungle and caves. We had booked three nights at a hostel called Easy Tiger which has been recommended to us by our friend Matt (who we met in the Philippines) and could only be booked by email. They are famous in the area and kind of started off the backpacker industry here whilst continuing to support the local community through employment and buying local produce for their restaurant. The hostel was really good. They gave you a talk every morning at 9am about things to do in the area which was really helpful, had a big food menu (good ice cream milkshakes) and their rooms were clean with big beds. No complaints from us and we would recommend it to others coming to the area for sure.

The main street in Phong Nha as seen from the hostel balcony.

Phong Nha is located south of Hanoi in the mountains and jungle. This place was crucial during the war as a transport hub between the north who were receiving goods from their communist allies, Russia and China, to get to the soldiers in the south. It’s strategic location of thick jungle and multiple caves allowed the Viet Cong (communist Vietnamese in the North) to conceal themselves during the day and transport their goods from weapons, supplies and, sometimes a disassembled fighter jet at night. Because of the dense jungle surrounding the area, the US airforce took the approach of bombing the entire area every day with left over bombs from World War Two to try and stop the Viet Cong getting their goods through to the South. Without supplies, the Viet Cong would not have been able to carry on the fight and so the US saw the significance of this area and, for this reason, it was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Vietnam! When you travel around the area you see the remnants of this massive bombing attack that happened everyday in the form of randomly shaped ponds in the middle of fields which are bomb craters and from the threat of unexploded ordnance that still lives on in the area today.

The Viet Cong women (everyone had their part to play in the war and the men were fighting) built two roads from Hanoi through this area during the war. These roads are still in use today and are called the Ho Chi Minh Highway and Highway 20 (after the average age of the soldiers in the army). Every day the roads would be blown to pieces whilst the soldiers and women hid within the jungle with all of their supplies buried underground, waiting for nightfall. Once it was dark, the women would come out and repair the road, the solider’s would dig up their supplies and then continue transporting the goods South until dawn when they would bury them again and repeat the whole process!

The bombs the US were dropping had been designed to be dropped on cities and hit concrete to explode. Rice fields were not the terrain they were designed for so a lot of the bombs didn’t detonate when they landed but, instead, sank into the muddy rice paddies and lay dormant. It is estimated that 19.3 million bombs were dropped by the US, amounting to 14 million tons of ordinances, nearly three times the amount used by the Allies in the whole of the Second World War! At least one third of these bombs are yet to detonate. Still today, explosions will occur from bombs that have come to the surface after heavy rainfall or get churned up by a tractor during farm work, particularly in newly cultivated areas. I didn’t see anyone with these injuries but apparently there are a lot of people with missing limbs and burns, including children, from left over bombs exploding (if children find them they mistake them as something to play with which can have devastating effects). The bombs here are also used as a form of firework during celebrations such as the Lunar New Year where people in the area blow up bombs they’ve found that year as fireworks are illegal in Vietnam – crazy! Apparently if you’re in the area during this time the whole floor shakes and you get to feel what it would have been like to be bombed which I think would be very scary!

I find the history of this area very interesting and I think it makes you appreciate the area more when you know it’s significance.

After a few hours sleep we woke up for the free information talk so that we could work out what we would be doing during our stay. We had been blessed with a fluke spell of hot and clear weather compared to the grey, cold and wet weather we had anticipated. After relaxing in the morning we borrowed a couple of bicycles from the hostel and headed out into the farming villages in the Bong Lai Valley. It was a beautiful day and was the first time I could comfortably wear shorts for over a month! It was lovely cycling leisurely through the countryside and we were often greeted by people on bikes passing us or from children in houses as we cycled by. This was very much a farming area and we saw pigs and ducks on the backs of bikes as well as them walking along the sides of the roads. A regular obstacle (aside from the unexpected hills we had to deal with) were the cows that would walk causally in the middle of the road whenever they fancied it. Everyone would just avoid them and the cows would stare at you as you went by without any concern (they mustn’t scare as easily as when you pass a horse in the UK). I also really enjoyed the number of puppies we saw during our cycle, just as an added bonus to our day.

One of the places we planned on visiting whilst we were cycling around the countryside was ‘The Pub with Cold Beer‘. This was the first pub in the area to get a fridge and be able to deliver a cold beer instead of a warm beer in a glass with ice (which was how it’s traditionally served in Vietnam due to not having fridges). It’s also known for its peanut sauce (which we tried and tasted really great) and chicken. Here, you can catch and kill your own chicken for 200,000 dong (about £6.50). I imagine people will come here just to do this but we didn’t. I obviously don’t eat meat anyway and Niall didn’t really like the idea of killing a chicken or even having a chicken killed JUST for him to eat it (as opposed to them being killed for anyone to eat them and he just happen to be one of those people). We went for other options and still very much enjoyed our meal.

Whilst looking for this pub, we experienced our first scam in Vietnam. Another restaurant had adopted the same name, sign and menu as the real pub with cold beer and, depending on the way you came, this was the first place you would pass. You can see from the picture below why we thought this was the real one and it was actually only because another couple who were there told us they had googled the place and it didn’t look like this that we found out it was a fake! We had already ordered a beer here and so we drank our cold beer at the fake Pub with Cold Beer before leaving. At least it WAS a cold beer though!

We carried on further down the road and over the river to the REAL Pub with Cold Beer. The scenery everywhere was beautiful and a lush green so cycling around was really nice. The road got a lot muddier on our way to the real pub which helped us work up an appetite. This pub also has a little puppy which was very cute (I’m sure you can sense a theme here, I love puppies!)

We were going to continue the loop towards a farm stay via a few other places including ‘the duck stop’ where you could play with ducks and ride a water buffalo into the river! It was too muddy for us to cycle here on our bikes so we would have had to go all the way around to get there which would have taken too long considering we only had around an hour and a half until it got dark. We had originally planned on getting to the farm stay for sunset but were very tired so, instead, we headed back the way we came towards our hostel. This ended up being a hard cycle up a lot of hills – definitely more than the leisurely cycle we had planned for our ‘restful’ first day!

On our second day in Phong Nha, we woke up to a cloudy sky and thought our run of nice weather had just been for a day. We asked the hostel who told us it was meant to be another nice day so we trusted what they said and hired a motorbike to drive through the nationalpark (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The weather ended up being great and we were glad we didn’t trust Google weather (which said it was going to rain all day) and not get out into the national park. The route we drove was stunning from start to finish. It began cruising along the bright turquoise river through town and into the villages in the surrounding area. Every time I see the rivers in Asia I’m amazed by how bright and blue they often are.

Our first official stop of the day was to the Botanical Gardens. We chose this route (see the map near the beginning of this post) as our other stop of the day was Paradise Cave but that had tour groups swarm the area between 11am and 1pm so we wanted to avoid that if we could. The botanical gardens are more like a series of jungle paths that lead you to a ‘lake’ (it’s the size of a small pond) and to a waterfall which you can climb up. We had a walk around here and went to the waterfall which you can swim in but, to be honest, it still wasn’t warm enough for us for that so we didn’t bother. We met two people at the falls though and they confirmed the water was freezing but they were still having a good time in there.

After some lunch at the gardens, we drove through empty, winding roads surrounded by dense jungle on all sides of us and mountains in the distance. We regularly stopped just to take in the beauty of the place and I would think of those soldiers trekking through the jungle at night transporting goods all of those years ago and walking on the same routes we were driving – it would have been a hard trek! Our drive was an interesting one once we left the botanical gardens as we had struggled to get our bike going again and it actually turned itself off when we were going down a hill. The brakes still worked so we were perfectly safe and it probably just saved us some fuel really but it definitely kept things interesting. Once we got a good length drive in this thankfully didn’t end up happening again. Niall said it was a flat battery but it caused us no harm.

Our final stop for the day, before continuing our drive along the national park route and back through picturesque countryside was to Paradise Cave. The cave is 31km in length but only one km or two can be accessed through the main entrance by us tourists. It was only discovered in 2005 and caves are still being discovered today within this national park! The height of the cave can reach 72m and it can go as wide as 150m so I’m sure you can imagine, that it’s a pretty huge cave! Once you paid your entrance (250,000 dong – £8) you had to walk for around 15 minutes along a path and then up a lot of steps (just assume there will always be steps you need to climb!) to the entrance of the cave. The cave was massive! There was a walkway through to the back of the cave which took around 20 minutes to walk down (including stops to see bits of the cave) and then you headed back the same way. Everywhere you looked were stalactites and stalagmites and water dripping down in shadowing corners starting on the next cave feature that it would work on for the next few thousand years. Being there when there wasn’t a tour group paid off and we had a quiet walk through the cave to take it all in. It was pretty spectacular.

The National Park has the oldest karst mountains in Asia formed over 400 million years ago which is probably why they have so many caves to discover here! Our drive back from the cave was great. As we drove a big loop, we headed through farming countryside we hadn’t yet seen and saw more craters of the bombings that had happened during the Vietnam/US war. We had another great day weather wise and getting such clear skies meant we had been able to enjoy the amazing scenery around us which I am very thankful for. That evening the heavens opened and we had a lot of rain all night! We had been lucky for the last two days but the typical winter weather of rain and cold temperatures had returned.

On our final day we shared a boat with a number of people in the hostel to go to Phong Nha cave which is the cave that started tourism in the area when it was discovered in 1899. This cave was also used during the war to transport goods and boats used to hide in here during the day whilst the place was bombed. The boat cost 360,000 dong (£11.70) and the entrance fee to the cave is 150,000 dong (£4.80). The price for the boat is the total cost and we shared the cost with other people from our hostel. The boat can fit around 12 people and we had 9 people so it cost us 40,000 dong (£1.30) each which was a good saving. Once you have your tickets you all climb into the boat and head down the river towards be cave.

It probably takes around twenty minutes to get to the cave at which point they turn off the motors and take down the roof of the boat so that you’re in an open top vessel. Your two crew members then row you through the cave for around forty minutes. The upper body strength they must have astounds me as the boat is pretty big and it’s a long way! The cave is completely full of water with a 13km underground river running through it so you can sail all the way through it and it runs really far into the mountain. I hadn’t expected it to be as big as it was and beyond what we could see there were 44.5km of passageways that have been surveyed by scientists within the cave too so it’s absolutely enormous! It was really cool to gently drift along when all you could hear was the occasional drip into the water or a bat flying past.

We then got out of the boat and got to walk through a small section of the cave that was on dry land (and by small I still mean vast!). The sheer height of the cave was what was most impressive about this part of the trip. You didn’t realise how big it was until you saw someone standing in the distance and looking very small next to the giant cave pillar or stalagmite. It was really cool to see and I’m glad we did it. I’m also glad we left this until our last day as the weather wasn’t as dependent for this activity so we didn’t need bright blue skies to enjoy it (even if it would have made the journey back on the boat a little warmer!). The weather was rainy and cold the rest of the day and so we finally got a much needed rest and relax in the hostel.

We had a great few days in Phong Nha and we would be leaving early the next morning to go to Hue. I’m really glad we came here and we seemed to time it perfectly to have such great weather which I couldn’t be happier about! Everyone was so friendly whilst we were there and we ate some great food so all in all, no complaints of a great stop in Phong Nha!

Sending Love x

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