Phong Nha

Its been a while since my last update, but things have definitely not been uneventful! I wrote my last post just before boarding the night train from Sapa back to Hanoi and I was feeling on top of the world. But all the eating finally caught up with me and it was a long, rough overnight on the train.

I love trying new foods when I travel and Seth and I were definitely a little more adventurous than normal, thinking the last 4 years in Vancouver had toughened our digestive systems, but it caught up with us in our second week. We’re no strangers to travellers diarrhea, which is to be expected when you’re in a new place with different foods than you’re used to, but i definitely got full fledged food poisoning on the train to Hanoi. We’ve talked to a bunch of people since and everyone has one story about the time they got really sick (for Seth it was Peru, for me Malawi), but now it’s Vietnam for me.

I’ll leave out the gory details, but we were supposed to continue on from Hanoi direct to Ha Long Bay, which I was anticipating to be the highlight of the trip. But it quickly became evident that a 4 hour bus ride would not be feasible, so we unfortunately had to cancel our boat cruise of the bay and checked into a hotel in Hanoi instead. It was a hard choice to make, but it was definitely the right decision because I later collapsed in the hotel from what we think was dehydration and low blood sugar and Seth had to take me to the hospital. It was quite scary, but the staff at the hospital were fantastic and they took good care of me and pumped me full of fluids so that I could make a quick recovery and get back on the trip. I did recover relatively fast and we were able to catch our train to Phong Nha on time to get back on track with our itinerary. We just cut out the adventurous eating for a little while after that and there was a lot of yogurt, fruit, and steamed rice.

Phong Nha Ke-Bang is a national park located just outside Dong Ha. It’s a mountainous region known for its extensive network of caves (more than 300) and its karst topography. It’s also extremely gorgeous and had a totally different vibe than the other places we’d visited. Phong Nha is home to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, and many other caves that make it a popular haunt for spleunkers. But there are 4 easily accessible caves that are frequented by tourists and we visited them all.

We started with its namesake cave, Phong Nha, and the nearby Tien Son Cave. We werent sure what to expect, but we were both really impressived with both caves. Phong Nha is accessible by boat, so we took a cruise on the river that eventually brought us through the cave. There are tons of stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave, in addition to many birds and bats. Tien Son Cave is located in the same mountain, but at the top instead of the bottom where the river runs through, so we had to climb up about 500 steps to get to Tien Son.

I loved the views of the river and the park on our way up, but boy was it hot. Up until Phong Nha the weather had been a mix of clouds and rain, but that ended when we left Hanoi and it was cloudless, hot, humid days. It was normally around 35 degrees and several days went up to 40 with the humidity. It was rough on us Newfoundlanders, especially since I was still recovering from food poisoning. We both struggled with the heat in week 2, but it was still worth the climb to the top and Tien Son Cave was also gorgeous and it was much cooler in the cave, so that was a relief.

We had to start changing up our routine with the changing weather though. We started taking little siestas in the afternoon in our air conditioned hotel room to get some of our energy back. I’ve been to some hot places, but I can’t recall anywhere where the heat drained my energy so much as it did in Vietnam (I’m sure the sickness didnt help though).

On our second day in Phong Nha we did a full day tour of Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Paradise Cave is known as one of the jewels of the park. It was only discovered in 2005 by a hunter and then opened to the public in 2011. It’s a 31.4km long cave that boasts some of the most incredible formations. We only visited the first kilometre, but it was breaktaking. In the first kilometre the cave is 30 metres wide on average and up to 80 metres high!

Dark Cave is the more adventurous of the 2 caves. You start with a zipline over the river to get to entrance of the cave and then explore the cave using only headlamps (all the other caves were lit). You walk into the mouth of the cave and then take a narrow side tunnel further into the cave. I dont really like being underground, so I wasnt sure I would like it, but it actually wasnt scary at all and the headlamps illuminate a lot. At the end of the tunnel is a huge mud bath, so we all had a laugh covering ourselves in mud. Then at the end of the tour you do a short kayak back to what the staff refers to as “water sports” but is a series of obstacles and attractions located over the river. Over all it was a great day and cooler since we spent most of it underground and in the water.

Sapa was still the highlight of the trip for me at this point, but Phong Nha was a new highlight for Seth, who had never been caving before, and he really enjoyed it.

Our next stop was Hue, but we decided to do a little stopover to the DMZ along the way. The DMZ is the ‘demilitarized zone’ of Vietnam where the border between the north and the south was created. It’s roughly along the 17th parallel and the border followed the river in that area, so friends and family on either side of the river were cut off from one another and the region was very heavily bombed. We visited the Vinh Moc tunnels and the border museum, walking across the bridge connecting the north to the south.

I knew tunnels were heavily used by Vietnam forces during the war, but I didnt realize that they were also used by communities in the DMZ who were literally forced to move underground to escape the bombing in the area. The Vinh Moc tunnels are a network of tunnels and 94 underground rooms that became home to 600 people! There were 3 levels of tunnels, ranging from 11 to 23 metres in depth. It was pretty unreal, the scope of the tunnels was impressive, especially considering the villagers had no experience in designing or building tunnels, and it’s hard to believe so many people lived in so small a place. The museum was also sobering and had some really interesting photos and artifacts.

We’re on our way to Ho Chi Minh City now, but more on Hue and Hoi An in my next post!

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We not big city lovers overall, so we only planned for 2 days in Hanoi and then did a day trip out to Tam Coc before taking a night train up to Sapa for 2 days.

Tam Coc is about a 2 hour drive from Hanoi, but has dramically different landscapes. Hanoi and the surrounding area is mostly flat, but Tam Coc and Ninh Binh are popular for their mountains. The landscape is still pretty flat, but then these mountains just rise straight up, seemingly out of nowhere. There are no valleys, just sudden mountains and the contrast is pretty dramatic. I’m a mountain junkie since moving to Vancouver, so I loved the landscape.

We visited two temples for the Kings Dinh and Le. We’ve only been here a few days, but I feel like we’ve already seen a million temples, but I learned the difference between a temple and a pagoda. Pagodas are for the worshp of the Gods (majority buddhism) and temples are for the worship of the kings.

The highlight of the day trip though was boating along the river. We went on a hour boat cruise that took us through the mountains and in some cases, under them. The river has carved alongside the mountains and created some pretty cool karst topography. We went through 3 caves, one of which was so long you couldn’t see the end when you entered and very obviously went under the entire mountain. It was very gorgeous, but it’s also highly commercialized and the crowds took away from it a little bit. April 30 and May 1 are both holidays in Vietnam for Reunification day and Labour day, and because they fell on a mon/tues, the Vietnamese had a 4 day weekend. So that meant a lot of locals were travelling as well, so Tam Coc and Sapa were both extremely busy.

The weather has been a bit hit and miss, but our timing has been good. We didn’t see the sun at all on our first 4 days and there’s been rain on and off, but it never lasts very long and with the exception of our second day in Hanoi, we’ve been lucky in missing the rain all together. It poured on our drive to Tam Coc, but it stopped just before we arrived and though the clouds looked a bit ominous all day, the rain held off for us.

Taking the overnight train was an interesting experience though. It’s an 8 hour train ride from Hanoi to Sapa, which is located in the far north, so we took the sleeper train from 10pm to 6am. The cabins each have 2 bunk beds and are extremely cramped. I was a little overwhelmed when we first got on the train, but fortunately our bunk mates were later showing up and we were able to get ready for bed and stow our bags before they showed up to keep things from being cramped. I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep on a moving train, but we were exhausted after the day in Tam Coc and the rocking of the train is kind of soothing. So overall, a pretty good first experience on the train. We have to take it back from Sapa again and once more later in the trip, so by then we should be pros.

We’re still only 5 days into the trip, but so far Sapa has definitely been the highlight. It’s located in the far north and is a very mountainous region. It’s mostly mountains and rice terraces and is home to many different minority tribes. I booked the trip to Sapa through an agency, so I wasn’t sure on a lot of the details, but the hotel they booked for us was amazing! It had the best breakfast and our room had a balcony looking out onto the most amazing view of the mountains! Like I said, I’m obsessed with mountains and now Im in love with Sapa.

Again, the weather was a bit dicey when we arrived and it rained the whole bus ride into town from the station, but it mostly stayed away during the day. We met up with a group and did a short hike to visit 2 villages. The first was Cat Cat Village. Because it was a Sunday, all the girls were dressed up in their traditional dress and it was really cool to see all their vibrant clothes. Cat Cat village is like a huge tourist trap though and one of the funnier places I’ve visited. I feel like they took a few cues from Swiss Family Robinson, gave someone way too much creative license, and came up with some of the most hilarious tourist attractions I’ve seen! Everything was engineered using bamboo and built around the river. They had everything from bridges and water crossings, to giant homemade swings, see-saws, and even a ferris wheel. It was a little surreal, but we had a good laugh at it and people were definitely loving it.

My favourite part was the hiking though. Cat Cat Village is on the bottom of the valley and Sapa town is on the top, so we did some hiking through the trees and along the river to get between the two and I loved being out in nature, away from vehicles and crowds. It is exhausting because it is so hot and humid and there’s a lot of uphill, but I loved it.

It was overcast the entire day, but I didnt mind it at all because the clouds and fog made for some gorgeous landscapes. Growing up in St. John’s, I shouldn’t have been as intrigued with the fog, but I couldn’t believe how quickly it would move in and out of the valley. One minute it would be totally clear, and then 10 mintues later the fog would roll in and you’d lose total visibility. We loved watching it though and had a fantastic supper in this restaurant overlooking the mountains and watching the weird shapes the fog would make.

The second day in Sapa though was the highlight. We finally saw the sun for the first time on the trip and it burned off the fog that was hanging around, making for a gorgeous, albeit extremely hot, day. We were picked up at our hotel by a woman from the H’mong tribe and she took us hiking for 6 hours to several villages along the valley floor. The scenery was so breathtaking, I am totally in love with the rice terraces!

We started hiking down to the valley along some pretty steep and slippery trails. Once we got to the bottom we hiked along and around the rice terraces and visited 3 different villages, stopping in one for lunch. It was oppresively hot and we were sweating so much, but it was so worth it. The only frightening part was the end, when we had to take a motorcycle taxi back to the hotel because it had been a 1 way hike. I rode motorcycles all the time in Malawi, but the traffic in Vietnam is frightening, so I wasnt in a rush to ride one. It’s like a quintessential part of Vietnam though, so now I can say I did it and hope this will be the only time!

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This trip marks my first visit to Asia, my first time crossing the dateline, and the farthest time zone I’ve been from home (both Vancouver and St. John’s). I was dreading the flight there, but it was actually a lot better than expected. We flew out of YVR at 2am and we were just so tired by then that we both passed out as soon as we got on the plane and slept for a solid 7-8 hours. We had a short stopover in Taipei and then landed in Hanoi the following morning at 10am.

We took a cab to our hotel in the old quarter and were greeted with a message from my friend, Sarah, as soon as we arrived. She was finishing her honeymoon with her husband Nick, and we had one day of overlap, so they picked us up at our hotel and gave us a pretty fantastic food tour of Hanoi!

The food here is fantastic! I havent even had pho yet because there’s been so many other exciting things to try (update: I had it since writing this!). Sarah and Nick took us for Bun Cha and Banh Xeo, which are a grilled pork and noodle soup and these fried pancakes stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. We’ve since also tried Banh Mi and Cha Ca, which are vietnamese sandwiches and a grilled fish dish. I loved it all except for the Banh Mi sandwich. Mine was just listed as a “meat” sandwich and ended up being what I think was pork fat, so not a favourite for me. But everything else has been delicious and Sarah introduced me to an iced tea thats topped with cream cheese (so much yummier than it sounds), which is so refreshing in the heat.

On our first day we visited the Temple of Literature with Sarah and Nick and spent some time walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the old quarter. The temple of literature was first constructed in 1076 and was a university for many years. We continued touring Hanoi on our second day and visited Tran Quoc pagoda, Ho Chi Minh’s mauseleum, Dong Xoun Market, and went to see a water puppet show. We didnt know what to expect from the water puppets, but it was actually a really fun show about rural life and culture in Vietnam. Plus its mind blowing trying to figure out how they move the puppets so fluidly!

We’ve been adjusting pretty well to the time difference with early nights and early mornings. Our hotel has a breakfast lounge on the top floor which boasts gorgeous views of the lake and I loved spending my evenings up there writing and looking at the city.

However, the traffic in Hanoi is truely frightening. I’m glad we had Nick to show us the ropes our first day because the city is totally overrun by motorbikes and scooters and crossing the road (and just walking in general) gives me so much anxiety. There are crosswalks everywhere, but no one ever stops, so you literally just have to walk out into the road and let the bikes avoid you. Finding Dong Xoun Market was probably the worst because there’s vendors everywhere and so many people, but motorbikes still insist on driving through the crowds.

My favourite part of the city though was probably Friday night. In the evenings on weekends, they shut down all the major roads around the lake and its open only to pedestrians. There’s a night market with tons of vendors and street performers. The lake is all lit up and it has the nicest ambiance without all the cars and honking!

Next up is Tam Coc, Sapa, and Bai Tu Long Bay!

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