Phong Nha (Mar 22-24): A Beautiful Cave, Ducks, and a Botanical Garden

The journey to Phong Nha was a bit rough because it was the first overnight bus of my entire trip. I booked the ticket through my hostel for 300,000 dong ($17.70AUD) and was told that it would take about 7 or 8 hours, so I should arrive at around 5 or 6am. I was the only person to get on the bus in Tam Coc, and the bus workers only pointed me to the back of the bus. But I walked and walked and there weren’t any free seats! Then at the very back, there were three beds right beside each other, with a couple on two of them and all of their stuff on the other. I ducked down and said that I would be joining them, so they moved all of their stuff in order to make some room for me. So there I lied in a three-person bed, wedged between the bathroom (with a constant swinging door), and a couple, and feeling like the ultimate third-wheel – I mean…I’ve been in third-wheel situations before, but sharing a bed was a new one for me!

I sat there and vowed to never book transportation through my accommodation again (which of course still keeps happening). There were a bunch of locals already sitting in the aisles, where they were given a mat to lie down on for the night – it blew my mind! A few minutes later, they picked up some more foreigners (who had to sit in the aisle) but then the bus stopped somewhere else and let all of the foreigners off. The locals still remained in the aisles and slept there for the duration of the trip. After about half an hour, we stopped for a break but I decided to stay on the bus since I had already eaten beforehand. I looked for a hostel to book for the next day and emailed them to say that I’d be arriving early in the morning. Then, I put in my ear plugs and put on my eye mask, and tried to sleep. And I think I actually did because I wasn’t horribly tired the next day. I had read that the bus would sometimes arrive early, around 4 or 4:30, so I set multiple alarms every half hour because I was paranoid that I’d miss my stop. At about three, I woke up and checked my map to see where we were. I saw that we were getting close to Phong Nha so I got my stuff ready. Only about two or three other people got off with me, and we were left on a street that was eerily quiet at 3:30 in the morning.

No one was there to pick me up, so I sat and tried to wake myself up so that I could decide how to get to my hostel. No Grabs were available, and it was a 50-minute walk so that wasn’t going to happen. I was wondering if I should book a private room at a nearby hotel just so I’d be able to get some sleep. Just before 4am, a bunch of locals started showing up to pick up some people from another bus. I asked if anyone was from Village House and they said no, so I decided I’d try to send a Whatsapp call. A very tired person answered and said that he’d be there in about ten minutes. I was staying in a 10-bed mixed dorm for 86500 dong ($5.10) per night. Luckily, the guy let me check in early (EXTREMELY early!) and showed me to my bed, which I was so thankful for. By the time I got to bed, it was 5am so I slept until 9:30 so that I wouldn’t miss breakfast.

On Friday morning, I had lemon pancakes with coffee for breakfast and then had a lazy morning researching what I could do. The homestay that I was staying in was right on the river, so it had a very relaxing atmosphere.

Phong Nha is famous for all of its caves but in order to get to them with a tour, I’d have to pay a MINIMUM of 1000000 dong ($60.76). I needed to decide if I would do a tour by that night so that it could be booked for the following day. That day, I decided that I’d just explore the surrounding area since the hostel was outside of the city and there was a lot of countryside to see. The hostel had free bikes to use so I biked about 15 minutes away to Bomb Crater Bar, which is exactly what it describes – a bar made in a bomb crater. I ordered some instant pho, which was interesting with little balls of instant meat that I decided to skip. However, as soon as I ordered, I realised that I had left my phone charger plugged in outside of the hostel and started freaking out that someone would take it, so I ate my food as fast as I could, biked back, and luckily it was still there. I then asked the hostel owner if it would be better for me to bike to the Botanical Garden or through the Bong Lai Valley, and he said the valley would be a lot easier because the botanical garden was really hilly to get to. The trip to the end of the valley was about 10km so it would take just over an hour to get to. It was also a ‘feels-like’ 42 degree day, so I was seriously questioning why I was crazy enough to go biking for over two hours in the sweltering heat. However, the slight breeze of the bike made the weather a lot more bearable, so it wasn’t that bad! I biked along the main road, past Bomb Crater Bar, hit a highway, crossed the highway, and then started on the gravel road through the valley.

At one point, there was a man who waved at me so I waved back, but then he started yelling so I stopped. I had just gotten on a really bumpy section, so I thought that maybe he was going to give me some advice. However, he pointed to my bike and then pointed to the road, and it looked like he was suggesting to push me up the hill. Nice! Okay, yeah sure… I got ready to start peddling again but my bike wasn’t moving. The man had jumped on the back of my bike and was trying to get me to bike him down the road! No, absolutely not. Especially when I was hardly even confident riding the bike down the road on my own. He kept insisting and saying motorbike, and I kept resisting until he finally got off. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to say that he’d give me a ride on his motorbike, but that’s when the language barrier gets the best of you. I continued on my way and eventually got to a place called The Duck Stop. It was a duck farm that was run by a local family, and as soon as I got there (completely sweaty and gross), there were two younger kids (a teenager and an 8-year-old) there to greet me. They sat me down and offered me some peanuts with salt and pepper, and then asked if I’d be interested in doing a duck tour.

I had the choice of spending time with the ducks and having a pancake and drink for 100000 dong ($5.90), or do everything AND ride a buffalo for 150000 dong. I decided to do the first option, and joined a group of about 8 people to visit the ducks. We were first shown how to be duck leaders, by quacking around the area with the food dish so that the ducks would follow you (and basically feeling like you were making a fool of yourself!). Then, we were told to sit down and hold our feet in a cup position so that the leader could pour some food in the “cup” and then the ducks would eat all of the food and give you a “foot massage” at the same time. Definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and it tickled so much!

We were given a duck to hold and were told to make a wish and throw it into the air so it flew into the pond. That one I felt bad about doing, but I guess they fly and like water, and they didn’t seem to mind.

We only spent about 10-15 minutes with the ducks and then went back to the main area, where we were served traditional pancakes (which might have actually been duck…).

After I finished eating, I decided to continue my way to the end of the valley and once I got there, I sat at a cute cafe on the riverside and enjoyed an iced Vietnamese coffee. The river was quite low at that time of the year, so even though the views were already nice, I’m sure they’d be even nicer during wet season!

When I noticed the sun starting to set, I decided to cross the suspension bridge and bike back on the other side of the valley. It was like day and night – as soon as I crossed that bridge, every single person would yell out hello. The people were so friendly, and all of the kids were so excited to see a foreigner – they’d always point and yell out hello, even the kids under the age of 2.

I got back to the hostel and was happy to see that I had the whole room to myself, so I went to have a shower. However, after my shower, everyone started to arrive. I went outside and met a girl named Shantaliah who was from New Zealand. She was thinking of renting a motorbike to go to the caves the following day, but she didn’t feel comfortable going by herself. I suggested that I could go with her if she wanted, and it would halve the price of the motorbike. She had never ridden a motorbike with someone else on it, but she said that she would give it a try, and we decided to go to the caves the next morning. We chatted for quite awhile – I ordered dinner from the hostel and we continued talking until after dark.

On Saturday morning, I got up and went to have breakfast at the hostel. I needed to plan my transportation for the following day, and I decided that instead of just taking a bus directly to Hue, I would go with a tour company in order to stop at some DMZ (Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone) sites on the way. While I was emailing, a guy came and sat beside me and introduced himself as Nick from the Netherlands. Shantaliah came and joined us, and we realised that it might rain that day so we figured we should get started as soon as we could. Nick said that he would join, and then when we got to our room, we ran into a guy named Tom from Germany who said that he would also join us. There were a bunch of caves to choose from, but we decided to start with the Phong Nha Cave because the Paradise and Dark Caves were the most popular and also the most expensive. We got our stuff ready and rented our motorbikes (Shantaliah and I paid 100000 dong/$5.90 each), and made our way to the cave. It wasn’t too far away and we had to pay 190000 dong ($11.21) for the three-hour tour. Once I realised it would be three hours, I decided to buy some snacks because I didn’t think I would last until 2pm. We needed 10 people for one boat, so we had to join other people who were waiting for a group of ten. The nice thing about this tour was that most of it was on a boat. We started by going about 20 minutes down the river past a bunch of villages, then the ladies turned off the motor and paddled through the cave.

The cave was absolutely spectacular, and had so many designs coming from the ceiling and the walls – it was so cool! It’s definitely one of the better caves that I’ve been in. Once we got to the end of the cave, the ladies turned the boat around, paddled a bit, and then dropped us off so that we could walk through the rest of the cave.

It was difficult getting good photos (as it always is when it’s dark), so they definitely don’t look as good as it did in real life. Once we got back to the end of the cave, we all got some ice cream and then got on the boat to go back to the entrance.

We decided to go for lunch, where we all got Banh Mi sandwiches, and then the four of us decided to go to the botanical garden (which was really a forest hike with an alright waterfall). However, as soon as we got there, it started misting down with rain. We paid 40000 dong ($2.36) and only had about an hour and a half until the park closed. As we walked, the rain started getting heavier and heavier, and the rocks started getting slipperier and slipperier. We finally made it to the waterfall, where some people were swimming, but we decided to keep going.

The worst part was that it was too hot and sticky to wear a rain jacket or poncho, so we either had the choice of being extremely hot or extremely wet. On the walk back, we had to step over some rocks across a stream, and that’s when I finally slipped. Luckily I didn’t actually land in the water, but on a rock so I was able to stay relatively dry. We made it out of the park right at the closing time (4:30) and then decided to make our way back to the hostel. However, the rain was a lot worse when going at a faster speed on the motorbike so it was impossible to stay dry. Tom’s motorbike suddenly stopped working, so we all had to stop and figure out what to do. He needed to catch a bus in about an hour, so he was really pressed for time. He could only drive at the slowest speed, so we all followed him for about 10-15 minutes. Then all of a sudden, his bike started working again (thank goodness!) so we drove the rest of the 30 minutes at a faster speed. We decided to join in on the family dinner that night, which has a bunch of food cooked by the homestay, so we each paid 70000 dong ($4.13) for that. It didn’t start until 6:30, which gave us all time to shower and then chat until dinner started. There were about 12 people at the family dinner, and it was so nice! They had so many different types of food, and it was a good way for everyone at the homestay to get to know each other.

We were sitting outside on the patio, but we were sheltered from the rain while it was absolutely pouring outside, so it was nice to have the sound of the rain in the background! Nick said that he would join me on the bus trip to Hue the next day, so we decided to wake up at 6am because we’d be picked up between 6:30 and 7:10. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Shantaliah that night because she would be heading north (one of the difficult things about travelling in Vietnam is many people are going in opposite directions). After our goodbyes, we just had a relaxing evening before going to bed. Love always

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