After a great day fishing on our final day in Hoi An we continued north to Hue. The sleeper bus takes around 4 hours, costs 110000 Dong (£3.60) and stops along the way to pick up people on the side of the road. A shuttle bus picked us up from out Homestay at 13:40, made a few stops around Hoi An squeezing more passengers in and took us to our main bus which left at 14:00. We arrived at the Bus Station in Hue at 18:00 and made our way to our hotel. We decided to treat ourselves for 2 nights in Hue as on booking.com there was a 4* hotel, with a twin room costing £16. If you’re travelling in low season and want to treat yourself cheaply, its worth looking around for different accommodation deals online, as everywhere is looking to get some custom in the low season. This will be the last time treating ourselves for a while, but sometime I feel like it needs to be done, travelling is harder than you may think! Hue was okay and it was nice to stop there as we had the time, but if you only have a 1 month visa I wouldn’t say its worth it. The Imperial City is nice but this is about the only thing to really do, so if you’ve seen the Forbidden City in China, or visited some of the palaces in Seoul I’d give Hue a miss and spend more time in Phong Nha.
If you do find yourself in Hue, it is nice for a day or two but not a necessity, you can easily catch a bus to Phong Nha. There are lots of travel companies close to each other which all charge different prices. It’s definitely worth asking around to find the cheapest price because they range from 120000-250000 Dong. The cheapest one we could find was from a little travel company which was basically a desk on the side of the road. It didn’t look very trustworthy but it was 120000 Dong so we thought we’d risk it. We had 3 options, 6:30am, 2pm and 4pm, we chose the 2pm option as we could still grab our free breakfast and chill in the 4* hotel in the morning. We got told it would be another sleeper bus and when we went back to book the ticket the 2pm option was fully booked. I told them I would go somewhere else to book my ticket, so the lady quickly got on the phone and magically 2 spots appeared. Jesper and Namoi, the Dutch guys we’d been travelling with for a while decided to skip Phong Nha and catch the train straight to Ninh Binh. They went to the train station to book their tickets and it was apparently a lot cheaper than booking through a tour company, even though its more hassle. Anyway, we got told our sleeper bus would pick us up at 14:00 the next day from our hotel. At 13:25 a minivan rocked up at our hotel saying it was going to Phong Nha, perfect. We assumed it was like in Hoi An, a shuttle bus to our sleeper bus. It made a few stops around Hue picking up people and squeezing us all in and we soon realised this was the “sleeper” bus we were taking all the way. In the end it worked out ok, it only took 4 hours instead of up to 6, everyone on board was great and we’ve since travelled around with them in Phong Nha exploring the caves. The funny thing was some of them paid 250000, some 200000 and some 150000 Dong, so definitely shop around for your ticket.
Not enough people go to Phong Nha but in a way that is the beauty of it. The main place to stay in the Easy Tiger Hostel which is the place to be. They have great information, a swimming pool and quite a big party scene. However you can only book via e-mail as they can’t be found on Hostelworld etc. We decided to stay in Gecko Hostel, its 2 minutes down the road from Easy Tiger, its only been open around 2 months and everything is new and clean. It’s still relatively quiet at the moment but in a year or so it will be up there with Easy Tiger. If you want to party and drink all the time then go to Easy Tiger, if you want something a bit chilled and rustic, then Gecko is for you. You can always walk down to Easy Tiger for a drink and a party, then come back for a lovely quiet nights sleep. Every morning at 9am in Easy Tiger they put on a free informative talk about the different things to do in Phong Nha, the best caves to explore, the best parts of the Ke Bang National Park to visit and the best way to get around.
Phong Nha is home to the 1st and 3rd biggest caves in the world, but unfortunately you cannot visit the biggest cave in the world on your own, you must have a tour. The tour costs $3000 for 4 nights, the reason it is so expensive is because you need porters with you, a cook, a medic, a ropes expert etc as it can get pretty dangerous. The cave is so big you can fly a Jumbo Jet inside and even fit in a whole block of Manhattan. It is so big it has its own eco system and jungle inside. Unfortunately the $3000 price limit is too much for backpackers, you have to book 8 months to a year in advance and can only visit between February and August. If this is something you want to do it will take some planning and a lot of saving. There is also a limit on the number of people they allow to go each year, but I’ve heard its very much worth it, I might have to come back and do it one day. As this wasn’t an option we first decided to visit the Dark Cave. You can rent a motorbike for anything between 80000-200000 Dong a day, again its worth shopping around, but there something about motorbikes I really don’t like. I can jump out a plane and 12000ft, I can do the 3rd highest bunjee jump in the world, even white water raft down an 8 metre waterfall but driving my own motorbike really scares me and not something I am comfortable doing. Because of this I decided to book an Easy Rider Motorbike. I paid 350000 Dong (£12) to sit on the back of a bike and have an experienced driver drive me around all day. Some of our group wanted to ride their own bikes as they are experienced, so they followed the Easy Rider guys.
Our first stop was the Dark Cave which costs 250000 Dong (£8.60) in low season, and 450000 Dong (£15.50) in high season. Luckily we were there in low season so could pay the cheaper price. You get all your safety equipment included (life jacket, harness, helmet and headtorch) and it includes the longest zip line in Vietnam. From there you swim in to the entrance of the cave, take a trek through the cave barefoot into a mud bath. This mud is absolutely crazy, it is more buoyant than the dead sea. If you sit down you just bob there without touching the floor, you can seamlessly glide through it and everyone turns into a little child again having mud fights or just spinning on the spot. After this you head back to the entrance of the cave and take a 2 man kayak back. You then can zip line again and plop into the water at the end, cleaning all the thick gooey mud off yourself. Upon arrival you pay a 50000 deposit for a locker key and leave all your stuff there. The only thing I took with me was my swimming shorts. Do not take anything that isn’t waterproof, I couldn’t take a camera but if you have a GoPro it would be a perfect opportunity to use it. The whole experience takes about 2 hours and is the perfect amount of time. Once back at the reception they have toilets, showers and a changing area to sort yourself out and from here we headed to Paradise Cave. Our Easy Rider guys were waiting for us out the front with big smiles on their faces. We grabbed some food upon arrival at the Paradise Cave but it was rubbish and expensive. I’d recommend either eating at the Dark Cave, or taking some food with you. There’s a bit of a walk to the entrance of the Paradise Cave, about 1.6km but there is the option to catch a buggy up there. The entry price for the cave is again 250000 Dong and you can negotiate a price of the buggy if you wish, we paid 10000 each for the way back. The paradise cave is 31km long but the ticket only gets you into the first kilometre. There is an option of a 7km trek but it was shut to us due to the flooding from the high amount of rainfall. Inside it lovely with some crazy stalagmite, stalactite and limestone rock formations. From here we jumped back on our Easy Rider bikes and went to the hostel. I tipped my guy 50000 Dong which you don’t have to do, but I’d had a good day and he was really nice.
The following day we went to visit the Phong Nha Cave. This was a very important cave in the Vietnam War as it was used as part of the supply chain, as a hospital and as a storage depot for the Vietnamese in their fight against the Americans. Tickets to the cave cost 150000 Dong (£5.10) plus your boat ticket. The boats all leave from the same place and cost 360000 Dong. They seat 14 people and the price is split between the amount of people on the boat. 9 of us walked down from the hostel and we met 5 people at the ticket office which was lucky, as in total we had 14 people meaning the boat only cost us 26000 (£0.90) each. The boat trip takes around 30 minutes and you sail right into the entrance of the cave all the way to the end, you then get out and explore the cave by foot. I’d recommend wearing flip-flops and taking them off as the floor has some beautifully soft sand. After exploring the cave you all head back out, maybe grab an ice cream then jump back on the boat to go back. The trip can take anything up to 3 hours and I personally thought it was nicer than the Paradise Cave. If you have to make a choice between the 2, then I’d say go for the Phong Nha Cave, as its cheaper and a nicer experience entering by boat. That evening we all met up for some drinks, listening to the live music at Easy Tiger, before catching the free motorbike taxis the 2 minute trip down the road to the late night bar.
The next morning we all woke up with horrendous hangovers, apparently I’m not used to drinking so much anymore, so we all took it easy. At 13:00 5 of us hired bicycles and cycled round the Bong Lai Valley and this was one of my favourite days so far. If you are staying at Easy Tiger you can hire bikes for free, if not there are a couple of places around where you can pay 50000 Dong for a bicycle. It was a very wet day and at one point we had to push our way though a river that had burst its banks onto the road. As soon as you get out of the main street in Phong Nha the locals become so friendly. I feel like not enough people do this route and they are so happy to see a foreign face. Everyone will smile and laugh with you as you cycle past, and there are children who hold their hands out for a high-fives as you roll around this beautiful stretch of Vietnam. Our first stop was The Duck Stop and what a fantastic experience this was. As we arrived dripping wet we were greeted by a large amount of chickens, who all came stupidly running down the dirt track to inspect us. We took shelter from the rain and the owner came out with a beaming smile, chicken food and her local produce she grows on site, include a mix of peanuts and peppercorns which is a surprisingly nice mix. The lady doesn’t speak any English but was one of the nicest people I’ve met. All she wants to do is smile, feed you and make you happy. She has taught her chicken the word for eagle, and when she says it all the chickens run to hide under a tree, fantastic! After a while and a lot more smiles she took us back down the dirt track and over to the lake. She started shouting what I can only imagine is “here, duck duck duck duck duck” and all of a sudden this chorus of quacks reply. In the distance, it must have been about 500 metres away, you see all these ducks turn and start scrambling towards us. There are hundreds of them all waddling as quickly as they can, in a single file line to come and eat the food. It was honestly one of the best, funniest and craziest things I’ve seen. When they arrived they swarm round us, running over our feet and quacking happily and then all help breaks loose when the lady starts throwing out food. She gestures you to hold some food in your hand and put it down into the swarm ducks and as you do she starts throwing more food on top. It was brilliant and such a good experience. When the food is all gone, the ducks jump into a different lake, clean themselves and waddle single file on their merry way. We then followed the lady back to her houses where she drew water from her well so we could wash our hands and feet. At the end, when we were about to leave, she didn’t even ask for any money. However I gave her 100000 Dong (£3.20) because she really was a lovely lady. She was so happy with the money and was shaking my hand, saying thank you and going to The Duck Stop is something everyone should experience.
From The Duck Stop we carried on to The Ice Cold Beer Restaurant. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but is a nice place to relax, with hammocks, a volleyball court and ice-cold beer. It is here you can go to kill your own chicken, then Bbq it and then eat it. I wasn’t hungry so I didn’t eat, but three of the guys shared a chicken between them. None of them wanted to kill it however so the guy did it for them and I was kind of interested to watch. The chickens live in comfort and look like they have a good life and you pay 200000 Dong per kg. Their peanut sauce is also amazing, probably some of the best I’ve tasted and I love my peanuts. We were so relaxed in the hammocks we lost track of time and realised that it would soon be getting dark and we had no lights. We quickly paid and left and because the rain had been so heavy for a couple of hours we thought we better not try going back the way we came, across the burst river bank. We went along the highway home, getting back just as the sun had gone down. Phong Nha is a fantastic experience and not enough people go here, its by far better than Hue which is where most people go. I hope reading this convinces you to go and help out the local community. The Easy Riders, the Duck Stop lady, the boat drivers in the Phong Nha cave are all locals who are so happy and willing to help you out and help you see this amazing place, it will be a shame if they lose custom by people travelling to Hue. From here we are catching a night bus to Ninh Binh and I’ll fill you in on this in my next post.