The nice thing about travelling the way we did was that we kind of made it up as we went along. We could decide how long we would stay in each place, what we wanted to see, and how early we wanted to get up.
Although we weren’t sleeping in until 10/11 in the morning, and sometimes had to get up early for tours, it was nice not to get up at 6am to trade every morning. Saying that, I would love to travel and trade as I went along. Maybe I should automate my strategy…
However, arriving in Phong Nah was one of those early mornings, albeit not one with trading involved. Having hopped onto a sleeper bus from Ninh Binh, the novelty of having beds stacked up on a coach soon wore off when the constant beeping horns, sharp breaking and shuddering from some poor roads kept me awake for most of the nine hours.
We arrived in Phong Nha at 4:30am, shattered and wanting some sleep. Fortunately, the owner of the hotel we were staying at was there waiting for us, along with his dogs. I think after he showed us our room, he was probably out for the count in the same time it took us to nod off.
When we awoke later that morning, we immediate hired some mopeds from the hotel and set off into the countryside towards some tourist attractions. Phong Nha is a fairly small place that it is basically one main high street, so it took no time at all before we were winding our way through the mountains towards Paradise Caves.
On the way to the caves we got caught up in some torrential rain. We had to make an unscheduled stop at a place called Mooc Springs to take shelter, as the combination of pouring rain and speeding along on mopeds made the rain feel like hail on your face. Plus it didn’t help we were only wearing t-shirts and shorts which soon soaked through. We saw this several times on our trip; it would rain as if water was being poured out of a bucket and would do so for about 30-40 minutes. And then once it had stopped it would be hot and dry again within the hour.
Once at Paradise Caves, we made the 2km walk up into the hills. Arriving at the tiny cave entrance, it was impressive, once your eyes had adjusted, to look into the great expanse underground. It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered that this cave had only been discovered in 2005, and stretches out for 31km underground, (although tourists can only walk through 1km of this). But it is probably the most spectacular section of the cave as there are stalactites and stalagmites the height of buildings as the ceiling in places reaches 72m.
That evening we were invited by the hotel owner to join him for a traditional family dinner. Which ended up being some of the best food we had on our trip. And because we had booked mopeds and our travel through him, he didn’t want us to pay for it. Although we did end up paying, (the equivalent of a few pounds), it was another example of the generosity and good nature of the local people.
The next day we did have plans to visit another cave called The Dark Cave, where you zip lined through the cave and then explored it with head torches. We ended up hiking up to a waterfall at a place called Botanical Gardens. This was mainly because we had gone out the night before, and a live band at a place called Easy Tiger, including fresh beer and a large number of travellers meant we woke up slightly later than planned and we wouldn’t have had time to do the Dark Caves before our bus left. The Botanical Gardens was a pleasant trek through the jungle, up to the waterfall where we chilled for a bit, nursing our hangovers. We made it back just in time before it poured with rain again, and after thanking the hotel owner, we jumped onto the bus destined for the city of Hue.
Hue & Hai Van Pass
We arrived late in the evening to Hue from Phong Nha. Our first port of call was a travel centre where we wanted to book our trip to Hoi An, via the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass was made famous by Top Gear when they travelled Vietnam by motorbike, and after saying it was one of the most spectacular roads to drive, we obviously wanted to do it. We found a company who gave us mopeds and would deliver our large rucksacks to Hoi An where we would pick them up after.
The next morning we had some spare time before embarking on our epic 140km drive to Hoi An. So we walked down to the river running through Hue. All of a sudden we found ourselves in a spontaneous English class, where we were the teachers. We had been walking through a park when a guy overhead us speaking English and started talking to us. One thing led to another and we ended up joining a class of kids who had come to the park and sat down to teach them English and play some games.
It was great, the kids we were told were from an orphanage and didn’t have much schooling, so it was fantastic to help out, even if it was for just half an hour. My friend had had a similar experience when he was in Myanmar and mentioned that this is a type of travel experience you can’t buy or go looking for, it just happens.
The best way to see Vietnam is on a moped (or motorbike). And so driving from Hue to Hoi An down the coast and up the Hai Van Pass was awesome. We had a group of eight of us making the journey, with some of the guys having biked the whole way down from Hanoi, following in the footsteps of Clarkson, Hammond and May.
We only had one breakdown, this is apparently common when you buy a motorbike to travel the country to then sell it at the end. One of the guy's back tyres had an inner tube which was a size too big for the actual tyre. Fortunately it decided to blow right outside a house in the middle of nowhere which happened to have a small mechanics attached to the side of it. Half an hour later and some poor hand gesturing to translate, and we were on our way again.
It was suggested we stop at a place called Elephant Falls, where there was a rock that looked like an elephant next to a waterfall. It proved a welcome stop as the heat was pretty intense when you didn’t have the wind blowing at you as you zipped along the roads. We had a quick swim in the one of the many man-made pools that the locals had made along the river before setting off again, towards the top of the Hai Van Pass.
Climbing higher with the views of the beaches down below, we wound our way up to the top of the pass. It was a fun drive, and the views at the top were fantastic. You were able to see the coast leading to Hue in the North, then turn South to look down across the bay to Da Nang and Hoi An beyond. Making our way down the other side of the mountain towards Hoi An made for a relaxing drive as the air was cooler with the sun starting to set.
Making our way into the scenic city of Hoi An, we dropped our bikes off, picked up our backpacks and headed to our accommodation. We were shattered after the long drive, but that night we went out and didn’t get back until 6am. Turns out Hoi An is a lot of fun...
Stay tuned for Part 4 - Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh