2019 started with a bang! We welcomed in the New Year with some karaoke, locally made “banana wine” (it was very strong whiskey that I could barely handle), a fire, and Vietnamese snacks. Can’t say I’ve ever brought in a new year while singing Queen with a bunch of Brits in a remote village on a Vietnamese island.
The next day, we caught the ferry back to the mainland and said goodbye to Cat Ba (for now). But we were excited because we could finally pick up our care package from my mom! Almost a month later and it had finally arrived, filled with candy, homemade cookies, games and magazines. It was a week late but it really felt like Christmas!
Another night in Haiphong (the ladies at our hotel have started treating us like their children), and then we headed down to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc, situated at the base of a cluster of limestone karsts a couple hours’ bus ride to the south. The area is known for its caves, beautiful rice paddies, and slowly meandering rivers, and it did not disappoint.
We booked our room at a local homestay situated in the middle of the small city and it quickly became one of our favorite places! We were literally staying with a family; walking through their kitchen to use the bathroom, watching them sit together in the living room and play with the children, listening to them laughing on the other side of the thin wall that separated us. It was peaceful and relaxing, and combined with our care package from home, we were in good spirits!
We rented a couple bicycles and began pedaling around the area, making it our goal to pedal to several sites near Tam Coc. We rode through rice paddies and small villages, in awe of the surrounding landscape. We saw temples built into the hard limestone towers, and climbed over 500 steps to the top of a cliff, where we could see for miles in all directions. It was refreshing to get out of the big city and use only our own two feet to get around.
The next day, we had the full day in Tam Coc, so we rented a motorbike to explore further out of the city. Our first stop was an adorable local coffee shop called The Brick. Decked out with antiques and mismatching furniture, it was truly a hipster’s dream. Combined with delicious coffee and an adorable baby who loved trying to talk to us, it was a perfect spot for us to hang out.
The next item on our agenda after getting caffeinated was Trang An, an area rich with caves, karsts and history. It was here that the locals defended themselves from the Mongol invaders using the caves and karst towers to hide from and confuse the enemy. After rowing in the boat for several hours, we could definitely see how easy it would be to get lost in the tall grasses with all of the features starting to look the same. Part of the boat tour also took us through a section of an old movie set from the most recent King Kong movie, which was somewhat bizarre since they paid actors to look like the indigenous people in the village and they just stood there and watched us walk by. It was weird.
We then headed to Bai Dinh pagoda, a massive pagoda complex far out on the edge of town. It was confusing to say the least. Signage was minimal and since it’s offseason in the tourism world, there weren’t enough throngs of people to try and follow. A confusing electric car system made us increasingly lost, and we both agreed that the experience wasn’t that great. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
On our way back, as we crossed the rice paddies, the engine of the motorbike stalled and then simply wouldn’t start again. We were out of gas! Thankfully, it wasn’t too much of a walk to the nearest petrol vendor and we provided some entertainment to the locals as we struggled on by.
The next day, it was time to head back to Haiphong. Because this city is not a tourist hub, we found it difficult to get transportation back and ended up being dropped on the outskirts of town after some hand gestures and pointing. We got a taxi into town and stayed for a third time at our favorite hotel!
We rented a motorbike (this one’s speedometer and gas gauge didn’t work and only had one mirror! Yay!) and headed back out to Cat Ba island, as it was almost my birthday and we wanted to do some birthday climbing!
We took a climbing tour from a well-known local company so we could experience some crags that are only accessible by boat. It was a very fun day! The climbing guides were awesome to just hang out with, and we got to climb some pretty fun and unique routes. We capped off the day by grabbing dinner at a popular local rooftop restaurant, complete with a candle and chocolate cake. It was a perfect way to start year 27!
We also got to explore around an old fort on the island, with its bunkers and artillery fairly well preserved. The views were excellent!
Unfortunately, the next day, the cold Tay had been feeling for the past few days blew up into a 24-hr flu bug. I spent the morning exploring Hospital Cave (a big cave turned into a bunker for medical purposes during the war) and Truong Trang cave, but quickly went back to spend the day with Tay and make sure she was okay. She was miserable, especially having to sleep in a dorm, but she rode it out like a trooper. She’s tough!
After a laidback couple days on the island, it was time for an epic travel day. We had a night bus (from hell) scheduled for 7pm from Haiphong to Dong Hoi, a sleepy town several hundred miles down the coast. Before 7pm, we had to drive to the other side of Cat Ba, catch a ferry to the mainland, drive to Haiphong (through a rainstorm), pick up our bags, pick up our tailored clothing, and drop off the rented motorbike. All this while working around the hours of 11-3, which we’ve grown to acknowledge as a napping/lunch-eating/general-taking-time-off period in the Vietnamese culture. It was a long day, but we managed to do everything and make it to the bus station early.
Now comes the ride from hell. It was a 12 hour journey, but did we have a single rest stop? Nope! Guess who had to pee in the middle of a parking lot around midnight somewhere in central Vietnam? Me! I was very jealous of Taylor’s camel skills as I tried to pee as fast as I could, hoping the bus wouldn’t leave me behind.
Needless to say, we arrived tired and dehydrated into Dong Hoi. After a quick nap and a breakfast banh mi, we borrowed the hotel’s bicycles and rode to the beachfront. Dong Hoi was much quieter than any of the other towns we had been in, and we really enjoyed it! Cute shops lined the waterfront, and the slightly warmer weather was a welcome change. We spent our day drinking coffee, exploring the waterfront, and eating delicious food. We both said that we definitely could’ve spent more time exploring this area!
The next day, it was time to catch a public bus to go the ~40ish miles to Phong Nha National Park, a recently discovered area bursting with giant caves, beautiful waterways, and winding mountain roads. The bus was an interesting experience; always versatile, it was at times their UPS, school bus and taxi service. You could really get your money’s worth out of the local public transit system here!
We paid 50,000 dong and arrived in Phong Nha an hour later. It was a very small community packed with hostels, bars catering to Westerners and adventure tour services. It had the potential to be overly touristy, but since we are traveling in the off-season, it was relatively quiet and peaceful.
We dropped off our stuff and headed out to another boat tour, this one leading us into the epic Phong Nha cave. The blue-green waters contrasted with the yellows of the giant Catholic churches that were suddenly featured in every village we passed.
The cave was absolutely incredible. The boat driver cut the engine as we gently floated into the massive cavern, the ceiling at some points reaching over 40 meters above us. We paddled about 1 kilometer into the cave before turning around, but the driver informed us that it actually spans 7 kilometers and you can even kayak through the cave into Laos! We weren’t thrilled by that idea and were completely satisfied with the shorter tour.
For our 1 full day in Phong Nha, we rented a motorbike (seeing a pattern here?) and decided to drive all around the park to see the main sights.
Paradise Cave was our first stop and it was incredible! After a little jungle trek and over 600 meters of stairs, we finally arrived at the entrance to go down, you guessed it, more stairs.
You can get a glimpse here of the network of stairs just to bring you from the cave entrance down to the floor
To our disbelief, Paradise Cave put Phong Nha cave to shame with its incredibly high ceiling and massive stalagmites, some over 400 million years old. It was truly awe-inspiring to see and makes you wonder what’s hiding under every mountain!
Next, we took a sobering trip to 8 Ladies Cave, where 8 youths fighting for Vietnam in the war were trapped in the cave and sadly died before they could be rescued. It was another stark reminder, along with the ruins in Dong Hoi, of the US’s role in destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese. War is awful.
It was a beautiful day riding along the twisting mountain roads, admiring the vast green jungle stretching out endlessly before us. Phong Nha is a little slice of heaven that hasn’t yet developed into a full-on tourist trap: we definitely suggest going sooner rather than later!
Currently, we have crossed over the DMZ and are officially now into the south of Vietnam. We are spending time in Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An before we have to start making our way back up north to Hanoi to catch our plane to Australia!
So far, Vietnam has been incredibly kind to us with delicious food, insanely cheap prices, and beautiful scenery. It saddens us both to see firsthand the effects of a war fought by our own country, but at the same time, it is breathlessly invigorating to see the true joy and kindness many people have shown to us, even when they know we are Americans. As we continue forward on the last month of our journey, I hope to capture some of this enduring spirit and carry it on, a small tribute to this amazing culture.