Hue and Phong Nha
Once we checked out from An Bang Seaside Village and said goodbye, we took a taxi to Da Nang station which took about half an hour. All taxis here are metred so there is no risk of scams or no haggling needed. The only fixed price ones are to and from Da Nang for $20.
The train from Da Nang to Hue has been great, with amazing views over the coast and the countryside, and a lot
Of people waving along the way.
During the journey there are vendors that sell mangos, lemon juice and other hot snacks including soups in transparent plastic bags, and the soft seats are very comfortable and cheap with aircon. Our train was very very full, but we were lucky enough to sit on the right side of the train, which for the train that goes North has the best views. The train was full of locals, some families and some on their own, always munching hot soups or noodles and making the carriage smell of warm soy sauce. It was great to melt into their day to day life, and I personally love travelling on trains so really enjoyed the journey apart from one very loud, sudden hard stop that woke up the snoring Brucey and made my heartbeat faster for a few minutes.
After arriving at our hotel called Holiday Diamond (nothing special but very good, clean and cheap with breakfast included and very helpful staff) and having a nice shower we went out for a great French dinner at Les Jardins de la Carambole in Hue near the citadel. We had a nice soup d’ognion and some hams and camembert to start, and then two very tasty steaks. We were in need of red meat!
The atmosphere of the restaurant was very colonial, and there was a pianist playing upstairs which made it very romantic. Until Rob started slurping his soup.
The following morning we had a tour booked for half a day, to visit the tombs of the imperial kings in Hue. First we visited a countryside village with some old bridges in the same style of Hoi An. We also passed through a market where we saw several fishes still alive moving about, alive chickens that were killed instantly once purchased, and an old lady was selling eggs with the chick inside – more of an investment then a lunch! Then we moved on to the first and most ancient tomb, the Tomb of Minh Mang built in 1840.
Nobody knows where the body of the king is buried, he did make sure to hide his grave well because it was full of jewels and gems and he didn’t want others to steal it. Our guide told us that nowadays there is the technology to find out the tomb, but no one wants to as everyone in Vietnam is very superstitious and it would be very bad luck to open it.
On the way to the second tomb, our guide told us a few things about traffic in Vietnam, including these pearls of wisdom:
“In England you drive on the right, in Europe you drive on the left, in Vietnam… we drive in the middle!”
“The best tip to cross the road in Vietnam is: first close your eyes, and second never walk backwards!”
“In Vietnam if it’s green you can go, if it’s yellow you can go but fast, and if it’s red you can also go”
We then visited our second tomb, the more modern Tomb of Khai Dinh, he was a gay king that was actually called a puppet king as the French were ruling the country and he had no power whatsoever.
The atmosphere in the entrance is very gothic, with black statues and carvings, and the interior is very rich in sculptures and paintings. The painting on the ceiling was made by foot, not hands.
After the last tomb we had a quick lunch at Zucca restaurant, some weird fried noodles, and then had a quick look at the old imperial citadel before we had to rush to catch our train to Phong Nha. During the tour we met a very nice lady called Ida, who has also taken 6 months off and is travelling by volunteering in eco-friendly farms around the world. She is Colombian even though she now lives in a Kibbutz (community) in Israel, and very kindly gave us some great tips for when we will be visiting Colombia. Also a nice English/Indian doctor from Surrey called Veranda who was cracking loads of jokes.
Our train for Phong Nha departed at 16:47 and was on time, the journey was ok despite some noisy noodle eaters and a lot of small but still gross cockroaches.
We arrived in Phong Nha at 8pm and got picked up by our Pharmstay transfer. Arrived just in time for dinner, we had a re-heated but tasty burger and went straight to sleep as we have two busy days coming up.
Day 1: the National Park tour
In the morning we set off to enter the Phong Nha national park and our first stop was at the lady temple, built in memory of 4 men and 4 women that got stuck in a cave during the war after an American bomb hit the jungle and a huge rock blocked them in. They didn’t manage to get out, nor from outside nobody was able to pass them food and they died after one week in the cave. Very sad story, but they weren’t the only victims in this area during the Vietnam war, so the temple is in memory of all the dead in this area around called highway 20 because this was the average age of the people who worked there and also of those that died in the cave.
After the first stop we went to visit Paradise cave, which is 31km long although we only visited the first kilometre and it was discovered only five years ago. The entire area is very new to tourism, and still has that rural authentic feeling to it. Paradise cave was beautiful, full of stalagmites and stalactites creating a beautiful cathedral of million years old rock fragments. Unbelievable what nature is capable of! A masterpiece really. It’s all lit up to emphasise some of the formations and chambers, and full of steps going down that were built by the British caving association when they came here. There is an option to go 7km inside, but that’s only with head torches and guide.
After paradise cave we had a quick (cold and pretty disgusting) lunch before heading some by zip line and some by kayak (including us, because Bruce was too heavy for the ZipLining which has maximum weight of 90kg!) to the Dark Cave.
The Dark Cave was a crazy experience. With helmets and head torches, we started waking into the cave, initially through pebbles, but soon through thick gooey mud. The mud started at the ankles, and then went up to the knees. It was very slippery, very dark, and in some bits very narrow which made the experience pretty scary at times. Especially as I saw a huge black spider in one of the small holes that we used as climbing handles. So scary! Bruce heard me freaking out as he was behind me, and he decided not to look! Despite that he kept telling everyone “did you see the spider?” as if claiming that he did! More girly than me to be honest!
After walking one km inside, we reached a big pool of thick mud, where we started to float so much since the mud was so thick. It was the weirdest experience ever. Difficult to describe as we’ve never experienced anything like it!
Back outside Bruce also played some volleyball with the locals, showing off his incredible skills by constantly hitting the ball at the parked van nearby.
During the day we met a lovely american couple from Denver in Colorado, Brendan and Mckenzie and we ended up chatting away the entire day and had dinner with them.
They only had one week in Vietnam and we felt really bad telling them about our 6 months… but they were lovely and pretended to be very interested despite Rob talking too much as per usual. The poor McKenzie had a cold and cough for all the holiday, and as she ordered a Pizza Margherita, she instead received a very spicy hot salami pizza… She started to have very very strong hiccups which made us laugh for the entire evening. In the end she luckily got the right pizza and got back to normal! Hopefully the chilli helped a bit with her running nose!
After dinner the Pharmstay organised an open air cinema where we watched Heaven and Earth by Oliver Stone. A great, even if really sad, movie about the story of a girl during and after the Vietnam war, with Tommy Lee Jones. It was amazing to watch it in the middle of rice fields, in the deep vietnamese countryside, with the moon on the top of our heads, and the sound of crickets all around us. Very suggestive and a great idea! Time to say goodbye to our new friends who are off tomorrow to Saigon and have a well deserved sleep as we have another tour tomorrow.
We also met a really nice family from UK/Australia – Richard, Gwen and daughter Lily who we met up with again later on, and a young Swiss guy called Marco who managed to get some snaps in the Mud Cave – his camera somehow survived the mudbath!
Day 2 Hai’s Eco Conservation Tour
They picked us up after breakfast for our Eco Tour at 8:30am, with motorbikes! We sat behind one person each, a part from the three children with us who sat in between the driver and their mum or dad. There was 10 of us, 7 adults and 3 kids – of which two little girls originally from Vietnam but adopted when they were four months old by two nice ladies living in Ireland (Mandy and Collette). It was the first time for the girls back in their country of origin!
Rich, Gwen and Lily also joined the same tour and was great to get to know them better. There was also a friendly american girl called Deseray from Santa Barbara.
The morning was spent driving around inside the national park and first stop was the monkey conservation sanctuary. Hai, was our amazing guide who is the one who started this business here. He told us that not that long ago people here were struggling to find enough food for the village and for the family, and therefore animal protection wasn’t exactly their main priority.
Since Vietnamese people are very superstitious, and in the time when medicine was all natural, there was a belief that eating the monkeys brains would heal any disease. So a lot of hunters would go to the jungle and set up traps, and spend a couple of days in the jungle on their hammock, drinking too much, and then they would go and find the traps and sell the monkeys for a lot of money. This would last them for about a month (they are not good at savings! Just like bruce) and then they would have to go again. It had been very difficult to discourage this habit since it’s easy and quick money. Now Hai is trying to put an end to this, and all the motorbike drivers that drove us around are ex hunters that know the jungle very well but now can make money through this tours so they don’t hunt anymore and they are actually helping the conservation project. What Hai helps to do by giving money from his tour to the sanctuary is curing injured monkeys and other animals and then getting them back into nature once ready.
Another crazy story Hai told us was about the two westerners that ever came in this area to live. They were German and they owned very big german dogs. All the village started to stare at the dogs thinking that they could have actually fed the entire village for a few days if they killed the dog. At some point the dog died, and the owners were very sad and even cried. This was very crazy behaviour for the locals that wanted to get hold of the dog’s body to eat it. The owner tried to bury the dog, but kept seeing a lot of eyes staring at him, ready to dig the dog out once dark – to then cook it and eat it. The guy also tried to drive up the mountains to bury the dog in a secret place but he was getting followed.
After meeting the animals in the sanctuary, including mainly monkeys, a coupe of porcupines and some other species we never saw before – we then entered the botanical gardens before entering the actual jungle.
The jungle trek was very very hardcore. We were warned but still didn’t expect it to be that difficult and thick. Roots were everywhere and you had to be very careful not to get your ankles caught, and branches of trees were all around – very easy to bruise your arms and legs hence why they suggest to wear long trousers and long sleeve shirts.
We almost never saw the sky since the jungle was so thick with vegetation, and there was a lot of squatting required – which bruce didn’t enjoy too much but it was perfect for the kids and for the mini-vietnamese guides. We stopped for lunch near a cave which was a weapons store in the War (part of trek was the Ho-Chi Minh Trail) , and had very tasty pork barbecue, and we then sat around the fire to have tea and coffee to gather all the strength before continuing our trek. We finished at 5pm and were a bit behind schedule, so didn’t have time to swim in the beautiful natural waterfall lake – which was still a nice reward to look at after all the walking! We also saw some huge bomb craters from the War and some old traps that hunters had set up.
We jumped on our motorbikes and they had to go very fast (which made it even more scary) down the hills to get us back to the Pharmstay to grab our luggage and get transferred to the train for our overnight journey to Hanoi.
In the rush I left behind my fleece, and had a mini-meltdown (almost crying) saying to Brucey that we are travelling too quickly. He – as always – managed to cheer me up and made me MAN UP.
The overnight train wasn’t too bad, we managed some sleep, even though there were so many people coughing and some of the coughs really sounded gross and disgusting, and of course food vendors were shouting, cockroaches were walking about, people were sleeping on the floor, and noodle smell never left us for a second. We got a lot of looks since we were the only westerners in the carriage, but it was a real insight into their travelling ways. In some things is more advanced than our trains, you get free bottle of water, and blankets as well as a dedicated person for each carriage looking after the customers.