Leaving Hue behind we headed to Phong Nha via local bus – to save the pennies… And I think my knees are still hating me; they really stack those seats in close together in Vietnam.
Phong Nha is a relatively undeveloped region in North central Vietnam. A couple of decades ago it was just scattered farmers. Now there are small villages and towns and a few tourist attractions – mainly caves – have been developed in the last few years. But this is a genuine, authentic part of Vietnam. So what does that mean?
Farmers. Horses pulling carts. Rice paddies as far as the eye can see. And a hard life… But a truly stunning one. A patchwork quilt of paddies are formed from the different strains being grown, some harvested, others not; yellow, green and brown hues burst from fields in every direction.
And as the sun goes down. Paradise.
A paradise made perfect as scampering round our feet daily were two-month old puppies. Four of them in fact. Each with a unique personality… And not one of them would fit in our bags. Note. Next time bigger bags for scrumping puppies. Check.
With the stage set – limestone karsts, rice paddies, friendly locals – a bike ride was in order. We hopped onto bikes and took ourselves on a little tour. All was going well till we arrived at the far reaches of our journey. ‘Shall we head back?’. ‘Sure thing’, says Joyce. Puncture. My tire had somehow managed to go flat and so the return journey was set to be pedalled a little and pushed mainly; all on very rough tracks in scorching heat. But that would be okay as long as nothing else went wrong!
…Cycling through a small village I pass, without issue, three dogs. I round the corner and start heading up a small hill. I turn round to check on Joyce and I see she has made three furry enemies. Maybe they could smell the puppies? As she put her foot down hard on the pedal to get away, steering sharply left to get her feet out of jaws-reach from one of the little blighters, her wheel skids in the remains of threshed rice. The wheel collapses underneath her. Quickly followed by a crashing Joyce… Her planned worked perfectly though. The dogs were s**t scared by the noise of a pancaked Joyce, turned tail and ran. The downside: an injured Joyce.
As I returned to the scene of the crime I heard the chorus of laughter of the villagers and them acting out Joyce’s tumble. Wobbling their arms, eyes wide, then flopping their hands down to their sides. Mouth wide, howling with laughter. I couldn’t help but join in and neither could Joyce.
The whole village came out to see ‘the incident of 2013’. We were literally surrounded by 20 people. Some brought medicines and creams. Others made bandages and one used local herbs that acted as anaesthetic to numb the pain. They pointed us in the right way to get home. All with a laugh and a smile. And us disappearing into the distance to the constant scream of ‘HELLO’. ‘BYE’.
So the road to paradise is not without its hurdles. Paradise cave that is.
The following day I left a hobbling Joyce at the farmstay to rest and recuperate (with the puppies) and I trekked off to explore the little known corners of Paradise cave. Along with my three other intrepid explorers we plunged deep into the dark recesses of this recently opened cave, accompanied by a couple of guides and some trusty torches.
We were going past the tourist lights and hiking deep underground 7km to a spectacular doline (a roof opening in a cave) and underground river. This was a real caving experience and it blew me away. Each cave and cavern was like a valley. Each one different and completely unique. The way the water falls, the materials in the surrounding rock, every little detail creates a new vista to savour. Every step revealed a new treasure.
Rather than say more I will let a couple of pictures speak for themselves.
Words cannot do justice to the underground splendour that exists underneath the feet of all who pass through Phong Nha. And to the paradise that is confronted to those who dare tread beneath its towering peaks.