Phong Nha, Phong Nha Cave

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Hanoi to Phong Nha

Our plan for Vietnam is to reach Ho Chi Minh city which is at the far south end of the country. We wanted to make some progress so decided to make a good chunk of progress and head to Phong Nha.

We were debating between Phong Nha and Ninh Binh which seems to be a similar town, but Nin Binh is just outside Hanoi so we decided on Phong Nha to make a little further progress.

Both are small towns just outside of national parks. At first glance from the guide book, it appeared Nin Binh would be easier logistically to access the attractions since they were all right by the city. From the guide book it said to reach Phong Nha first you had to go to Dong Hoi and then arrange some transportation from there. However, after talking to our hostel we discovered a tourist bus that would bring us straight there. For 55 bucks we got a ticket for full transportation all the way to Ho Chi Minh city with stopovers in any city we wanted for as long as we wanted. The ticket could be somewhat cheaper if we opted for less stops but we wanted to keep our options open.

The bus was a sleeper bus, which meant it had bunk beds that reclined with a bed in them. Never seen anything like it.

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The beds were made for Vietnamese-sized people so needless to say I didn’t fit all that well. Regardless, I managed to sleep waking up about once an hour. The bus was very new and modern.

Half way through, we stopped at a bus stop that had some amazing marble sculptures, like the ones you see at multi million dollar mansions. They were beautiful and there were so many of them!

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I inquired how much for this amazing chair & table set, $150,000. I passed on it for now.

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The bus left around 7pm and we arrived in Phong Nha about 10 hours later. The bus dropped us right off at a hostel some other backpackers were going to and since we didn’t know where to stay and it was 5am we opted to stay here at Easy Tiger hostel. I didn’t expect this to be a huge tourist destination but there were quite a few travelers here and the hostel was fairly busy. Not the nicest I have been to, but the staff were great and helpful and seem really interested in helping out the local community.

About Phong Nha- It is a small town right outside the Phong Nha national park. Apparently tourism just blew up here about 4 years ago- you can tell tourists are still new to them. The people are extremely friendly- the little kids are always saying “hi” and giving high fives. The local people are hospitable and welcoming always smiling.  The local people survive mostly off farming and logging.

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Rice Patties

The national park is very protected. The tours here are very expensive because of the national park fees (~$50-250). What Phong Nha is mostly known for is its cave systems, including the worlds world’s biggest cave.

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There are still tons of unexplored caves and undetonated bombs and land mines from the Vietnam war is another reason they don’t want people wandering the national park without an arranged tour.

Given the options and the fact that we had just dropped a good chunk of change on our Ha Long Bay cruise, we opted to go the cheapest route which was a tour to the Phong Nha cave which is the biggest cave in the world.

Our hostel arranged a group together for us since the bigger the group the cheaper the boat ride was. The twelve of us walked to the ticket office and paid around $13 a person for the boat and entrance to the cave.

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The boat took us about 30 mins down the river where we saw tons of the locals working in the river pulling out what appeared to be.. seaweed?

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We approached the cave entrance

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Inside was definitely impressive. Much bigger than the cave we saw in Ha Long bay.

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After bringing us through in the boat for about 15 minutes they dropped us off so we could walk around the cave back to the entrance to get back in the boat. They had a guy in the cave yelling at us whenever we went somewhere we weren’t supposed to.

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During the Vietnam war, the american troops were camping out in this cave and storing ammunition. For this reason, the cave was constantly bombed and there were still damages visible on the cave entrances.

We caught the boat back and walked back to the hostel. At this point, I started to discover I had food poisoning from the hot dog I had at the bus stop the day before. No fun. So I proceeded to shit my brains out and sleep the rest of the day and night.

Jose didn’t want to stay another day but I still wanted to see more and not rush out of here, let alone the fact that I was dying and constant diarrhea is not something that is fun to travel with on a 5 hour bus ride. I won the battle.

The next day we rented mopeds from the guy across the street for 5 bucks. Our hostel gave us a route of a circle route to take for some scenery and for access to the other caves.

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We followed the route out of town which was about 60kms or about 3 hours. It was a beautiful drive and we were able to interact with the local people, including helping unload a big truck that we could not figure out how got in their current dilemma for 45 minutes so they could be towed out.

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They were thankful and offered us fifty cents and cigarettes for our help but we passed.

Moving on, we drove up and down winding mountain roads with fantastic views. The weather was perfect.

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It was good being able to get out a little bit and really get the feel for the town. I wish I could have discovered a little more hiking down random trails or random caves or whatnot.. but that didn’t happen. The guy that works at the hostel found a detonated land mine in a cave and was showing us- I wanted to find something like that cool souvenir.

Every attraction we saw along the loop required fees to get in and it wasn’t cheap- although we heard that Dark Cave had a really fun zip line/swim in the cave/swim through mud tour, for 150 bucks I don’t think it was worth it. We already saw a cave, see one see em all.

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We refreshed at the hostel for a few then headed back out to try out this coffee supposed to be really good by the guy that discovered the world’s biggest cave- some chocolate coffee. Too sweet. I wasn’t too impressed.

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Next stop is Hue, a small town that I don’t really know too much about. Bus leaves at 4:30am another sleeper bus.

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Ha Long City, Ha Long Bay

My brother and Tessa had been to Ha Long Bay, a very popular tourist destination. They did a multi day cruise based out of a tour from the city. Following their advice we didn’t book a tour from the city but instead only booked a bus for transportation to Ha Long city to figure it out from there. 

After getting a contrasting a couple places we booked a bus for $8 to Halong City.

Everyone else on our bus was on a tour and we were the only ones just booking the bus. The bus actually dropped us at a cruise terminal 3km from the city. Here lots of people were trying to hustle us to buy a cruise telling us that cruises only left at that time of the day. Rather than be pressured into making a bad mistake, we opted to instead take our time and stay in the city one night.

We walked the 3kms to the city and onto the main road where the hotels are, on D Vuon Dao.

Here we booked a hotel room for $10 a night with a beautiful view of the city.

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There were very few tourists in Ha Long City since most people opt for a tour straight from Hanoi. In hind site, I wish we had booked a trip straight to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi since this is supposed to be equally beautiful but less touristed and less polluted. But, if we were to do a trip to Ha Long Bay like we did, we should have just booked the tour straight from the city. So, basically we messed up. Happens.

As we were to find out, it is true that the boats only leave at noon each day. So we were basically stranded in Halong City for the day so we decided to walk around and explore.

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There was a nice promenade along the water so we strolled for a few miles.

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Everyone hustles in Vietnam, but it was more intense in Halong City as like I said there were very few tourists. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone trying to hustle us into their hotel room, give us a ride on their moped, stay at their hotel, etc. I think they see us as walking dollar signs. It was frustrating but we learned just to ignore them as they don’t take no for an answer if you try to politely decline.

We ended up grabbing lunch at a place with seafood (all the restaurants seem to serve the same thing). The food was excellent.

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We spent the rest of the day shopping around for a tour. We did our best not to get ripped off but it is difficult. Apparently there are three options for cruise boats: 5 star, 3 star, and Standard. We were advised not to take Standard as the boats were not up to par. So we booked a 3 star boat and paid $120 per person for a “two day” trip. This two day trip would turn out to be less than 24 hours, as they include the shuttle from Hanoi as part of the day as well as your drive between hotels picking up passengers. We would later find out we could have paid $95 for the same tour from another travel agency. We would also find out that the boat they sell you on would not be the boat we would take. They will say anything to sell you something and it is rare to find someone who speaks decent english so the language barrier is challenging.

The next day and noon we caught the bus to the cruise port. Apparently there is more than one since this is not the port were at the day previous.

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We had to wait around in the port for an hour or so until we met our tour guide. Although our boat could carry 16 guests, there was only us and an older couple from San Francisco.

The boat turned out to be very nice, had a lot of character.

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Can't complain about the view

Halong Bay is beautiful and one the the 7 natural wonders of the world. Although beautiful, there is garbage everywhere in the water which is a shame. The guide said most of it comes from the sea since it connects to the open ocean. Us humans are dirty.

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Apparently Jose and I were a couple on this trip as although there were 6 extra open rooms they made us share a room as well as Jose’s cold. All the food was served on shared plates and they were even kind enough to give us rose petals on our table for dinner.

The food was delicious, every meal plentiful and very good food.

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Everything on the cruise was very regimented. We were told Halong Bay management tracks each ship and tells them where they can dock and where they can go when. There are 2-300 ships in the water at any given time. We had a strict schedule to follow for everything. This place reminds me a little bit of the Galapagos in terms of the whole cruise experience, and a little bit of some kayak trips I went on in New Zealand.

Our first stop was a 45 minute stop at an island where we could swim in the garbage water and hike up some steep stairs for views of the bay.

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The hike up the stairs was pretty steep but only a 5 minute walk. Great views.

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Halfway up the stairs there were monkeys to entertain us on our break.

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I took a quick swim and we jumped back on the boat. Our next stop would be kayaking.

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There were only double kayaks available which made sense for Jose and I’s honeymoon. Kayaking was beautiful and we went through a couple caves.

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The kayaking lasted about the same amount of time. We reboarded our boat and docked for the night.

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At night we did some shrimp fishing but everyone quickly gave up since no one caught anything and lets face it, fishing sucks. Jose and I went to sleep in our cute little ocean view bedroom at 8pm.

The next morning we were woken up at 6:30am to start our day. The plan was to head to a cave then back to shore for noon to catch our shuttle back to Hanoi.

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We were the first ones in the cave since all the other tour groups had large groups. The older couple on our ship had departed to go on another ship (they were on the 3 day cruise agenda) so it was just Jose, myself, and our guide. The cave was impressive.

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It was about a 30 minute walk through paths throughout the cave.

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Once back on the ship we started our journey back to shore. We would be served one more lunch.
Along the way in the bay, the people do not stop trying to hustle us. They chased us down in a little boat and sold us some water and handed it up to us in a net.

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She sold big jugs of water for two bucks but on the ship all they sold was tiny bottles for a dollar that I would have drank twenty of in 2 days.

Hanoi, Tam Dao, Ha Long City

The fight to Hanoi, Vietnam from Boston took about 36 hours door to door. I flew Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Hanoi. The Old Quarter, where we were staying, was about an hour ride from the airport. Random enough, I ran across a girl in my high school graduating class in the Tokyo airport and then again in Hanoi city. I also met up with my Canadian travel buddy Jose in the Tokyo airport but this part was planned.

The plan was to meet Jose, possibly meet up with my brother and sister in law in Vietnam, then 3 weeks later meet up with our girlfriends and an third couple once in Bangkok for another 2 weeks. Outside of that we had open schedules.

Once in Hanoi we stayed at a hostel called Hanoi Rocks. This hostel was $6 a night for a dorm bed and included breakfast (omelette and toast with coffee) and free beer from 6-7 pm each day as well as free wifi and bottled water. Not a bad deal!

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Hanoi Rocks Hostel

We exchanged our money in the airport for Vietnamese Dong which was roughly 20,000 Dong = 1 USD. In the Lonely Planet, I read that we could catch a shuttle for round $3 USD to downtown or a taxi should cost us about $10-15.

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Vietnamese Dong

Given our long, miserable flight we opted for the taxi. The first taxi we saw I asked for the price and he mumbled in some horrible English, “meter” so we jumped in.

Once arriving at the hostel, the meter read about 382,000 Dong when at most it should have been 300,000.

Being obviously unfamiliar with the money, we were taking a while and he became increasingly frustrated. He gestured for us to hand him our money (which I would not have done) but Jose unthinkingly handed him his stack of dong. Once the hustle and bustle was over, we realized that he took about 500k dong or $25 and that was our first experience being ripped off in Hanoi 🙂

The first night we absolutely passed out. I had been sick the whole plane ride and we were completely jet lagged (12 hour time difference).

Before arriving, I read in the Lonely Planet that Vietnam is relatively safe and has a rapidly growing economy. So I was surprised to find how poor the majority of the people are. Although very poor, I was told they have very strict consequences for crime which keeps people honest. Whereas other countries I have been to you can feel uncomfortable and worry about someone snatching your camera or belongings, I don’t feel that vibe here.

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The city itself is pretty run down, exactly what you would expect from a third world country. What I noticed here more than other places I have been is that it seems this “wealth” from the “rapidly growing economy” is going to a select few people. I heard there are 60 million mopeds here- and out of those, I would guess there are about 50 mopeds for each car.

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Out of the cars that are here, there is a noticeably high ratio of expensive cars- a lot of Porsches, Mercedes, Range Rovers, saw several Bentleys. To have a Bentley in a place where meals cost $1.50 and hotels cost $5 a night you have to be seriously balling. So my feeling is that the people here are either “in” on this exploding economy or “out”, resulting in a seriously large separation of wealth.

What else was immediately evident was the lack of traffic. Although there an insane amount of people driving on the roads, they are all on mopeds which take up very little space.

These people drive like absolute MANIACS. It feels like you can’t cross the road without getting run over by 5 mopeds, a bicycle, and a car. After crossing a couple times, however, you see that they are accustomed to this craziness and they won’t run you over. Well, none of us have been run over yet anyway.

The first night, we met up with my brother and sister in law at a local restaurant and walked around the city a bit.

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They told us how they had gone up North already to Sapa (mountainous hiking area) and Ha Long Bay. They wanted to head South to Hoi An (small charming city) but this didn’t make much sense for us as we wanted to see the two places they had been before we headed South out of the Hanoi area.

So we ended up compromising and heading West on a day trip to Tam Dao national park. We were told it would be about 2 hours by moped.

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Jose on his moped in Hanoi

We paid $10 a day for the mopeds but were ripped off and should have only spent about 6. The guy at our hostel led us out of the city as the city is an absolute maze and with the nonstop fast paced traffic makes it near impossible to navigate. We learned that one ways are 100% optional, with about 70% of the people following the one way rules. Stop lights also agree with this, you can stop at the stop lights- or not. Also are the directions on the highway. You can drive with the traffic on the highway, or directly against it- your choice. Lanes in the roadways are for driving. Or parking. Or selling lighters. Or transporting your ducks.

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Passing trucks was downright scary, everyone constantly honking.

After a solid 2 hour ride we made it to Tam Dao. Luckily I had GPS on my phone and realized we were at the wrong place. We headed up a windy mountain road for 13 kms which was a blast until we ended up in the town of Tam Dao.

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Tam Dao

Here is where we lost my brother and Tessa, and we never found the entrance to the national park. But its about the journey not the destination, right?

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We waited at the bottom of the road as it was the only way they could return and what do you know we met up with him an hour or so later.

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The journey home was even more insane than the drive there. We were driving home at rush hour. We lost Daniel and Tessa to a flat tire we later found out. While they were on their own adventure dealing with their flat tire, we were attempting to navigate back to our hostel though all the winding streets, one ways, and chaotic traffic.

On the way into the city crossing a bridge I suddenly noticed we were the only mopeds on the bridge. Suddenly we go by a police stand they start yelling at us to pull over and tell us to go inside. They tell us we went the wrong way and we had to pay them 600,000 dong or they would keep our mopeds. I was afraid they would see my go pro on my helmet or confiscate my camera in my bag since we didn’t have the money. Luckily they settled for 80,000 dong or $4  and let us go 🙂

We were immediately thrown back in the chaos of millions of mopeds.

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Google maps was still working on my phone in terms of finding our location. So every time we’d get redirected because of speeding by a turn or redirected from a wrong way or bribing a cop, we’d have to reference our GPS to find our location. I don’t know how we would have made it home without it. Jose was uselessly asking for directions each time we stopped when I was looking at my GPS. Between the language barrier and enormous city, directions were mostly futile.

It was an extreme adrenaline experience, it felt like a high speed Grand Theft Auto video game chase trying to avoid pedestrians mopeds trucks cars and the cops.