Killing Fields/Genocide Museum/Vietnam & Cambodia border crossing

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Once in Saigon, our next step was to cross the border into Cambodia. From speaking to travelers and mentioned in the Lonely Planet book, there were two options: One, to get a visa on arrival or two, to get an e-visa.

We were told by other travelers that the evisa was the best choice since it was a much faster process at the border and faster processing. Additionally for the standard visa we were told we would need passport photos which I didn’t have so opted for the e visa route.

The evisa was super easy and off the Cambodian website there was even an app for the visa. How easy! The only catch is it would take 3 days to process.

When we arrived in Saigon, we were stuck a day as our visa was not ready yet. To make matters worst, we were told that there was no point in us getting the evisa since getting our visa at the border was a breeze. Ugh!

In fact, the evisa had cost us $5 more by doing it online. We were also restricted to one border crossing since only one border accepted it.

We crossed the border with a bus load of people of which we were the only ones with an evisa. If we had come on our own then we could have walked right through but with a bus load of people this would not have helped us any.

After crossing the border, we were crudely told to leave our new air conditioned, wifi bus to an old dirty shitty bus for the rest of the ride. Welcome to Cambodia.

Part of the 10+ hour (8 hours we were told) bus ride entailed taking the bus on a ferry.

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We arrived in the main city of Phnom Penn. I didn’t expect much of Phnom Penn; I expected it to be a big, dirty city but I was pleasantly surprised the area we were in was actually pretty nice.

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There were some immediately notable differences between Vietnam and Cambodia; Cambodia was far poorer.

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In Vietnam all the taxis are motorbikes, in Cambodia tuc tucs are the clear choice.

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In Phnom Penn there was a ton of prostitution. As soon as we got there we realized that something wasn’t normal but we couldn’t quite put a finger on what that was. Then we started to realize that in most places 60-70 year old white men do not walk around hand in hand with 16-20 year old Asian girls.

I got scammed in Phnom Penn; a woman approached me with a baby in her arms. There are many beggars so I didn’t think much of it. She had a half filled bottle in her hand and said milk for baby! So I said I would buy her milk. She leads me to a drug store and points to a $30 bottle of dried milk powder. I said no I’ll buy you this milk carton. She said no need powder! And points to a $13 bottle. Without thinking I say fine and after a cheap thank you! She is out the door. Something just didn’t feel right; it could have been the ungenuine thank you or the fact that baby powder cannot cost $30 in a place where people make less than $100 a month.

I asked a local about it and he confirmed my suspicion; there is a ring of this and it is very common. Usually the baby does not even belong to the woman, they rent them or buy them from the hospital. Sick. I felt betrayed and pissed they used my kindness against me. Next time I saw a woman with a baby asking for money I yelled at her.

Phnom Penn was the hub for the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum sites.

The Pol Pot Regime was a massacre that took place in the 70s in Cambodia. Similar to the holocaust, thousands of people were slaughtered under the rule of a dictator pursuing a “pure” race. Similar to the holocaust, there were killing fields established where mass murders were performed in inhumane ways just like holocaust concentration camps.

To visit the killing fields we hired a tuc tuc that drove us around for the day for 15 bucks. He would drop us off at each place then wait for us until we were ready to go to the next place.

Included in this “tour” was first a visit to a shooting range, then a visit to the killing fields, and lastly a visit to the genocide museum.

I can see why they bring you to the shooing range first to play with the weapons; it doesn’t feel quite right after visiting the other sites.

The shooting range was run by the government and they had basically a wall of guns you could shoot, anything you could dream of. You could throw a grenade for $100, or shoot a rocket launcher for $300. From there, guns started at $55 for 30 rounds with an AK 47 and went up from there.

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If you had $1000 bucks to burn I imagine you could have a ton of gun here. But we were working on a 5 week backpacker’s budget.

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There were rumors that you could shoot a cow if you paid for it, or rumors that you could shoot a car. Our guide says you shoot at a jug of gasoline but I am sure money talks.

From the shooting range we headed over to the killing fields. Here, we paid our $6 (?) entrance fee and were given a guided audio tour.

The tour was very informative and very sad. At this particular site, 20,000 people were killed. Everything was mostly left the way it was found, so there were bone fragments in the paths and shards of clothing sticking out as you walked. They clean up the bones and clothing once a month but with rain it continues to resurface.
 

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There were pits everywhere where mass graves had been dug and caved in.

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One of the saddest parts was a “killing tree” a farmer had discovered where soldiers would hold babies by the legs and hit them against a tree and toss them in a pit.

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At the end of the exhibit was the memorial which had a tower of bones which had been classified by age group and cause of death.

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The killing fields were definitely an emotional experience. When we left, we then headed to the genocide museum.

The genocide museum was held in an old school building that had been converted to a prison during the regime.

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Pol Pot and the communists did not support education so had most of the schools converted into prisons. Barb wire was put up and prison cells were created.

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The last 12 prisoners killed on the premises were buried at the site.

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Cu Chi tunnels/Ho Chi Mihn city (Saigon)

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The Cu Chi tunnels are tunnels that were used during the Vietnamese war by the Vietnamese soldiers. Cu Chi is a small town a two hour bus ride from the city.

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The tunnels were constructed over a period of 20 years and reminded me of an ant hill. The soldiers lived underground where they had meeting rooms, sleeping rooms, and kitchens.

For ventilation, the troops had to disguise the holes so the American soldiers would not know where they were hiding. They did this in the form of above ground dirt piles meant to look like ant holes.

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After time the American soldiers started realizing what the Vietnamese were up to, shooting the soldiers then disappearing into the ground only to pop up into a different location. So they started bringing in dogs trained to smell the scent of the Vietnamese soldiers.

Once the Americans found the source of the smell, they would send what were nicknamed “tunnel rats” into the holes to attack the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese set up booby traps underground to kill these tunnel rats.

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In these traps (the one above very popular) they would stick snake venom or feces on the tips of the bamboo spikes so that when the American soldiers fell in they would get poisoned or get an infection.

To counter the dogs giving away the location of the Vietnamese, they at first shot the dogs but the Americans would hear the gun shots which also gave away their location. So they started putting pieces of American soldier’s clothing in the ventilation holes to trick the dogs as well as pepper so when they sniffed it would send them scurrying away.

The entrances for the tunnels were intentionally made very small so the bigger boned American soldiers could not squeeze through.

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For the tour, these entrances and tunnels were widened so we could fit inside easily, however it was still very uncomfortable and gave you a sense of what these people went through living underground for years.

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The Vietnamese were very poor and did not have many weapons like the US did. So they had to be resourceful, taking American weapons after they were killed or cutting open bombs to use the gunpowder to make their own new weapons.

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They also practiced a lot of nasty guerilla warfare with their wide array of traps.

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This fish trap, for example, was stuck under a hidden hole that was covered with leaves or other natural brush. When the soldier would fall in, his leg would get stuck in this trap like a fish or lobster trap. Mines would be put under the trap, so when the solder’s comrades came to help him, they would detonate the mine and kill them both.

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This rolling trap was made so when a soldier would fall in, these spikes would rotate and pierce them all the way down their body.

At the end of the tour, they had a shooting range where you could shoot weapons used in the war for around 20 bucks for ten bullets.

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Overall the Cu Chi tunnels were a worthwhile experience. The drive was long and I didn’t like how touristy it was, but the information was very interesting. If I were to do it again, I was told there is a local kid who’s dad was in the war and they give a private tour of the tunnels which I think would be much more worthwhile. Since it was an exhibit, it was very staged and like I said the tunnels were not in their original condition but altered and made bigger, and many of the traps were reconstructions. The bus was $6 and the entrance was $4 so it was a good cheap thing to do while stuck in Saigon city.

Dalat

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We are starting to enter a time crunch since we have only a week and a half to make it to Bangkok but still have things we want to see in Vietnam and sites to see in Cambodia. For this reason we decided to high tail it to Ho Chi Mihn city. The bus was 20 hours straight there so I wanted to break it up with a stop over in Dalat. We were told it was the same amount of time from Hoi Ann to Ho Chi Mihn City through Dalat as it was through Mu Ne. However we just found out this is not the case and just extended our 20 hour journey by about 7 hours by stopping in Dalat. Oops.

Not all that torturous as the ride through the mountains is beautiful.

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We weren’t looking forward to Dalat since we were told it was cold here. During the day it was warm (70 degrees) but cooled down at night to maybe low 60s.

Only having one day in Dalat, we wanted to see what we could see in our short stay. From what I read in the book there are a lot of fun tours to do, but as usual, the tourist stuff is expensive. This wasn’t the place we wanted to splurge on a tour, so we opted for the usual motorbike rental.

Our hotel was pretty far from where the bus dropped us so it worked well that we used the scooters to bring our luggage to our hotel. We asked the hotel guy what we could do, if there was somewhere we could hike nearby,  and he sent us to Langbiang, which was about a 20 minute ride from our hotel.

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As usual, they nickel and dime you getting in, having to pay two dollars for entry, then 50 cents for parking, then once you hike up the mountain you have to pay again for access to the “better” view.

We were unpleasantly surprised to find out we would be hiking up a paved road that we could have easily taken our scooters up had they allowed it. Oh well exercise is good.

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Once at the top there were decent views nothing amazing.

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What was interesting was they were using old refurbished war jeeps to shuttle people up.

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The hike up was a strenuous hour each direction.

During the evening we walked around downtown Dalat.

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There weren’t many tourists here. Big bustling markets.

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What was interesting was the food. I read in the Lonely Planet that there is more diversity of food here since in the mountains they are able to grow a wider range of crops such as avocados and strawberries. And.. snails?

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While I was in the midst of negotiating with some guy for a pair of socks, everyone started scuffling about and quickly wrapping up all their goods into blankets and scurrying away. It was quite the scene. The cops showed up; I guess they obviously were selling where they weren’t allowed to.

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Mui Ne

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The bus from Dalat to Mui Ne was fairly miserable. Instead of riding on the already-too-small sleeper busses, we were on a regular shtutle bus. The bus ride was a windy 4 hours on windy dirt roads with the bus constantly shaking and random bumps almost knocking you out of your seat. Just when I decided that this was our worst bus ride we have had to go on, the driver stopped to pack in about 15 locals from some random village to ensure my knees had adequate contact with the seat in front of me.

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I guess my leg was gently touching this girls leg next to me and she smacked my leg then glared at me. After that this bitch was on my shit list. We exchange glares throughout the next hour until thank god they all unloaded a few towns town.

Arriving in Mui Ne, it just felt like home. I had heard this place was a nice beach town with kite surfing, but I thought we would be missing it. Lucky for our bus screw up, we were in Mui Ne. The only problem was we were supposed to be heading straight to Saigon and our bus was leaving in an hour.

This place was beautiful and cities are not my thing. I couldn’t bear the thought of skipping over this just to go sit in a noisy dirty loud city. I know Jose doesn’t like to change plans so would not be happy with my suggestion.

I had intended to kite surf sometime on the trip, and spending the hour skimming through my Thailand book it didn’t appear we were going to have any other good opportunities. This was the spot.

I told Jose I was gonna stay here and I would meet him in Saigon. Not surprisingly he was not pleased with me but complied. I was on my own.

Referencing my book, I checked out a couple backpacker places that were recommended but they were all full. Just as I was about to give in for a $30 bed, I stumbled across a place with beds for 8 bucks. Dead cockroach on the floor getting eaten by ants- my type of place!

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The place happened to by right by where I started, across from the bus stop. Settling in I checked out the beach. There were kite surfers everywhere.

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Kite surfing was not cheap; first place I asked wanted 50 bucks an hour. What do you know, the cheapest place ended up being only 20 stops from my room, good old Mr Lee!

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40 bucks an hour. I think when I was in Cartagena Columbia we paid about 350 for 8 hours, so about the same price here. One guy told me kite surfing is the same price all over the world.

I decided I would do two hours, one the first day and one the next morning before my bus (ended up pushing it to 1.5).

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Since I had already done it before, he started me right in the water with a review of dragging myself through the water with the kite. Kite boarding is not an easy sport but I am determined to become good at it!

The next day, we kite boarded again and he got me up on the board. I rode for maybe 20 seconds on the board until I crashed it and got it tangled up in the buoy lines. Lesson over! 😦

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It was different (in a good way) because the instructor here versus Columbia came in the water with me. He would hold on to my harness and drag with me in the water til I got the hang of it. When I was out by myself he put a walkie talkie in my helmet so could give instruction from the shore.

To kill the rest of the morning I walked around town. There was definitely a crocodile theme here but I never got around to trying it.

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There were crocodile wallets, shoes, you name it. There were also lots of pearls necklaces etc for sale. There was a big Russian population here as well.

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There were some pretty sweet beach bars I didn’t get around to checking out.

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Mui Ne was a pretty sweet place and you could definitely spend a few days here. I was tempted to stay another day but I gave Jose my word I was coming back the next day. We are planning to cross in to Cambodia tomorrow but I am fairly confident our visas won’t be ready yet so I will be wasting the day away in the city instead of on this beautiful beach town.

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I finished up the day with a couple mangoes on a beach chair. Perfect.

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Hoi Ann

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Hue to Hoi Ann

Moving on we caught our 4 hour bus from Hue to Hoi Ann. Hoi Ann we were told and read is a must stop destination.

Being in the center of the country, most travelers stop here. It is known for its custom tailoring, nightlife, and beaches.

I expected Hoi Ann to be smaller based on what I was told, but it was a pretty busy area.

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The hotels here were great and very cheap (14 a night). Definitely the best place we had stayed in our travels so far. They call them Home stays here which are really just hotels with only 10 or so rooms.

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After settling in, we decided to rent bicycles and explore a little bit.

First we went to Cuz Dai beach on the East side of town. It was about 15 minutes on bike from where we were staying. At first glance, the beach wasn’t that nice as there was a lot of construction and stuff going on so we kept peddling. On the other side of town was An Bang beach which was a bigger nicer beach.

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We walked down the beach and jumped down the dunes.

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All the locals were trying to get us to sit I’m their “free” chairs do they could force us to buy food or drinks from them.

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There were fishermen out in the water in these little pods I haven’t seen before.

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Another attraction here was the shopping. I am not a big shopper but the markets had amazing unique things to offer at super cheap prices. I bought a hammock which has been on my shopping list a couple years to go with my international hammock theme.

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I also got 2 pairs of beautiful custom made sandals out of top quality leather. They actually trace your foot and measure the diameter in 3 places to make sure they are a perfect fit.

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Things I didn’t buy because I didn’t “need” them which I will probably regret: wine with a real cobra snake in it eating a scorpion (can you get any more badass than that?), an aliens figurine made out of welded car parts and hardware, a Buddha made out of marble.

Old town was very lively and had some historic buildings, eating, and great night life.

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We visited the markets

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Where I proceeded to get ripped off on mangoes again but did get to help the old lady carry her fruit.

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So that was Hoi Ann. I really enjoyed it like everyone else. Before we caught our 5pm night bus to Dalat I took the bike to the beach once more relaxed and went for a swim.  On to our next adventure!

Hue citidel, Tu Duc tomb

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We took the night bus again from Phong Nha straight to Hue which was about 4 hours.

Hue is known for its Citadel and tombstones of past emperors in the 17 and 1800s. We rented bicycles and rode over to the Citadel which was a short ride over the bridge from where we were staying. The Citadel was made for the emperor and his wives and servants. It is 1.5km long and 1.5km wide. We rode our bikes around the outside.

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The Citadel is an impressive structure and was pretty cool to explore. Inside (with a $.50 fee to “park” our bikes and a $5 entrance fee) was under renovation although the entire Citadel was accessible.

The entrance was impressive.

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The first room was the gathering room for parties.

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It was interesting because given the age of the place and the importance to Hue’s history there was no security and ancient artifacts were just sitting around that if any tourist wanted to they could just grab and take home. There were original scriptures from the 1800s just sitting on the wall in flimsy frames. I don’t know how long Hue has has tourism but it appeared that it must have been a relatively new thing seeing all the renovations going on that was probably being funded from tourist dollars.

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There were even still excavations under way where new things were being uncovered.

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They said nothing when we just wandered off through their renovation sites (which was difficult not to do seeing that there was no guidance on where we were and were not supposed to go. The whole thing was very worthwhile to visit and I found it fascinating.

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The next day we visited the tombs. These same emperors had tombs created where they would go to live their final days before they were buried. We chose to visit Tu Duc’s tomb since we were told it was one of the better ones and it was only a 20 minute moped ride from where we were staying.

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Tu Duc’s Tomb was much smaller than the Citadel, and although somewhat similar, it was definitely interesting and worthwhile to see as well to see where these emperor’s were buried.

Tu Duc himself had a huge grave stone with statues as you approached it.

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There was a massive structure covering the emperor’s tomb itself

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Inside, his tomb was inscribed with an autobiography of his life.

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The queen was also buried here. Her tomb was not quite as big but still impressive nonetheless.

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Inside Tu Duc’s burial place was also a large reservoir with an island of some ruins that were inaccessible.

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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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