Vietnam 3 – blog #16 Phong Nha, Ninh Binh / Tam Coc, Bac Ha, Sapa, Hanoi

Rural rides. Cool Caves, The hills and Hanoi. It’s fun that’s a fact. (See below haha)

Another exciting prospect of Vietnam was the prospect of rural reclusivity for us. After the joy of walking in Nepal right at the start of our trip, and though we had seen beautiful scenery and enjoyed some stunning beaches in Thailand, it had been a while since we’d been out there in nature and so the thought of getting into the hills on a hike or exploring caves and rivers and living a little local village life for a bit – was a fun one.

We’d been recommended Phong Nha and it’s caves by a friend who had visited in 2011. Described to us as one horse town, and deliciously remote. The caves speak for themselves, not only the location of the biggest cave in the world, San Doong, but a sprawling network of subterranean spectacle to crawl and swim and squeeze around. It seems that the town has become more and more popular as a result. We caught a bus easily from Dong Ha to Phong Nha direct, with a bunch of other cave seekers and arriving there in 2018 it was clear that things had developed, the main street stuffed with hostels and cafes and caving gear shops. But in fact it still was only one street and a 5min ride out in any direction and you were quickly on the country tracks and green lush lanes of the picture postcard Vietnam. Though the ride took us more than 5mins actually as we played moped jenga with the bags and wobbled our way to the farm stay. Laughing, Helen even forgot her helmet. We’d never do it in England but you do feel a world away and the normal rules don’t apply.

The truth is people come here for the caves, and so had we. In fact my friends dad had been part of an original British expedition here exploring and discovering a large part of the network that the town now holds as its economic lifeblood. It felt like a nice nod to him to be here and interesting to see how the tourist draw had grown here over the years.

Staying in a beautiful horseshoe shape dip in between some fluffy green hump backed hills I start to soften from the bus ride and slide into a countryside vibe. Nature nurturing and excitedly expectant for the cave trek tomorrow. A trek to San Doong is a 6/7 day adventureand rightly quite expensive so not this time for us but we have booked on a days walking and caving on the Tu Lan cave system trek with ‘Oxalis adventures’. Taking in Chuot cave (rat cave), some jungle trekking, wading river crossing, the beautiful Hung Tun valley, and finally Ton cave complete with swim in underwater river. Proper buzzing.

We’re a little apprehensive actually as we rustle on our waterproof trousers and splash vests and ‘jungle boots’. I’ve never been ‘proper’ caving and the last cave we went in was full of giant spiders – that’s another story…

Our guide is a proper dynamo so energetic and informative though so puts us at ease. Ish. Helen asks ‘will there be spiders?’ He gleefully replies ‘yes many!’ And then after seeing Helens face reassured her we can avoid them easily. After quick briefing and chat of the plan we set off along the edge of ripe green fields with buffalos grazing and he points out a little flower by the track side; the Oxalis plant.

The hills that house the caves shoot up on all sides as we chat and smile and breathe it in. It is really good to be in the countryside. Butterflies dizzy around us all colours of the rainbow and sweat beads happily on our brow. The clear crisp water prickles satisfyingly as it creeps up to our knees as we wade across and climb the opposite bank to the first cave.

It’s a beauty. Pointed pillars rise up either side around a dark gaping entrance, forming the ‘mouth’ or the rat and formations flow around in shapes and lines like an oil painting to a point over about 100m to form the ‘tail’. A small circle of light shines in. Just about here our guide asks us all to switch off our head lamps and stand quiet. Aside from my heart beat and some plip poop dripping it’s spooky serene.

A further splish splosh in the river and walk across an almost English like meadow with more butterflies and then a scramble up some slippy hillside slopes through vines and entwined roots and we reach the mouth of another cave. Dark and looming ‘Ton Cave’ descends down to an underground river which we will swim through and plop out into a lagoon for lunch.

First of all though we follow the low roof and last bits of light until it angles down and we’re at the mercy of the guide and the headtorches. The guide tells Helen to walk along past a few large rocks and wait for us, confused she does and meanwhile the guide shines his light on a spindly spidery shiny eyed beast on the wall.

Next we reach a 20metre drop where we clip onto a rope and climb down a ladder set into the rock face. It’s colder here and you can feel the presence of the water. It’s a little nerve wracking but fun and over a lip we come to the river.

It tingles cold when you jump in and headlights dance across the surface and the ceiling and voices and whoops echo round the roof. Water seems greeny and clear and I kind of float on my back paddling a little peacefully towards the pin prick of light which is where the cave opens up into the lagoon. It’s brilliant and we splash and laugh and take photos and enjoy amazing Bahn Mi for lunch on the lake side.

After a eucalyptus sauna and some very sour smelly fish soup that night we have the cave bug and moped out to ‘paradise cave’ a huge complex underground that is fitted with walk ways and lights. It’s an almost celestial place as the lamps warmly shine up over the stalactites and mites and water plinks steadily over bulbous rock fonts. There is a silent reverence of the place and it’s truly beautiful and evokes a sense of something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. The sweaty walk down the hill brings me back down to earth and I’m ready for a beer now!

Other time in Phong Nha is spent eating Bun Bo and drinking Vietnamese coffee and enjoy the local life a little homestay. Over breakfast we speak to a young lady called Haoi, she is teacher but can earn more money here in the homestay. She says she will go back to school one day and I hope she does. It seems the tourist draw of the caves has changed things round here since my friend visited, lots for the good but my privilege guilt is strong for Haoi.

Fun fact: PE is compulsory in education up and including university level in Vietnam.

After a steamy mushroom hot pot in town that night I come back and am urged to join in the rice wine drinking with the owner and the man who runs the garage next door. The wine in homemade in old Evian bottles and in between each shot we eat garlicky bok Choi with chilli and chopsticks. Nicely its spiciness takes the edge off the booze. It’s a great experience and as always cements the truth that people make places what they are.

After the most awful sweaty squashy overnight bus around 250 miles north we arrive in Tam Coc bear Ninh Binh at 3am. Feel terrible waking up the man asleep at reception but room is needed. The suns just coming up over a beautiful homestay and can’t wait to explore the rivers and hills of this green region. We’re on roughly the same latitude as Mumbai, but with the hills it’s greener, not much cooler, and certainly quieter.

After a snooze we take a boat ride along the river tower by an old lady with no teeth but a big smile and she’s rowing with her feet. I feel so guilty but she seems so happy and it is a beautiful place. We float along past rice paddies and hills with mountain goats perched precariously on outcrops and rocks. We duck under caves and pop out in the shadow of lying dragon mountain which we plan to bicycle to the next day. A kingfisher flashes across the river all electric blue and fisherman’s cap. And we are content. Days in Tam Coc are spent biking out in the mornings and relaxing on the terrace in the afternoon.

Tam Coc hill is a steel craggy climb overlooking paddies on one side, the river we boated on on another and love valley the other way. Fittingly there is a wedding couple having photos here. I don’t know how she did the climb in her dress as I’m dripping in my shorts and tee. Along the top ridge of the mountain there is a dragon monument decorated with shiny glass patterns.

One day we motorbike out to a nature park and enjoy a quiet afternoon walking about the trees including a 1000 year old Banyan and a ‘moving’ tree that has sprouted different parts over the years. Another foot rowing old lady local takes us out into a bird lake where 100s of egrets and herons are nesting and languidly floating by flying in almost slow motion. Another kingfisher curves up to a post right int front of us all orange brash flash then away.

There is a real sense of the world just going by here. A quiet contentment and clear culture that would be ticking on whether I was here or not. I like that.

Fun fact: 80 different languages are spoken across Vietnam

Another bus to Hanoi to catch the night sleeper train which is dead exciting. Proper Poirot style wooden carriages with bunk beds and a trolley lady with beer. It’s a lovely little adventure. I love travelling by train abroad and arriving into a town or city is a brilliant buzz that’s very different to an out of town airport. Lao Cai in northern Vietnam at 6am is a sleepy gateway for us to Bac Ha and Sapa the go to trekking destinations in this region. We have chosen Bac Ha as a quieter quirkier alternative to coach tour heavy cable car street tout soaked Sapa, though we intend to go there next.

After 1-2 hours drive we are Walking out from the town of Bac Ha on a single track road through Na Tha village up through steep hill farms, past women hunched over on steep sided plots tending crops in woven conical hats. Sun peeks through clouds. Green hills roll around. It’s really beautiful a little like the Yorkshire Dales. Here though instead of drystone walls the typical topography is descending rice paddies terraced into the hillsides creating an amphitheatre of nature.

Up a steep muddy stepped path to Lau Thi Ngai here we stop for lunch at a home on the hillside. We in what looks a garage but feels more friendly. The men who host us are apparently local government workers, though i’m not sure how much local government work would’ve got done after this lunch as we are plied with rice wine and smoked salted horse meat (just me!) and chat about wages and jobs across continents. I pass up on the chicken soup complete with feet and head but still there are lots of handshakes and smiles. Soon we are abit wobbly and the bamboo pipe comes out, thankfully it’s only tobacco. Chickens peck in the yard and colourful washing hangs overlooking the valley.

I politely pull on the bamboo bong tobacco pipe, then pleasantries and green teas we leave to friendly goodbyes. Rice wine fuelled hike up stepped terrace hillside paddies like lava lamps lines. A family tend to a corn crop hoeing out the weeds and invite us to have a go.They laugh and we laugh but as Helen says ‘we don’t know we’re born do we? But they seen happy, a full family contingent weeding the fields at a cheese grater gradient.

Fun fact: 70% of the Vietnamese population are farmers

Next down clay mud banks into the village of Thai Giang Pho just as school children leave for the day. They all say hello and smile and wave (and pose for a pic). It’s been a long day waking and we arrive at a wonderful home stay with amazing food and a beautiful view. As night brings the darkness the stars come out as we feast on fish and pork noodles and spring rolls and of course more homemade rice wine. Many cheers are said and handshakes. I sleep soundly in the loft looking out at the stars.

Next day is a 3-4hour walk back to Bac Ha through other small villages, at Bum Pho village we pop into an Ironsmith – a man and wife forging plough blades in the fire. A Flute maker is in a dusty workshop surrounded by unmade instruments and plays music just alluringly ace and off the cuff. A elderly lady wine producer sweats over a vat of hot rice in a smoky domed hut. We walk back to Bac Ha full up with simple happiness. The peaceful trekking undoubtedly one of the best parts of our journey so far. Again I feel a strong sense of life ticking by, the country getting on with living. Whether I’m here or not. I like that.

Fun fact: Women commonly work alongside men in manual jobs, particularly agriculture but also as construction and road workers.

Back at Lao Cai station we catch a bus to Sapa. Sapa is quite well known and is pretty special in some ways and deserves the praise and popularity it has. We enjoy the cable car up the famous Fansipan, at 3143m the highest peak in Vietnam and the views of the rice fields are truly impressive. The place is just missing a little soul for me as people are bussed in, pulled up the cable car, fed and bussed out. I think if we had longer and had done some walking around the trails here we would have felt much fonder, but as it goes we are back on the sleeper to Hanoi after a day there.

In Hanoi I am desperate to find and sample some Bia Hoi, a locally produced low percent ‘fresh beer’ that is served in small shops. Brewed daily it is unpasteurised and as such has a limited drinking time. After a hellish two hour mission in a mall (I wanted to buy a beard trimmer) that makes Meadowhell look like a monastery we stumbled out reeling from the experience needing a beer. As luck has it there is a Bia Hoi vendor on the next street. We are out in a suburb away from the as that’s where the mall is and naturally the people in there are really surprised to us. I eagerly ask ‘Bia Hoi?’ and the lady is buzzing off to the back and dispensing the beer into plastic beakers like from primary school. The man opposite is loving it and quickly offers to buy us another. It’s great. They cost 7000 Dong = 23p. Smashing.

A big part of Hanoi, and indeed the whole Vietnam jaunt, was eating and drinking actually. I found a little Bahn Mi shop selling the most amazing pork spicy coriander baguettes and next to the hotel was a Chinese pork vendor doing amazing belly pork.

A cooking course we book on is brill and after a whizz round the market we cook my favourite – Pho Bo, I didn’t realise how much flavour and spice go into the stock, minced pork patty bbq-ed called Bun Cha, Fried spring rolls, Spicy Papaya salad and an Egg coffee, basically coffee with a custard type whipped egg and carnation milk float top. It was a great afternoon.

I loved the Pho soup so much I wrote a poem:

Breakfast Pho

Fresh hot beefy brekkie I would never dream of eating in England with early morning bleary eyed cornflake sighs

But here I’m addict with a habit

Red chilli junkie

Pho – nomenal fodder eater, breakfast of champions

Sometimes as simple as: salty stock. Noodly broth. Roast beef, rare beef, red chilies to give it teeth; and a Squeeze of lime.

Other times a little more garnish: fresh mint, jicama leaves, curly coriander stalks.

Both blow my boots off truth be told so go on my son – be bold, push away the cereal bowl and indulge yourself in a breakfast Pho.

Fun Fact:

‘Pho’ the beefy noodly soup I fell in love with and had for breakfast sounds very like the Vietnamese word for prostitute, as I found out…

We go to the theatre to see a ‘water puppet’ show which very fun. The puppets on wire mechanisms and the stage is a pool filled with water. The score is played live with singing and we see such traditional scenes as ‘quick frog, lazy frog’ , ‘phoenix dance’ and my favourite ‘son arrives home from university to the welcome of the village’.

There are some very interesting and informative places to visit and learn about the war and we are here over the national holiday 30th Apr / 1st May celebrating reunification day of south and north Vietnam so it only feels right to dip back into that recent history. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ is a prison first used for Vietnamese prisoners who were attempted to result against the French, and after as a POW jail for captured US soldiers. It feature letters written by US soldiers (including American senator John McCain, denouncing the American government and praising the noble and honorable North Vietnamese defence of the country. There is also a wall filled with pictures and biographies of heroes of the cause. Ho Chi Minh being the most famous and revered. Uncle Ho is considered the father of the modern country and on 1st May people flock to his mausoleum to file past his body in respect. We get there at 8am but the queues are already 4 hours long. Instead we visit the flag tower of Hanoi and it seems enough to see the red rectangle flying proudly for these people.

Fun Nam fact:

‘Vietnam’ war is called the ‘American’ war here

If Cambodia is a country rebuilding then Vietnam is a country just quietly getting on with life, doing its thing. And bloomin eck – it’s got everything! And full of life. This has been the real surprise of the trip for me so far, a really interesting country with so much to do. History culture beaches countryside cities caves climbs surfing cycling walking food art drama photography and more.

Ho Chi Minh in the height of the war said ‘the Vietnamese are essentially peaceful people’ and its hard to disagree. Over history they’ve defended against attack and fought off the Chinese the Thais the French and the Americans and nowadays seem to me to be just trying to be. Quietly Getting on with it. I might wrong but we read so many negative reviews of Vietnam, how there were so many scams and how food was samey and hard to travel and more but the Food, people, places, fun were amazing.

Fun fact: There is currently only a 5% return rate for tourists

There are lots of ‘Nam stories, some more true than others, but truly, we just wrote our own. I couldn’t have had a better time here in any way and will definitely be back as part of the enlightened 5%.