Part of a longer sequence of my Vietnam tales from 5 years ago

Friday, 12th of August, 2016
There are many cave tours that can be undertaken from Dong Hoi, where we have been staying for the last few days. We reviewed these and decided on the tamest at Phong Nha. Many of the tours that are available require walking and climbing for many hours and, talking to the younger tourists we met, we decided to give these a miss. We were told that the ones at Phong Nha were were very impressive and involved a boat trip through caves, followed by a stroll at your own pace back to the entrance to the caves to then be picked up by the boat you had hired to make the initial trip.

While the boats take 14 passengers and the usual drill is to congregate at the ticket office until there are enough people, we decided to take one on our own. We have had enough of being packed into small spaces with other tourists and at 360,000 dhong (about $28 Australian) it seemed a small price to pay to choose where we sat and to go at our own pace. This provoked much hilarity from locals who exclaimed and pointed as our boat passed returning boats packed with other tourists. Many of the tourists, interestingly, were Vietnamese and it clearly made sense for them to minimise the cost, but there was the usual mix of young European backpackers, and people from a mix of other countries. Didn’t identify any other Aussies there today, which is not unusual; I can count on one hand the Aussies we have met on our travels here.

The boat trip to the caves took about 20 minutes and there was impressive, mountainous scenery surrounding the river/lake that took us there. Vietnam seems universally lush and beautiful without the obvious poverty of many other Asian countries. I think it was lucky that the Americans did not win the war as I am sure rampant capitalism would have created the underclass so prevalent in other free and democratic countries in this part of the world; I know, I’m an old bolshie but the evidence here seems to fit so well with my bias.

Once we came to the cave entrance we moved into something out of a dream. Impressive designs within the cave created patterns and shapes that were exciting and wondrous to behold. Lighting throughout the whole cave system highlights the stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over the eons as well as interesting quartz and other features that attract the attention of viewers of this rich visual stimulant. Of course, Babara and I were clicking away with our cameras unfettered by other viewers as we had planned. On reviewing my hundreds of photos I found almost none of the ones taken on the boat were useful – back to the manual (which I accidentally incinerated on our last trip to Bali, but that’s another story!). Barbara hasn’t reviewed hers yet and I am hopeful that she had more luck.

When you reach the point where it is too low for boats to continue you are taken back to a beach area about half way along the watery tunnel. To my surprise, this is where the fun really began. For almost an hour we wandered through easily navigable caverns that contained even richer visual excitement than what we had previously experienced. To say the cave system is huge is an understatement. There was no sense of confinement with a series of caverns, many of which were larger than a movie theatre. The roof towered above us and artful lighting highlighted the hues of the crystals in the rocks while huge, often squat, stalagmites towered above us. In places the walls looked as if they contained huge jelly fish with tendrils cascading down. In other places there were series of crystalline features that, with the lighting, created a range of colourful exhibitions of nature’s power to impress.

While the experience was originally a very pleasant one with cool air acting as a balm to the heat and humidity of the day, as we wandered it became apparent that this would not offset the sweat being generated and we became duly very damp. By the time we had reached the entrance of the cave where we were to be picked up, I was as wet as a hippopotamus in addition to being a comparable size. My camera battery gave up the ghost and Barbara’s followed suit a few minutes later. I have found, though, that ejecting the battery and reinserting it gives a little more life and so I continued to take a few shots until the end of our trip. A couple of ice creams at the stalls stationed at the pickup point were a welcome treat!

Back in the boat for our cruise to the start of the adventure, Barbara noticed that her bag had been rifled. There was a very young boy who was ‘helping’ his mother who had a look through her things and, fortunately, only helped himself to some delicious peanutty treats that we had bought from a stall prior to out trip. We had given him some on the way to the caves and, I guess, the temptation was just too much for him. A lesson for us as Babara’s little bag contained her iPhone and iPad mini, though I had the wallet, and the consequences could have been much worse. I don’t think his Mum knew what he had done, though, as he had been sitting on the boat while she waited for us closer to the exit point from the caves. We were a bit miffed at first, but laughed it off and shared the rest of the treats with him on the way home and gave his Mum a good tip (1/3 of the cost of the trip) as she had to paddle us around the caves by hand (the first part of the trip was powered – husband sat at the back doing the important work – but clearly the petrol fumes would have been dangerous in the caves as well as damaging the formations created by nature).

Once we returned to the starting point we decided to have a beer and rehydrate and, of course, the lady selling us the beer pressed us into buying a few t-shirts, and a range of treats for later on. It seems to us that the sellers in Vietnam are not as intense as in other Asian countries. One lady at the next stall complained loudly that we had bought nothing for her and demonstrated how mean we were by displaying her baby boy with a bandage on his head and bemoaning his fate, but this was trivial compared to the badgering we have received in Thailand and, particularly, Bali. It is interesting, though, that many of the other travellers we have talked to have complained loudly about the harassment at markets and tourist places but we have not experienced this in the places that we have visited and stayed so far. People have loudly encouraged us to buy their goods and sometimes we have, as my mounting pile of t-shirts attests (I just love the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ one but just haven’t found one with the Vietnam flag in my size yet!). Mind you, none of the other tourists who have complained to us have ever been to Bali.

The trip back to our hotel in a modern airconditioned car driven by a responsible and careful young man who spoke no English but played pleasant music softly on his radio, was as pleasant as the drive to the caves. We opted out of a minibus option as we have previously experienced how 22 seater minibuses are often equipped with fold down seats between each row of seats leading to a capacity of about 30 and little room to move. It did lead to some interesting (and intimate) involvement with other passengers but we have decided to avoid these experiences in future wherever possible. We passed through lush mountainous countryside in valleys that were full of trees, pawpaw plantations, banana trees, rice paddies, the occasional buffalo wandering on the road and roadside stalls selling produce that seemed targetted more at locals than the tourist trade. The roads we travelled on were high quality and the volume of traffic more akin to those in Australia than my expectation of an Asian country. I marvelled, as I had often before, about how similar the kilometre markers were to small grave stones, an observation I had initially found to be a little ominous.

So, back in our hotel for the heat of the afternoon and a stint at reviewing photos taken, munching on treats purchased on our trip, and some time spent writing about our experiences (this time on my Pages App on my iPad so that I could use my wireless keyboard – I’m sure I’ll get Repetitive Strain Injury in my right thumb if I keep trying to document our travels on my iPhone)

Our Vietnam adventure continues…..

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