The “Top Gear Dream” Part 4: Phong Nha
Alice and I set off to Phong Nha National park after spending an extra day in Vinh to wait for the rest of the group to catch up and relax after a stressful day on the road. Some of the group had already departed and arrived in Phong Nha so we had a good idea as to how long it would take us. Well, we ended up trying to take a short cut that turned into a dirt road with potholes that could swallow the entire scooter. It was so rough that our luggage rack ended up detaching itself from the bike. This would be the start of a long series of frustrating fixes for Muffin (my scooter). I later found out that a fellow traveller had encountered a 2000lbs unexploded American bomb sitting in the bucket of an excavator on this very road. Because of our luggage rack failure within the first 200m on this dirt track we decided to turn back to AH-1. After this delay we had a short layover in the town of Son Ca, where we stumbled upon one of our favourite Vietnamese meals, the ‘bahn mi’, a delicious mystery meat roll. These mystery meat rolls were so good that we not only had them for dinner but we also had them for breakfast before we left for Phong Nha.
We arrived in Phong Nha just after lunch and were greeted by overcast skies as we rolled into the Easy Tiger Backpacker hostel. The hostel was nestled in the small village of Phong Nha that had a very impressive ‘Hollywood-esque’ sign affixed to the side of a mountain as you came in. The other major attractions to Phong Nha were the impressive cave networks in the region. The one we ended up visiting was Paradise Cave, apparently the World’s largest dry cave that stretches over 7 kilometers in length. The entrance to this cave is quite small, I recall having to duck my head under the entrance but after you enter the sheer size of the cavern is overwhelming. Another overwhelming aspect of the cave is how well it was lit, especially considering it was difficult to find a street properly illuminated in all of Vietnam, I was quite impressed by Paradise cave.
We were so amazed by Paradise cave that we ended up staying there longer than we had planned. When we emerged from the cave, it was starting to rain and it was getting dark. To make matters worse one of the Norwegian’s bikes wasn’t starting which further delayed us. After realizing that it wasn’t going to start we piled everyone onto the remaining bikes and set off; however, Alice and I decided to follow Martin, a newly adopted member of the ‘Sons of Vietnam’ that we had met at the hostel. Martin had looked at the map and seen a short cut back to the hostel that would hopefully get us back before it got too dark, especially since after our drive in the dark on our way to Vinh we swore that we would never do it again. This unfortunately was short lived. This ‘short cut’ turned out to be a winding mountain road that meandered through the jungle. This was one of the tensest moments of the whole trip as we found ourselves in the dark and pouring rain, riding up and down steep, narrow and slippery roads with only the almost useless front light on the bike to see where we were going. We were not only unsure if we were headed in the right direction but to make matters worse there wasn’t much fuel left in the tank. We did end up making it but ended up being the last ones back to the hostel and certainly the coldest as we were dripping wet by this stage.
We ended up staying in Phong Nha for 4 days, which gave a number of the ‘Sons of Vietnam’ time to get their dilapidated scooters/bikes repaired. Muffin was in need of some TLC as the gear box had managed to come loose off of the frame and our luggage rack needed to be welded back on. Our scooters were not the only thing that needed mending, Henrik needed to have several stitches after some over enthusiastic hand gestures caused a drinking glass to fly across the table and glass ricocheted into his forehead.
Phong Nha ended up being a great place despite inclement weather. We saw some amazing things and met some amazing people, adding several more people to the ‘Sons of Vietnam’. It would have been nice to have had a bit more sunshine in order explore the park further but overall I would definitely say that Phong Nha is a must see.