My next real stop after Hue was Phong Nha.
I spent two nights there, taking in the scenery and exploring the caves that make the region famous. Phong Nha is home to the largest cave in the world, but experiencing it requires a 5 day trek and will set you back about $3000. I opted for a slightly smaller experience for a much more modest price.
Our tour of Ruc Mon cave started with a trek through the jungle, including several deep river crossings. Fording a waste-deep river would be miserable in the Csacades, but here it’s so warm that it’s welcome, and you dry off almost as soon as you’re out.
I don’t have pictures of the cave itself, because they encouraged us to leave all our gear at camp. Suffice it to say it was very impressive. The biggest chamber of Ruc Mon is 45 meters deep, which works out to a serious drop.
We started in an upper chamber, and made our way through chutes and ladders down to the water level. Then we swam upstream, navigating the underground river deep into the mountain. We came to a big rock, jumped off it, and let the current carry us downstream, out of the cave mouth, past our lunch camp and all the way back to the vans. What a way to travel!
Back to the hostel I joined in an incredible homemade family dinner, a daily ritual prepared by the family that runs it. My advice: don’t bother telling your hosts that you’re too stuffed to eat another bite, or that you’ve had plenty of rice wine – they won’t listen.
Over dinner I made friends with a Brit named Jack who was on a long weekend from his job teaching English in Hanoi. We decided to wake up early the next day and visit the Phong Nha Botanic Garden.
Unfortunately we ran into trouble along the way. Shelby got a flat tire! We limped back into town, stopped at the first mechanic we saw, and 20 minutes and about $4 later we were back on the road.
We discovered that “garden” is a bit of a misnomer – in my mind that word implies something carefully, intentionally tended, but this was more of a nature trail through the jungle. Even better!
Back to the hostel to drop off Jack and grab my bag, and I was on the road.
I think I was wrong before – the road I followed between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha was not the Ho Chi Minh Road, it was just some beautiful back route. This stretch of road was much more developed. Proper tarmac with graded and banked turns replaced prefabed concrete slabs, and Shelby and I made great time, rolling into Vinh just as the sun was setting.
Vinh is another town with very little going on, so I ate a bahn mi for dinner, watched a movie (Baby Driver) and went to bed early.
The next day I rode to Ninh Binh Province. Vinh is not on the HCMR, so the first hour or so was along QL1A, the national highway running north-south, which I have mostly managed to avoid thus far. It was miserable. Traffic was heavy, and just as insane as anywhere else in Vietnam. Finally I turned off onto a side route, which eventually led me back to the HCMR.
Even then it wasn’t quite peaceful – we’re definitely getting close to Hanoi now, and I rarely found the totally empty roads of further south. A common occurrence: coming around a blind corner, I’m forced onto the shoulder by a bus passing a semi truck. The bus is laying on the horn – this seems to be the default state of busses here – so I have some warning, but it’s still terrifying. Around the next bend I’m forced to slow down to weave my way through a herd of goats. How did the semi and the bus make it through this? I’m not sure.
I took my time on the road, stopping for coffee and lunch, and arrived in Ninh Bình right around sunset. And what a sunset it was.
After two long days on the road, I am quite sore. I’m definitely glad I scheduled days off into this ride.
Ninh Binh is beautiful and peaceful, and will deserve a post of its own. Today is October 30th, and I have just one more day of driving before I arrive in Hanoi. I meet my sister on the first of November. The question is, do I drive up tomorrow and hope to find a bangin Halloween party, or do I hang out here another day and arrive on the first. It might depend on the weather, it might depend on how I feel when I wake up tomorrow morning.
I love this traveling life.