I’m labeling this past week our “adventure week.” We’ve just finished the northern half of Vietnam and it’s possible that this’ll turn out to be my favourite part of our entire trip (though, of course, I can’t be sure for another few months!).
After we left Hanoi, we headed down south to Cat Ba Island. All of the tour companies will tell you the best way to see the karst outcroppings is to take a one- or two-night cruise through Halong Bay, but we’re convinced our way is better. Most of the cruises are overpriced and full of people. We talked to some who’ve experienced them and heard that you see more boats and people than the nature around you (though we have heard good cruise stories as well).
Instead, we made our way to Cat Ba Island, and with the help of Asia Outdoors, went kayaking through Lan Ha Bay instead. Lan Ha Bay has the exact same scenery as Halong Bay (we looked across the channel to double check haha) only the karst formations are closer together – meaning most large ships can’t make it through the area.
We spent the day kayaking through deserted enclaves and swimming in hidden grottos, with a delicious lunch on the main boat tossed in the middle. We had four other kayakers with us when we went (our guide said it was the smallest group he’d had all season), and there were hours when we didn’t encounter a single other person. It was so serene. At the end of the day, I was tempted to ask our guide what qualifications I’d need to do his job – anything to stay in the area. But Chandler quickly reminded me of what we had next – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park…and Paradise Cave.
Before we continued our way south, we had to pop up for another night in Hanoi. We made it back to our hotel (Serenity), and they gave us a free upgrade for staying with them a second time (in case you’re keeping count, this is the second time we’ve gotten a hotel upgrade on this trip!). The room was even bigger, as well as nicer, but came with even more stairs to climb – we got a workout every time we left or returned!
Fun fact: the Vietnamese people that I’ve met so far have easily been some of the kindest people I’ve met in my entire life. Less fun fact: Vietnamese tourism companies in Hanoi are among the most corrupt I’ve encountered in my entire life.
When we were trying to decide the best way to get to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (sans taking an actual cave tour – we wanted to do that part on our own) we set about looking for the Sinh Tourist office because Lonely Planet had recommend their open bus tours. Essentially, with the open bus, you can buy a ticket from Hanoi to HCMC and get off in any town it drives through. You can then catch the next bus (from a major city) coming through the following day/week/etc., with tickets lasting as long as a month. Since we planned on traveling the entire length of the country, we thought this sounded like a convenient option – especially since we heard they’ll sometimes pick you up or drop you off at your hotel. Also, did I mention, it’s incredibly cheap? Less than $50 to travel through the entire country.
While wandering through Old Quarter, we stumbled upon Sinh Tourist’s office, only to look across the street and see another. We soon discovered that Hanoi has over 100 “Sinh Tourist” offices. For the record, only two of them are real. The rest offer a similar service for more money on sketchier buses. It took us half the day to find the real office (many incorrectly list their address as the real address, to make things more complicated), but for anyone looking to do this in the future, they have directions and photographs of their offices listed on their website.
And the funniest part of this story is that once we arrived, they recommended we not use their services until Hue, because although we could get off in Dong Hoi (the closest mid-sized town to the national park), it isn’t an official stop and we’d have to make our own way to Hue to catch another bus. So we ended up taking the sleeper train instead – and that was another ordeal in and of itself!
But to wrap this scene up – we made it to the Pepperhouse Homestay, our landing pad while exploring the national park. They were incredibly helpful in getting us to the caves without having to pay for an expensive tour. Relatives of theirs drove us by motorbike (we thought that best, after seeing the after-effects of Zack and Yata’s crash on Koh Tao!), and we got to kick back and enjoy the scenery of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Next, it was on to Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave) – it was “discovered” in 2005 and was opened to the public in 2010. At the time, it was considered the largest cave in the world, beating out neighboring Phong Nha Cave for the title. However, later that year, Sơn Đoòng Cave (also in the national park) was fully explored and acquired the title instead. Chandler and I had originally looked into entering that cave instead, but only 220 people are allowed inside each year (it’s only been open since 2013) and all of the 2014 slots were already full…also, it costs $3,000 per person! Significantly more than the $6 per person it cost for us to get into the world’s second largest cave – Paradise.
I barely have words to describe this cave…and I know not even the photos will do it justice. It’s the largest space I’ve ever been in, with some of the rocks as large as cars or even houses. It almost felt like we were walking in a holy space, I think we spoke in whispers the whole way through. The colours were absolutely stunning, which surprised me – I think I was just expecting gray. But instead, the walls were combinations of greens and grays, reds and yellows. We spent hours inside, simply wandering around. And we were only allowed 1 km inside (the only way to go in deeper is with a tour, significantly more expensive). Most of the time, I forgot I was underground. It never felt stifling.
I was so afraid the cave wouldn’t live up to everything I was expecting from it – I had dragged a reluctant boyfriend a long way to see it – but even Chandler was blown away by its magnitude.
After the grandness of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, we decided to take the afternoon off and made our way to The Pub With Cold Beer. You may think the title of this bar is a joke, but at the time of its naming, it was the only place in the area that served cold beer!
While there, we met some Americans who planned on a relaxing afternoon, tubing down the river. We also met up with our new British friend (aptly named Harry) and had an impromptu volleyball game. The owner’s daughter “stole” Harry’s bicycle and rode it around as we watched the sunset. After that, it was back to the homestay for another home-cooked meal and a much needed bed.
So, I guess it’s clear why I’m labeling this week “adventure week.” I feel like we’ve been pretty active : ) And, because most of our stops in northern Vietnam were for me, Chandler has a bit more say in the south. We have royal tombs and a citadel in Hue, Hoi An’s old city, a brewhouse in Nha Trang, and HCMC’s pagodas. I’d definitely say I’m falling in love with this country…if only it weren’t for the heat! But I’m looking forward to seeing what else it has to offer.