Caving, kayaking, swimming, and trekking in Phong Nha National Park, local buses in Vietnam, a frisbee game with villagers, and Vietnamese superstitions

This is the longest blog post I have put up to date but only because it covers what will undoubtedly be my favorite 24 hours in SE Asia.  If you want a thorough read give yourself at least 20-25 minutes.  Cheers.

Our second morning in Hue Ben and I hired motos to get us to the north bus station.  We arrived and quickly located the local bus we would be riding to Phong Nha Farmstay, located just near Son Trach village and near Vietnam’s Phong Nha National Park.  Among the Hue locals waiting for the bus I noticed two white girls with backpacks and calculated that they, being the only other non-locals, must also going to the Farmstay, a sweet piece of backpacker heaven in rural Vietnam.  

It turned out I was right.  The two girls, Elina and Kim, were from the U.K and both just about to finish their last year of law school.  Both were taking some time off during their last late fall to do a bit of travel in SE Asia.  Ben and I would end up traveling north with the girls for the next ten days through Vietnam.

Unlike in the U.S. every law student in the U.K. does an apprenticeship as part of their graduation requirement.  During my last year of law school I had an externship with Iowa City Attorney and the Iowa City Human Rights Commission but this was not required.  Elina and Kims’ apprenticeships were with law firms, firms they would be practicing with when they graduate.  This is a little different from the U.S. law school system. While externships can lead to job opportunities, more typically it is summer internships (clerkships or summer associate-ships) that lead to jobs for law graduates.  Or at least when the economy was good that was the case.

I told the girls I had also attended law school and practiced for two and half years before deciding to take a break to travel in SE Asia with my brother.  We talked a little more about law school and practice to pass the time, mostly because the local bus ride was kind of brutal.

For starters we were overcharged, big time.  When it came time to pay the bus driver he came back to the four of us foreigners and demanded 150K Dong each.   The locals in the bus were not even trying to hide their laughter as we shelled out 3-5 times what they all would be paying.  We watched as he went back up the bus, collecting only 30-50K from each of the locals, many of which were going farther than us.

Overcharging foreigners is the norm on local buses in Vietnam and all the bus drivers are in on it.  It is blatent discrimination and there is not a whole lot you can do about it except try to buy tickets at the station rather than on the bus.  But when this isn’t an option, and it wasn’t in Hue, you are generally SOL.  That said, I learned a little later how to negotiate and fight against this practice when I got into northern Vietnam and local buses were the only option to travel.

But the overcharging was just the start – room on the bus was also an issue.  There were about 35 people crammed onto a bus designed to sit 16.  Oh and lets not forget the bags of feed, backpacks, and the moto also jammed up at the front.  The local buses in Vietnam, and SE Asia in general, use every square millimeter of space, even if that means that woman getting on the bus and her baby both need to sit on my lap to fit them in the bus.

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It was the most cramped ride I’ve had in SE Asia to date.  I couldn’t even extend my feet more than one inch from the bottom of my seat because there was a woman sitting on the step right in front of me.  I less than agreeably allowed her to use my legs as her back rest for the duration of the four hour ride.  Click here to get a sense of how cramped this ride was.

To stretch, if I could have even called it that, I would extend my legs up while keeping my torso bent forward just under the cieling, perpendicular to my legs – making an “L” shape.   When we finally arrived at the Farmstay I had never been so glad to get a full and proper stretch in.

But the ride was worth it.  Phong Nha Farmstay is a backpacker hostel/hotel set right outside the rural part of Son Trach village.

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The two days I spent at the Farmstay I will remember as the best two days I spent in SE Asia.  The setting is beautiful.  From the porch of the Farmstay you can see rice paddy and mountains in every direction.  The hammocks and furry little dogs make it all the better.

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After resting in hammocks for a bit Ben and I took a walk with his new friend.

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A Son Trach villager had a fire going in the distance.

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We had brought our frisbee for our walk because we had noticed a big field down the road and felt like tossing for a bit.  When we arrived at the field we noticed there was a huge gathering going on.   Most of the adults in the village – around 50 of them – were all gathered at a big yellow building that we later learned was the village common house.  The adults were all sharing a dinner but I couldn’t tell you what the occasion was.  The kids of the village were all playing – younger ones were running around and playing some form of “tag” and the teenagers were playing a game of volleyball.

Ben and I casually stepped on to the far edge of the field and started tossing my frisbee back and forth.  It didn’t take long for this to get noticed.  Within one minute about half the kids had come over to watch our game of catch and within three minutes one of the braver adults strolled over and called for the disc.  We gave him a friendly toss and then the rest fell like dominos.   Within five minutes of our arrival to the field every villager in the courtyard had stopped what they were doing and come to join our game.   The oldest wise men, the middle aged men in suit coats, the mothers, the teenagers, the youngsters – everyone joined the game.

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We formed a giant circle in the field which was good because the villagers had never tossed a frisbee before –most of them had probably never seen a real frisbee before.  But a giant circle was a great solution to this problem because wherever their errant throws would fly it would always be to at least someone in the circle.  A few of the villagers were better than others.  This guy in particular – check out that great form!

excellent follow through!

excellent follow through!

Regardless of how they threw the villagers were having a great time.  Misthrows and dropped catches would result in uproarious laughter.  This was a truly rewarding experience – I  can’t think of one minute during this experience when I wasn’t smiling ear to ear.  I took four videos of what I will surely remember as the most fun game of catch I’ve had in SE Asia thus four.  You can check them out here:

[VILLAGE FRISBEE VIDEO 1]    [FRISBEE VIDEO 2]  [FRISBEE VIDEO 3] [FRISBEE VIDEO 4]  

When we got back to the Farmstay we were tired and covered in sweat – that good kind of sweat you can appreciate after an amazing experience.  I guess Ben’s friend was tuckered out too.

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The next day we geared up for a day long tour of Phong Nha National Park.  This was the coolest day we’ve had in SE Asia thus far.

At 8 a.m. we all hopped in a van and headed towards the Park, located about 5 km from the Farmstay.   It was a misty morning as the Park approached from a distance.

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There is a sign built right into the first mountain you pass on your right as you enter the park.

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The next 10 km were along a road in the valley next to the river.

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Finally we stopped along a steeping road and our tour guide – a cheeky fellow named Ben from northern England working a temp job at the Farmstay as he saves up some more money to travel – gave us an introduction to the park.

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The Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 and is home to a variety of species – wild elephants, snakes, monkeys, the whole lot.

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It is mostly untamed forest but there are significant problems with illegal logging here.  When the park rangers only get paid only $4 a day by the government to do their job it is pretty easy for a logging company to slip the rangers $25 and have them look the other way as the company’s logging trucks roll by.

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Vietnam has applied to get the national park UNESCO Biodiversity site status in addition to Heritage site status but despite the Park’s incredible biodiversity these applications (two in the last five years) have been denied, mostly because UNESCO is aware of the illegal logging problems.  Ben explained to us that Vietnam will likely give up on seeking the biodiversity accolade because “Vietnam doesn’t liking being rejected” and its applications have already been rejected twice.

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With respect to some interesting biodiversity, Ben pointed out some small plants along the side of the road with a curious little retraction mechanism.

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When the plants are brushed or lightly touched the plants’ tendrils curl inwards.  Click here for a video of this slick little mechanism.  Ben told us that during the Vietnam War the Viet Cong would observe these plants to track where the U.S. soldiers had been walking.  The U.S. soldiers were leaving a trail without even knowing it.

Before Phong Nha was even known as an amazing national park it was a war ground.  The dense forest, steep karsts, and immense cave systems made Phong Nha a great place for the Viet Cong to hide and set up bases of operations.   The U.S. was largely unsuccessful at trying to find Charlie here so what was its solution?  Just like its tactic in most other war-torn areas of Vietnam where the Viet Cong were hiding, when you can’t find Charlie just use more explosives.

Thousands and thousands of bombs were dropped on beautiful Phong Nha.  “Carpet bombing” – the phrase used by Ben – is the perfect phrase to describe what the U.S. did.  And when the U.S. was on the ground in Phong Nha it never forget to pack some rocket launchers.  Ben pointed out a mountainside wall that still has scars from rockets launched by U.S. troops at the Viet Cong hidden in the caves.

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The U.S. was almost completely ineffective at hitting their targets but their bombs did wreck and scar many parts of Phong Nha.  The Phong Nha Farmstay owners take this quite personally.  The Farmstay is run by an Australian named Ben who married a Vietnamese woman named Bich.  Bich’s mother was born in Son Trach village and fought with the Viet Cong in the U.S. war.  She was a medic that doubled as an anti-aircraft gunner.

During a battle south of Son Trach, somewhere near Hue, the U.S. was laying layer after layer of bombs progressively up the battle zone.  Bich’s mother spotted a wounded Viet Cong solider that needed medical attention and despite the fact that she heard the bombs getting closer she rushed to his side to treat him.

The soldier was wounded but not unconscious and was likely telling Bich’s mother to leave him and save herself from the approaching destruction.  Bich’s mother refused as the storm of bombs grew closer and closer.  Just as a bomb exploded right next to them the wounded Viet Cong solider threw his body over Bich’s mother, absorbing nearly all of the shrapnel from the explosion.

This sacrifice killed the soldier instantly and saved Bich’s mother but she was not unscathed.  Her back and arm were both riddled with shrapnel but thankfully the wounds were not fatal.  For the next two years, Bich’s mother walked back to her home village of Dong Ha and a couple years later, Bich was born. Bich’s mother still has shrapnel scars today.

Ben, our tour guide, told us that several years ago some old U.S. Vietnam Veterans were traveling through Vietnam and stayed at the Farmstay.  Both of them had remembered the war and had a chance to speak with Bich’s mother about it.   The conversation was almost morbidly humorous.

Back and forth Bich’s mother and the soldier’s would joke – “Oh yeah, I remember shooting your friend” – “Ha yeah, but then I shot down your plane” – “Oh yeah, that was right after I threw a grenade into your fellow soldiers’ bunker.”  It was all in good spirit but definitely a strange conversation between former enemies.

Ben also told a story about a young American who had visited Hanoi and had a chance to share some rice wine with a Viet Cong veteran.  In observing the veteran’s kindness the American came out and bluntly asked him why he was being so kind, given that the U.S. killed at least a quarter million Vietnamese people and dropped thousands of bombs and the world’s deadliest toxic all over the country?

The vet responded by asking the American why he had to come to visit Vietnam.  The American told him that he had come to Vietnam to see the beautiful mountains, jungles, and beaches, as well as to learn about and embrace Vietnamese culture and food.

The Viet Cong vet smiled and said “This is why I am happy to have a conversation and share rice wine with you.  If you come my country to learn about me, my country, and my culture, I will welcome you with open arms.  But if you come to fight, I will fight you, and we will win.”  And they did win….

Back to Phong Nha.  Ben showed us a sinkhole at the bottom of one of the valleys.  Not a place to have a swim…

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Near the sinkhole Ben pointed out a cave used by the Viet Cong to hide during the war.  Can’t hit them with a rocket or a bomb if they are in a cave…

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But you can blow up rocks above the cave that will fall down and trap them in the cave.  And at one cave in Phong Nha on November 14, 1972, the U.S. did just that.  Unfortunately for the U.S., they didn’t trap any Viet Cong soldiers in the cave – they trapped eight innocent Vietnamese villagers.  During a carpet bombing exercise the villagers had scrambled into the cave for shelter and once inside, a bomb exploded above the cave and trapped them in.

Seven of these innocents were young people between the ages of 16 and 20, just on a simple village supply run with one older guide from their village.  It was customary for at least one older guide (37 in this case) to travel with the younger villagers and this man was the eighth victim.

Once trapped the situation was hopeless.  Their fellow villagers heard their cries for help but there was no equipment or tools capable of breaking through the tons of rocks that had been felled by the U.S.  Attempts to get them food and water also proved fruitless.  The villagers outside the cave heard their fellows’ voices and cries for days until one day, they heard nothing.

Vietnam has created a monument to honor these eight villagers and each person in the tour group, including Ben and I, was able to place two burning incense sticks down in the cave to remember them.

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The eight villagers’ names and birth dates were listed on this plaque.

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Burning incense is a very big thing in Vietnam.  Most Vietnamese people believe in spirits – there are good ones, bad ones, and the spirits of your ancestors.  In order to honor the good spirits and the spirits of your ancestors and in order to receive blessings from them, one must place incense sticks near alters.  One must never place an odd number of incense sticks – this is bad mojo.

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In addition to leaving the burning incense sticks people leave snacks and drinks.  One must wait for the incense to burn down to nothing and while the incense is burning the spirits are able to “have” the gifts that have been brought to them.  After the incense has burned down, you can feel free to eat that delicious box of Choco Pies that you brought because the spirit is “done” at that point.

SE Asia's favorite chocolate snack

SE Asia’s favorite chocolate snack

Ben also explained several superstitions Vietnamese people have with money.  Ben and I already had an inkling of this after the Mother Goddess dancer in Hue handed us lucky money, “loca”.   But if a Vietnamese person has a bad day they will take out a small bill and rub the bill vigorously in order to rub their “bad luck” onto the bill.  They then throw it on the floor so Ben warned us that if we ever see small bills on the floor of a home or the street, we should never to pick them up because we would be picking up the “bad luck” that got dropped along with the bill.

While we were at the cave memorial they were setting up for a big celebration and a huge truck carrying a steam roller nearly knocked over the tents.  You don’t have the same traffic/construction safety and clearance requirements in SE Asia that you have in the  U.S.

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We didn’t stay to see if it made it past but I’m hoping they did.

After the memorial site we headed for the main reason that Phong Nha is a world-renowned national park.  The caves.

Phong Nha is home to the world’s largest cave, Son Doong Cave, only recently discovered in 2009.  The locals of Phong Nha knew of the easiest main accessible opening to the cave – a small hole measuring only two meters wide – but they avoided it.   Why?  The answer makes sense in the context of Vietnamese people and their beliefs about spirits.

This massive cave, measuring 80 meters by 80 meters in most places, with multiple small openings and a big underground river, creates quite the wind tunnel.  Because of this at the main entrance there are constant strong gusts of wind blowing out.  And you know what that means.  Bad spirits.  Do not go in.  And so the locals didn’t.

But at some point a local farmer took a member of the British Caving Association to this entrance and he made quite the find.  The entrance and the cave itself is perilous.  Wet steep drops will turn a simple slip into a quick death.

Son Doong Cave is not currently open to the public.  Ben said the only way you can get in is to have “ologist” in the name of your trade and even then you must be accompanied by the top caving expert from the British Caving Association.  Ben said one of Vietnam’s top entrepreneurs, who has already made several of the caves in Phong Nha publicly accessible, is considering building a cable car in the Son Doong Cave and making it public.  To me, this sounds like a terribly dangerous idea.  Lets leave this cave to the ‘ologists Vietnam…

So on this day while Ben and I weren’t able to view the largest cave in the world we definitely got to see one of the prettiest, Paradise Cave.  The cave’s entrance did not give any indication of how big the cave was.

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But within seconds of entering the cave you gain appreciation for its size.

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After getting 300 meters in the cave only got bigger.

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The lights set up in the cave give it an eerily beautiful glow in every direction.  Paradise Cave was commercialized and made publicly accessible by the same guy that wants to open up Son Doong Cave.

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Tranquil pools are spread throughout the cave and if you walk quiet enough, all you can hear is dripping.

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The cave was cool but humid.

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Intricate stalactite and stalagmites rise and fall like colonies of jellyfish.

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Some stalagmites look like undersea coral growth.

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Paradise Cave is over 31 km long and Ben, Kim, Elina and I were able to get cover just over 1 km.

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It is the biggest, most stunning cave I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.

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We spent over an hour in the cave.  Most of that time was spent in respectfully silent awe.

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The pictures I’ve posted fail to do justice to the beauty and size of Paradise Cave but some of these videos might do a better job of capturing the size of the cave.

[PARADISE CAVE VIDEO 1]   [PC VIDEO 2]   [PC VIDEO 3]    [PC VIDEO 4]     [PC VIDEO 5]     [PC VIDEO 6]

After the cave we took a break for lunch.  The longest walking stick I’ve ever seen in my life hung out on a building next door.

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When Ben and I would get close it would sense our presence and start swaying slightly to mimic a stick of a tree in the breeze.  This would probably have been more effective if it wasn’t on the wall of a building.

After lunch went to to a river in the Phong Nha jungle and did the safest thing possible.  Swim!

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It took a bit of trekking through the jungle.

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But we eventually came to a point in the stream that was just deep enough for swimming.

Ben was leading the charge against the current

Ben was leading the charge against the current

The current was not dangerous but it could push you.  In this video you can see Ben swimming against it but staying in one place, sort of like those stationary swimming pools.

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After the swim we air dried and did a bit more trekking.

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By the road an intensely green pool of water poured out of some underground cave entrance.

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Ben told us that the British Caving Association is still looking for this hidden cave which obviously contains a massive river but they have yet to find it.

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After the trekking and swimming we drove a little farther down river and prepared for some kayaking.

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We kayaked over to a different cave entrance, only accessible by water.  Unlike Paradise Cave this cave had not been commercialized and there were no lights to help us along, making our headlamps critical.

After securing our kayaks we walked along a ramp that led into the cave and by that I mean it led into a massive pool of water.  At this point Ben said alright everyone get ready to swim – we’re going to need to swim the next 300 meters to get deeper into the cave.  The older woman in our group said “Are you serious?”  He was.

We swam/floated slowly and feet first so as to avoid any nasty cuts on underwater rocks and we kept our heads above water in order to avoid shorting our headlamps, which were not waterproof.

After about 300 meters we could no longer see the light from the entrance of the cave – only the lights of the headlamps illuminated the group and the watery cave we were swimming in.  At this point Ben explained to us that we would need to take turns swimming under a massive group of boulders that had fallen in the cave.  Again, the older woman thought Ben was joking…

We each took turns handing each other our head lamps through a small crack in the boulder and then swimming under the boulder to continue deeper into the dark cave.  After swimming under the boulder we got about another 300 meters before we stopped.  Ben had us all turn off our headlamps to give us a true appreciation for the pitch darkness of the cave.

On our way kayaking back my brother and I realized we were the worst kayaking team ever.  We were dying with laughter as we did no less than 15 unintentional time-wasting 360s while other kayaks effortlessly flew in a straight line by us.

When we finally got back to shore Ben had arranged to get some vodka and soup to warm us up.  Here is a shot of the happy tour group on our ride back to the Farmstay.

Ben, our awesome tour guide with the cheeky sense of humor, is the guy smiling on the left with a cup of soup

Ben, our awesome tour guide with the cheeky sense of humor, is the guy smiling on the left with a cup of soup

All in all this was the most action packed, informative and fun day we had in SE Asia.  To anyone travelling in Vietnam I have to recommend Phong Nha and the farmstay.

One thought on “Caving, kayaking, swimming, and trekking in Phong Nha National Park, local buses in Vietnam, a frisbee game with villagers, and Vietnamese superstitions

  1. Wow Matt, I started reading and think you are having a wonderful time. I need to log back and read your entire adventure. Liking the beard, btw!! And you and your brother look alike. Just sayin’

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