Before going to Hue, we’d planned to visit Phong Nha Cavern and Paradise Cave. They’re not really near anywhere particularly useful – they’re basically between Ninh Binh and Hue, near Dong Hoi (which is apparently about as uninteresting as industrial hubs can get) – but they’re recently discovered and some of the biggest caves in the world. (Until a couple of years ago, Phong Nha Cavern was believed to be the biggest cave in the world.) Both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor seemed pretty exuberant about them. So they sounded worth checking out.
From all I can tell, the best way to go have a gander is to go stay at Phong Nha Farmstay, which also gets excellent reviews. Unfortunately, the time we were passing through happened to coincide with the one week a year that the farmstay’s hardworking owners take a well-deserved break. So that option was out.
So we got out our trusty Google Maps and our metaphorical rulers, and decided, well, fuck it. Hue was kind of close. –ish. And we hadn’t had a real scooter adventure yet…
We planned out our route and hired us some more scooters (from a different place than yesterday, given last night’s breakdown) without really telling them exactly where we were planning on going. Well, we told them the truth: we were going to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. We just omitted to mention that that was about the halfway point of our outward journey. It’s not like they’d be able to tell when we gave the scooters back: the odometers are always deliberately disconnected anyway, so that overly inquisitive customers can’t tell how old and crappy the scooter is.
And so, around 8am, we set off to have us an adventure…
Our first stop, after a good couple of hours of arse-vibration on what were thankfully relatively decently-behaving scooters, was, as we’d promised the scooters’ owners, the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels are in Vietnam’s old demilitarised zone: they’re a set of interconnected tunnels which housed an entire village for a good two and a half years during the Vietnam War, as the villagers fought a guerrilla war against the South and the Americans. Apparently the American plan was to bomb the crap out of them and expect the villagers to flee. This cunning strategy appears to have overlooked the possibility that the strategists had themselves been expending quite a bit of effort to ensure that there was nowhere for them to flee to, and so, much to American surprise, the villagers bunkered down and made themselves a particularly successful nuisance, all the while going about their normal lives as best they could, underground.
From Vinh Moc, our trusty friend Google Maps directed us up the Ho Chi Minh Highway for a few hours to get to Dong Hoi (which we were immediately glad not to have bothered staying in), and thence to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It was an uneventful ride, though long, and we were glad to make it to Phong Nha Cavern.
The entrance to the Cavern is a river, and while there’s solid ground once inside, the only way in is via an organised boat trip – and you can’t actually go very far in anyway. Knowing that in advance, we were happy to make do with a look at the entrance before we proceeded around the (extended) corner to Paradise Cave, which, though smaller, is a much more interesting visit.
Getting around that corner presented a little bit of intrigue, as we had to pass through a boomgate which seemed to form some sort of military checkpoint, where we attempted to explain that we were making our way to Paradise Cave by repeating “Paradise Cave?”, pointing to the location on Google Maps, and gesticulating down the road. Eventually, either through sudden understanding or, more likely, boredom, the nice man in the army uniform let us through, and we proceeded on our way, enjoying the beautiful scenery of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The Park is a hilly forested panorama of beautiful greenery, far removed from the traffic and noise of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. The roads through it are surprisingly good, and we had a fantastic time just riding around on our way to and from Paradise Cave.
It was around this point that we figured that we were probably farthest from Hue – the halfway-mark, I suppose. (At 3pm or so. Which was obviously interesting, in terms of calculating our likely ETA back to our hotel.) And so it was at this point that my scooter stalled. Just like yesterday. Fortunately this time some enthusiastic holding flat of the throttle and starter motor button fixed that problem after a couple of minutes, and our heart rates returned to normal and we could continue on, laughing at the sheer stupidity of where we were and what we were up to, towards the grand finale – the Paradise Cave.
And the cave didn’t let us down either…
Relishing the opportunity to stretch our legs, we walked from the carpark to the base of the hill and climbed the 500-odd stairs to the cave entrance. We paused there, intrigued by the possibility of ice cream from the café at the top of said stairs. Of course, we should have known better: by now, it was past 3pm, and they don’t sell ice cream after three.
Putting aside our puzzlement, we proceeded into the cave, which was as stunning as we’d been promised. The full cave is many tens of kilometres long, but you visit the first 1.1km. The scene is tastefully lit, and there are wooden boardwalks to take you as far as tourists are allowed to go. As far as holes in rock go, it was enormous and spectacular – and well worth the day’s ride, especially given that for most of the time we were there, we had the whole cave to ourselves, to enjoy its majestic magnitude in silence and awe.
We spent nearly a full hour inside the cave, lapping up every moment, and emerging shortly before 5pm. Which is an interesting time to have picked, given that we were still 300km from home and given that sunset was due not too long after six.
I’m afraid I don’t have any more photos from that day. We didn’t stop a lot on the way back. In fact, we didn’t stop at all. We’d have liked to come back via Khe Sanh – not because it’s supposed to be particularly fascinating, but just because it’s in the song – but we didn’t have time for that. Nor for anything else. We’d learned by this stage that to assume anything above an average of about 55km an hour on scooters was to indulge a flight of fancy, and so we knew that we had a good five or six hours of riding ahead, almost all of it in the dark. Oh, and it rained a bit, too. Shortly after sunset, with a good four hours left, it started to pour, much to our amusement. We powered on through (albeit at a slower, more weather-appropriate pace) and breathed unbelievably heavy sighs of relief when the rain went away after not much more than fifteen minutes.
Finally, a while after 10pm, we returned our scooters to their home, handing over the keys to some inquisitive-looking reception staff. We’re not sure of the exact numbers, but we’re pretty sure we covered over 600km, in more than fourteen hours total, of which at least eleven were spent on vibrating scooter seats.
We wandered off, slightly bow-legged, to find ourselves some food – ideally food we could consume standing up, please – and a nice comfortable bed. It had been a big, thoroughly fantastic day. We felt we deserved some rest.