Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park
Plans to stay up late jotting down adventures in the Roam About journal are spoiled as soon as we depart Hanoi Station. Heading south towards Dong Hoi, gently chugging to the metronome of the tracks and humming along with the train engine cadence, I conk out faster than a swaddled babe suckling from the teat of mother Benadryl.
A deep, dark six-hour sleep and I awake—afresh— to the smells of chicken pho wafting from makeshift soup containers atop squeaky breakfast carts. I question my consciousness looking out the cabin windows to a dreamy, verdant landscape.
Even with the striking nature before us, there’s a slight of worry among the trio about accommodations at our next stop in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Everywhere we check closer to Dong Hoi was sold out. Even the small village of Son Trach as well, as the hostels in town had all been gobbled up by
a pack of wild, Mad Maxian reprobates Aussies, and there was only one option left: staying with a guy named Jungle Boss and his family, on the outskirts of the park. We pulled the trigger on the Boss.
Young Heezy, Uncle Vic, and I grab a taxi from Dong Hoi train station and arrive an hour later at a homestay resembling a tropical cattle ranch with palm trees instead of tumbleweeds.
We’re met outside the two building complex by Jungle Wife and Jungle Niece, who bargain in Vietnamese with our cab driver on how much we owe for the ride, and I’m not paying attention to transaction as the surrounding environment starts to sink in with the rising sun; the fogginess of dreamscape becoming a reality.
After exchanging pleasantries with Jungle Wife, figuring out Jungle Boss isn’t home (yet), we walk back towards Son Trach watching the Con River gently flow along, with water buffalo wallowing by the shore and locals zipping up and down in long, serpentine boats, with unending karsts rolling along like a massive dragon spines in the distance.
The world’s largest cave was recently discovered in this park (Son Doong); a cave you can trek to/camp in for 5-6 days for the low, low price of $3000USD through Oxalis Adventure Group. The other option is to take on the trek yourself, and inevitably die of snake bite from one of Vietnam’s 30 poisonous snakes, heart seizures at the sight of monstrous jungle critters, or unexploded ordinances left from the American war.
This staggeringly beautiful area was one of the more heavily bombed and torched sections of the country by Americans due to its proximity to Viet Cong camps/bases within Laos and the ever-morphing Ho Chi Minh trail, and unfortunately, remnants of the brutality are still very-much active.
Finally shaking off 3 days worth of Hanoi’s insanity, we stop at Oxalis adventure hotel, where we find a quaint patio bar with a set of stairs leading to a little beach. After a quick river dip to cool off, we order Tiger beers and chat with local, Ann (The self-proclaimed #1 Troublemaker), who takes a liking to our stinky trio. We pick her brain on where to eat, and general local mentalities.
I promised I would include her in this blog, so, here you go, Ann; fame and fortune, kiddo.
After 2 or 7 Tiger beers, we head back to Jungle Boss’ house for dinner. Along the way we’re met by local kids on bikes/running out their houses to say ‘hello’ to our group, and give high-fives. Victor even gets a solid ass swat from a particularly mischievous little dude. We have a laugh, reveling in the quintessential travel moment of being surrounded by awesome kids/people curious about why we’re so hairy and pale.
At dinner, we finally get to meet/hang with Jungle Boss (JB) for a fleeting moment. JB is incredibly hospitable, and polite with a soft-spoken, British accent. He is calm in demeanor but, like the Con River a hundred yards away, there’s an undercurrent just below the surface; clear as JB passionately dives into plans for his family’s homestay and what our visit and tourism in general means for the village/area. Just as he starts on UNESCO qualifications for Phong Nha, his phone buzzes.
JB’s eyes are all business. Then, they go ominous; then a next level darkness. You can tell he’s seen some seriously bad shit in his life. He apologizes and tells us there was a scuffle in village that needs his immediate attention. A brewing feud has boiled over; the Jungle Boss is off to boss the jungle.
There’s a communication vacuum the rest of dinner, as we smile and nod like bobble-headed buffoons at a very pregnant but energy Jungle Wife. But the language void is filled with the universal sounds of food indulgence as JW has prepared a delicious spread, including a pumpkin stem/blossom and pork soup that is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
After a half an hour of gorging on fresh fish, more pumpkin soup and rice (and a few shots of Vietnamese wine, for good measure), the three of us roll to our cabin, nestle in under our
tarantula and scorpion force fields mosquito nets (separate beds; too hot and stinky to man snuggle) and we rest up for the day trek to Tu Lan Cave the #1 Troublemaker convinced us to do earlier in the day.
Tan Hoa Village
Next morning, after picking up some new friends from the local hostel, we ride with our guides, Vu and Bao, an hour to Tan Hoa Village, lovingly called ‘The Valley of Men’ because, according to Bao, the women in the area do all the hard labor, while the men do nothing but drink, smoke (cigs? pot? opium?) and dance all day.
Vu says Oxalis is doing all they can to make sure the men are actually working, giving them jobs as porters to not be such dead beat husbands. Bao scoffs and says something in Vietnamese – something that sounds like a verbal eye roll.
I may have an exclusive on blogging about the area/this trek to Tu Lan Cave, which would be a first for me and will hopefully garner me a sponsorship with
someone, anyone, i’m desperate and I promise I won’t even curse anymore in my fucking writings Delta partner, Vietnam Airlines.
We debrief, pack, tie-up our camo Converse boots, and head into the blazing heat down a cattle path.
After a moderately flat course through the valley, Vu and Bao up the ante a bit by taking us into the jungle, which feels like walking through hot salad soup…with spiky limestone at every step.
We trek through, surrounded by nature hellbent on killing us, including some crazy poison Ivy that apparently makes your skin go necro if not treated immediately. Good thing we’re so close to civilization…
Bao takes us into Tu Lan cave and we get some much-needed protection from the midday sun. Unfortunately, the rest from the heat unveils new dangers that absolutely fudge up my senses.
First, a very dangerous climb in the dark on a 50 foot ladder. I’m blessed with a major fear of heights, but the other option— me waiting behind for the cave snakes and other animals to attack me, wasn’t an option. So I pee myself down the ladder with a rope hastily tied around my waist for support.
Second, on the trek in, I make the horrible mistake of telling Bao I’m terrified of spiders. He is quick to tell me to shine my lights into the darkness. All those pairs of shiny dots reflecting back at us?
Next, Bao tells us to strip down to our underwear and I tersely remind him I’m not that kind of gal.
Really, he wants us to put on our bathing suits to jump into the dark, cool cave water for a swim. Survive the spiders. Check. Survive heights. Check. Afternoon swim through the dark waters in a mountain? Sure, why the hell not
The spooky awesome cave river leads us out to this stunning grotto in the middle of the jungle where we spend the next couple hours relaxing, swimming around, and wondering if this is one of those pools where the little parasitic fish will swim up your pee stream and into your urethra (it wasn’t, I tried it).
We share a great picnic of Bahn Mi and various other vittles, melons, prepared by our gracious porters who aren’t the deadbeat husbands we’ve heard about so much.
We pack up and head back through the jungle to our home base in Tan Lao. It’s a quiet trek; our group is physically exhausted. I take a moment to reflect on experiences in Vietnam so far—the surrounding views, the smiling faces, the food, the smells, the culture, Jungle Boss, Jungle Family, Vu and Bao, our new travel friends. Hanoi—a purposeful crash of the senses—combined with the nature-driven excursion(s) of Halong Bay and Phong Nha tighten Vietnam’s grip on my soul like some invisible coil. I begin to deeply regret only carving out 9 days for this trip.
Heights and spiders conquered, we grab our backpacks, bid adieu to Jungle Boss & Fam (stay with him if you are in the area) and taxi it back to Dong Hoi station where the SE-3 train awaits to take us to more adventures in Hoi An.
Next up: Beaches, Bahn Mi, and Pepto Abysmal.