Phong Nha is home to the beautiful Ke-Bang National Park and a relatively new stop on the ever expanding Vietnam backpacker trail. A couple of our friends had told us lots about it and insisted we must go, so we finally packed up and drew ourselves away from the delights of Hanoi. They were right, Phong Nha was beautiful but with so many mishaps and strange happenings along the way we just had to share our story with you!
By now most of you already know that the sleeper buses in Vietnam can sometimes be on the ‘suspicious’ side and you never really know whats going to turn up when you get to your designated stop….well, this is where the fun and games begin! We turned up to the tour agent we had booked our ticket through only to be told we were in the wrong place, were then shuffled out, showed to another tour agent with a completely different name to a bus stop with absolutely no buses! Persevere we thought, it doesn’t matter as long as we can actually leave. The bus arrived twenty minutes later and of course our names were not on their sheet. Excellent! Fifteen minutes of hectic phone calls later and we were marched through the streets of Hanoi with about twenty other people in tow all of whom had no idea where we were going or who they had booked the bus through either. A first for us but it turns out the cattle herding is normal! Classic Vietnamese organisation and you have to love it but at times you wish someone knew what the hell was going on. Anyway, we finally got on the bus, snuggled down under the surprisingly nice blankets and thought we’d get in a good nights sleep….Then the music started and for ten hours it didn’t stop. TEN HOURS worth of Vietnamese karaoke blasted out through the speakers (which just so happened to be directly above our heads), so its safe to say we didn’t sleep, at all. Surprisingly, the bus driver wasn’t actually too bad apart from the occasional stop to smoke an opium pipe (yes, this really happened!).
Somehow, we made it in one piece and were hurried off the bus at 4.30am on the main strip that makes up Phong Nha. Classic us being ‘adventurous’ we hadn’t booked accommodation and whilst everyone else skipped off on their merry way we were the idiots who were standing in the middle of the road realising that nothing would be open at four in the morning….
Luckily, a hostel called Easy Tiger caters to such fools and stays open all night offering an uncomfortable sofa to rest your head until reception opens at 9am. There we lay blissfully unaware that checking in to this hostel would be made much more difficult by the fact we had left our passports in the Indian Embassy in Hanoi and apparently hostels aren’t too keen on terrible scans and photos taken on iPhones. I think our faces told a thousand stories and the tears brewing in Charlotte’s eyes meant they took pity on us and accepted what we had. Phew! Easy Tiger turned out to be one of the best places we stayed in Vietnam; super cool hostel, great vibe and wicked people, not to mention the happy hours and karaoke!
The one thing, however, they are not so hot on is bicycle hire. Despite the lack of sleep and showers, as we couldn’t officially check in until 1pm, we decided that the best thing to do would be to hire a bike and start exploring some of the incredible scenery around Phong Nha. Being the budget (or, stingy!) backpackers we are we jumped at the chance of free bike hire so ran outside picked a bike without even a second glance (apart from getting excited it had suspension) and off we went. Twenty minutes later and it was clear we wouldn’t be riding into the sunset. Peddles hanging off, wheels slightly bent, the worst screeching noise known to man with every turn of the wheel and the tip of the iceberg…the suspension was glued in place. Silly us. BUT, we are intrepid travellers and shall not be deterred by such minor inconveniences! So, we battled on pretending that the views and the glorious sun as we cycled along the river was keeping our morale high and minds off the ever increasing pain in our backsides!
Then, the heavens opened. A lot. For a long time.
BUT, there was a place called ‘The Pub with Cold Beer’ marked on our map and as all good backpackers know – beer is worth the sacrifice! We battled on, donning our raincoats (which now suddenly seemed not-so-waterproof), peddling through the mud and pushing the bikes up hills because, as we forgot to mention earlier, the bikes only had one gear and it turns out Phong Nha is really quite hilly. Beer, keep thinking about the beer. We reached the entrance to the ‘pub’ an hour later looking like two underwater creatures who had been living in muddy water for the last 10 years. Happy with our triumph however, we ignored the fact that this wasn’t quite the pub we had had in mind but merely a families house, who happened to have some luke warm beer in their freezer, and ordered two of their finest. Yep, the beer went down well and all was forgotten until the food ordering part came.
Only one thing on the menu they said….chicken. Great we said, we like chicken. Only one tiny hiccup in the ordering was that the only way to actually get said chicken from kitchen to plate was to physically go round the back of the house, catch the chicken you desire, smash it on the head with a hammer and then pluck it. Hmmmmm. We ordered another beer and left.
Thankfully, we weren’t quite put off food for life and having momentarily forgotten just how terrible our bikes were we cycled on to our next destination on the map; a farmhouse overlooking the rice paddies. Sounded idyllic! It should have been a twenty minute cycle away but no sooner had we come off the country lanes and joined a motorway the chain on Charlotte’s bike dropped off and she began careering off, wobbling along into the road. We managed to put it back on but after dropping off again and again after every half a mile we gave up and walked the last stretch…all uphill of course. Luckily, the farmhouse views were actually pretty scenic so we sat down, ordered a bowl of Pho and both slumped in our chairs, falling asleep mouths wide open and Josh dribbling on his knee. The steaming Pho was definitely comforting to our tired and aching bodies but we knew there was only one way back to Easy Tiger…
Charlotte managed to swap her bike so at least the chain woes and incessant screeching noise were finally things of the past but the hour cycle ahead of us certainly was not. Okay, so the views were amazing and cycling through real rural villages is something we’ll never forget but probably more because of the sheer pain we were in rather than the views. We swear had the ride been another five minutes longer we would have had to get off and cry like a little baby as the pain had engulfed our bodies and minds!
The next day we hired a moped and it taught us a valuable lesson…spend £2 more and enjoy the day for the place not the pain!
C & J