It’s been a busy few days. We took a trip from Dong Hoi to see the caves at a place called Phong Na, about an hour and a half northwest towards the Laos border.
Vietnam is only forty km wide at that point, from the border with Laos to the east coast and we were going to a national park about fifty km to the north west.
A man in a sprinter minibus picked us up from our hotel at seven. There were only six people going on this trip, we were told, and we were downstairs in the hotel reception waiting for him when he arrived. We were the first pick up and drove off to another hotel just down the road to pick up the others, a couple of young Finnish new age deadlock types and an Australian mother and daughter. The Aussies had arrived in Dong Hoi at four that morning off a sleeper bus and they kept us waiting. We drank tea on the patio outside and watched ants carrying dead bees away somewhere. It’s how they would’ve wanted it.
You’ve seen pictures of the extraordinary seascape at Ha Long bay, where Top Gear ended up, how the sheer rock stacks stand out of the water. Well there are many of the stacks on land too.
The rice fields, smooth as a snooker table as far as the eye can see, and probably farther, I expect, are scattered with these huge sheer intrusions. No gently sloping run up to it, no foothills or nothing, and no other geological feature in the landscape, just lush green fields and then a sheer two hundred foot rock poking out of the ground at ninety degrees and every inch covered in green. A daydreaming man out walking in the fields would break his nose on one, they’re so unexpectedly there.
They’re karst formations and that’s about all I know about it.
A karst formation. That’s all I know about it.
We drove through this strange landscape for about an hour or so to the river, the name of which I don’t remember, where there were many boats to take the tourists down the emerald stream where men and women in small boats gathered weeds to feed the fish in their ponds, our driver guide told us.
Gathering fish food
The entrance to the cave was forty minutes downstream past a monument that marks the start of the Ho Chi Minh trail and through villages on the riverbanks to where the boatman cut the engine when we got to the cave mouth and we proceeded forward by paddle power.
Swifts darted about as our boat slid quietly into the cave entrance.
We watched in silent awe as the light faded and we moved with just the sound of the paddle pushing the water.
We watched in silent awe, but a bunch of Koreans in the boat a hundred yards in front of us were whooping and yelling and shrieking and singing and delighting in the echoes off the walls.
No sense of the awesome, no wonder at the majesty of the earths treasures or drinking in of the atmosphere in rapt appreciation in the magnificently watery bowels of the earth. No, they saw it more as an opportunity to hear their own voices amplified. It spoiled it a bit for us to be honest.
We were in the cave for an hour or so, and then back out into the hottest day imaginable.
Sliding gently into the watery bowels of the earth
From this cave we were taken to a cafe where we were served a pretty good lunch of rice and noodles and meat and vegetables before back to the minibus and off to see Paradise Cave.
I’ve been to Cheddar Gorge and I’ve been in Wookey Hole and I thought that was big. Paradise Cave is bigger than that. It’s like in the Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits and their mates go into the Mines of Moria where the Dwarves dwell. It’s Vast.
In places it’s a hundred feet high, and in other parts it’s still Vast but not quite so high, and it reaches 13 km into the earth. Only the first km is open to the public to walk through on a long wooden walkway where groups of Korean tourists whoop and shout at each other and run and bleat like frisky lambs on a spring morning in Wales.
Even down here, in this cathedral of a chasm, Nel was grabbed and made to pose for photos by Vietnamese women with huge stalagtites.
Happily we were left in peace and silence after a while to wonder open mouthed and awestruck, gazing at the formations, many of which have been there since the caves were opened to the public in 2005!
There are Dwarves in here, and probably bats too
It was a very very sweaty trek up to Paradise Cave and we had spent too long inside, not realising what the time was or that the caves were closed and the lights turned off at 5. We were late coming back down the track to where our bus driver was waiting patiently for us. He said we would be heading back to Dong Hoi, that the third part of the itinerary was now not on because it was late, we’d spent too long in the cave and we’d had a delay at the start of the day waiting for the Australians.
This bought a protest from the organic Finnish deadlock girl who said that for her, the most important part of the trip was the walk into the enchanted forest, where the elves live.
Alright, it was billed as an ‘eco walk’ and she was disappointed, but we had spent too long going ooh, and ah in the cave and in fact we’d had to wait for her and her boyfriend to catch up.
And the sun goes down here the same time every evening with very little seasonal deviation so you know it’s going to be dark at six thirty. And so the driver offered some money back but this wasn’t what she wanted so we ended up going on the eco walk, which, as far as I can tell is an ordinary walk but with signs up saying ‘No hunting of the wild animals’, and ‘No lighting of fires’, and ‘No people who have been taking drugs or have drunk or mentally ill people’.
We walked on some eco bamboo paths, which are probably not so eco friendly as just leaving the jungle alone. We also walked on some eco rocks and, because it was getting dark, snagged ourselves on eco trees and got bitten by eco mosquitoes.
There were some lovely invisible frogs barking at each other like dogs really really loudly and if we’d not got there late, we could have frollicked in the eco stream, which had ropes across like water nymphs.
We mentioned to our fellows that there was a western restaurant in Dong Hoi and we all decided that we’d go there together for dinner that night, so we showered quickly and nipped around to the hotel they were staying in where we got a taxi.
Inside the restaurant the staff moved three white men from the biggest table so we could all sit, so I apologised to them.
Menus were bought, and food and drinks ordered, Amy, the younger of the Aussies started to get exasperated when she couldn’t order vodka, so the owner came over to translate and told her they don’t have vodka.
There was then a discussion about why he had a vodka bottle on display and a bit of flouncing and huffing and eye rolling.
Typically in a Vietnam restaurant, you shouldn’t expect the same kind of service you might expect in say, a five star hotel, especially in a restaurant where little English is spoken in a town little visited by tourists. You’re in for a disappointment if you do.
There is a very smart, newly painted restaurant in Dong Hoi called The Pizza Cafe, plainly decorated to appeal to the few westerners who visit but you’ll be sadly disappointed if you expect a pizza. When we called in there, they only had noodles so that’s what we ate, again. You might expect to be able to order a pizza if a Pizza Cafe.
The Aussie women were doing a lot of miming of exasperation and rolling eyes telling stories about how you don’t get what you’ve ordered. May as well have been shouting out that the Vietnamese people are stupid and backward. And this from the girl who’d got all offended at the sign that said no mentally ill people allowed in the caves but who feels it’s ok to denigrate them because they can’t come up with a shrimp salad even though it’s on the menu. I would advise them to learn Vietnamese if they want to make sure they’re not misunderstood in restaurants, or just stay in Australia where no doubt it’s easier for restaurateurs to buy shrimp.
I found myself disagreeing boisterously with their assessment of Vietnam. They’d begun to get like that in the minibus, when we had a driver who spoke good English and was a good man.
After he’d dropped us off, we both thanked him nicely, told him we’d had a great day and tried to repair the damage they’d done to his idea of white people. Neither of us saw any of the others thanking him when they left the bus.
Next morning another bus to Dong Ha. Back to Dong Ha, because you can’t get a tour to the DMZ from Dong Hoi and we’d thought we’d be able to.
It was a two hour trip in a minibus with some English tourists, mostly girls who got all arsey when they had to move or make space for someone. Really, go to Morecambe next time, in Asia it gets like this, the busses are overcrowded and sweaty and there’s loads of Asians who don’t have your sense of righteousness about having bought your ticket and bloody well having enough leg room, and they’re expecting that the aircon might not work. Stay in Yorkshire, girl.
A really sweet young girl got on the bus and crammed herself in by me so I dislocated both of my legs to let her in, without complaining once.
She started to speak to us just because she wants to speak English. She told us she works as a waitress and she studied English. She was really proud just to have a job. And all the young kids seem to give out feeling of a huge optimism about the future, especially the girls. It’s very touching, and humbling really, when you consider how little they have. Their ambition isn’t huge, they just want a room of their own and work. Very humbling. Actually, thinking about it there have been very few boys who have spoken with us, they don’t seem to have the same self confidence as the girls. Occasionally they will shout hello and smile, and one tried to sell us a birdcage and some Honda parts but we didn’t need them and felt we couldn’t really justify the expense. It would be nice to have an empty birdcage and a wheel bearing, but probably not practical for us in present circumstances.
Our new little friend on the bus told us where to get off the bus in Dong Ha and shouted at the driver to stop for us.
It was easy to see straight off that Dong Ha isn’t a tourist destination, and easy to see why. The bit we got to ain’t what any reasonable man might call attractive. More what you’d expect him to call dusty.
Our hotel was on the highway through town, a dual carriageway down which vehicles travel at speeds sometimes in excess of twenty miles per hour, with their air raid siren horns blasting almost constantly.
We found the hotel we’d decided we’d stop at by the walking about and stumbling on it method. Booked in, showered, had a discussion with a man about a trip to the DMZ and went out to find some food and drink, it being about midday by now.
We were spotted by Mr Binh, who’d spotted us earlier, when we’d first arrived in town and who’d helpfully helped us with directions to the hotel before asking us if we wanted a tour round the DMZ and suggesting we took him on as a guide.
Well, Mr Binh, who incidentally invented the wastepaper basket, suggested we might like to use the cafe he suggested, not twenty yards away where we could discuss terms of the tour.
We’d already discussed terms with the bloke who worked at the hotel, maybe, but who equally well might just pretend to, to give himself a more respectably ‘I work for the hotel you’re staying in’ kind of air. It’s never easy to know. We’ve assumed somebody is in the employ of a hotel or restaurant because they’ve been so polite and helpful when they’re actually touting for work, but Mr Binh was offering the same terms and he spoke better English, and he was a veteran of the American War. Plus he had long straggly hair and seemed to like to laugh. We liked him so we agreed to take a bike out with him and another man next day at ten thirty.
Mr Binh left and we stayed to order food and lemon tea.
The cafe was occupied by six women, the youngest of whom was about sixteen and the oldest about sixty I guess.
The youngest was a real spark, slim as all young Vietnamese women and with a careful western hairstyle she probably saved up money for weeks to buy.
She’d sit and say something to the other women and they’d all start giggling. Then she got the nerve to pick up my sunglasses from the table and walk about pretending to be blind.
Then she put on Nel’s sun hat, and her and her friend disappeared and came back with their teeth blacked with tape, sniggering and giggling and showing off.
We were creased up, Nel was crying with laughter and I wet myself with mirth.
Very silly girls
It was so funny and so unselfconscious, they’d sit there and just start to giggle together until they were helpless. The husband of the oldest woman who might have been the owner, or perhaps the father of all of them was watching from the room above and laughing as well.
It was a scruffy little cafe in a town no tourists go to except I think a few to see the DMZ, and they’re no doubt a dwindling minority now the veterans of the American war are getting older.
It’s history and it seems the younger tourists aren’t interested in it.
In all honesty, the DMZ tour doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it to younger people. A war that finished forty years ago in a country nobody in the west knows much about.
We were in the south now, just below the seventeenth parallel. The actual division is the Benh Hai river and the Americans didn’t much care for the non military zone seven km either side and they carpet bombed it.
Eleven of the three hundred villages survived it.
Mr Binh and his son drove us to a cemetery for the northern soldiers where five thousand were buried, many of them without identification and some of these with markers at the foot of the grave. Mr Binh explained to us that this is because the family have consulted mediums who have pointed out the grave that their son, or father, or uncle is buried in. When the family have confirmation that this is indeed the right site, from another medium, then they attach the marker to the headstone. There were many.
Right opposite the graveyard is the old French base where the Americans dug in. We went to the museum at Benh Hai and saw the pylons with many speakers bolted to them that the soldiers of both sides used to broadcast propaganda over the river. Shout at each other, in other words.
The south would apparently tempt younger soldiers with appealing music and dancing girls while the south would catch communist vibes from the north side of the river.
If younger soldiers were caught paying too close attention to the southern frivolity, the base commander would send them over the river.
‘If you like it so much, go join them’
It was a miserable day, cold and wet.
Cold and Wet. I’m just repeating it for my own benefit there, couldn’t quite believe what I just said.
Yes, I did say cold and wet didn’t I?
Five foot tall Mr Binh
We rode off to the Vinh Moc tunnels where villagers and soldiers lived together underground by the sea.
Not most peoples idea of a retirement plan but safer when your little cottage by the sea is a target for bombs.
Sixteen children were born there in rooms that Nel couldn’t stand in, maybe eight feet in length and six feet wide. That was a family sleeping room. Cooking was done communally in a similar sized room and there were two wells in the tunnels.
Trenches ran all round the site, where soldiers would run to man the guns when American bombers were spotted. A wretched way to survive a wretched war.
Of course the people went out in the day, but the tunnels were hidden in forest, what you and me call jungle so the kids couldn’t have a kick about, say, or fly a kite, but they were very good at hide and seek I imagine.
After the tunnels and as a bit of relief after so much war, we rode down by the beach.
It was raining, as I said and the beach side towns looked quite similar to beach towns in Britain when it’s raining.
Mr Binh and son stopped at a pepper plantation and showed us the peppercorns, growing on vines wrapped around durian trees. Two crops in one!
Advocates of intensive monoculture show how you can get two or three times more crop from a field. One crop. This farmer was growing pepper round durian trees and there were vegetables in between. That’s three crops, and probably no fertilisers.
The trenches where northern troops fired upon B-52s which were bombing their village
DMZ day finished up at a little barbeque place where we ate noodles.
No, hang on…I’m not sure it was noodles was it, come to think of it, it may have been steak and chips.
Oh yes it was, of course it was noodles. But it was one of the tastiest meals we’ve had here. It had a taste anyway.
And that was DMZ day with Mr Binh and Son, an interesting day, but now I’d like some fun.
To this end we took a taxi to Tam’s Cafe where, according to the travelfish, you’re more likely to meet travellers and where they sell western food. Only we didn’t get a taxi directly to Tam’s Cafe, no. We told the taxi driver where we wanted to go and wrote it down when he looked confused. He smiled and said ok and drove off, calling several numbers to ask people where Tam’s cafe is. Then he stopped to ask a taxi driver, who told him. Then he got lost before giving up and taking us to another taxi where he laughed and said ‘no money’ we’ll no, he’d dropped us farther away than when we’d left the hotel.
After reading the menu and seeing pictures of sandwiches and the steak and chips I went for rice and chicken. At least it wasn’t noodles.
We’d inadvertently stumbled in on an English club where some earnest western girl volunteers were answering questions and helping a class of about thirty mostly young girls aged thirteen to seventeen to learn English. It was very touching, these kids so much want to learn and the young volunteers so much want to help.
Then there was a karaoke competition where we listened to about ten girls mumble and mutter along to songs on DVDs. It was terrible, but in a totally sweet way completely uncontrived and without any cynicism or self consciousness.
In an unattractive town in an unregarded place these kids with nothing much were trying to improve their prospects a little bit. I’m gettin emotional now writing this.
We clapped as enthusiastically as everyone else, for the kids spirits, not for their singing.
The girl who won came across to speak with Nel while I was outside having a cigarette and she’d written in her exercise book what she wanted from her life, that she wants to go study in the UK.
If there’s a god, grant her that eh.
Nel took her mail address and I know that she will be really really thrilled to hear from her.
This morning I woke early as usual to the sound of shouting cleaners. Nel was still sleeping and I put the tv (television) on low to see how crazy Korea Kim is today. Only I couldn’t because just as I picked up the remote, the electric went off.
In Dong Hoi they get electricity from trees as you’ll know from the last post. Here they use cables, and pylons and whacky overhead cables and just as I picked up the remote, a lorry fell off highway one just down the road from the hotel taking out a tree and a pylon, probably the driver also, judging from the state of the cab, and several hundred watermelons, which helped the locals, who were gathering their five a day.
As a consequence of this, apart from the watermelon carnage and having to walk a mile to get to an ATM that was working, we had to pack our rucksacks in darkness.
We paid up and took a taxi down to Tam’s again for breakfast so we could charge our phones and get online to plan our next move.
We’d booked a train the day before, and now it’s nearly eleven in a sleeper car on the way to Hanoi with three Vietnamese people asleep in here, one man who’s not so much as looked at us and a woman who came in and was joined shortly after by a man. They all went to sleep about eight so we had to put the lights out. I can’t even read a book!
We’ve been here since four this afternoon and we’re scheduled to get into Hanoi at four tomorrow morning, where I pray we will find a cafe open.
We thought about staying overnight but we’re going to head straight to Cat Ba island for a few days of not having to pack bags.
Evan is coming back from oz and Bjela told us she’s hoping to get to Ha Long Bay this weekend, so that will be just nice, we meet up with them there and go back to Hanoi with them for a few days before over to Laos.
So I’m sorry but I have time on my hands and not had the chance to post much lately. There you go. I’m going to try to sleep.
Hanoi at five in the morning through bleary eyes