When we last spoke, we were just headed to Dong Hoi from Hué. The big attraction at Dong Hoi is definitely the cave systems there. We organized a day trip to visit Paradise Cave and “The Dark Cave”. We didn’t actually visit Phong Nha cave itself. You enter that cave by boat, and we figured we wanted two very different caving experiences so we opted for the Paradise Cave/Dark Cave combo.
Paradise Cave was very impressive! It’s absolutely massive. By far the largest cave I’ve ever been in. Although it pales in comparison to Son Doong Cave -- the recently discovered cave in Vietnam that takes the title of “largest cave in the world”. If you’ve got 3000 USD laying around for a tour, let me know how it looks. But for now, we’ll stick to the cheap day trips! Wandering through Paradise Cave was pretty nifty. You just walk up a hillside, enter the cave, and then walk about a kilometre inside of it. I opted not to bring my camera for fear of damaging it, but that turned out to be a stupid plan. Luckily Sandra had the GoPro on hand so you’ll see some video footage at a point in the distant future.
Then it was onto the Dark Cave! The experience here is a lot more adventurous. I mean, the whole thing starts off with a super-long zipline over a river. Great start, right? Then you swim in some chilly water into the cave. Once you’re about 100m into the cave, you take a turn and activate the headlamps. You’re in the dark zone now. The floor of the cave slowly turns to mud and continues to get more and more mucky until you reach the epic mud room. Everybody just flops into it. And it’s pretty amazing, because the mud is so dense that you can float any which way you’d like. You can curl your feet up to your chin and just kind of crouch-float. Lots of fun. Everybody turned off their headlamps for a bit too, so we could experience some straight-up blackness.
But I have to say the highlight may have been after exiting the cave. On the way back to the central building where you change into your bathing suits there was this incredible rope challenge course set up. The first step involved ziplining along and then dropping yourself into a rope basket. Then you’d hop out of the basket and continue along a shaky bamboo ladder. All of this is happening about 25ft above the water. So you’re aiming to not fall. The whole course is held aloft by thin-gauge steel wire, too, so while your friends are starting the course behind you the entire course is wobbling to and fro and throwing everybody off balance. I had an absolute blast and felt like a contestant on American Ninja. Highly recommended.
From Dong Hoi we took a ten hour day train all the way up to Hanoi. Our first day in Hanoi was filled with absolute nothingness. Just vegging out and relaxing after the lengthy train ride. But we DID manage to organize a trip to the famed Halong Bay, so I guess we got something done? Kind of? The next day we explored the city by visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Hao Lo Prison. This is the prison where John McCain was kept after being caught as a POW during the Vietnam War. It was very interesting to walk around the prison and learn the history. It was initially used by the French to house Vietnamese revolutionaries and was later converted to hold American pilots shot down during the war. Once again we found ourselves on the receiving end of a pretty heavy dose of one-sided propaganda. You know: Vietnamese prisoners were treated terribly and American soldiers had a grand old time in jail. That kind of thing. But still a cool place to visit. Wasn’t lugging my camera around that day, so NO PICTURES FOR YOU! Sorry. But I’ll make up for it. Right... now.
In Halong Bay! We opted for a three day/two night cruise in the bay. It’s a large bay full massive limestone rock formations and pillars. We did all sorts of activities here: visiting the Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave), kayaking, learning about cultured pearl farming, jumping off of our three-level boat and swimming in the bay. Just... boat stuff, you know? We did our tour with a company called Majestic Cruises. They provided us with more food than you could possibly eat. It was pretty intense how many courses they’d drop on the table. We just sat wide-eyed at the mission before us. We failed to complete it every time. The rooms were also reasonably spacious and very comfortable (when the air conditioning was turned on, that is!).
Highlights of the trip include children rowing boats with their feet, watching sunsets in the bay while drinking beers and relaxing on the top deck, the kayak excursions to fishing villages and into various caves, and swimming around the boat. Overall it was a really wonderful experience.
No rest for the wicked, however. We’ve got a trip to Sapa lined up tomorrow. It’s a six hour bus ride to this hill station area. The general idea is to go hiking and stay with a local family for the night, but the weather forecast doesn’t look overly appealing for our stay there. Hopefully it holds up for us. It’s just one night, a six hour bus ride back, and then we’ll be off to Laos on the 21st!