Hoi An to Hue
It was time to leave Hoi An and journey on to the Imperial City of Hue. I had in fact planned to go by train, but the motorcycle bug was fresh in me and I hired a so-called easy rider to take me and my bags to my next stop. Besides the thrill of the ride, another advantage was that I had asked my driver to stop at the Marble Mountains just outside of Da Nang. Once there I spent about an hour exploring Huyen Khong, a Buddhist grotto carved into one of the mountains. It was a surreal experience being in a dark grotto with thousands of bats skittering overhead and a plethora of Buddhist deities illuminated by fluorescent lights.
Extricating myself from the dark I was back on the bike and heading on. In the pouring rain we made another stop at Elephant Springs, where I after a short hike got to see a waterfall lined by dilapidated huts, old plastic sheets and garbage. There were next to no people at the waterfalls which wasn’t surprising, but I gathered there had been some floods causing the usual huts and stalls to get washed down stream. Hopefully the place will get rebuilt and cleaned up, but until then I highly recommend passing on this experience!
We also stopped at a small fishing village where i got to watch the fisherman go about their work and wave at a lot of very excited kids! 🙂
Unfortunately my guide didn’t speak a word of English making communication virtually impossible, also he didn’t seem especially interested in doing the trip and drove like a madman through the mountain pass leaving me freezing and white-knuckled with fear when we finally arrived in Hue.
Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945 and home to a huge citadel surrounded by a moat. Hue is also in the vicinity of several beautiful tombs of emperors past.
But it is also the place where I hit a wall physically and emotionally. After the nerve-wracking motorcycle ride and the constant rain, my body just gave up and I succumbed to a nasty cough, that I had been holding at bay since leaving Denmark. I had no energy and I was sick of packing and unpacking all my stuff every few days. Finally after being ogled in a really uncomfortable way by a staff member in an elevator in my hotel and having to answer stupid questions about my marital status and why I was traveling alone, I kind of just gave up. I forced myself to go out to the nearest hostel bar and eat a meal, met some great people, had way too many beers and ended up staying in bed at my hotel the entire next day thus missing the sights of Hue. Stupid prioritizing I know, but I think that after close to 20 days of traveling, exploring and only interacting with strangers I needed to unplug and just have a night out!
Getting back up
As I had only planned to stay in Hue for two nights, I decided to put the tombs on my to-do-list for my next trip to Vietnam and swiftly moved on to the caves of Phong Nha to the West. I arrived at a great little homestay, run by a local family and spent the afternoon meeting up with a couple of great guys I had met in Hoi An, Brad and Willie from Canada. Brad and Willie are also traveling through Vietnam, South to North and therefore we have found ourselves in the same places several times since meeting. This time the guys had picked up another stray, Enrico from Italy, and we agreed to rent a car together the next day to take us around the area. Sharing the cost four ways left us paying only 6 dollars each for the car and driver!
Still a bit depleted and depressed I was asleep in my homestay that night at 8 pm and ready to go when the guys picked me up next morning. I woke to the view of the amazingly green Son River bathed in shards of sunlight peaking through the otherwise cloudy skies and decided that my time for feeling sorry for myself was over! And anyhow it would have been impossible to stay depressed driving from the valley up through rocky jungle vistas in good company!
We arrived at Paradise Cave and were driven in a buggy to the beginning of a hiking trail leading to the entrance. All was looking great until I realized that I would have to walk up the mountain for 540 metres or the equivalent of climbing stairs to the 54th floor! Now first of all I am in horrifically bad shape and secondly I’m a smoker…so after much whining, sweating and many stops (exclusively on my part) we finally arrived at the cave entrance! All I could think was that this cave had better be worth it! And IT WAS!
Paradise Cave is also known as Thien Duong cave and it is one of the most magnificent caves in this breathtaking national park. We walked about 1 km into the cave and being almost the only people there, only heightened the feeling of awe that we shared. The stalactites, stalagmites and amazing limestone formations were breathtaking and the ceilings of the cave, so high above us, left us whispering instead of talking and as Enrico pointed out, it was like being in a huge cathedral. We walked through the cave naming the formations and wondering out loud at the miracle of nature, that created this incredible space and emerged with a reverent feeling of happiness an hour or so later.
Moving on to the next cave
We drove back and had som lunch in the little town of Phong Nha and then Brad and I proceeded to the riverside, where we boarded a small boat entirely crewed by women, to sail to the Phong Nha cave located around 40 mins ride down the river. Brad had already been to this cave the day before but decided to go for a second time because he had enjoyed it so much. I very quickly understood why. The trip down the river was absolutely beautiful, as the sun came out for the first time that day and the deep green water soaked up the light, turning it an emerald shade. The river is bordered by small huts and houses, that are set against a backdrop of mountains covered by lush jungle. The movie Kong: Skull Island (2017) was in part filmed here and the place really did feel like a prehistoric and forgotten valley.
The Phong Nha cave itself was a bit underwhelming following Paradise cave but it was exciting to sail into and through it, and the boat ride made the whole trip absolutely worth the 9 dollars that the trip cost.
On a train again
Once again exhausted with impressions and hiking, I was asleep by 9 pm and ready for my 8 am taxi ride to Dong Hoi some 60 kms away. In Dong Hoi I caught a train to Hanoi and braced myself for the 11 hour ride. There were very few people boarding the train with me and I prayed for nice roommates following my bad experience last time!
I wasn’t disappointed. Karma had dealt me a great roomie, Minh Trang, an absolutely stunning woman who was returning to Hanoi from a business trip in the country. Although there were a few language barriers, Minh Trang was quite good at English and Google translate did the rest! After the obligatory selfies with each other, we arrived at Hanoi Station at 8 pm. Minh Trang insisted on accompanying me to my hotel in a taxi and insisted on paying for the ride. She was so sweet to make sure I got there safely and once again proved the unrivaled hospitality of the Vietnamese people!
So here I am in Hanoi. Happy to be staying in the same place for 6 days, hoping to get my laundry done (I have no clean clothes left) and looking forward to exploring the capital of this wonderful country!