Northern Vietnam

Phong Nha Ke Bang – a mountain formation that only has a page or two in most travel books, the background for the movie Kong: Skull Island, and the spot for the largest known cave passage cross-section in the world.

Here’s an interesting story about Phong Nha: around the year 1990, a local was walking around and discovered the entrance to Hang Son Doon (the largest cave). Vietnamese people are scared of caves since they think they’re occupied by spirits and steer away from them. The local heard the sound of the water flowing in the cave and the winds that were blowing out of it, was probably spooked, and left thinking no more of it. Many, many years later, a bunch of British researchers working in the area heard the story of a local having found a cave, and reached the house of the local. The passage of years didn’t alter his superstitions and he initially refused he had discovered any such entrance. After a couple of years he came around and took the researchers to the cave… and ladies and gentlemen, that is how the largest cave in the world was discovered!

So; the cave itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site (as is the entire national park), and you can visit the largest cave in the world only via a guided tour that will set you back a measly $3000. No, that is not a typo. That price was a tad bit beyond my budget, so I settled for some of the other cheaper and more accessible caves, and they were stunning… makes me wonder how amazing this Hang Son Doon cave to command a price like that and still have people that go!

The area is still developing and there’s just a few hostels and guest houses around, but the hostel I stayed at, the Easy Tiger, pretty much ran the place (in a good way, I might add). They hold briefing talks every morning where they talk about the area for free and you can book tours to the caves, that they don’t run themselves, via them, or even on your own. While they are obviously running a business and probably make their money, they employ locals from the area that are likely to lose their way of living once tourism really picks up in this town, teach them English, and overall help uplifting the entire community. They also serve delicious western food and make a mean peanut butter. In short, recommend.

Unfortunately, since Phong Nha is in Vietnam, it gets their fair bit of party kids. While checking in, I overheard a shirtless guy talking to someone at the reception telling him that their group has been in Phong Nha for 3 days, but they really haven’t had the time to explore any of the area because they’ve just been partying hard. He wanted to know what they can do in a few quick hours before they leave Phong Nha to go to their next destination. The guy at the reception took a few seconds to process this, but was too nice to mock this fool, and actually gave him suggestions. My question: why do you need to fly to Vietnam just to drink? Just stay at home and save your parents some money.

Later that night, an English lad came to the dorm around 4 am, unzipped his pants in the middle of the room and peed. Right there, in the middle of the room. I guess that’s why he needed to fly to Vietnam – there’s no way he could get away with that back home.

Peeing also seemed like a tourist trend in the town. I spotted an old Chinese man peeing in the middle of one of the caves with absolute disregard to the cave’s heritage, the security guards, or the women around. Remember how I previously talked about how Chinese tourists are the worst? Add this to the list of reasons.

Now here’s some pictures of the area:

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View from the hostel hammocks (that I may or may not have fallen out of).
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Inside of the Phong Nha cave.

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Casual pee session in the caves.
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Swimming through one of the newly discovered caves.

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After Phong Nha, I had a short recovery stay in Hanoi and made my way up to SaPa, which should be on everyone’s places to see list in Vietnam. On the recommendation of a friend, I stayed at a hostel in Ta Van Village, which is about an hour by road from SaPa, but it’s where most of the trekking tours you do from SaPa will take you. I think this post is all about recommending hostels, because I strongly recommend this one too. It’s called My Tra, and is run by an Aussie bloke called Andrew. He gives you tips on how you can trek in the area along with a hand drawn map, and the beds and food at the hostels are some of the best I’ve slept in / eaten in Vietnam.

SaPa, and the area around it are all rice terraces, the temperature is cooler than anywhere in Vietnam – even in the summer – and overall it was a great place for me to wind down and relax. I spent more nights here than I had planned on, and I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Right outside the hostel.

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Fansipan cable car.

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Onward to HaLong Bay from there for me, where they have emerald waters, junk boat tours, and loads of floating garbage.

Over-tourism has ruined what this place probably was, and while the natural beauty of the place is still visible, it would be a lot better if the locals stopped disposing of their waste into the waters. I was in HaLong only for a couple of nights, and other than the time a Spanish dude in the bunk above me, picked up my towel lying on my bed while I was away, used it, didn’t bother putting it back on my bed, pretended he only spoke Spanish when I saw the towel on his bed and confronted him about it, and then told me (in English) that he thought it was the ‘room towel’, nothing particularly eventful happened.

I did a HaLong Bay tour, rode kayaks, did a small viewpoint trek, rode bikes across the island, drank a few beers, played some card games, and ate some delicious Vietnamese food.

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My final stop in Vietnam was Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, and the museum hub of Vietnam (along with HCMC).

My departure date from Vietnam would mark the last month of my adventure, and I wanted to spend time by myself. So while I stayed in a hostel (a party one at that too, because it was cheap), I spent my days walking around the city, exploring the museums, and drinking loads and loads of Vietnamese coffee.

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St. Joseph’s cathedral.
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Shards of an American fighter plan at the Military History Museum.

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