vietnam

Phong Nha-Ke Bang

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is the most magical Narnian landscape located just west of the city Dong Hoi. Phong Nha was the main reason I wanted to travel to Vietnam - in search of the largest caves in the world, formed over 400 million years ago (the longest cave systems in the world belong to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky). Son Doong is the largest cave and while the others pale in comparison, they're still incredibly huge and beautiful. There are a ton of different options available for tours and hikes to any level of adventurer; activities like kayaking, swimming or jungle trekking and/or how long you'd like to adventure for. There are different companies that will take you out on tours and treks as well; Oxalis seems to have a monopoly on Son Doong treks; but their only option for exploring it is 5 days, around $4000, your first born, and the wait list is about a year so sadly, we weren't able to do that (although we did try to do it ourselves!!!) The website phongnhacavestour.com can provide more information regarding the various expeditions to the different caves.

John and I opted for no tours because we like creating our own adventure and honestly, I don't really like tours because you're always waiting on someone for something (on a totally unrelated note, I'm mildly impatient). 

Sneaky places in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park you can find when you don't go with a tour!

Sneaky places in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park you can find when you don't go with a tour!

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is absolutely breaktaking AND its free to get in to; you just pay the fees for the cave-attractions you want to see, which is great! I would highly recommend putting aside a whole day to motorbike around the whole park just to take it all in! There are so many other caves to be found!! Phong Nha's landscape is considered karst topography, which means caves and mountains have formed from the 'dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone.' (Thanks Wikipedia!)

Photo by John Perez of the happiest girl on earth gazing at her newest favorite place in the world  

Photo by John Perez of the happiest girl on earth gazing at her newest favorite place in the world  

We arrived in Phong Nha January 7th on a long motorbike ride from Hue; we rounded a nonchalant bend in the road and the outline of Phong Nha appeared in the distance: a foggy mountain 'range' of huge free-standing mountains covered in lush green trees and vines. We were so excited! We went about 90kph just to shorten our already short jaunt there. We stayed at the Duong Homestay just across from the more well-known Easy Tiger Hostel. Immediately once getting there we ran right up to the nearest mountain and began making our ascent; we saw mountain goats (finally!) and I discovered a new cave, sneakily hidden from the untrained eye.

Our goal in Phong Nha was to 'relax' a little (whatever that means) and tried to take this area slower, so we only did 1-2 caves per day (the weather was quite wet so that also inspired a slower pace).

Our view from Duong Homestay

Our view from Duong Homestay

Cave Details:

Paradise Cave - is 250,000 VND a person translating to $11. You skate along the slipperiest path you've ever walked on and if that doesn't kill you there's a huge stair climb up to the cave entrance. If you survive the slippery path and the huge climb up the mountain you are rewarded by a downward flight of stairs into the mouth of the cave. The cave opens up to this huge area (my spatial reasoning is challenged so Google says...) it's 72 meters high and 150m wide. My cell camera didn't take any National Geographic worthy pictures so you can't comprehend the scale by any means, but the cave is absolutely stunning. 

The epicness of Paradise Cave and a super tiny person for scale-purposes

The epicness of Paradise Cave and a super tiny person for scale-purposes

Dark Cave - was also 250,000 VND per person, it's usually 400,000 V per person but we got a deal because (dun dun dun!) if you sneak in with a tour (not go with them but walk in with them) you can get a group price. Dark Cave was epic and unfortunately I don't have any pictures of it because if you bring something in with you it WILL break due to all of the activities! You start by zip lining over a river to the mouth of the cave, then you swim in the tropical blue water up to the entrance, then you adventure into the cave (its dark so you get a little helmet with a light on it) THEN you walk through this skinny little corridor (which is why you need the helmet; concussion is imminent without it) through sometimes knee-dee mud into an opening where you can sit in the mud baths AND guess what?! You float!!!! You can just lie back in the mud and the muds like 'hey friend, no worries, I got you' and you float. It's freaking awesome. Then you have a mud fight with all your new friends you made on the tour and get deliciously muddy and hilariously dirty. After happily playing in the mud for about 10-20minutes you wander through a different slim passage way and slide down a natural mud slide (which is only mildly painful) then on your exit from the cave you cannonball into the blue water again to clean yo dirty self off and take a kayak back; there you can pretend youre a pirate and commandeer other people's kayaks. On the other side of the river more zip lining and a high ropes course patiently awaits your arrival. (Google some pictures!) 

Phong Nha Cave - you have to take a boat to this aquatic cave but good news: you can combine this entrance fee (150,000V) to the entrance fee of above-ground Tien Son Cave and the boat ride (400,000 V) there you split with everyone on the boat (up to 12 peeps). We were the last people to get there and were able to sneak in with yet another tour! We made some awesome native Vietnamese friends who now call California and Texas their home! The boat ride to Phong Nha Cave is spectacular; riding in a valley, teal water splashes around you while you're surrounded by vibrant green fields and lush mountains, eating 'banh my' (which is the best sandwich you'll ever eat; more on that later.)

Turquoise boat on a teal river through an emerald green valley  

Turquoise boat on a teal river through an emerald green valley  

You continue your boat tour through the cave and go on the most epic watery cave adventure. Unlike Paradise Cave where it has mostly stalagmites (pointy mineral deposits coming from the cave floor) Phong Nha cave has incredible stalactites (pointy mineral deposits hanging from the cave ceiling). 

The jellyfish-like stalactites of Phong Nha

The jellyfish-like stalactites of Phong Nha

We didn't make it to Tien Son due to timing but the other available caves are Hang En, Hang Va and, of course, the coveted Son Doong which we attempted an expedition ourselves but were foiled by the knee-deep muck and the very long trail through the jungle which unfortunately, we didn't have time for. 

Photo by John Perez of our mucky trek through the jungle  

Photo by John Perez of our mucky trek through the jungle  

Where / what to eat in Phong Nha:

Don't eat at Tam Coc Bar, it's cute but not worth the food poisoning. Phong Nha isn't that touristy yet, which is great, but in the case of food its a bad thing. The food is held at pretty low standards so use your gut, your nose, and all your other senses to pick a place. If it smells funny, don't eat there. If you get a bad vibe, don't eat there. If it looks not-so clean, don't eat there. Food poisoning sucks. 

Tuan Ngoc is another restaurant that has adorable green lighting effects and paper lanterns, this place is so delicious and they had so many vegetable options!  

We had brick oven pizza at Capture which was tasty, and it was nice to have comfort food after eating a strict diet of pho and banh my's (which are delicious but I very much miss cheese!!!!) Vietnam is a cheese-less country!!!

Even though it's not super touristy TripAdvisor.com has helpfully rated some other restaurants like Gecko Bar and A Little Vietnam Restaurant!  

Banh my - pronounced 'bahn me' is a delicious sandwich made out of a baguette, 2 different slices of suspicious looking meats, meat spread, cilantro, a cucumber and mayo and some other things that I'm still not sure what they are. It's absolutely delicious and available everywhere in Vietnam. You can find them at restaurants but they're most easily found along the city streets in little carts made by wise old Vietnamese ladies. Anthony Bourdain says the banh my is one of his favorite sandwichs of all time. 

Pho - beef noodle soup that you really can't go wrong with. It's a hearty soup made with beef and yummy noodles that vary in size with bean sprouts, green onions and you can add spicy chilis to warm you up even more. This is to be found everywhere.  

Pho foreva' and banh my (delicious!)

Pho foreva' and banh my (delicious!)

So, if it's not on your bucket list, add Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It rivals Machi Piccu & Yosemite as my favorite place(s) on earth. We only have single entry visas which are good for a month and in order to really immerse yourself in the epic nature, culture, history, architecture and general wonder Vietnam has to offer you would need much more time than that.

Insert lyrics to I See Fire by Ed Sheeran  

Insert lyrics to I See Fire by Ed Sheeran  

Southern Vietnam

Hey hey! It's been a little while since I've written because our adventures are so wonder-FULL it's really hard to find time to sit down and flush out my thoughts on paper. Luckily, it's pouring rain outside in Hoi An so I get to settle inside for once and write. 

I suppose I'll write about Cambodia later because there's a lot to say and a lot of things that happened at Angkor Wat and writing about that now would be ineffective and inefficient. So I'll start our venture with the border crossing from Cambodia through Snoul into Vietnam. 

We were told that our bus from Cambodia would take us to the border at Snoul and a motorbike would take us over the border into Vietnam where a bus that went from Ho Chi Minh was waiting for travelers every 15 minutes.  This turned out not to be true. We crossed the border with another backpacker that we had met that morning named Mac. Mac was a great guy and told us all about traveling through southeast Asia as he's from Singapore and gets to visit these countries quite often. We walked over the border into Vietnam with Mac and saw that the streets were quite deserted and there were absolutely no buses and hardly any other signs of life at all. Luckily after walking a little ways in the blistering sun, there up ahead was a tiny restaurant that we all sat down and chatted over some pho and much needed aloe juice. As we were sitting, swapping adventure stories and waiting patiently, (but also not so patiently because we didn't know how the fuck we were going to figure out how to get to the bus station or anything and kinda having mini heart attacks) John suddenly saw a giant tour bus that had just crossed the border from Cambodia into Vietnam; he ran at it full speed and they stopped to listen to what this crazy American had to say. As it turned out they were a Chinese bus tour and their sleeper bus wasnt full so they were able to take us with them AND they just so happened to be heading to Ho Chi Minh.

We gratefully accepted a ride and jumped on the bus, found our respective seats and looked at each other, laughing at our luck; the universe proving again it's magic and Synchronous nature. After a long bus ride staring out the window seeing the subtle and also obvious differences between Vietnam to Cambodia, the bus dropped us off in the middle of Ho Chi Minh and me, Mac and John hopped off and went into the mall to eat some knock off KFC chicken - which was delicious. 

We were about 5 km away from our hostel but we decided to walk as we wanted to see the secret alleys and the innards of Ho Chi Minh in all of its sneaky glory. We were using Ho Chi Minh as a transitional city and weren't staying too long, so exploration was absolutely necessary. As we zipped down alleyways nearly escaping being hit by motorbikes, motorcycles, bicyclists and other fast walkers like ourselves we stumbled upon a giant pagoda that had shrines to Buddha, Kuan Yin and also Vishnu and Shiva. We payed our respects to the beautiful statues and continued our wandering. 

Christmas decorations in every alley  

Christmas decorations in every alley  

Walking a little bit further we accidentally stumbled upon Christmas in Ho Chi Minh (as it was Christmas Eve) and all the streets had strewn lights all across the alleyways, little girls were dressed up an angel costumes, Santa was riding a motorbike, and there was even a fog machine turned snow machine that lightly fluttered down and decorated the alley with little snow bubbles. We stumbled upon a beautiful Catholic Church that was decorated and lit up in many colors complete with the baby Jesus, the star of Bethlehem, and various Christmas trees strewn about with beautiful ornaments and shiny ribbons. Everyone there was dressed to a T and ready for midnight mass. Christmas songs rang out in English as well as Vietnamese; we were in such a pure awestruck state as we had no idea this was what was waiting for us in the alleyways a Vietnam. 

Tiny snow angels  

Tiny snow angels  

We walked further making way for our hostel, it must have been at least 100° with 100% humidity as we were absolutely covered in sweat. The juxtaposition of it all, beautifully dressed Vietnamese people to disgustingly sweaty foreigners was all very funny. We ended up parting ways with Mac and decided to get an Uber the rest of the way.

Ourr Uber took us to the address that our hostel claimed it was at (54/6 - whatever that meant) and we wandered around the building square for about 30 minutes until this very charming Vietnamese lady looked at us, sweaty, exhausted and carrying huge backpacks, and using her hands as a map she showed us we needed to be on the other side of the building. Once on the other side of the building we realized that there was a very tiny inlet that looked like a garage but once you walked in it opened to a whole city square and our Harry Potter-Esque address meant 54 was the square we were in and 6 was the actual building number.

As exhausted as we were we decided to shower and head out on Christmas Eve and see what what there was to do. We stumbled upon a night market, but as it turns out the night markets in Cambodia, the night markets in Thailand, and the night markets in Vietnam are all pretty similar; they're all tourist traps with expensive drinks and loud foreigners.

We stayed at Saigon Central hostel that was very centrally located and had a super helpful staff. There, we learned about the 'hop on hop off' bus that cost $59 to go from Ho Chi Minh all the way to North Vietnam (Hanoi), stopping in whatever major city you want, adventuring around for however long you want and then contacting them to hop back on the bus when you're ready to head to a new city. 

The next day we woke up and tried to enjoy our last day in Ho Chi Minh - by looking for a phone store for a SIM card. We found a great donut shop and I found a tattoo shop (!) and chatted with an artist for a little while about getting a tattoo; unfortunately we were only going to be there for a day and that was not enough time to sit down sketch out approve and also get tattooed (I haven't been tattooed here yet in southeast Asia and that is wearing on my mind. And body. As I love being tattooed especially when it's for such a beautiful reason as to symbolize an epic place I've been So lucky to experience. And it's driving me mildly crazy!) 

Nothing says Christmas like a batman donut  

Nothing says Christmas like a batman donut  

Side note about Ho Chi Minh: it's not a good place to rent or drive a motorized vehicle. Traffic is beyond insane and they drive anywhere they can: the road, the sidewalk, the canal, wherever. 

Exhausted (hating) the city we hopped on a bus to Da Lat, excited to leave the madness of the city for the beauty and stillness of the countryside. Our bus ride was absolutely amazing taking up up the beautiful green mountains higher and higher and higher into the mountains into the city of Da Lat nestled between mountains in this beautiful Green and foggy valley. Da Lat is easily one of my favorite places I've been so far. It was colonized by the French and so it has some seriously eclectic flares between Vietnamese culture, French architecture and almost a Dutch and Swiss tinge. 

Our Backpackers Paradise Crew 💕  Lenore, Lynn, Nessa, Mary, Jack, Tess, Mar, me & John

Our Backpackers Paradise Crew 💕  Lenore, Lynn, Nessa, Mary, Jack, Tess, Mar, me & John

We stayed in Backpackers Paradise hostel which was probably one of our favorite hostels. They are cheap and in a great location and had free breakfast AND dinner (which free dinner is uncommon). We became super close knit to all of our hostel mates, and one fateful night we all ventured out and went to the highly unique highly raved about 100 Roofs café which is an absolute MUST if you go to Da Lat!!!!!! I won't spoil too much of it for you (as I love surprises) but basically you walk into the bar, you decide if you want to go up or down, and the rest is a maze lit up dimly with multicolored lights and the walls are all decorated in different images, sculptures, animals, people etc, complete with little cubbyholes, random staircases and secret rooms. That being said, is a very poor description of the bar and you need to see it for yourself. It was the best bar I've ever been to.  

A sneaky area of 100 Roofs Cafe

A sneaky area of 100 Roofs Cafe

Adventuring through Da Lat on a motorbike was the most freeing feeling, riding through rice pattys (paddies?) and different coffee orchards, only to find beautiful pristine waterfalls about three tiers high. Our favorite waterfall was Pongour Waterfall which was a bit of a drive out of Da Lat. It was absolutely ginormous and if you didn't get in trouble you were able to climb to the top! Due to our ultra sneaky nature we made it to the top but got in trouble on the way down 😂😂 Elephant Waterfall was also amazing (Sammie duhhhh) but it was about half the size of Pongour and there were way too many tourists. Tiger waterfall pictured below was challenging to get to because the road was on a 45 degree incline and the whole road WAS a giant pothole. It was very beautiful and had a legend that we tried to make out - Basically tigers used to live there in the caves before man took over and started hunting them. (Stupid man.)

Tiger waterfall in Da Lat

Tiger waterfall in Da Lat

In between waterfalls, coffee was necessary to life and as it happens Da Lat, Vietnam is one of the places that you can get weasel coffee(!) which is the coffee that comes from weasels eating coffee beans, something magical that happens with their stomach acid making the coffee incredibly good and pooping the beans out and humans consuming them! (The pooped out coffee beans that is - not the weasel) It is said to be the most expensive (and delicious) coffee in the world. Not pictured are the adorable weasels because they were in cages and John and I had a bad feeling about them on a coffee-bean-only diet.

Weasel (poop) coffee 😂 

Weasel (poop) coffee 😂 

Lucky, the wolf husky, reunited with his papa & going on a celebratory drive  

Lucky, the wolf husky, reunited with his papa & going on a celebratory drive  

Back at the home front - Backpackers Paradise we were able to witness Lucky, the beautiful husky dog, be reunited with his family after being DOGNAPPED for a week! It was so heartwarming to see such a huge fluffy dog so ecstatic to be home and his dad immediately put him on a motorbike (with a pink helmet of course) and took him for a celebratory drive! (Only in Vietnam!)

Crazy House in Da Lat

Crazy House in Da Lat

We adventured to Crazy House in Da Lat which was apparently built by an autistic daughter of a general who was sent away to live in the mountains; we were told this by a Dutch restaurant owner named Thomas (who is located right across from the Crazy House.) We did our own research but sometimes google doesn't translate things as well as it thinks it does because we also heard the same person who built 100 Roofs Cafe did Crazy House as well, so there was some conflicting information. 

New Years Giant Jengaaaaaa!  

New Years Giant Jengaaaaaa!  

We were sad to leave Da Lat, it's definitely my favorite city in Vietnam so far, but we had to continue our journey North and headed to Nha Trang as yet another transitional (coastal) city on our way to Hoi An, where we wanted to celebrate New Year's. Some of our hostel mates from backpackers paradise in Da Lat met up with us and we celebrated New Year's in Hoi An at a reggae bar called One Love, where I bought a bucket of booze and me and John played jumbo Jenga! 

The top of Marble Mountain  

The top of Marble Mountain  

We bought a motorbike in Hoi An and drove to Marble Mountain, climbed the mountain (with a bunch of tourists as it was the only sunny day we've had in awhile), went through some caves and witnessed a giant Buddha in a beautiful old cave with Chinese characters scratched into the walls of the cave.

Big cave! Big Buddha! Little Jess!  

Big cave! Big Buddha! Little Jess!  

The beautiful coast of Da Nang, Vietnam  

The beautiful coast of Da Nang, Vietnam  

We drove out to the mountains (Monkey Mountain) where there is a giant Kuan Yin statue you can see all the way from the city of Da Nang, there we drove along the coast - that looks very much like Highway 1 in California!

The plan today is to do the Hai Van Pass made famous by the show Top Gear!!  woooo! The saga continues!!