Phong Nha, picturesque scenery, palatial caves and plenty of weather, part one of our trip to Vietnam may nearly be over but it feels like we’ve saved the best ’til last…283 days in.
With less than a week remaining on our Vietnamese visa, our final must see destination was Phong Nha national park, home to the largest cave in the world. The cave, Hang Son Doong, was only given it’s impressive title in 2009 and given the 7 day trek and the $3000 cost being way outside our budget, we decided to visit some of the smaller, more acessible caves instead. Back into rural Vietnam, the small town of Phong Nha was fairly quiet, save for the odd karaoke joint of course, the roads were empty, the landscape was stunning, it was almost perfect except for the daily downpours.
We awoke the next morning and it wasn’t raining so we loaded up Google maps and jumped on a scooter to make our way to Paradise cave. The drive there was nearly as good as the cave, we hadn’t seen karst mountains since Borneo and the landscape coupled with the ever present threat of rain made for some fantastic and memorable scenery, my favourite from our month in Vietnam.
Paradise cave may not be the largest, but it is still huge, 31 km long although most tourists only explore the first kilometre, but what a kilometer is it, full of impressive examples of stalagmites and stalactites and as we climbed up and down the staircases exploring, we wondered what the next section would bring.
I believe our enjoyment was heightened as we were free to wander by ourselves, we had no obligatory guide pointing out a rock in the shape of Abraham Lincoln as in other caves we visited, yes we may have missed some of the key features without a guide but it was much more fun to take our time and amble along with our own imaginations. Outside the mist and rain had descended once again and when we arrived back at our homestay we were glad for the first time in ages that our room had air conditioning, the dehumidifier setting was put to use to help dry out our clothes!
Our visit to the botanical gardens was more of a trek through the jungle than around Kew, with vines to push through, rocks to stumble over and a 30 metre waterfall to end it all with. Then it was time to head back it, get dry and work out our plan to get to the Laos border. Studying the guidebook and after consulting the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum (a great source of information if the guidebook offers nothing or is outdated), we realised it could be difficult to make the border crossing on a Sunday, so quickly packed our bags and left a day early. First we took two local buses to Vinh, which felt like they took much longer than they should have, as the driver slowed down as we passed every single person standing at the side of the road just in case they could be pursuaded a four hour bus ride was just what their day was missing! The journeys weren’t all bad however, we posed for some amusing selfies with one of the other passengers and when we asked if there was somewhere we could get lunch while we waited for the second bus to leave, the bus driver shared his lunch with us as the tiny bus station only did drinks.
Arriving in Vinh, our plan was to buy our bus ticket to take us to Laos the next day and then find a guesthouse nearby. Approaching the ticket office, we were told that there was no bus the following day but there was a bus that night at 9pm instead, strange, we hadn’t read about a night bus anywhere in our research! After much indecision, we realised there was no other choice but to buy the expensive bus tickets and hope it wasn’t a con, or that we would be dropped in the middle of the night at the border with no clue how to complete our journey to Phonsavan. Fortuitously our fears were not realised and we spent the next 15 hours with 2 Austrians and 40 Lao students who were studying in Vietnam, on a bus with 25 seats! The journey was pleasant, the students were really friendly, gave us suggestions for where to visit in Laos and enjoyed practicing their English with us, we even managed to get some sleep especially as we had to wait on the bus for 2 hours for the border to open.
After a long chat to our fellow travellers in the waiting room as our Lao visas were processed, some 2 hours passed making this our lengthiest border crossing so far, we eventually had our passports returned complete with a new shiny (how Mike refers to the visa sticker, I think it’s got something to do with Panini) and we jumped back on the bus excited for what lay ahead in country number 13 of the trip!