We arrived at the Phong Nha National Park in good time, only an hour or so late which by Asian standards is great. My hopes had been set in staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay but they were full so I decided to book us all in to Pepperhouse Homestay after feeling it would provide a more cultural experience than the main hostel Easy Tiger. Diem at Pepperhouse was so accommodating, she welcomed us with fresh bananas, let us try some steamed dumplings she picked up on her way home and even bought a couple of new hammocks so we could all stay as a group.
Diem runs the homestay with her Aussie husband who we saw little of as he was out drinking the night we were there and didn’t make it home that evening. There’s no denying the work she puts into her business and making sure everyone is catered for. The setting was beautiful, so quiet and peaceful and Diem let us borrow some motorbikes to explore the surrounding area before sunset.
When riding through the countryside we were greeted with waves and hellos by everyone we passed, everyone was so happy. We witnessed the locals burning leaves and rubbish around 5pm and wondered what this could be for as it looked like some kind of ritual. Later we learnt that it was simply the locals clearing the roads of rubbish each evening.
Another thing I learnt during my stay was that everyone in the area works on a farm but are assigned different tasks each day. Instructions from the government are heard from loud speakers every morning telling the villagers what they are to do that day, whether it’s planting rice or picking vegetables. Astonishing.
That night I caught my first glimpse of a firefly. I was wondering what on earth the fluorescent green light was hovering above my bed and came to realise it was a firefly. It was one of the most surreal things I have ever seen and so much bigger and brighter than I had ever expected.
I woke to a home cooked breakfast of omelettes and pancakes and wasted no time in setting off to explore the caves on motorbikes we hired. We were already an hour late leaving as poor Diem had to cook singlehandedly for everyone. Already pushed for time the 40 minute ride took us nearly three hours as we encountered constant breakdowns at the side of the road. There wasn’t a single bike which didn’t breakdown and we ended up having to wait half an hour for a replacement.
Things went from bad to worse when one of the bikes suffered from a flat tyre leaving us no choice but to abandon it at the side of the road and squeeze three of us on one tiny scooter. We agreed that the safest option was that the two smallest (myself and phoebe) would ride on the back of Allan’s bike. For some reason due to another problem with the bikes, I ended up on the back of Nicola’s bike with Aimiee. It was here we verged off-road and very elegantly (thanks to Nicola’s safe driving) skidded into a cliff. Luckily the bike landed to the left (the side without the exhaust) so we were only left with a couple of minor cuts and bruises once we had been freed from under the bike. I felt like I should be crying but I didn’t hurt at all so I ended up cry-laughing, it’s strange how the mind works when shaken up.
A couple more breakdowns and we finally reached our destination, Paradise Cave. This is one of the main caves in the national park, sadly no longer the biggest since the biggest cave in the world has recently been discovered there, but it was pretty spectacular none the same. We walked two kilometres around the cave and rewarded ourselves with a chocolate ice cream before getting back on the bikes, surprisingly ahead of schedule.
It was our second stop to the Dark Caves that really won me over. You need to hire a guide and kayak along a lush turquoise river to reach the dark caves which are beautifully mysterious. Once inside the cave we made our way through the mud and ended up having the most hilarious mud fight followed by a cold dip in the cave and a swim back to base. I was freezing but the cold didn’t stop me taking in the breathtaking views of the valley.
Warm and dry (and still very muddy) we hopped back on our bikes to Pepperhouse with a quick stop at Easy Tiger for well-needed beer and Aussie meat pie (western food fix!) on the way. On the way our bikes broke down a total of 15 times and Jaimie lost her iphone and Phoebe her wallet.
We were pretty fed up and the fact we were left for two hours at the side of the road waiting for our night bus that evening really didn’t help matters. It’s amazing how the day can go from heaven to hell in a matter of hours. Onwards and upwards it was time to head north to Cat Ba Island!
Living life, loving travel,