Day 356 – 20 February, 2016
It was dark by the time I rolled into Phong Nha, but all my tired body wanted to do was fall into a deep slumber so I didn’t much care. In the previous 3 days, I had been jumping around among various types of transportation, organizing future travel, and trying to fit in some sightseeing while every piece of technology I own was malfunctioning and nothing seemed to be going smoothly. I was mentally depleted.
Phong Nha is a bit off the beaten track, but there promised to be some of the largest caves in the world and most importantly, it would help break up the journey from Hue to Hanoi. Stephie had been in Phong Nha since the morning and had reserved a private room for she and I to spread out and bounce back from this travel stupor. When Suzanne, a Dutch girl I had met in Hue, wanted to “crash” in our room, I was less than enthusiastic. I knew Stephie had offered it to her so I remained mute on the matter, but I also knew that Stephie only offered because she was being nice. Suzanne was a nice girl, but this was defeating the purpose of needing the space for ourselves.
Tours to the caves were pricey, but with a little ingenuity, it was entirely possible to see everything on our own without paying for a guide. Before I arrived, Stephie had met some people that had the same plan so we joined forces to go together. All in, there were 6 of us aiming to get an early start, renting motorbikes and speeding off into the hills. Suzanne woke up to discover her sunscreen had exploded in her backpack and everything was coated in a thick white oily slime. It was kind of a nightmare; no one wants to discover such a mess without a proper place to clean everything up. But at the same time, it already felt like Suzanne was adding more drama to the group dynamic by making us late and trying to change the already agreed upon plan. The room was a bit too crowded for three people. I really didn’t want the negativity from Hue to follow Stephie and I any further.
Now that the sun was up and I could see what the veil of darkness had obscured, I realized that Phong Nha was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Limestone peaks, covered in lush green jungle foliage, surrounded us on every side. We were nestled in a valley in the Ke Bang National Park. Our party included Jessie from Germany, Bjorn and Daniel from Sweden, Suzanne, Stephie, and I. In a parade of motorbikes, we were ready to explore. The road wound through the cliffs, revealing stunning landscape and picturesque views. I rode on the back of Stephie’s bike. The crisp air was a refreshing change from the stuffy humidity in the south of the country. While Hue had felt disappointing and monotonous, Phong Nha perked up my travel mojo almost instantly.We parked the bikes and climbed a steep path to the entrance of Paradise Cave. From the main opening, a vast cavern swallowed us almost immediately. Stretching 31km long, Paradise Cave was only discovered in 2005 and has since been turned into a series of illuminated wooden platforms and stairs that allow you to descend 1km inside. Jessie, who had also been traveling for quite some time like me, confided that it had been awhile since she had been impressed. I felt the same way, but for both of us, Paradise Cave was a turning point. It was such a unique and otherworldly panorama that the weight of boredom magically lifted and those travel excitement butterflies returned that I had been missing.
Back in the town, we returned our bikes and hired a boat to take us into the wet cave, Phong Nha Cave. This one had been a former hiding cavern for equipment during the war. This region of Vietnam had been bombed nearly every day for almost a decade, trying to destroy the supply line for the North Vietnamese. The limestone cliffs had been pocked with bomb craters and the lush jungle was burned and barren. Seeing the beauty before us now, it felt tragic that it had ever been any other way, but also promising to know that it had recovered. Our boatman cut the motor before we went inside so that he could paddle with a long oar. Occasionally you could hear drops falling from the stalactites above us, but otherwise, we were enveloped in silence. We were compelled to whisper to not disturb the natural order. On the return, the boatman let us get out and walk back to the entrance along a dry pathway. The path was a brief wander through stalagmites and a fine powdery red sand, not unlike what I imagined a moonscape might be like.
While brief (I only spent the one night in Phong Nha), it was exactly where I needed to be that day. I had such an amazing and fun day with this ragtag group of backpackers. It was nice to know that Jessie had also been feeling bored and burnt out like I had – it can happen to any of us and I was not alone. And I realized that I was not beyond being impressed. I might just have to work a little harder to find those impressive places.
That night I was scheduled to take a night bus to Hanoi. It would last 12 hours after a 10:00pm departure. At 10:30pm, my bus still had not arrived. I was so used to this as normal protocol that I didn’t even tell anyone right away or question it. Not alarmed, I asked the guesthouse if they might be able to find out how much longer I would have to wait. They called and were told the bus had left without me, but I wasn’t the only one. Another guy piped up and said he had been left as well. Still not deterred, I laughed as if “of course this would happen.” The bus company assured the kind woman who had called on my behalf that they would send another bus. A few minutes later, as promised, a bus arrived at my guesthouse. I turned over my backpack to the attendant and boarded the bus a few paces behind the other guy. Before I had fully climbed the steps, the other traveler asked the driver where we were supposed to sit and the driver indicated that we were to sit in the aisle. Um, excuse me? For a 12 hour bus ride? My fellow traveler didn’t flinch and situated himself in the aisle. It didn’t take much for me to make up my mind that I wanted off. I would forfeit the bus fare and my non-refundable hostel reservation in Hanoi so that I wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor of a disgusting dirty bus in Vietnam. Not so fast… The bus attendant refused to give me my backpack. He stood in the doorway to the bus and wouldn’t allow me to disembark. Through a language barrier, neither of us quite understood each other’s motivation, but I speculate that the attendant and/or driver had personally sold our seats and pocketed the money. If I got off, I would no doubt complain to the company, in which case, their scam would be revealed. They didn’t want me to get off because they didn’t want me to complain. The driver assured me if I stayed for 5 minutes, he would rendezvous with another bus where I could switch for a seat. Knowing that 5 minutes in Vietnam means at least 30 minutes, I bit my tongue and sat down in the aisle next to the driver. An hour passed and the time was past midnight. I asked the driver how much longer. Five minutes, I was told, with a flippant wave of the hand. Another hour passed, my eyes were heavy. I silently started to cry, not really because I was sad but because I was so tired from exhaustion and sick of these games. The driver noticed my tears and reached out to shake my hand. Five more minutes. I rolled my eyes.
Seven minutes later we pulled over in a pitch black field off the highway. A bus was waiting with one empty seat. Nothing surprises me anymore.