Dong Hoi, Vietnam – Phong Nha Caves

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We took the 9 hour bus from Hoi An to Dong Hoi. We had to change buses in Hue, where we chose not to stop after a few people said it can be missed. We arrived in quite winter-like Dong Hoi at 10pm. Scotland, Wales and I stayed at Nam Long Plus Hotel in a 6-bed dorm. Our room was incredible. New and modern with tempur-pedic mattresses, an ensuite bathroom with 2 sinks and 2 showers, complimentary toiletries and water, a tea kettle and a TV. Plus we were the only ones in the room. Breakfast was included and the cost was $7 a night. However, there was no heater in the room the first night and we were absolutely frozen.

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Our first day we did a full-day cave tour for $50. The tour included the Phong Nha Caves, Paradise Cave and National Park. The drive was about an hour outside of Dong Hoi. First we went to the Paradise Cave. We trekked up to the entrance and entered a tiny hole into a massive cave. The entrance size surpassed a planetarium. We were able to walk only 1km into the cave but it continues for another 64km. The colors were all shades of grays and browns with occasional patches of gray blue. Stalagmites jetted out from the floor, and stalactites from the ceiling. It felt like another planet- a scify movie. One stalagmite was shaped like a mushroom treehouse guarded by a muppet dog. Another looked like a gremlin, and another like a demon about to eat someone. Like any cave the temperature was cool and crisp.

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After Paradise we went to lunch near Phong Nga Cave. Entrees were delivered to our table to share. We had kale soup, spring rolls, french fries, white rice, river fish, chicken, pork ribs, beef with peppers, beef with green beans, sautéed cabbage, and bananas. I tried to get coffee, which I thought was free, but after she poured me a quarter of a cup of the cold pot coffee that had been sitting out and asked for $1.50 I declined.

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After lunch we boarded a boat to take us through the Phong Nha Caves. The boat trip took us along the local village and past the town church. There were other boats in the water with locals collecting seaweed. By doing this they were cleaning the water and getting food to feed the animals. On the town side of the river there were water buffalo feeding on the grass. Apparently at night (every night) they swim across the river to graze during the day.

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With our boat we entered into a large cliff side, Phong Nha Cave. [Locals believe that the God of Spirits lives here because it's an endless water source.] What appeared to be a wide entrance ended up being very short and our boat paddler in the front had to duck. He paddled us through the whole cave, about 15 minutes deep. The cave (a water cave) was also incredible. Personally I liked Paradise better except the coloring in Phong Nha was prettier. The water, which was clear, caused the rocks to turns green. Many of the stalactites looked like jellyfish. The boat then parked on a sand beach in the middle of the cave. From here we walked through Fairy Cave and Imperial Cave, by far the most amazing. I truly felt like I was in a fantasy. We took “tanning” selfies on the waving beach hills. White/tan/silver-ish ceilings allowed the lumpy sparkly purple/blue/green stalagmites and stalactites to shine. One looked like garlic cloves, others waves, coral, etc.

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When we got back we went to Buffalo Pub, the only bar in town. The bar has a garage door that was open the whole night so it was just as cold inside as outside, 14 C. We played pool, ate dinner, did a sing along with Wales playing a guitar, and drank until closing at 11:30pm. One local girl working there, named Ky, talked to us the whole night. Her English was perfect so before leaving I took a shot in the dark and ordered steamed veggies and tofu, and it worked! For the first time I had a meal that wasn’t covered in grease.

We got a late checkout the next day. At 3pm we left our room and headed to pick up Ky so she could take us to the market. We had lunch at Buffalo before leaving, another plate of steamed goodness for me. We quickly learned how nuts Ky is. She’s 20 years old and a feisty little flirt. She doesn’t like Chinese people or Christians, and doesn’t date Asians. She really only likes British men.

The market was pretty small. It consisted of fish and meat stands next to the water, then vegetable stands, then fruit and flower stands on the street. At the fish stands they sold frogs that were tied together in pairs to keep them from jumping out of the bowl. We also saw a few new fruits but no one could tell us what they were. One looked like a reddish orange oblong grapefruit, and another looked like a deformed yellow squash. Next to the outdoor market was a building that had the clothing and accessories market. The winter clothes were too small (Asian sized) and too expensive- $50+ for a down jacket, $8 for a hat, and more for a scarf. I didn’t buy anything since I only need winter clothes for a few days and it’s not worth it to pay that much. I’ll just freeze or buy a massive sweatshirt somewhere.

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We were picked up at 7pm for our 9 hour bus to Hanoi. We ran for the back of the bus and all got the last rows (top and bottom of a sleeper.) Scotland and I took the bottom- 2 out of 5 beds. Shortly after 3 toddlers got on the bus and they all sat next to us. One boy, directly next to me, was wearing the most amazing flannel Cheetah onesie. During the drive he had the most offensive smelling farts, and coincidently each time the driver stared smoking a cigarette. Scotland and I thought we were going to suffocate from the smells.

We got to Hanoi at 6am and took a 30min taxi to Luong Yen bus station where we booked the Hedeco bus package to get us from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island. First we took a 2.5 hour bus, then transferred to a 1 hour bus to Hai Phong ferry. The boat was docked in the middle of a shipping yard, no official ferry dock. The ride was about 20 minutes followed by another bus to the town.

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