Warning! This post is very long.
So we left Cát Bà island at 3.15pm for Dong Hoi. Our chosen mode of transport was the Sleeping bus from Hai Phong. As usual we got a coach back to the port and then a speed boat back to the mainland, we chose to sit on the back to get some fresh air and some interesting photos, and we landed at Dinh Vu Port. ..to no bus transfer!
After 15 mins a coach finally rolled up the very narrow road and we all got on and headed for Hai Phong. Due to intense construction around the port we were in pretty much gridlock for the first 30 mins. Eventually we arrived on the outskirts of Hai Phong. As we drove through the city it actually looked like a fun place to visit but unfortunately not for us on this trip.
After another 15 mins, at 6.10 pm, we arrived at the bus station and had the rough direction of the bus pointed at us and were told to wait in the waiting room as our bus was due to leave at 6.30 pm. We grabbed some fried egg sandwiches at the train café (the lady held up two eggs and two bread rolls that seemed to be all that was on offer) and waited there as the waiting room was a bit nasty.
Finally at 6.20 pm we were allowed on to the bus, we checked in our bags and after removing and bagging our shoes and locating our seats which were in the top row, 4 foot off the ground. Gav was at the front behind the driver and then I was directly behind. We quickly strapped ourselves in and after an hour looking out the window I decided to try to get some sleep; not long after a guy across from Gav hopped across for a chat. So they chatted away about things for over an hour as I dosed behind, half listening.
I had just managed to drift off and around Ninh Binh or just after I got rudely awoken by what appeared to be a trolley appearing right beside me. Before I had time to realise what was going on this was opened backwards to reveal a flat wooden bed and 2 seconds later a mattress appeared on it. Moments later some bedding and then a tall thin Vietnamese man appeared next to me. So basically I spent the night sleeping in a bed with some random Vietnamese guy, right behind Gav’s back. I did manage to get some sleep though despite the occasional elbow in the back or ribs.
The sun started to rise about 5 am and it was beautiful to see dawn over the paddy fields and rivers as we passed by. Gav was still sleeping and I was tracking our location on maps.me (thanks Ronan).
When we were about 30 mins away I attempted to wake Gav up. Turns out he had had a pretty bad night’s sleep as the seat/cot/bed was about 30 cm too short so he had his knees pressing against the rail and the window. He was not on for waking up at all until 10 mins later when the bus pulled into carpark. It was just outside Dong Hoi, and as it turns out it was the breakfast stop, it was 3 km further into Dong Hoi so we had to get off the bus (climbing over the cot beside me and jumping as the stairs were blocked) and wait as we weren’t hungry. Gav however needed the toilet and with no visible signs of one he went and asked. Cue the phrase book and much confusion and eventually he was pointed in the rough direction of the toilets, passed people washing (it seemed to be the main stop on the Hanoi/Hai Phong-Ho Chi Minh city route for such conveniences) and he eventually located the toilets overlooking a field. 15 mins later we were allowed back on the bus, and heading for the centre of Dong Hoi. I tracked our progress on the phone and we were still some distance from the bus station when the driver slammed on the breaks and shouted out “DONG HOI!!” and we quickly grabbed out stuff and (with some more clambering and jumping, the cot was still up but it’s owner somewhere else) we were off the bus and barefoot, sandals in hand, our bags (now quite dirty) were dumped at our feet and the bus sped off in a cloud of sand and dust. So we gathered ourselves together, sandals back on, rucksacks on backs, hoops and day bags thrown on and iPhone in hand we got our location. Fortuitously we were on the right road, however the numbers were not in sequence (due to new builds) and after some minutes trying to work out what direction the numbers should be going in we managed to find our hotel, The Sunshine Hotel, which was conveniently located across from this rather aptly named hotel:
It was about 7.30 am when we arrived in Dong Hoi which was too early for check in and our room wasn’t cleaned yet (I’d like to point out that the hotel was pretty much empty and we were the only room occupied on our floor) however they did let us take a shower (we had to ask for towels-we got hand ones) and rather than pay the early check in tax, which we didn’t see until we were in the room, we decided to clear out until 2 pm. The hotel was in a pretty poor location but had got good reviews so we had high hopes for it. That and it was quite expensive for $14 a night with breakfast, more on that later.
So after a quick coffee, and a quick query about tours to the famous caves in the Phong Nha Kẻ Bàng National Park – we had decided that Phong Nha was going to be too hard to get to after a night on the bus. We were shocked to find out the tours were $65 each for a day! Plus they had extra things like swimming and kayaking which we had done a few days before and our clothes were still in the wash from. There was no option to do one cave. This might not sound like a lot, but we have a $15-20 budget limit for tours and a max of $50 a day for both of us per day. Hanoi had killed us off as we spent $83 a day there so decided to have a think about it. We found out that the moped hire here was significantly more expensive here than in Cát Bà Town at $9 rather than $4.
So with this info to chew over, off we headed on the long, long walk into town. As usual in Vietnam the footpath was pretty poor and cracked or covered in mopeds, chairs and tables and stalls. Dong Hoi had the extra obstacles of completely closed footpaths as they were resurfacing loads of them,so half the time was walking on the road. Normally this isn’t in a problem for us but we were a bit tired and cranky and wondering why we had bothered to stop off here. We had found a recommendation on Trip Advisor for a tour operator about 1 km from the hotel. We located it and it was all the same price! Damn Trip Advisor!!!!! So we left there still a bit annoyed and kranky. It was ~10 am and we managed to find our way down to the river front. It’s actually really nice there with a big promenade with loads of trees, grass, flowers, benches and the odd monument thrown in for good measure. It also had a bridge that looked really familiar.
We sat there for a little bit, recharging as it got quite quickly hotter. I was worried about getting burned so we moved to a seat more in the shade but not facing the river. It was a bit boring there and we saw the other hotel we were thinking of staying at which was right in the centre (boo and bad planning on our part), next to it there were some bars and coffee shops. We decided to try find somewhere to get a drink so we wandered on down the prom and found a lovely place called the Tree Hugger Café. It was like a beacon of homeliness, full of plants and flowers and wicker lampshades and items adorning the walls for sale from local ethnic minorities. We sat down and within seconds had two glasses of cold spiced tea (from Hué), it was delicious! We have had it a few times since in Hué but it was bar far the nicest from here. The menu is quite limited foodwise but I had fruit salad (it had avocado in it) with yogurt and a pineapple juice, Gav had a mango smoothie and muesli (a rather random mix of oats, dried fruit, cornflakes and coco-pops). It was just what we needed really. We both ended up having 3 glasses of the tea also and Gav had a coffee as we hung out there for over an hour and half, sponging off the free wifi. They also had a map of the town with suggestions of places to eat- great considering it is a largely overlooked town.
After there we went for another walk to kill some time before heading back to the hotel. We arrived a bit early but they let us in to the room. It had been “cleaned” but not completely. Anyway it was good enough to have a quick nap to recharge before going out for food. The Tree Hugger guide had suggested some great places- the one we chose, Thúy Linh, had Xoi ga (sticky rice with chicken) for 25K dong (~$1.20) and with two beers we got dinner for around 74K dong ($3.45). Over dinner we decided to hire a moped and do the nearest caves ourselves (the rather touristly Phong Na cave and the Tien Son Cave). Unlike in Cát Bà where a moped showed up with no warning, here we got one. We knew we weren’t covered by insurance anyway but the way she was talking we were worries we were going to be stranded somewhere. However adventure was calling so we threw caution firmly into the wind!
The next morning, after a surprisingly good sleep despite the collapsed mattress, we headed downstairs looking forward to breakfast. The receptionist appeared and asked were we ready for breakfast- we answered “yes of course!”. She then disappeared. After about 10 mins we were wondering if she was coming back with menus or something when she appeared with a tray with two very salty fried eggs on two slices of white sliced pan each and a pot of cold coffee. We looked at the plates, at each other and then back at the plates. We had paid an additional $3 for this! Hmm. Well food is food and we had paid for it, albeit drastically overpaid for it so we ate it, it was ok and set us up well for the day.
So after breakfast, again a bit disappointed, we headed out to inspect our moped. We didn’t bother with the last one but since she gave us dire warnings of calamity and misfortune we thought we’d best give it the once over. So a quick look at the tires- seemed ok and the brakes- seems ok. I didn’t like the position of the passenger foot rests as they were much further forward than on our previous ones, but that was probably just my preference. We went back inside, gathered our stuff and by 9.30 am were on the road. This one was significantly more scary than on the island, crazy traffic, undefined edges and pedestrians everywhere not to mention we missed our turn off and the petrol station before it so we had to do a series of U-turns one of which was a little too close/sharp for comfort for me.
A few minutes later we had topped up with $2 of petrol and we were on the road… only to take a wrong turn at the first bend! We realised our mistake very quickly as a local guy sitting outside his house yelled at us and pointed the other road at us. Now on the correct course it was at this time that Gav pointed out that the speedometer didn’t work! Arrrggh! Oh well- we can guess can’t we? Maybe. 15 mins we were on the Ho Chi Minh trail (or highway) towards Son Trach, the gateway to the Phong Na caves. The scenery was lovely on the way and I pointed out a few spots that I wanted to take photos on the way back – but there was quite a headwind- or we were going to fast- hard to tell so I was back seat driving (as usual I can hear some of you saying) and asking Gav to slow down a bit whenever it felt a bit too fast.
We were not far from Son Trach and The trees and houses opened up into a vast expanse of a paddy field covered valley surrounded by trees. It was breath-taking, so I asked Gav to pull over so we could take some photos. As he pulled in we went over a stone and there was a bang. Shit! Our front tire was flat!! Damn the hotel’s omen of disaster!! We could see Son Trach ahead off the main road so we managed to nurse the bike and its rapidly deflating tire the last 1km and pulled in to the side of the road just inside the village. Right now to find a repair shop, rather randomly (or handily we had parked right outside one!!) The guy beckoned us in, and Gav navigated the bike through the narrow channel of drying beans (folks wash anything dried like beans, lentils and rice- it is all dried at the side of the road!) and into his yard. Gav was freaking out a bit as he was convinced it was going to be a full tire replacement, luckily it was just an inner tube puncture and after 30 mins waiting (with Gav on the back of the bike to keep the front wheel up) our mechanic had located, removed and replaced our two failed punctures for 30K dong ($1.50) we were so surprised at how cheap it was that we gave him an extra 10K dong ($0.50). So delighted with ourselves we headed off in search of the Cave tourist centre.
Chatting away as we looked around to find it and managed, I don’t know how, to drive right past it! The road got worse and had cows and buffalo, dogs, chickens and kids running all over it but we kept going, sure that it was around somewhere as we were next to the river and we could see the boats cruising up and down the river, at this point we had conflicting views of which way was up river so we were not entirely sure where the caves were. We also saw loads moored on the other side of the river. We continued on anyway to see if we could get round to the other side to the moored boats so continued on. The poor road turned into a road randomly made of large rocks and then to concrete slabs. Just down to the right off the road and next to the river was a little beach with a small gondola style ferry boat with a queue of people, well two, one with a moped and one with a moped and fridge freezer. Was this the way to go? We weren’t sure so continued another 20 m on the concrete slabs before thinking better of it and turning around and queuing for the ferry. It was already on our side of the river with a moped, mother and child on board. We were waved forward by the chap with the fridge – turns our he was waiting for another ferry to take him up a fork in the river (so we knew at least which way was up river by this point)- and Gav bravely drove the moped up the little metal ramp and onto the ferry. I wandered on after and soon we were turning around on the river and heading for the other side. Gav was carefully counterbalancing the weight of the moped and 5 mins later we were on the other side of the river. The Ferryman helped to turn the moped round, we paid him 10K dong and Gav drove off, I hopped on the back and we headed up the ramp……..onto a dirt track! It must lead somewhere? Nope, just past fields of corn and sugar cane and some houses. So 5 mins later we were back by the little beach waiting for the ferry back over, much to the amusement of the locals. Another 10K dong and we were over at the other side, again.
From our ferry crossings we had discovered that the boats were coming from the fork that we had been beside initially and as we had not investigated fully the concrete slab road, we headed up that way and found the cave- we were still on the wrong side.
At this point we decided that we obviously missed it in the village so drove back, and lo and behold- up on left up loomed a tourist centre right in the centre of Son Trach! In fairness it was set back a bit from the road and hidden behind a bunch of trees and unless you looked right at it you may not have seen the sign.
Anyway so we went in, it was now 11.30 am, parked (2K dong; $0.10), got our tickets for the Phong Na Caves (150K dong x2), Tien Son Cave (80K Dong x2) and boat hire (350K dong per boat) so total cost was 810K dong or $41. It would have been cheaper as you hire per boat, but there was no one around to ask to share with. We grabbed a quick drink and then headed to find our boat. We got boat number 139. It was a nice cruise up the river by dragon boat, we passed by our Ferryman friend- Gav took a photo and I waved- we got the cheesiest grin off him for that.
The boat takes you into the cave and the engines get shut off and the crew of two (seem to be predominantly husband and wife teams), pulled back the roof and paddled us through the cave. I am so glad we arrived at the time we did as the cave was quite quiet and very peaceful. Photos in caves look pretty crap and don’t really show the scale of the cavern.
After a 15-20 min cruise we were let off on a beach inside to find our way out. As we were getting off I told the driver that we were going to the second cave- which was further up the mountain. She seemed a bit peeved as they would have to wait longer for us. We headed off anyway and saw the rest of the cave and took the rather arduous hike up to the next cave. It was very steep, very hot and every 10 m you were hounded by hawkers taunting you with cold beverages- we had our own water. We quickly reached the top and had a wander round the cave which we predominantly had to ourselves,(this one was the Tien Son Cave) and then headed back down to the boat- avoiding all the hawkers again. I hate running that gauntlet.
Our boat was nowhere to be seen! Eventually we spotted it, right over by main cave entrance, moored to the wall, they must have thought we’d be ages as they were both fast asleep! After a quick shout “Hello”- no movement- followed by “139”-that woke them- we were back on our way to Son Trach.
Another quick drink- it was now 2.30 pm. We decided to head back to get to Dong Hoi before rush hour, luckily there was nothing to report about the journey back and we returned to the hotel, handed back our keys and headed to the room for a quick nap.
For dinner that evening we went with another recommendation from Tree Hugger, a place called Tan Tu Quy on Co Tam St. The speciality here was Bánh Khoál which is: grated cassava, sugar and coconut milk pancake fried and filled with boiled bamboo shoots, shrimp and pork. It gets served with salad, rice paper and vegetables, so you make your own spring rolls and dip them in peanut sauce (homemade so runnier and less peanutty that we are used to) and Bún thịt nướng: cold bún noodles, with vegetables, herbs, peanut and grilled pork. Both of these were nice but I liked the pork better. It was a lovely but long walk there and back from the hotel but it was a really nice evening for a walk so we didn’t mind. Also we had a quick sneaky ice-cream and drink in Tree Hugger Cafe. When we got back to the hotel we organised our pick up for the next day.
So the following morning after another decent night’s sleep we went down for breakfast. I had prepared myself for eggs again but Gav couldn’t face the thought of them. We headed down anyway and eventually the receptionist showed up and promptly disappeared to make us breakfast. This time it was hot coffee (yay!) but instant noodles with tomato sauce and beef. I was not prepared for beef (as had only just started eating is in small quantities) so I ate the noodles. Gav was delighted though.
After breakfast we got our stuff together and waited for our bus pickup to the next location… Hué.