Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Multi-million Dong Day

We are officially millionaires. It happened the day we arrived in Vietnam. We didn't win the lottery, it's just that dollar buys a lot of dong. Now don't be silly, I am not talking dirty and we didn't make all this money in the sex trade. Dong (unfortunately named) is the Vietnamese currency, and it's roughly 20,000 dong/dollar. Just needed to clear that up.

We had recently been hearing great things about the Phong Nha Farmstay, which made the most recent edition of the Vietnam Lonely Planet that came out this fall. When we contactd them there were only 2 nights available for the rest of the year (including dorm beds), so we booked a room and adjusted our entire schedule around it.

I really questioned if we should be putting so much effort into this visit. It's kind of hard to get to, it's not cheap, and the tours are expensive. But this place was offering a piece of countryside, and it's an up and coming place, rather than the thoroughly trampled places we have visited. It sounded nice to stray a bit from the beaten path for a few days. So we forged on.

Simon playing with Michael, the owners' son and his grandmother, an American War survivor
The farmstay itself is very pleasant and relaxed. It is located in the rural village of Cu Nam overlooking rice paddies and the limestone peaks of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. (These limestone peaks are the same types of mountains found in Halong Bay.) The park was founded in 2001, and became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, in order to protect one of the world's two largest karst regions, with more than 300 caves and grottoes. Phong Nha is one of the popular caves in the area area. Its name means dragons breath because of the long stalactites that protected the entrance to the cave. American efforts to destroy the cave only damaged the stalactites, but did not do any damage to the interior of the cave. In 2005, Paradise Cave was discovered by some locals out gathering herbs (read poachers). In 2009 Son Doong Cave was discovered by British explorers, and it is now considered the largest cave in the world. It is not open for visitors. Much remains to be discovered in this great park.

Until 2006, when a new highway was built, it took a full day of travel to get between the park and the closest town along the coast, Dong Hoi. It's a distance of some 30 kilometers, mind you, not far at all. Now it's a quick 30 minute drive. Needless to say, a tourism boom is well on its way to this small rural community.

What we were really excited about was the National Park Tour. This is what we had heard so much about, so on Thursday morning we were very eager to head out and see what there was to see.

The tour started off with a lot of history about the American War. You might know it as the Vietnam War, but over here it's known as the American War. Seems pretty fair. Anyways, the park occupies the most heavily bombed area in the world! The Ho Chi Minh trail goes right through what has become the park, and the Americans bombed this area relentlessly for 10 years, trying to cut off supply lines to the South. The road that we were driving on was called Highway 20, the age of most of the people that came to work on the road. Most of the workers were young girls who were given a 2 day supply of food and water, the length of how long were expected to live. And if they lived longer? Well, they could gather supplies from the countless others that were not so luck to survive more than 2 days. Many of the caves in area were put to use during the war as hospitals, factories and shelters.

The outfit made this photo blogworthy. Right?
Awesome spider. It was huge!
The wall in the background was bombed repeatedly during the war.
Vietnamese workers hid here during bombings.
Above is a picture of a wall that was constantly bombed during the war, as there was a bend in the road below that was visible from above. Directly below was a cave where workers hid during bombings, and then came out to repair the road again. It's frustrated the Americans to no end that they could not figure out where the Vietnamese were hiding and how they always managed to get back out there and repair the road so quickly.

At one point we were at one of the narrowest points of Vietnam, where it was 21 km to the beach and 21 km to Laos.

The final peak of mountains are in Laos.
We finally arrived at Paradise Cave, where we were given some time explore on our own. The infrastructure at the cave was amazing, starting with the golf carts that brought us to the stairs or ramp up to the cave (over 500 stairs, we took the ramp), to the very nice boardwalk and lighting inside the cave. As always, our pictures don't do it justice, but the cave belonged in a Hollywood sci-fi thriller on some alien planet. It was magnificent, chalk full of stalactites and stalagmites! I was surprised at how impressed I was with the cave. The path went into the cave for 1 km so we really got to see a lot. Even Simon was impressed. "Mama, really fun cave!"

Check rule number 5.
After lunch we went swimming at one of those idyllic swimming holes, where the water is crystal clear and cool and you are sure life just doesn't get any better. I was in heaven. Simon paddled around with us, but was not a fan of the slimy rocks (can't blame him). He cheered me on when I jumped off a rock, and he provided me with an extra workout as I had to swim against the current with his arms and legs wrapped around me. It was serene and beautiful.

This little oasis was just at the edge of the park, and they had recently built an echo trail through the woods here to help keep it safe and clean. Before the trail opened two years ago locals, including Ben, an Australian who runs the farmstay, were debating whether or not they should have it checked for unexploded bombs. (Quick background: During the Vietnam American War, the Americans dropped bombs that had been developed during the Second World War. They were designed to be dropped from a certain altitude on a certain surface type. In other words, they were not designed for the terrain of this area of Vietnam and as a result, up to 30% of these bombs did not explode and many remain hidden underground and in dense forest, with the potential to explode if disturbed.) Ben's pleas to get someone to come out and check things out won' and 17 bombs were discovered within one meter of the newly built Eco trail. Yikes! We definitely stayed on the marked path.

One more stop before the tour was over. We weren't told exactly what we would be doing, just to only wear our swimmers (crazy Aussie term for swimsuit), and to bring and wear nothing else. Then we were given headlamps. Intriguing! We got into some inflatable kayaks, and I was convinced that we were going to kayak through a dark cave and then come out a waterfall. Sounded pretty awesome. But after paddling for about a minute we got out at the mouth of a cave. Cave swimming!

The guides took led us through the cave and showed us where to carefully swim (lots of very sharp rocks under water). We went back into the cave, turned off our headlamps and enjoyed that total blackness that one so rarely experiences. We also learned that this cave, called Dark Cave, is most likely the only one like it in the world. Like all of the other mountains in the area, this cave was found in a limestone mountain. But if you looked around at the rock inside the cafe, they were different, dark (hence Dark Cave). Now, if rock names meant anything to me I would remember just what mind of rock it was what had seeped thrugh a crack in the crust many millions of years ago. But, shame on me, I have no idea. Maybe cobalt? I know there were some lovely strips of quartz mixed in. That I remember.

This was one of my favorite days of the our entire trip so far. It packed so many great things into one little package: Vietnamese culture and development, American War history, geology, biology, swimming, hiking, etc. It was well worth the millions we paid for it!


1 comment:

  1. Without a doubt the picture of the girl is worth the space on the blog! And I love the rules. These pictures are amazing! Sounds like a great few days. Merry Christmas, friend. You are missed!