The next leg of our journey did not start well.
We had 260km to cover from Hoi An to Khe Sahn and it rained for approximately 253 of them!
The downpour wasn’t heavy enough to stop us driving, but it was a constant mist of fine rain that quickly soaked through anything not covered by a waterproof – in the end even the rain covers on our bags couldn’t keep everything dry. It was miserable and grey and slow going stuff. The bowl of cold, plain rice noodles I had for lunch did little to improve my mood.
Fortunately we’d left early enough to keep our speed safe and factor in plenty of coffee breaks.We finally made it to Khe Sahn as dark was falling craving a hot shower and a proper meal. Unfortunately, the towns wide streets were surprisingly quiet, disturbed only by some horrific karaoke being played at an incredible volumne. The power cut that prematurely ended the party could not have been an accident. We found some grub and took ourselves to bed, desperately hoping that tomorrow would better.
And it was!
We knew we had two days of riding ahead of us to reach Phong Nha. Research had told us that the 200km section of the Ho Chi Minh road we were covering is largely deserted, with one guesthouse and one gas station. So we bought some mangoes, filled some water bottles with spare gas and kept our fingers crossed that the guesthouse would be open and have rooms!
The weather was a good omen; the sun accompanied us on our drive through tiny hamlets with bamboo houses and groups of locals huddled together, and onto more remote areas where our only company was the noisy insects chattering away in the green expanse. We weaved our way up, down and around the hills and as we neared our destination, magnificent limestone karsts appeared, casting vast shadows and dwarfing everything around.
The village we were aiming for was tiny but the guesthouse was open and empty. We also found somewhere to eat, and somewhere we could get coffee so it did us nicely even if we did eat the same thing at the same place for lunch, dinner and breakfast the next morning!
We headed back into the wilderness and as we approached Phong Nha, the limestone landscape became more and more dramatic. As we drove along the river into town, I was taken aback buy the beauty of the small boats floating along the water beneath the tall, jagged karsts.
Phong Nha is known for it’s caves but we wanted to do more than just walk through caves on walkways so we had booked onto the ‘Abandoned Valley Trek’. A one day trip to see to some of the caves that are inaccessible from the road.
We started with a hike through the jungle to the ‘Dark Cave’. We put on helmets and headtorches and were soon scrambling over, under and around rocks and wading through icy water! When we all turned our lights of, we couldn’t see a thing! It was great fun and we began to bond with our trek buddies as we helped each other through the trickier sections.
Once back in the daylight, we made our way to the second cave, ‘E Cave’. The sun was out in full force and by the time we arrived we were feeling pretty sweaty. So we stripped off and plunged straight into the cool blue natural pool that disappeared invitingly into the cave. It was bliss!
Lunch consisted of fresh spring rolls which we assembled ourselves and it was delicious! We ate far too much, especially considering we were going back into the water!
After lunch we put on life jackets (phew!) and head torches and swam through the pool and into the cave as a group. It didn’t take long for the light from outside to melt away and leave us floating through jet black water. After a while we stopped and our guide instructed us to turn off our torches. Again, it was pitch black and we couldn’t help giggling as we gently floated and collided with unknown arms and legs in the darkness!
The uphill hike back to the minivan was rewarded with a cold beer and a wonderful mix of acheivement and exhaustion! It was a fantastic trip; fun and busy but nothing was desperately challenging. We wished we had been able to spend more time Phong Nha, it’s a beautiful area and there is so much to do!
Alas, our schedule dictated that we move on the next day, so we were up early to drive a 40km loop that gave us one final chance to admire the area’s Limestone giants. Then bundled our things onto our bikes again and rode off up the Ho Chi Minh road once more.