The days working up to our caving trek had been long, wet riding days and had left us weary. But after much sweating, swimming and staring at the gorgeous landscapes we left Phong Nha feeling re-energised. It helped that out butts had been given a good rest too!
But before we knew it we were back on the bike with a long ride ahead of us. We rolled through more beautiful scenery on our way out of Phong Nha, but after an hour or so the landscape around the Ho Chi Minh road began to flatten. We broke up a fairly monotonous ride with plenty of coffee breaks and the day was saved somewhat by finding a hotel on the outskirts of tiny Pho Chau with a swimming pool! We dumped our bags and had a swim before resting up for another long day on the bike.
Leaving Pho Chau, we knew we had 260km ahead of us for the second time in a week. Our destination was the Quang Duc Homestay on the outskirts of the Cuc Phuong national park. Long, dreary and ultimately stormy, it wasn’t exactly a day to remember. Thankfully the homestay was cute, comfortable and a real change to the hostels and hotels we’d been crashing in. Lying on our mattress under the mosquito net in a large open room was fun, and the served up huge portions of food for dinner and breakfast!
The next morning we rode down a narrow track beside the homestay we’d heard offered river swimming spots and waterfalls. Sadly, the water levels were quite low, so the river didn’t look deep enough to swim in. When we found the waterfall, it wasn’t flowing it’s full length but after climbing up we found a small flow water and a few deep, clear cool pools of water that were perfect for cooling off in.
That night we took a detour into the city of Ninh Binh for a night – including a cheeky burger at ‘Chookies’ – and then continued on to our next challenge: The Laos Loop. Starting in the small town of Quan Hoa, we completed the 150km loop in one day. Unfortunately the first 40km were dogged with roadworks and extremely dusty, but once we made a turn onto the Mountain Pass along the Vietnam/Loas border the road was smaller, quieter and smoother. Most of the road followed a picturesque river, streaming it’s way through wide rice paddies, with hamlets of wooden houses on stilts popping up every few kilometres.
This trip included a humorous encounter with a group of ten year old boys. As we stopped for coffee they rocked up to the cafe on two motorbikes (they were ten) and promptly sat down. We joked that they’d come for a lunchtime beer. When asked what they’d like to drink they confidently insisted on beer (they were ten!) and were even served (TEN!). They cracked the cans open like regulars and were soon bantering away and engaging us with surprisingly good English. Turns out they were on lunch break from school. Well, at least they were driving with helmets on! We completed our loop – sober – and bedded down in Quan Hoa for a second night.
The next day was a great adventure day. We took a road through Pu Luong Nature Reserve, a perfect example of Vietnamese rural culture, largely made up of tiny roads no wider than your average pavement connecting small communities of titled bamboo homes. We’d learned that there were homestay available and tried to follow our directions. They took us deep into the Nature Reserve and along muddy red “roads” made squelchy by the overnight storm.
Eventually – and after a fair deal miming and confusion – some locals helped connect us with the man we were looking for; Mr Ba. His homestay is very simple and understated. Aside from a western toilet, all he provided was a mattress on the floor, a net, blankets and a couple of pillows. He and his family were extremely friendly but also gave us space to relax at their home and enjoy the surrounding countryside.
We took a short walk to another small waterfall and had a very cold dip in the fresh water running of the mountains. Many locals visited the waterfall too, including particularly brave an enthusiastic set of boys who proceeded to jump from ridiculous heights into the deep pool. They wiretapping out of the trees!
Mr Ba served up an enormous feast for both dinner and breakfast, and before we knew it our countryside adventures were over and we were staring down the barrel a 200km crawl into Hanoi. As was becoming tradition for our long driving days, the rain came to hinder us, and it was with great relief we eventually made it into the capital, tired but wary of another long drive coming the next day; we were going back to the Ocean!