Our train from Đồng Hới to Hanoi was scheduled to depart at 7:30pm so we had the entire day of May 1st to spend in Phong Nha. Our single day in Phong Nha ended up being way more entertaining than we expected…definitely many #onlyinvietnam moments. The story goes below…
Ever since I arrived at the hotel the week prior, I had the urge to go for an open water swim in the river along our hotel. Now I finally had the chance. Not long after 8am I changed into shorts and a swim top, put on my flip flops, grabbed my goggles and swim cap, and headed down to the river. When I got there, I was skeptical about swimming since the river was a bit crowded with tour boats going left and right. There were really nice boaters who told me I could swim and they made a passageway between their boats for me to enter the water. I quickly put on my cap and goggles and awkwardly entered the water as every single boater and tourist stared at me since I was the only swimmer out there. Well, I only had a short 5 minute swim because I almost got hit by a boat and some other angry boatmen beckoned me to get out of the water. Not a great start to a day.
Upon returning to the hotel, Chris and I had a quick breakfast and packed our stuff to check out. The night before when we went out for drinks, we made plans with a Son Doong staff member (Luke from Australia) and two other Son Doong cavers (Linnea from Sweden and Chris from New Zealand) to rent motorbikes and grab lunch at The Pub With Cold Beer. Yes, that was the name of the pub. We all met at 11am to rent motorbikes and off we went, with Luke guiding us.
On our way to The Pub With Cold Beer, we encountered the following:
– A big pile of water buffalo shit in the middle of the road. Chris was too busy watching cross traffic to notice it so he drove over the huge lump, spraying a tailgater in the face. Linnea and New Zealand (NZ) Chris saw the whole thing and laughed their asses off.
– A small homestay in the middle of a farm where we stopped briefly for coffee. Luke said we had to stop at the homestay so the lady there could let the people at The Pub With Cold Beer know that we were coming. That way, they would have enough time to kill, pluck, and prepare BBQ chicken for us.
We followed signs to The Pub With Cold Beer and made our way to the parking lot, which was the front yard of a family’s hut and farm.
We walked past some black pepper farms, crossed a small river with water buffalo by foot, and finally found The Pub With Cold Beer. It was basically the home and farm of a villager that welcomed foreigners.
After about 30 minutes, our lunch of chicken (that was alive 1 hour prior), peanut sauce (made by the peanuts NZ Chris picked), pumpkin leaves, morning glory leaves, and rice was ready to eat and quickly devoured.
NZ Chris had to be back at the hotel by 2pm to catch a ride to the airport for his flight at 4pm. Well, we didn’t leave The Pub With Cold Beer until 1:35 so we had to rush back to get him back in time. Although the weather was a bit drizzly and the first few kilometers was an off-road slightly muddy dirt path that sent us bouncing all over the place, we got NZ Chris back to the hotel just about 5 minutes late. Whew!
The remainder of the afternoon was relaxing as Chris, Linnea, and I had transport to the train station at 6pm for our 7:30pm train to Hanoi. Everything was running smoothly until we saw a huge truck blocking the road from a distance, with a queue of cars and motorbikes.
It looked like the truck had attempted to back up along a smaller road but messed up somehow and blew a tire. There were people who were trying to help change the tire, but the road was completely blocked for cars. Motorbikes were able to squeeze around, but other cars and buses were turning around. Our driver and tour guide told us to stay in the car and they went out to find out what was going on. We were especially confused since every other car was turning around and we were the only ones waiting. As Chris, Linnea, and I discussed the possibility of missing our train, our tour guide told us, “We are waiting. They are building a new way for us.” Nothing made sense to us, but I just reminded myself, “This is Vietnam. It won’t make sense now, but it will make sense later.” And I was right!
After about 10 minutes of waiting, our driver hopped back into the car and indicated we were ready to go. We turned right off the highway, onto a tiny dirt path that lead to a farmer’s house, only about 50 meters away. What we saw on our left side was full of AWESOME. There were children and villagers filling a ditch with logs and sticks, piling them up high enough to be level with the road.
We waited in our car, and then they signaled for us to drive over and through. I took a gulp and thought, “Please don’t get stuck in the ditch!” and off we went! Our van successfully drove over the pile of logs and made it to the other side, and to celebrate, Chris, Linnea, the tour guide, and I happily sang the national anthem of Vietnam. After we crossed, the driver stopped the car and our tour guide handed the villager 20,000 VND, or $1 USD. We drove through their farm and joined the main highway again, and off we were to the train station! The villagers had hand-built a detour toll road through their farm! BRILLIANT.
We arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare, especially since the train was late (surprise!). Once boarded, I sat in my berth and reflected upon the past few days- images of almost getting hit by a boat, Chris riding over and spraying water buffalo shit onto another man’s face, eating literally fresh chicken and hand-picked peanuts, off-roading on a shitty motorbike so a friend could make his flight, and crossing a hand-made “toll” road made of logs, all after spending almost a week in the world’s largest cave. These thoughts of the true Vietnamese experience crossed my mind, reminding me of how awesome this country and my life is.