‘No english’ our driver says. That’s tough. We hired a not-very-cheap private car today to do a custom tour of a few more caves, lunch etc… We had assumed someone could at least handle some basic stuff.
The car, arranged by the hotel, is nice enough but he gets to our first destination and hands me a business card. I assume I need to call him to let him know we need him. Normally a driver will wait in a parking lot and/or give you a time frame.
Phong Nha cave has a nutty entrance fee procedure. You pay a ticket price per person (150,000 dong), but then you also have to buy a boat (360,000 dong). And a boat can fit up to fourteen passengers for the same price. So it’s up to you if you want to do a private boat or find other people. And since 360,000 dong seems like a lot of money, all the backpackers try to link up to save some cash.
But 350,000 dong is about $15 dollars! I find myself doing the same from time to time, grunting that I got charged an extra 5000 dong for a bottle of water when it’s only a quarter. Lopsided exchange rates do that to the mind.
We are joined by a solo German woman with deeply tanned, leathery skin named Andrea. She smokes quietly as we go to no fewer than three different uniformed people who record our ticket and give us new papers. Eventually we are assigned boat #295 and we board for the trip up river to Phong Nha cave.
This is the first cave open to visitors and has been in operation since the late 1980s. The cave is filled with water, and the blue dragon boats take you right into the cave, but not before stopping and getting more paperwork.
Inside they switch to oars and push us along a track. The formations are as good, maybe better than Paradise cave and they have removed the colored ‘Disco’ lighting that was here last time. However, they used to let tourists get off the boats and walk in a few places. Now it’s just a boat ride, Disney like and very touristy.
Our driver seems hell bent to out race the other boats. In a very narrow cave he tries to go three abreast. The other drivers don’t seem to mind.
We can’t see very well and it’s a little annoying that he’s rushing us, but the experience isn’t great either so why care? Like the Annie Hall joke about terrible food in small portions.
On our way back we talk about the karst formations at the Li river in China, one of our memorable experiences. I love karst topography – the formation of caves, sinkholes, . Li River, China; Yucatan cenotes in Mexico; Cappadochia, Turkey; and later in our trip Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; are all formed from water that dissolves limestone or dolomite into caves, sinkholes, and jagged peaks with lots of running water.
Amanda buys some yogurt and a drink after searching the area for a decent restaurant. But it’s a tourist trap of a place. She’s pretty hungry and doesn’t want the cashew, pretzel and m&m snack bags we bring along on every trip.
I ask the lady that sold Amanda the yogurt to try to call our driver. She thinks I want a taxi and connects me to a taxi service. I end up placing the call myself. Our cheap/free T-mobile international service doesn’t work in Vietnam – this is like the old days when you risked backruptcy placing an international call. The driver’s boss answers and he says our call will be there shortly.
‘We are closed for the day. Special tour group’ says the lady at the counter for Dark Cave. This cave has a zipline and some solo kayaking one can do. We thought it would be a good way to end the Phong Nha cave activities, but it was not to be.
Back to the hotel we go, almost 3 hours earlier than planned. Emma and Lily hang out in the pool, and Amanda and I eat and talk. It’s pleasant enough.
Of course Jetstar has a problem with our tickets that requires multiple stops at different ticket counters (Amanda is listed as a ‘Miss’ and they seem to take great offense that a she is not ‘Mrs’) and then that flight out of Dong Hoi is delayed. It’s been that kind of day.
When we get on the airplane it looks like we’re being gassed. But I’ve seen that water vapor effect before. It’s alarming but common in hot climates.
It’s late for us as we arrive in Haiphong, our overnight city. The Somerset hotel is amazing – three rooms with a full kitchen and living room for $100 a night.
Emma and Lily have never had their own room when we’ve traveled! We are the only customers in the restaurant as it closes, but they serve up decent grub. They are much busier for breakfast the next morning.
The bad news continues…
‘Mr. David, there is a cyclone coming and they are not letting boats go into Lan Ha Bay’. The reality isn’t quite that dramatic. The cyclone is much to the south, but the winds will pick up and they would rather be safe than sorry.
Though we would happily stay another day in the Somerset, there are limited tickets on the hydrofoil that takes us to Cat Ba town from which our boat departs.
We somehow get put in the ‘VIP’ lounge on the hydrofoil which is not just more comfortable, but helps us avoid the sea sickness others are experiencing. Emma and Lily laugh the whole time. They have been cracking up a lot at each other’s stupid jokes and stories of high school nonsense.
Cat Ba Town is like a Vietnamese Jersey Shore town with tons of mediocre restaurants, cheap hotels, karaoke and touts offering sailing, beaches, booze and the like. It’s most crowded on weekends.
We’re arriving on a Sunday and there is a long line for the fast hydrofoil return trip. It’s hot and windy, intermittently humid and rainy. The Cyclone is messing with the normal weather.
Since we can’t leave today, we have to find a hotel. Amanda and I take to the streets, backpacker style and find a place for $30 a night that has cold AC and hot water but little else. (The sheets are washed in heavily scented detergent and all night I would smell artificial raspberry.) But it’s good and we know we have a place to stay.
We eat at a little restaurant called ‘Bamboo Cafe’ that has decent Vietnamese fare. The fresh chilies are particularly hot and Amanda ends up crying with pleasure from the spicy pho chay. The broth is basically water, but with the little limes, mint, basil chili it turns into a recognizable pho. Lily has Pho ga, with chicken and Emma nibbles at her fried rice which is pretty bland.
Very full, we grab a taxi and go up to the Canon Fort, which was built by the occupying Japanese during WWII. It boasts some pretty goofy displays (they used to have plastic army men manning the artillery) but also has the best views from this side of the island.
Cat Ba island is the largest in the Ha Long bay area which has 1600 or so limestone ‘islands’ that rise up from the sea and are covered in jungle. It’s a spectacular karst phenomenon that gives the whole area astounding beauty. There are tons of activities here but mostly they involve sailing, swimming or kayaking.
There is also amazing rock climbing because the limestone dissolves in straight walls with lots of edges for foot and hand holds. One can climb lots of places with no harness with the sea beneath you as a cushion should you fall off.
With luck we leave tomorrow and will do some rock climbing of our own, only with harnesses and gear. We stop by a rock climbing place Asia Outdoors to buy the tickets and size our shoes. (Lily does some dance moves including her full split.)
Dinner and sleep are slow and easy – just passing the time as we wait for the cyclone to pass.