(Vietnam) Ninh Binh >>> Phong Nha-Ke Bang >>> Da Nang >>> Hoi An
8/20- Liz Cafe Hopping while Corey Explored Cuc Phuong National Park
8/21- Boat Tour through Phong Nha Cave
8/22- Motorbiking the Phong Nha Ke Bang Loop and Visiting Paradise Cave
8/23- Bus South to Da Nang and Drove the Hai Van Pass
8/24- Bus to Hoi An and Walking the Old Quarter
8/25- Hanging Out in Hoi An
8/26- Exploring Heritage Sites in the Ancient City
Liz Cafe Hopping while Corey Explored Cuc Phuong National Park
+ Started the day with our free breakfast downstairs in the lobby. Liz got a giant fried pancake she didn’t like very much. Corey enjoyed his Vietnamese brekkie.
+ We split up for the day. Liz went to a local cafe where she was the only tourist and passed the time working on the blog and people watching. Then she went back to Chookies in the afternoon for lunch and more computer work.
+ Corey drove the motorbike far west (over an hour) to Cuc Phuong National Park. First he visited the monkey sanctuary which had a bunch of monkeys we’d seen out in the wild. Cool! Then a quick breeze through the turtle sanctuary where they had an exotic species of turtle from Florida! Lol. Then it was back on the bike to drive the remaining 30 km’s more into the depths of the park.
+ The drive was great and the whole road was enclosed in a tunnel of trees for most of the way. At the far end of the park he left the bike behind and hiked the long and hard trail to the 1000 year old tree. It was an interesting site but the barbed wire surrounding it kept him from being able to touch or climb it.
+ He also explored a very muddy cave that resulted in him slipping and falling into a bunch of bat poop!
+ Then Corey visited the Cave of Prehistoric Man which was a cool looking place filled with a bunch of semi-hidden chambers. There was even a passage way up top you could climb to that opened up into the jungle and made you feel like Lewis and Clark exploring new territory!
+ By now he was so sweaty and savored the breezy ride back through the cool tree tunnel!
+ Corey drove the 1.5 hours back to Liz and felt like a Vietnam local since he was getting so skilled and comfortable on a motorbike now!
+ Showered off and changed and we took the motorbike together to dinner at Trung Tuyet. Great service and really friendly owner! She gave us a bunch of free snacks to go and our portions were humongous! We were in a rush to leave and catch our bus so they gave us to go containers for all of our food. So nice! We wish we’d had more time there.
+ Caught a taxi to where we were told the bus would be and couldn’t find anybody waiting so we paid extra to have the taxi drive us all the way down to Tam Coc since we knew for certain the bus would pick up people there. You don’t want to risk things with this disorganized SE Asian transportation!
+ Waited around for 30+ minutes (it always happens when we’re in such a rush!) and talked with a couple who had been travelling for 14 months. They were impressed we’d been out even longer!
+ Caught the night bus at 8:30 pm down to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and arrived in the town at 4:15 am. Liz slept most of the way, but Corey wasn’t able to fall asleep until after 2 am! Ugh.
+ The bus had seats permanently in the flat position that were split into 2 levels high and 3 rows across. So it was basically a bus full of stacks of people sleeping! We barely fit in the seats, which involved our legs sliding into the little hole at the bottom since we are big Americans! Corey especially had very little wiggle room.
+ After arriving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang at 4:15am we were happy to discover our hotel, Thanh Phat, was right next to the bus stop. They let us check in despite the crazy early hour! Then we climbed in bed and went back to sleep!
Boat Tour through Phong Nha Cave
+ We both went downstairs for breakfast around 9:30 and afterwards were still tired so we went back up for a little nap. Such a weird sleep schedule today!
+ When we awoke, we walked to the outskirts of town and paid for the boat tour to Phong Nha Cave. We shared the boat with 2 other Spanish tourists, the motor man in the back, and lady with a long gondola like pole in the front.
+ First we boated down the river for a few km’s and saw water buffalo lounging in the water and kids swimming naked nearby.
+ The cave was cool and very large. It was lit up with white lights to showcase all the different formations and chambers. The boat retracted it’s roof once inside the cave so we could stand up and get better views. (No mechanical roof retraction, they just moved the planks of wood)
+ We supposedly traveled about 1.5 km’s into the 45 km long cave (which is a world record!)before turning around to come back out.
+ While inside the cave, our boat was guided through the cave by a husband/wife team that had one person in the front paddling and one in the back paddling and pushing off of rocks when necessary. It was like a bigger version of the boat the women used to navigate the caves in Trang An just north of us.
+ Before we exited the cave we were allowed to disembark and walk along a designated pathway past other cool formations and giant stalagmites.
+ Once we finished the cave tour, we boated back to the boarding point near town. We got to see the start of a pretty sunset and also saw some ladies washing their clothes in the river with their feet! They were stomping on them in a soapy bucket like people do with grapes when making wine.
+ As we walked backed though town at sunset we enjoyed seeing the ladies bringing their small herds of cows or water buffalo back into town for the night. Often we would see a lady with her kid in one hand and ushering home her herd with the other hand. It always seems to be the women who are in charge of the livestock here.
+ Ate dinner at D’Arts Zone. Shared the Ultimate Bun Cha platter, a Vietnamese staple, which had a bunch of tasty options and fun sauces. The restaurant also had really cheap beer (a new kind too!) so we had a few of those for a while sitting around and enjoying the good wifi.
+ Got a few drinks for the hotel and went back to the room where we watched the movie Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Very funny!
Motorbiking the Phong Nha Ke Bang Loop and Visiting Paradise Cave
+ In the morning Liz wasn’t feeling very well so Corey went down to breakfast by himself.
+ A little while later, Liz felt good enough to give it a go so we both went downstairs and rented a motorbike.
+ Drove into Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Stopped at Dark Cave and although we’d wanted to visit, the people at the entrance were being sketchy and we felt like we were being swindled since they refused to let us do a cheap option we’d read about online. Instead they were mad we didn’t want to pay a bunch of money for the most expensive options like most tourists did. So we decided to leave and not go at all.
+ Continued the drive down to Paradise Cave, the most famous (and largest) one in the park.
+ We had a long and sweaty walk to the entrance of the cave, located high up on the mountain.
+ Thankfully the cave was much cooler and standing at the entrance with the cold air blasting out felt like we were in front of an A/C unit!
+ The cave was spectacularly large and again tastefully and tactfully lit. The cave had some unique features we hadn’t seen in other places and we enjoyed touring around for 45 minutes or so.
+ Back down the mountain we switched motorbikes with one of the hotel workers who’d ridden out to meet us (our original one was leaking gas).
+ Then we took off to continue driving the loop through the National Park. The drive was so scenic and beautiful and seemingly every turn provided another photo op!
+ Crossed underneath the main highway and drove through some rice fields with water buffalo grazing on both sides of us. To our side was a mountain with a big white Phong Nha-Ke Bang sign notating the fact we were within the National Heritage Area. It even lit up at night like the Hollywood sign which was cool to see!
+ Decided not to do another hike to a waterfall and instead drove North of town to a popular riverside hangout called Bomb Crater Bar. Liz was content to hang out on shore chatting with a Vietnamese woman while Corey hopped into a tube and floated around on the river with some British guys as they all drank some beer.
+ There were some water buffalo relaxing in the water just a few feet away from us! This felt like a very quintessential Southeast Asian experience! Plus down the bank, every hundred feet or so, there were more small herds of water buffalo. It seems like all the owners brought their buffalo down to the river to swim and cool off at the end of the day. Most of them owners jumped in with the buffalo and swam around!
+ Drove back to the hotel and changed our clothes in the room and headed across the street to Easy Tiger hostel for some drinks and to meet up with some of the people from the bus. Unfortunately we never met up with them so we moved on and ordered a pizza for delivery from a restaurant down the road.
+ Back in the room we packed up, enjoyed our dinner, and watched some Youtube videos. Then we got ready for the bus that would leave at 4 am and tried to get a few hours of sleep.
Bus South to Da Nang and Drove the Hai Van Pass
+ Very groggily climbed out of bed at around 3:45 and went downstairs and caught our 4 am sleeper bus. Then we climbed into those tiny sleeper beds and tried to relax. The bus drivers always made that difficult. not only with their erratic driving, but their incessant (and often unnecessary) honking and very loud cell phone conversations no matter the time of night. To us, people speaking in Vietnamese almost always seemed like they were yelling! It is a very harsh, tonal language but Liz enjoyed it because it made her nostalgic for when her friend Kim would pick up phone calls from her parents back in high school. lol
+ Liz went back to sleep on the bus but despite being tired, Corey did not fall back to sleep at all! After getting frustrated and giving up around 6:30, he watched some Dragon Ball Super episodes.
+ At 8 am, we arrived in Hue and had to disembark and switch buses. It wasn’t until after 9 am that we finally boarded the next bus to travel down to Da Nang.
+ Corey successfully managed to sleep this time (Liz did too) and we didn’t wake up until pulling to a stop in Da Nang at around 11:30 am.
+ Got a taxi through town to our hotel on the East side of the river. Along the way we drove over a really cool dragon bridge that the people of Da Nang are very proud of.
+ Checked into Kon Tiki Hostel. The manager, An, was nice and gave us some drinks and snacks for check in. Then he showed us to our room which was really nice and big, especially for a hostel!
+ An recommended a local lunch spot and kindly walked us over to it and helped us order with the strictly-Vietnamese speaking staff. Just outside the restaurant, a poor little puppy had apparently just been hit by a car or motorbike and was having a seizure in the road. Thankfully some nearby people came and helped him off the road and found his owner who scooped him up and very concerned, took him back home. The pup seemed to be recovering semi-quickly and we hoped it would be ok.
+ Despite An thinking we were crazy to give it a go today, we rented a motorbike and set off to drive the famous Hai Van pass.
+ It was a long and harrowing ride through the city with the thousands of other motorbikes and cars zooming around with seemingly no set traffic laws or lanes. Yet everyone always managed to narrowly avoid collisions or injuries! Although Corey always handled the traffic and crowds with steady expertise, it still made Liz (who was riding on the back) extremely nervous, especially in the roundabouts! She just clutched Corey with her ninja grip and said a few billion prayers.
+ Eventually we reached the bottom of the mountains and the start of the pass. The drive up and over the mountain took around an hour. While it did provide some spectacular views, we were not super impressed. Part of it was that it had been too hyped up by blogs online and other travelers, but part of it was that we’d already done so many amazing coastal drives in places like Scotland and Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. We both agreed we even enjoyed California’s coastal drives back home more!
+ We did get to see a bunch of different areas though including the coast line and beaches, Da Nang Bay, the city itself, Lang Co Bay, and the South China Sea!
+ Once we reached the other side of the mountain, we saw a few semi trucks loaded up with big pink pigs! There were people spraying them down with water to cool off. We could understand how this depressing scene would make some people switch to vegetarianism.
+ Next we took some advice from other motorbikers we met at a picture spot on the Pass and went and visited Elephant Springs. Elephant Springs was a type of cascading waterfalls and pools with wooden platforms and tarp shades built up and down both sides with only rickety bridges spanning over the pools. Unfortunately neither one of us had packed our bathing suits since we weren’t expecting to do this, so we just splashed ourselves with the cool water a bit and then sat in the shade enjoying a coke on ice.
+ We were going to take the tunnel through the mountain to get back to skip going back up and over, but discovered motorbikes are not allowed. So we drove back up and over along the pass and dealt with the crazy semi truck drivers and unsure tourists that made the drive feel like an obstacle course.
+ The traffic in town was even crazier now and getting back to our hotel was probably the most harrowing driving we’ve ever done! There were constant close calls with other motorbikes and cars and although Corey wasn’t too bothered by them, it still made Liz incredibly nervous and tense.
+ It was just the nature of driving in Southeast Asia and when you’d had enough practice like Corey did, he had just became comfortable with it. In fact, he almost preferred this craziness where each driver was responsible for themselves and could overtake other drivers when necessary as opposed to the strict and rigid rules of the U.S. that often lead to dangerous complacency.
+ Back at the hotel, Liz felt content with her exploration today (aka no more motorbiking thank you very much) so she went upstairs to shower off while Corey took off again on the bike to squeeze in one more sight before sunset.
+ Liz made sure to get a picture of her face before hopping in the shower. She was covered in soot! You could see the outline of her sunglasses and soot filling up her pores! Despite the heat Vietnamese women wear these full body coats while they are driving their motorbikes and now we see why! Some of the coats even have hand coverings!
+ After dropping Liz off, Corey drove south to the Marble Mountains and climbed up to the top of one of them: Huy Thon Son. He made it just in time to see the tail end of sunset and then explored the rest of the mountain all by himself since absolutely no other tourists or even workers were around.
+ They’d all gone home for the day already so he had the place to himself. Cool! Plus it made exploring the various temples and all 3 caves much more spooky and fun! Especially when a bunch of bats would fly out over his head screeching as he ducked into various chambers of the caves! He felt like Indiana Jones or Batman! Or both!
+ On the way back, he took the beach roads and drove past all the fancy hotels and tourists restaurants. It felt very similar to Daytona Beach!
+ After showering and getting changed back at the hostel, we set off on foot to find a good place for dinner. Most of the places were too expensive for our backpacking budget, but we did eventually settle on a delightfully smelling BBQ place called “BBQun In”.
+ Liz tried some new Betel-leaf wrapped rolls and Corey got the huge Meat sampler platter. It had Ostrich, Crocodile, Wild Boar, Beef, and some type of mystery meat the staff couldn’t identify in English! Who knows! Lol. They were each delicious and he finished all 600 grams! Plus it was “Date Night” at the restaurant so we each got a free drink and dessert. Awesome!
+ Back in the room we relaxed in the A/C and did some work online before lying down and watching the latest Game of Thrones episode. So good!
Bus to Hoi An and Walking the Old Quarter
+ We slept in longer than we meant to in the morning because the bed, and especially pillows, were soooo comfortable! But we woke up and checked out in time to catch an Uber over to the office where we were supposed to meet the bus. The only problem was that the office was closed and no other tourists were waiting. Strange!
+ After calling around to the bus company and booking office and not getting any answers, we sat around worrying for a bit that there would be no bus. Thankfully, about 2 minutes before the deadline we had set to give up, the bus arrived. Hooray! Southeast Asia’s disorganized, organized ways work out yet again!
+ Then we loaded into the sleep beds again and settled in for the short 45 minute ride South to Hoi An. Along the way, Corey read football articles he’d saved for offline and Liz went through pictures.
+ Getting off the bus, we were met by a representative from our hotel with a sign that had Corey’s name on it. Awesome! We always loved that as it made us feel like celebrities!
+ We made it to Hoang Trinh Hotel and checked into our room and dropped the bags. Then we set off on foot to walk around town.
+ First we bought the necessary Heritage Site pass that allowed you to enter the famous Old Quarter and then we walked across the popular Japanese Bridge and snapped a few pictures. Then we walked through the streets lined with tourist shops and heritage sites.
+ Wanting to escape the heat, we ducked into a cafe to get some food. After just half an hour or so, the heat was still too much so we changed locations to a different cafe that had air conditioning instead of just a fan. Then we sipped on some yummy frozen drinks and worked on videos and the blog for a couple of hours while the heat outside slowly dissipated.
+ Once it was dark outside, we left the cafe and continued walking around the streets past the 3-wheeled cyclos (like a bicycle rickshaw) and multiple tailor shops in search of a good restaurant for dinner.
+ We ended up wandering over to a restaurant we’d read about on TravelFish called Little Menu. We each tried a few new Vietnamese items, including the popular White Rose dumplings, and really enjoyed them!
+ Then we wandered back towards our hotel on new streets and checked out the sights along the way. In our room, we relaxed and hung out for a while before bed.
Hanging Out in Hoi An
+ We woke up in the morning just in time for breakfast and headed up to the 3rd floor terrace where breakfast was to be served. We had the whole balcony to ourselves and were very surprised at the large quantity and variety of food that was brought out to us!
+ There were all sorts of pastries, fruits, and other options available for us to choose from that served as appetizers, along with ordering our actual meal from the menu. Corey got the beef Pho and Liz ordered a omelet. We even got a fruit shake and coffee to go along with! Probably the biggest breakfast we’d had since The Stones in Bali!
+ We were pretty tired now that we were battling our food coma so we laid back down in bed and hung out watching YouTube videos for a while. Surprisingly (not), that only made us more tired and we ended up taking a nap for a couple of hours!
+ After we woke up, we spent some time planning out our remaining days in Vietnam and then headed out on foot to walk the city.
+ With no exact destination in mind, we wandered about for a while taking note of interesting looking restaurants and bars. Ultimately, we ended up eating back at our hotel.
+ Continuing our chill day, we drank some of Vietnam’s cheap beer and watched the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” which was a good travel movie. Overall a very relaxing day!
Exploring Heritage Sites in the Ancient City
+ With another delicious breakfast down the hatch (Corey opted for chocolate banana pancakes this time while Liz switched to the Pho), we wanted to be more productive today than yesterday. (Who would have thought that a steamy bowl of beef noodle soup would be so good on these hot summer mornings!)
+ The only problem was it was raining cats and dogs outside and we really didn’t feel like standing in a torrential downpour as we tried to snap pictures of temples and monuments.
+ So we hung out inside for a bit and worked on some of our blog and picture tasks and then at the first sign of the rain letting up, we headed out to explore.
+ Over the next few hours, we visited a bunch of the most popular sights including: Cantonese Assembly Hall, the Old House of Tan Ky, the Museum of Trade Ceramics, the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, and the Quan Cong Temple.
+ They were all interesting and unique from one another, but our favorites were the first two places. The Tan Ky House even gave us some tea and a tour guide to lead us around and explain some of the things we were looking at!
+ Over at the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, they had a bunch of interesting statues of Dragons, Goats, and Cats. Some of those reminded us of Tumbles! Lol.
+ The rain had still been going off and on and so we took the opportunity to duck into a little barber shop since Corey was in need of a hair cut anyway.
+ The barber was a really friendly man who gave Corey a really detailed cut, shave, and even ear cleaning all for less than $5!!! Corey has never had his ears cleaned like that before! The guy even wore a headlamp to look up in his ears, lol!
+ From there we kept walking around the city and noticed a lady standing outside her doorway holding her kid by the armpits. The kid was bottomless and spread eagle while the mom was making a “pssss” sound over and over trying to make him pee on the street. Lol!
+ We crossed over the bridge to Cam Nam island and walked around there. We had hoped to get to a cool bar we’d read about to watch the sunset, but it was closed for the slow season. What we did get to see were a bunch of crabs crawling around the dirt road ducking in and out of all the puddles!
+ The next area we explored was the small island just south of the Old Quarter. We saw a bunch of food stands and souvenir stalls and we did try some of the local food we hadn’t sampled yet in Vietnam.
+ For dinner, we went to a little place we’d passed a couple of times already that advertised cheap beers and offered a hot pot experience. We ended up needing to only order the hot pot because it was enough to feed both of us! The lady helped us put everything in and cook it ourselves and we had the quintessential Vietnam/Laos hot pot experience for only about $5 usd! It made for a very memorable and enjoyable last dinner in Vietnam!
+ Before returning to the hotel, we walked all around the upper neighborhoods we hadn’t explored yet. Then we returned to our room and packed up our bags before getting in bed.