Escaping the tourist traps
16.12.2012 - 17.12.2012 25 °C
Vietnam is exhausting! The street sellers lie in wait on every corner hawking their wares to the now so familiar battle-cries of 'Hello, t-shirt/pineapple/menu etc' and if you so much as make eye contact they'll follow you to the next block. Even when you've managed to dodge the street-sellers a cool head is needed to dodge the motorbikes that avoid the road traffic/red lights by driving on the pavements. The hotel touts are persistent at best, harassing at worst, and even if you do decide to stay where they're pushing, every subsequent walk past reception sees you running the gauntlet of 'cheapcheap' tours that they offer. So the hotels push buses, who push hotels, who push tours, who push souvenirs. Then if you want to actually buy anything, first you have to pick from a myriad of vendors selling the same things, haggle hard to reduce the price to something suitable, make sure you get the correct change and make sure the item you get is what you actually wanted. Every single day. Phew! A big part of the reason for this, as far as we can see, is that Vietnam is extremely linear, with few tourists choosing to venture inland and the majority following the coastline, which makes for one long tourist trap. It sounds like we're having a moan, which we are, but it's still completely worth it and we wouldn't change it :-) For all the negatives we've just listed, there are so many positives that far outweigh all of them... cue Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Our journey off the beaten track began with a 7 hour hard seated train (Vietnamese style). Loads cheaper than the sleeper buses and, as it turns out, much more entertaining. It was standing room only until three young Vietnamese girls squished themselves onto one seat to let us sit down. They didn't speak much English and we don't speak much Vietnamese but we managed a basic two minute conversation, which gave them all the excuse they needed to whip out the camera. Louise found herself playing photographer to at least 3 cameras while young Vietnamese girls cuddled up to her husband. Bit awkward ;-)
Train journey over, we settled in a little town based at the foot of the National Park, called Son Trach. The town was basically a 3km straight road with very basic amenities and extremely friendly locals. After much walking, due to no public transport, we found our way to the local adventure tour operator and booked ourselves on to a tour of the park. We got the option of a car or an old US army jeep. Seeing as half of this marriage is Chris, guess which one we went for?
The tour started with breakfast in a little street cafe where we met our guide Phong (Fern). Over breakfast she gave us a quick lesson in the pronunciation of some Vietnamese phrases we'd obviously been getting wrong for three weeks, which explained the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks we'd been getting.
The tour consisted of three stops around the national park. The first of which was a visit to a memorial cave where eight women had been trapped for 9 days after the cave mouth collapsed. Despite rescue attempts the women sadly died on the ninth day. Paradise Cave, the largest dry cave in the world, was the second stop and one of the highlights of our trip so far. Having read about it, we knew it was going to be special, but we still weren't prepared for the reality. As we walked into the mouth, the sheer scale of the cave was overwhelming, nature blew us away to the point where we couldn't try to comprehend its formation and just stood there gobsmacked. The colours were a beautiful marble mix of yellows, blacks, browns and greens and in parts, the stalactite and stalagmite formations were the size of a block of flats. The Vietnamese have named each of these formations in accordance to what they look like, (we made our own names up too). Phong pointed one out shaped like a bride and groom stood at the altar of a big church, called the "Wedding Room"... aww!
After lunch we were taken for a swim in one of the big rivers running through the park. The currents were feisty and the water was freezing, still, it made for an entertaining dip before we voluntarily called time and asked to go on to the next part of the tour! We finished the day with a trek to a natural source of water. The sight itself wasn't spectacular, just a few ripples in the water where the jet surfaced from below, but Phong explained that divers had gone 50 metres deep and still couldn't find the source. With rainforest, strong rivers and caves the size of counties, the mystery behind this source of water just helped create the feel of a world left behind. With the discovery of the worlds largest cave (http://www.sondoongcave.org/), it's tipped to be a BIG tourist trap in future, so it was refreshing to be able to experience a place where only a few tourists have ventured so far.
Back in Son Trach we had a four hour wait before our overnight train to Hanoi which we spent sat by the river (below) chatting to locals. We say chatting, what we really mean is we showed our pictures to whoever seemed interested and posed for pictures for whoever asked, while stumbling through broken sentences in Vietnamengish. Son Trach and the National Park came at the perfect time for us. It was a welcome relief from the hustling and bustling cities and we got to see Vietnam without the tourism sheen.
The overnight train was painless, despite only having soft seats we slept really well. We woke up in Hanoi, tired but ready to discover the capital...