“Dad, check this out, it’s an underwater walkway!” called Porter.
His voice emerged from the darkness ahead, probing the mystery. My thin headlamp beam could not find his body, but I could hear his eager sloshing. At my feet, a few ripples lapped at the dirt floor, suggesting Porter’s movement. I turned back towards Mia, and saw that she would need some coaxing.
“Come on!” I beckoned, “Just imagine you are Harry following Dumbledore to look for a Horcrux!”
“I know! That’s why I don’t want to go!” she retorted, using explanation points to her own effect.
Amy and I removed our shoes, leaving Mia with an option to sit alone in a dark, wet cave or follow along. In a huff, she began to peel off her socks.
We slid our toes and feet into the water, and onto the stone path six inches below the surface. Eerily, the path was only a few feet wide, and the sides dropped off into dark depths. The ceiling was uneven, and close to our skulls. Porter was in the lead; we had no guide. Perfect. We were finding our own adventures, exploring an alien world. The cave didn’t go far, and wasn’t even that spectacular, but the day turned out to be a turning point in my attitude about Vietnam. Discovering new places, encountering discomfort, pushing through are some of the reasons we love traveling.
For about two weeks up to this point, travel fatigue had been ruling our days – leaving us a grumpy troupe. Our senses had been dulled, our enthusiasm muted by a crust of cynicism. We were in a funk. But we fought it – owned it, talked about it, wallowed in it, made fun of it. Gradually, little adventures and, (especially) encounters with wonderful people, scrubbed away my malaise. I found myself laughing more, and seeing further. I found myself falling for Vietnam.
This post a sketch of a few of our encounters and experiences, and an excuse to post a bunch of photos.
Ninh Binh – climbing past industrial tourism.
After Hanoi, we traveled to Ninh Binh, a rural area of Northern Vietnam characterized by towering limestone karsts and rice paddies. Also, we hoped, a place less touristy than the more famous Halong Bay.
We arrived to gray skies, and a town getting choked by tourism. Resorts and hotels lined the river, and the air was filled with construction noises – new resorts and hotels. On the streets, tourists walked and lingered in long trails and packs. Groups of thirty and forty cyclists at a time pedaled by our guesthouse, waiting for a guide to tell them to turn left or right. The main tourist attraction was a river boat ride, rowed by a (usually female) guide, often with her feet. We had seen brochure images in Hanoi: a little wooden boat with a triangle-hatted captain, sliding along a peaceful ribbon of stream, cutting through green fields, backdropped by limestone karst. Beautiful.
But, when we stood at the boat launch, with the tranquil river slipping away, the picture had been copy-and-pasted ad nauseam. Boats streamed in and out non-stop, the nose of one boatload of tourists within smelling distance of the tail of the next.Big money was pushing the postcard Ninh Binh boat ride to the masses. This was not our style. Porter and I called it “industrial tourism.”
Our family didn’t stay in one of the fancy hotels, and we skipped out on the boat ride. Instead, we rented motorbikes and scooted to a nearby cave system where we found the underwater pathway. We hiked up a trail to a nice viewpoint where we could watch the ant-like stream of boats. We stayed in a lovely homestay that looked about as appealing as a concrete block. But the family running the place were anything but industrial – they were like bright red farmers market tomatoes in August. The smiles of the grandma and grandpa who couldn’t speak any English but always found a snack or an extra glass to share tea made us feel welcome in Ninh Binh, a perfect antidote to industrial tourism.
The Knight bus to Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park
After Ninh Binh, we wanted to go about 500 km South to the huge cave systems of Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park. Most travelers in Vietnam (who didn’t have their own motorbikes), were taking “night busses.” Every good travel adventure must have a crazy bus story, just like every country musician must have a song about a dog and a truck. This journey turned out to be ours. Although we rode the night bus, we’ve since been calling it our Knight bus, after the wild purple vehicle from Harry Potter. Our ride felt about as crazy, but real Knight busses are rarely driven by people as charming as Stan.
This bus system is intented for tourists, although many Vietnamese also choose night busses. The busses are tall, with room to hold bunkbeds, three across. Each “bed” is actually just a reclining seat, ergonomically designed to accommodate a 5’6″ person with size 8 feet perfectly.
At 9 pm, our bus pulled up. There were two employees on the bus – a driver and assistant. Their barking, stoccato commands quickly let us know told us these were a couple Mr. Angry Pants.
“You, over here!” directing me to a bunk that was already occupied by a passenger’s bag.
“Kid, you go there!” telling Porter to go to the front while Amy and I were moving to the back.
Fortunately, there was also a Vietnamese tour guide who knew how to deal with the situation diplomatically. He respectfully engaged the assistant like a matador dealing with an angry bull – a patient head nod, a few kind words back, a smile, and actions opposite the commands. Along with the helpfulness of a few other travelers, we re-arranged the seats and were able to get beds near each other. The bus lurched forward before anyone had settled in.
I levered myself into the small foot box, and laid my head back just beyond the headrest, and prepared for a night of no sleep. Our ride was supposed to take 8 hours, but our driver must have been getting paid by the mile. Because, he drove that bus like he was trying out for Fast and Furious. We felt like we were strapped to the end of a windshield wiper in a proper Northwest downpour. For the entire journey the bus swerved back-and-forth, sloshing us to either side of our seats. Nobody slept until about 2 am, when our bodies finally grew sea legs.
We were supposed to arrive at Phong-Nha at 5 am, so when the interior lights switched on full blast at 3:30 am, we were a bit confused. I checked my map. Sure enough, we were in Phong Nha. It was dark and misty outside. The assistant ushered us off, leaving a small group of travelers befuddled, traumatized and huddled together, in a small mountain town, with nothing but a cool drizzle for shelter.
We stumbled down to our hotel, and around the back looking for a place to just rest out the remainder of the darkness. We found some deck chairs around a pool area that were not totally wet. So, we all curled up under cotton sarongs and waited for the light. It took us the rest of the day to recover, and we barely mustered the energy to go for a 2 km run and moto ride to the river for drinks.
The next day, we got to explore the park, and the caves there. WOW! Amy and Porter have already described the Dark Cave well, so I won’t say much about that. But the next day we went to Paradise Cave. It was astounding. I’ve included a few pictures.
After the magic of Phong Nha, we caught an early morning bus ride to Hoi An, a small city in central Vietnam. We arrived mid-morning, and were immediately surrounded by guesthouse owners and taxi drivers. We typically don’t go with the first wave of service providers, preferring a little time and space before making any decisions. But, one woman had a kind style. She would give us a little sales pitch, then step back to let us think about it. She spoke very good English, didn’t seem too pushy, and agreed to pay for half of our transport back to her homestay. We decided to go have a look.
Once we agreed, we needed some transport. No taxis around, just a few pushy motor scooter drivers, and the nice lady (also on her scooter). We needed at least three. I vaguely agreed to a price (how do you negotiate when you don’t know how far you have to go??!!), and off we went. Here is a really great dad moment: I jumped on the back of a scooter first, leading the charge, as men do. Before I knew it, Amy and the kids were who-knows-where and “my guy” was flying through the traffic of Hoi An. Nice work John, I had my bags and wallet, and had just left my wife and kids behind in somewhere, Vietnam, to ride with someone, to somewhere. A bit unnerving. Luckily, years ago I married well, and Amy sensibly made sure that the kids were tucked in behind the woman, and she had her driver stay in sight of the kids.
We arrived at the homestay, and found it to be simple and clean. The lady, named Dung (pronounced Yuom) ended up being one of our favorite people in Vietnam. She let me know that I way over-paid to scooter drivers, but she paid half anyways. Then she called them and gave them the what-for. Yeah!
Dung was an incredibly lovely, hard-working and helpful host. We loved her and her family. Her kids, Mickey and Sophie, were outgoing darlings. One day, Porter was doing homeschool, and Mickey showed interest in his work. I gave her a couple math problems, which she enthusiastically got after. She and Porter ended up in math races. I told Porter that I wouldn’t share who won.
We loved Hoi An. It is a medium-sized city, with small streets and quieter traffic. It is a town of artisan and craftspeople – we visited tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers and of course, chefs. Pretty much every day, Dung would give us a good tip on a place to visit or a food to try. We grabbed bicycles (free to use from our homestay) and rode around town or the surrounding countryside. We ate delicious Bahn Mi. Porter and I carved a wood bowl by hand. We had clothing tailored, and shoes cobbled. We spent nearly a week, and on the last night Yuom made us a big dinner, to celebrate our friendship.
A farewell to Vietnam
Our last stop in Vietnam was Jungle Beach, a quiet beach resort in South-central Vietnam. It was a beautiful place – bamboo huts, a deserted beach, a jungle background and communal meals. We met great people, who were traveling off the beaten path, no wonder we liked them:
Wendy, ziggy and Renault – a mom, son, and friend from France traveling for 3 months. Ziggy and Porter had a good time playing in waves and sand together.
Rico and Sophie – traveling partners from germany and Jamaica. They were a blast and rico helped us for up a hemos ultimate on the.
Mark and Nadia – traveling the length of Vietnam by motorbike, from the north to the south. Mark told great travel stories. We enjoyed hiking up to a waterfall with them. Then, at marks suggestion, porter he and I did some “boy stuff,” clamboring down the stream es instead of the trail. Porter caught the spirit and suggested we go back via rock scrambling on the beach. It look us one hour (rather than 10 minures on a road, long, but awesome.
We had arrived in Vietnam in a funk. But gradually, our explorations, and encounters with wonderful people won us over. It is a land with many faces, and with deep mystery. Many parts seemed undecipherable to us: stories and images with clear purpose, but unknown meanings. The traffic moved deliberately, but where? Why is Mr. Angry Pants acting so angry? What are all of those extra little accents and question marks on top of and below each letter in the language? How do you say “beautiful?” or “delicious?” Huh? Again? How far does this cave go back? How do you eat this? What do you think of Americans?
Every corner of Vietnam had a new, surprising view and voice. It’s a vast, diverse country, filled with a sometimes intense, always vibrant, people. A people eager to show off their beautiful landscape, a people eager to engage with a weary family, a people eager to make their mark on the world. Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people, crept into our hearts.