Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park was both geographically and chronologically ideally situated for us… a perfect half way stop between Christmas in Hoi An and New Year's Eve in Hanoi. The national park boasts the world's largest cave, Sơn Đoòng, although to go see that one you need to pay $3000 and add yourself to a 2 year waiting list. We were perfectly happy to go along to see the other, just-because-you're-not-the-biggest-doesn't-mean-you're-not-equally-beautiful caves, with our every-child-brings-something-to-the-world teacher hats on.
Getting to the national park required taking a train from Danang, just north of Hoi An, to Dong Hoi, a back of beyond town that boasts a train station and not much more. On the traveller grapevine we had heard of a place to stay in the park called the Pepperhouse Farmstay, booked ahead, and arrived late in the evening to find the elderly grandfather of the family waiting to meet us off the train. This was a blessing, as then we proceeded to drive for an hour into the depths of the dark forest; if we had tried to get there ourselves we would probably still be searching for it!
The Pepperhouse Farmstay is run by a local lady, Diem, and her Australian husband, Multi. Multi is so called because when he registered himself with the local police, after his marriage to Diem, he handed over his Australian passport. The local chief of police searched the passport for any familiar language, and stumbled upon Multi's visa for Vietnam. Presuming the top line was his name, the chief recorded “Multiple” and “Entry” as his official Vietnamese first name and surname. He goes by Multi for short! (his real name is Dave).
The Pepperhouse was wonderful. Diem ran the show, and made sure we were all comfortable, well fed, and happy. Her steaming hot bowls of Pho Bo (beef broth with noodles, seasoned with pepper grown on the farm) were truly incredible. Multi provided the beers and the banter. Staying with us was Al from Bristol, Andre and Sabine from Germany and three Belgian brothers, Philip, Michiel and Jeff. Over the next two days we played out in the national park, exploring the countryside by bike and taking boats and kayaks to some of the caves inaccessible by foot.
The caves were incredible…
And also a lot of fun…
The only way out was to swim through a pitch black cave, at least it got the mud off!
We were sad to leave but had to make our way back to the dark and dingy train station in Dong Hoi to catch the 11pm sleeper train to Hanoi. I really needed the loo so left Laura with the bags and followed the WC signs down an even darker and dingier alley that came out into a clearing between buildings. Sitting around a table in the clearing were about 10 Vietnamese men drinking rice wine and playing poker. They were extremely merry and offered to guide me to the toilet; I politely declined and told them I was quite ok by myself! On the way back from the toilet one of the men reached out to high five me and I swerved slightly to the left to avoid a full on collision. As aIswerved, from seemingly out of nowhere, a monkey reached out and bit my trousers. In the darkness I had completely missed the monkey in a cage in the corner. Screeching to them to get it off me, they all fell about laughing before finally coming to my aid. I fled quickly, and was glad to get on that train!
Love to all, Katie xxx