Day 4 – I’m afraid that we have caused grave offense. And/or hurt feelings. Actually, I’m not sure what we’ve done, exactly, but whatever it was, we’ve somehow stirred up a bit of a panic with the proprietors of our hotel. What was this great insult and/or breach of decorum? We turned down the free breakfast at our hotel. But first, some context.Today’s itinerary is entirely eaten up by a tour I’ve so been looking forward to: a jungle tramp to and through a couple caves, a dip in a mid-jungle oasis, and a feast of Vietnamese delicacies in the heart of the wilderness. This trek, like yesterday’s visit to the caves, is in the heart of Phong Nha national park, so we had to be up bright and early to hop into our transport to the tour base, Jungle Boss homestay in Phong Na.
Our transport was set to meet us at the hotel at 7am, so we had time to grab a quick bite using our free breakfast vouchers. Up we went to the 12th floor, vouchers in hand, at 6:39am, 9 minutes past when we were told the breakfast service would start. Everything was still being set-up, which was no biggie, but we might as well have been ghosts for all that the hotel staff noticed us. After standing in line for what was maybe an omelette line (it was a bit unclear what was happening in that line), and being ignored for a good while, we decided to forego free for the day, and instead cut our losses and try to get some to-go coffee and a bread roll at our new favorite spot, The Treehugger.
In the elevator we went to head downstairs, and right as the doors were closing, Manny noticed someone running to catch the elevator door. Whoever this was (we think it may have been the hotel owner and/or manager), he was a second late and so we went on our merry way. When reached the ground floor, we found our driver waiting for us outside, and tried to communicate our plan to him (the quick stop at Treehugger). He barely understood, but was ready to comply… but then things took a turn for the odd. The hotel receptionist came out while we were chatting and had a brief exchange with him in Vietnamese. She turned to us and said, “he will wait for you, and you will go upstairs and have breakfast.” We thanked her, but said no, we’d like to get on the road. But she was very insistent that we stay, and we were really wanting to leave. After an awkward few back and forths, she reluctantly agreed to let us go. Such a curious way to start the day, but it wouldn’t be the last of the great breakfast saga.
Treehugger coffees acquired, we were on the road again. Similar sights to yesterday’s flew past us. The rice paddies, the huge water buffalo grazing, the jungle mountains of the Phong Nha park rolling nearer and nearer. Pulling into Phong Na, we drove through a small village and turned off a side road to the Jungle Boss homestay, to pay for the outing and get briefed on the adventure ahead.
Our guide for the day was called Sarah (she’s Vietnamese, I’m guessing Sarah is just much easier for us clumsy Westerners to say). Sarah is such a badass, a five foot two woman whose personality is like a foghorn of laughter and mischief, mingled with professionalism and a keen sense of adventure. She’s a jokester to the core, and made trouble (in a playful way) the whole way through without ever skimping on professional duties. Also, I think she might be part elf, because how she could so quickly navigate some of the hairiest, sharpest patches of boulders and muddy crossings is still beyond me. The others in our group included two German couples, and a Swedish guy. Eight trekkers total, plus Sarah, a couple porters, and a driver.
Sarah quickly briefed us on the day’s plans, had us sign our lives away with a liability waiver, and strongly recommended that we borrow one of the shoes that Jungle Boss supplies, seeing as we’d be spending much of our time wading through rivers, and on muddy, wet terrain. So glad we complied.
Gear all ready to go, our group piled into a bus and we drove a half hour or so to the first stop, a steep uphill climb to Elephant Cave. The hike up was no joke. We had the rather undesirable combo of treacherously sharp rocks with slippery, slidey muddy dirt to make the climb extra challenging. Twenty minutes up up up, and then the payoff came: an enormous cave, with jungle flora spilling into its entrance. That, exactly that, is what I came for. We climbed down to the lip of the cave, and paused for a quick snack of bananas and chocolate cakes. Then Sarah took us straight through to the other end of the cave, and for the more adventurous among us, down to the depths of one channel in the system. There was much spidery crawling about and clinging to walls, to get to the bottom. We also saw a few gnarly creepy crawlies—a couple spiders, a translucent rolly polly—while we were exploring the depths.
What followed this first stop of three is a LONG, challenging “walk” through the jungle. It took well over an hour an a half, and there were many points where I could hardly decipher a path through the thick foliage. It was during this part of the trip that Sarah told us to watch for poison ivy (absolutey everywhere, and much more potent than the wimpy US kind), and leeches (still don’t know where they were coming from… the mud? the trees? but we had a handful of leech incidents.) It was during this part of our adventure that I came to understand the perfection of the Jungle Boss name. Sarah was and is a jungle boss. The tour tested even the most fit of our bunch. It was tough, it was gritty, it was not a manicured, touristy outing. Well… except for the fact that porters carried our lunch and supplies for us. 🙂
After crossing a couple streams, and what felt like an endless walking sesh, we arrived at ground water swimming area. You know that horrible fake turquoise water at Disney and other Disney-esque resorts? The lagoon water? Well… I always scoffed at the stupid fakeness of that color, but it turns out, it’s actually an incredibly accurate replica. Of groundswell water at least. The little jungle oasis we came to was just idyllic. We stripped off our soaked clothing (soaked from a gnarly mixture of sweat, bug spray, sunscreen, mud, and river water), and happily cooled off in the fresh water. Sarah then pointed out a couple places where it was safe to jump in from a nearby rock, and most of the group had a go.
By that point, as you might imagine, we’d worked up quite the appetite. While we distracted ourselves playing around in the water, the rest of the crew organized and laid out an incredible lunch spread for us. Lunch consisted of a buffet of sorts. Piled in the middle of some plastic sheeting were fresh Vietnamese herbs, pork and tofu that had just been roasted over a fire, rice, eggs, peanuts and one of the yummiest sauces I’ve ever tasted (apparently a recipe specific to Phong Nha). We used rice paper to fill our spring rolls and wrapped them ourselves. As is the case with this kind of tour, I’m not sure if it was that the food was out of this world, or that I was so crazy hungry, but I can easily say those spring rolls were the stuff of dreams. We were all dead silent for the first ten minutes, packing it in, and then Sarah told us some facts about the area.
I meant to go back for another swim post-lunch but didn’t feel like getting wet again before another hike. Truth be told, after lunch I was kinda ready to be done, but we had one more spot to hit, a cave with a river running through it. That would be a whole different experience than the first cave, as we’d be exploring this one by swimming in the river waters. Ok… I could rally for that.
We had another long, taxing walk, before we reached the last cave. We rested for ten minutes or so before going in, and it was during this break that we discovered the GIANT LEECH that had attached itself to one of the German dudes. It was bloated, engorged, and thoroughly disgusting. Clearly it’d been feasting on him for quite some time. There was some light screaming/screeching (much of which came from me), some gagging (me again), and nervous laughing (me), and then picture taking (you guessed it, me, but also his GF), and then the leech was removed and the guy just bled for a while. Bled a lot actually. EW. I can happily report that I was spared the horror of the leech experience.
It’s rainy season in this part of the country, so the water levels are high and the cave’s river current was running wicked strong. Sarah tested the waters and told us we’d have to shorten this part of the excursion. I don’t think anyone was sad. The water was cold as the North, and we were all feeling the effects of the strenuous day. We fought our way through the really strong bits of the current, which were mostly right at the entrance of the cave. Sarah then took us in to the depths, and we turned off our lights and creeped ourselves out.
After a short half hour we emerged, and the guides offered coffee to warm us up. The light was beginning to dim so we packed up and headed back to the bus, where we popped open some beer to cheers to a long day (almost 10 hours of hiking, walking, swimming, trekking). They turned the bus we’d ridden over on into a party bus, and pumped the Vietnamese techno (or EDM, I don’t know the difference) while we stood on the highway drinking our beer. As we downed the surprisingly refreshing Vietnamese draught, and looked out at the jungle, I felt that wave of deep gratitude that always washes over me during journeys of this sort.
We drove home to the Jungle Boss homestay, tipped generously, said goodbye to our tour friends, and were driven back to Dong Hoi (poor sis in wet pants since she didn’t take a spare). Back at the hotel, we enjoyed the most luxurious showers of our life because holy hell did we staaaaaank like you wouldn’t believe. Keeping it simple for dinner, we returned to The Treehugger, enjoyed a hearty meal and fresh juices, and returned to the hotel… for the next installment of the breakfast drama!!!
We were zombies at that point, and really just trying to get into our beds, but the receptionist at the front desk stopped us to ask about breakfast. Were we planning on having some in the morning? They please wanted to give us another voucher so we could enjoy breakfast in the morning. Oh, we were leaving before breakfast was open? They’d get us breakfast to-go. What did we want for breakfast? Did we want milk? Did we want coffee? Tea? What else? Sandwhich? A pizza? Their pizza is really good, she said (Karen found it hilarious that she thought ‘cause we were westerners we’d have pizza for bfast)? We tried to turn down the kind offer with a score of no, thank yous, but her insistance was something fierce, so we finally agreed to some bread and coffee for bfast, and thanked her enthusiastically, and at long last, she let us go.
Back in the room, Karen and Manny packed lightly, but for me, head hit pillow and I was out for the night. Tryin’ to catch as many zzzs as possible, because tomorrow brings another crack o’ dawn day, and a journey in a sleeper train to the supposedly magnificent city of Hoi An.