Pretty Hoi An and an action packed visit to Phong Nha
Time waits for no man (or Tigger) and all that, so although we would have loved to have stayed longer on the beach, it's time to move north and on to Hoi An. It's a long journey, and we decided to try the train, you need to pre-book which is easily done online, and as it's so cheap we go for the luxury option of the overnight sleeper in a four berth cabin - the best your Dong (snigger) can buy! Luxury may be stretching it a little, the "beds" could have been a tad more comfortable, and it was best not to look too closely at the sheets and blanket. (I'll say it's stretching it….more like a prison cell with hot and cold running insects and rodents! I particularly enjoyed the way the nylon sheet slid around on the 2” thick PVC mattress. Made for a whole night of entertaining bed acrobatics in order not to slip off the bunk) I employed my standard ploy of fluid restriction to minimise the trips to the loo, Asian toilets and a moving train are not the best combination! We shared the cabin with a Vietnamese couple plus a number of cockroaches and possibly a mouse, but we had somewhere to power our devices so all was well.
Hoi An is a popular destination on the tourist route and for good reason. It is a delightful little town, famed for its architecture, food and tailor shops. You can't walk for more than a couple of minutes without seeing signs for "custom made clothes" just show them a photo and they will make you what you want within a few days, our Airbnb even had its own tailor shop! It's an ancient town, made up of a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and European architecture all rolled in with an appealing riverside setting. The yellow coloured buildings are draped with colourful bougainvillaea and meandering pedestrian only small streets give the place a charming atmosphere and picture postcard feel. Yes, it is touristy but it is charismatic touristy and an easy town to just wander around and soak up the ambience.
Street life in Hoi An - those baskets are really heavy but the little Vietnamese ladies make it look really easy
One of the best ways to see the town is by bike. We were lucky enough to have bikes thrown in as part of our accommodation package so we used these, day and night and get a lot of ground covered It is especially beautiful at night and there are thousands of different coloured lanterns on the shop fronts particularly along the riverfront. There is also a custom for placing floating lanterns onto the river from the low ancient bridge. The vendors drop them in from long poles and fishing lines, a little like the reverse of “hook the duck” at the funfair.
Feeling at home with our bicycles
Sooo pretty at night
Cookery classes are the thing to do here so I booked myself into the Green Bamboo Cookery School http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com The day starts early, you are picked up from your hotel at 8am for a trip to market to buy the ingredients for the dish you have chosen to cook, given your plastic shopping basket, don your Vietnamese hat and off you go! If the day had stopped there it would have been a great experience in itself, the hustle and bustle of the market, buying your ingredients when some of them were still alive and some things you didn't have a clue what they were anyway!
Cheesy photo, but had to be done - when in Vietnam!
shopping at the market - the guys is removing the flesh from the coconuts, this was then used to make the coconut milk for our curry
This lady is over 90yrs old and has been working in the market all of her life - wonder what she makes of all us westerners?!
Back at Green Bamboo, Van the owner and Chef in residence set us off cooking - we have each chosen two dishes, my choice was Vietnamese spring rolls and a noodle dish, but we all get to help cook/prepare everything, we had the most amazing spread of food to eat! It was totally scrumptious making my mouth water just thinking about it, those ugly squirming prawns turned out to be quite tasty after all, and the chicken curry was to die for, spicy but tasty in a thick creamy coconut sauce - made with fresh coconut soaked in its own water and then squeezed by hand, all so yummy.
The Chef at work - and look at those chopsticks!
Just a selection of the yummyness
All this cost $40 which I thought was exceptional value. It is possible to get cheaper cookery classes, but they are usually bigger and not so intimate, at the time of writing it was the number on trip advisor and in the lonely planet Picture
I decided not to do the cookery course as I had found a photography walking tour which interested me and luckily it was available the same time as the cooking course.I thoroughly enjoyed this informal course and as there was only one other person we had a good amount of 1-1 time. I was keen to learn a bit about portrait photos as I have always been shy about snapping at strangers and got a little bit of my phobia sorted although it has come back again since then. Pieter has been doing this course for a while now so has quite a lot of ‘tame and willing’ subjects along the back streets who are happy to pose for a small fee and we met two amazing women. One with astonishing long hair and a really lovely older lady with an infectious smile. I can recommend this as a great way to walk the back streets with your own guide and pro photographer. A complete package and at a reasonable cost too. Have a look at the website Www.hoianphotowalks.com my review is posted as jsnowybear, don’t ask why!!!!
Bet that takes forever to dry!
Captured this young couple having a washing fight - well they seemed to be enjoying themselves :)
A fellow traveller had told us not to miss Phong Nha, this is not so much on the tourist trail, but these guys had raved about it so much we thought it would be worth a visit. What we hadn't banked on was the cold! We so did this tour the wrong way round, going north it is getting progressively colder, so cold in fact there is a cosy fire to welcome us in the Phong Nha Farmstay and it was warranted! The farm stay is run by an Australian guy, Ben and his Vietnamese wife - it offers dormitory or private rooms and is set in the beautiful lush countryside, surrounded by paddy fields. It has a restaurant with good food, including some lovely comfort food like bangers and mash, for when you just can't face yet another plate of noodles or rice -oh and they have wine! http://phong-nha-cave.com/farmstay/
For me, one of the lasting memories will be a feeling of home. Difficult to explain considering the polar difference between a Vietnamese paddy field and the East Anglian fens in winter, but there was something about it. I went for a run out into the farmlands and found a tremendous calm and a powerful nostalgic feeling I couldn’t account for. Perfect running weather. Cold and grey. It would have been great to have my camera but a couple of phone snaps will suffice to remember it by.
cold wet and muddy, make it like the fens - have to ignore the mountains in the background!
Phong Nha is famous for its caves and one of the biggest caves in the world was recently discovered here in 2009. If you want to hike through it, it will take you 7 days as it is 126km long and will cost you the best part of $3000pp! needless to say, we didn't hike through it but it is supposed to be spectacular. However this isn't the only cave in the area, Phong Nha-K? Bàng national park is a UNESCO world heritage site and is riddled with beautiful caves and grottos.
We cycle from the homestay to the national park, and take a boat trip to visit our first cave, you motor along the river until you get the cave mouth and then the engine is turned off and this tiny little Vientmenese lady paddles the boat, full of big Westerners inside and around the cave, it does look extremely hard work and I really feel John should be giving her a hand! ( I think this is a bit degrading but I put my hands together and give her a big round of applause! Not really! ) It is spectacular, the stalactites and stalagmites are huge and all beautifully illuminated - there are strange rock formations which if you squint and look sideways they might look like the name they have been given -" man-eating fish" or whatever! This cave is just the warm up for the bigger and better cave we are going to see in a couple of days time so everyone kept telling us, supporting act, or not we were impressed with this one.
Top tip -You buy the tickets for the boat trip at the entrance to the park, you pay per boat so expensive for just a couple of you,hang around the ticket office, others will come along and you can share the boat and the cost.
Action man John thinks it's a good idea to go jungle trekking the following day, heralded as the "Top Trip" to take it involves a 7hour hike through dense jungle, requiring a "good fitness level" After sitting on my butt for the last 8 months I have a good level of extra padding, and not much fitness, hmm wonder why this isn't really appealing to me, plus as an added extra you get to go into the "Dark Cave" Whoopdy do! I hate dark caves, surely if it's dark you shouldn't go in there! (What are you talking about woman! Dark cave says ‘ come explore my hidden secrets and be adventurous. What's the worse that can happen? ‘ Hmmm, when you disappear into the pitch black and you can't see the mouth of the cave anymore you start to imagine what might be in there with you. Spiders! Blasted things get everywhere. What do they live on in here? There's nothing!! or is there?)
John went a bit feral in the Jungle!
The Dark Cave entrance
We were the only tourists on the hike but had our own, guide, cook and park ranger - the upside of it not being hot meant it was good hiking weather, I don't think I would have enjoyed it in the searing heat. The Dark Cave, was, well dark, and involved a fair amount of scrambling over sharp rocks to get past the cave mouth. I ventured in but didn't want to go where we couldn't see the entrance, John and the guide strode off with head torches to the dark bits! I can't add anything to this. It was too dark to make any observations!!!! Advertised as the highlight of the tour is a swim in a cave lake, quite a bit of it is outside which makes me happy - now on a stinking hot day I imagine you would be running in eager to cool down, not so much on a chilly day in December, however having come this far we felt we had to do the thing, and the water did look a very inviting turquoise blue. Yes. Flippin cold which was only kept at bay by vigorous swimming and a fake merry Christmas shout at the video camera held by the wise guide who offered to stay dry and record this event for us. Of course he did, he knew how cold it was!
Lunch jungle style
So we made it back to civilisation at the end of the day - don't think Mr Park Ranger was very impressed though!
The last trip we went on was probably the most touristy but super fun. You get to visit Paradise caves which are massive caves recently found in 2005 by a local man, the stalagmites and stalactites are truly impressive, and make you feel quite insignificant as you gaze up at these giant formations- it is well set up for tourists with boardwalks and sensitive lighting , you are able to walk around 1km into the cave but they extend to 31km all told. The entrance to the cave is a tiny 2x2 m opening which reveals the cavernous interior. Quite stunning!
We have literally hundreds of photos of this cave, not one of which shows off its magnificence - so here are a few just to give you an idea
Then the fun really begins - an exhilarating Zip-line to the mouth of the cave, a short swim across the lake before checking head torches and heading off into the cave and the mud! Winding through narrow passage we slip and slide our way to a cavern which is one big mud bath, here you are literally knee deep in the slippery stuff and can lie down and sort of float in your mud bath - torches were turned off for a short while and the very odd feeling of being completely in the dark while lying in mud! Not sure I really liked that bit! We finish off with another swim to try and wash away mud - which it turns out we will be finding for days afterwards We had a great time in Phong Nha and if you heading to Vietnam definitely pay a visit.
View from the top of the zip wire - no photos of inside the cave, so you will just have to imagine the muddy fun!
Our trip to Vietnam is almost over just a couple more stops and Christmas to enjoy - coming soon (ish)