Sunday, 14 July 2013

Day Four and Five - Phong Nha Ke Bang - Vietnam

Our driver took us the twelve or so kilometres to Phong Nha Farmstay where we were to spend the next couple of nights. Jamie was very impressed that the car that drove us had an automatic horn - people who drive here use the horn as an indicator, a hello, a warning, a braking alert - pretty much everything. So he thought it was great that hyundai had made life easier by installing a horn that automatically sounds whenever a moped, human, buffalo, tree is within its path!

We arrived shortly after eight in the morning and were welcomed by reception. We sat down and enjoyed a full English breakfast - Vietnamese style with a mug of tea which was just what we needed after a twelve hour train journey with no food.

The Farmstay is situated in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park just between Dong Hoi on the coast and the border with Laos to the west. The park is one of the three world heritage sites in Vietnam along with Halong Bay and Hoi An (which we will visit in a few days). The park is home to a number of cave systems which have formed in the limestone rock including Hang Son Dong which was only recently discovered by a local and is the biggest cave in the world now. The area also played a huge role in the 'American War' as the two highways; Highway 20 and Ho Chi Minh Trail West that cross the park helped get troops and materials to the south of the country to fight the war on the southern side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) line just south of the park.

We decided to spend the first day at the Farmstay relaxing in their pool and catching up with some rest. The train journey and travels of the past few days had exhausted me and a trek or bike ride was too much (plus it was about 38 degrees!) Instead we sat and enjoyed our surroundings and booked a tour for the following day which would include biking, boating and swimming through some of the highlights of the park. We will be leaving the park for Hue the day after and decided to book a bus that stops off at some of the museums and highlights of the DMZ along the way. One of these include a village that was right on the DMZ border that moved itself 30 meters underground to avoid intense bombing from the Americans.

We got a really good nights sleep in our room at the Farmstay which we shared with a number of geckos that I didn't realise until now make noises like parrots! They were friendly and clean enough and were even polite enough to use the bathroom for their toilet needs (even if that did mean I had to dodge a few pollutions in the bathroom the following morning!) I guess it's no more than a mouse at the end of the day?

We had breakfast at the Farmstay where our guide for the day came and found us. We then went next door and picked out some bikes. They were a little strange at first as the handle bars seemed way too close (I guess they are made for smaller bodies) We set off from the Farmstay on our 20km ride in the heat. On the track we had to dodge lots of buffalo being moved around, the odd moped and loads of children who ran out of there houses to say hello and high five us all the way. Just around the first corner one of the local kids whipped me then another shot me with a catapult! I was a bit worried what else may occur on the trip when I was only two minutes in!

The beginning of our journey took us through field of rice paddies. Our guide informed us that Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of rice after Thailand. The south and the north of the country plant the most rice with not as much in the central regions as it is too dry. This year by the Farmstay they have decided not to plant the second crop because of the dryer than usual conditions in the region. In the south where it is hottest they plant three crops a year and in the north two as the winter is too cold for a third. We also learned that over 16,000 different varieties of rice are grown in Vietnam.

Our guide outlined the importance of family in Vietnam and how family comes first. You notice a lot as you drive and cycle around the country that there are large highly decorated tombs and graves dotted among fields in the most rural of areas. This is because families bury their loved ones in the paddies so that they are always close to them.

We carried on stopping at a local home for a cold drink and some more information from our guide. This area played a huge role in the Vietnam war and our guide provided us with information on how the war started and the affects it had upon the area.

We then crossed the river on a small wooden ferry to the north bank. Communism in Vietnam forced the minority catholic community in the country to relocate from the cities in the past. A large amount of them moved to this area just north of the river and you can see Catholic church's lining the river here.

About 7km further through rural villages and farms we arrived at a small war museum just near the entrance to the national park. A large statue stands outside the museum commemorating the youth soldiers from the area who played a huge part in the war. The girl to the right is also supposed to represent a member of the Soviet Union who supported the Vietnamese in the war and to whom they pay thanks to. Members of the youth army were between fifteen and twenty years of age. We heard many stories of mothers of local workers at the Farmstay who were members of the youth army.

We also learnt that 50 million tons of ammunition was dropped on Vietnam during the war. Thirty percent of this never went off and some still remains. There are still injured reported from unexplored bombs throughout the country. There have been over 102,000 deaths reported from unexploded bombs since the war though in reality the number is probably much higher but lots go unreported due to illegal hunting etc...

After baking in the museum we headed to a local family run restaurant in Pha Xuan Son for lunch where we ate some delicious Vietnamese dished. We then left our bikes and boarded dragon boats to sail along the Song Son river to one of the caves in the park. We entered the caves through a small gap in the side of some rock that you may not even notice if you passed. We went inside and started to make our way thought the 7km of cave.

The rock at the front of the cave has lots of scars from American missiles during the war. Locals used the cave for safety during the war to avoid being bombed. Schools, hospitals and floating villages were brought in so people could stay in there during intense times of fighting. The Americans tried to send missiles inside the cave but never succeeded.

Inside the cave there are huge stunning formations of stalagmites dating back centuries. It takes over 80 years for these formations to grow by just two centimetres! Vietnamese are scared of the dark so the caves are quite scary for them. They name lots of the rock formations after animals and religious characters that they look like to make good associations with the cave to make it less scary. We saw elephants, frogs a lady Buddha to name a few.

The discovery of the caves has brought tourism and increased wealth to the area. In 1992 when the founder of the Farmstay first moved to the area there were just 3000 people living in the area. People earned their money by digging for old shrapnel left from bombs and selling the scrap metal to the Japanese. The area was incredibly poor and over a few years 1000 people died in this small area from Malaria.

We went about two kilometres through the cave taking in all it's beauty before we couldn't go any further. The caves were recently explorer to the end by a team which took them over two days as it narrows so much towards the end.

After the caves we returned to our bikes stopping off for a coffee along the way. We returned to the Farmstay in the evening just in time to watch the sunset with some well earned dinner. The tour today was amazing and we learned so much about this beautiful region.


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