Day 28: Lost my glasses, cut my hair

We went to The Pub With Cold Beer. It was an adventure. We had to cycle there but there were 5 of us and only 4 proper bikes so we ended up taking three plus a tandem, obvs, that mode of transport famously designed for steep hills and rutted dirt tracks through the rice paddies. We were warned that it was quite the tough trek, that we’d need to cross a river, that the roads weren’t really “roads” yet. Tourism’s only just becoming A Thing in Phong Nha, the infrastructure isn’t quite sorted out. Yeah. Whatevs.

Mike gave us directions as a group, which nobody listened to because we got distracted by PUPPIES (infinitely cuter than directions). We had a map, anyway. And the navigational expertise I developed during my years as a sea captain in the British Navy back when I was young. What’s the problem?

We got lost in the rice paddies straight away, of course. It was inevitable. Luckily, my aforementioned navigational skills came into play and I was amazing. We got back on track, arses already killing from the bike seats. The scenery was stunning. People working in the fields, cows and buffalo mooching about by the sides of the roads, kids legging it down to to high-five us as we cycled past, calling out “Hellooooo” as soon as they spied us. At one point we had to cross a river on foot, pushing our bikes through the water and trying not to let the current push us over. It was shallow, just above the knees, but it was STRONG. True-blue adventuring.

When we finally got there, we almost cycled past the place. It wasn’t so much a pub as someone’s house with a huge porch, chickens in the front garden, a stone table and seats outside and a hand-written “The Pub With Cold Beer” sign. The girl didn’t speak any English but the beer was cold, and that was the most important thing at this point – it was after midday and HOT. We ordered some chicken using the international language of The Point and she killed it there and then, indicated we should come back in an hour. We rented an inner-tube and took it down to the river for a swim. Some Vietnamese people stopped on their scooter and took photos of us. By the time we got back I’d lost my glasses in the river, and all the money was missing from my fanny pack but I was too happy to care.

The girl had prepared a full meal for us: rice, Morning Glory fried with salt and garlic, crushed peanut paste and the chicken pasted with a piri-piri-style sauce. It was presented on a huge basket with banana leaves, and we ate cross-legged on cushions on the floor of the porch. It was the best and most delicious meal I’ve eaten so far, the closest we’ll come to eating in a Vietnamese home. Peanuts and rice, people. Get on it.

We got back bone-tired and sunburnt and blissfully happy, full of adventuring and beer and delicious food.

And had to immediately get a taxi to the station for the Overnight Devil Train to Hanoi. We arrived at 5am, got scammed by a taxi to the hostel, slept on sofas in the lounge and used ALL the free internetz. When the others were still asleep I wandered into the city, got some new glasses made up – not as good as my old ones but so cheap I got some prescription sunglasses as well. Maybe now I can tan the little white line in the middle of my forehead from where I’ve been squinting into the sun so much. SHUT UP! IT LOOKS COOL.

The hostel’s great but the people look at you weirdly when you cut your hair in the sink with scissors you bought for 30,000 dong from an old lady in the street. JEEZ GUYS. We’re in a 12-bed dorm, but it’s clean as anything and the people we’re sharing with are ace. We went out last night and one of the girls almost hit on a guy who turned out to be 18. Laughed so much I thought I might be sick.

I heard an excellent conversation yesterday morning in which a girl was asked to name an artist from the 80s. Her response was that she doesn’t know any artists from the 80s cos she wasn’t born then. “I was born in the 90s, I don’t know any music before 2000”. Bestworst thing ever.

Staying tonight and then tomorrow I’ll leave the girls to go to Cat Ba island for ROCK CLIMBING ADVENTURES. Get in.

PS/ I don’t really know what you’re supposed to write about on a travel blog so let me know if there are things I’m not writing about that I should be. Don’t tell me to write about the history of places, though. NO. You can’t make me.

Day 27: Phong Nha

It’s my last day at Phong Nha Farmstay and, even though it’s broken my budget, I’m gutted to have to leave. I’ve already stayed for one night and one tour more than I’d planned but I couldn’t help it, they made me, so cruel.

The farmstay’s in central Vietnam, at the country’s narrowest point with Laos on one side, the Gulf of Tonkin on the other, and right next door to the UNESCO-stamped Phong Nha National Park with it’s jungle-covered limestone mountains and blue-grey rivers and dark caves. The farmstay itself looks out onto rice paddies and mountains. It has a pool, hammocks, romantic dorms with mosquito net drapery, a rooftop terrace from where you can watch the sun set, and a fridgeful of cold beer. The staff are dead friendly, the food delicious, and the atmosphere sociable, fun, relaxed.

I’ve been on two tours, met some wicked people, had ALL of the available amount of fun. We walked through jungle, up mountains, descended into the rock through caves so huge your jaw hangs open a minute before you realise, shut it, glance around to check if anyone saw. We climbed the 524 steps to Paradise Cave and talked only in hushed voices once inside, reverent. We walked the Eco trail, swum in a cool Jungle river in the sun, jumped into the water from rocks, used waterfalls like rapids. We ate a traditional lunch on a beautiful bamboo hut over a river. We went back to a free beer and free popcorn, and everyone sitting in the restaurant or out front, listening to guitar music and chatting, swapping anecdotes and recommendations about tours, places to go, things to see. The next day I set off again – I’d been easily convinced that it’s a waste to come this far and do only one tour, so I stayed an extra night and booked an extra activity. I met more great people, saw more beautiful places. We biked to the river – I got a puncture, had to have a new bike delivered by motorbike – took a boat to Dark Cave, swam outside in the river and tried to dive to the bottom but I couldn’t quite reach – the pressure was too great. Inside the cave we walked a pathway through huge chambers and narrow crevices with rock heavy overhead and on each side, and clay-like mud squelching between our toes, each step a little fart greeted with giggles. We swam through the cave river, first with the light of our headlamps and on the way back in the pitch dark, all headlamps switched off, the sound of splashing and quiet giggles enormous in the dark. Bloody magical. Bloody awe-some.

I met a crazybrilliant Aussie woman named Symph and had the same Vietnamese guide for both tours. Symph left home one day to come travelling, wrote a note for her husband but didn’t tell him, not exactly. She’s in her 50s, tiny, firey, excitable, with a million hilarious anecdotes that all end up with her getting furious and shouting at some tout or taxi driver or shopkeeper. I suggested she write a book about her adventures. Callie suggested she call it “Around The World In 80 Rages”. It’s a hit waiting to happen. Look out for it, people.

Today we plan to go to The Chicken Place, which is all I heard about when I first arrived. You bike there, to a place called “The Pub With Cold Beer”. You choose your chicken from the yard then they kill it and cook it while you swim or go tubing in the river.

Tonight we get the night train to Hanoi. I, being stingy and off budget (mostly thanks to being ill – very costly in a country with no NHS), am getting a soft seat ticket whereas the American girls who’re also going are getting a sleeper. They’ll have a bed and some dinner and be able to sleep before we arrive in Hanoi at 5am tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that I should’ve paid extra to get a bunk. Damn my stinginess.

So, the next stop is Hanoi for a night and then to Cat Ba island for some rock climbing and a boat tour, and maybe Halong Bay. Not sure. See how it goes.

After that, I’m headed back to BKK. Then to Chiang Mai for Real Life and the CELTA, the reason I came in the first place. I worry. But first to enjoy some chicken.

Happy Wednesday folks.

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