Arrived: Sat 22nd July 2017 [Day11]
Departed: Mon 24th July 2017 [Day13]
Hostel: Heritage by Night
So, after arriving in Phong Nah by bus the night before, we gave ourselves a fully chilled day, waking up to no alarm and heading down for our free breakfast by the pool… One awesome thing about arriving somewhere new at night, is that when you wake-up, you see where you’ve arrived in daylight for the first time, it’s like going somewhere blindfolded to experience a big reveal in the morning.
We were a little apprehensive about where we were staying, as so, so so many people had told us the only place to stay was Easy Tigers, but, after going down for breakfast by the pool, and seeing our view, we were blown away and so damn happy we’d chosen this place! The back area consisted of a bar, tables, pool, deckchairs, and all looking out on a towering cliff face. It was stunning, we had no idea how we’d stumbled into this amazing find!
After showering, changing and putting in a load of clothes for washing, we decided to take a stroll around town/down the street and see what we could find… nothing. We found nothing. There is absolutely nothing to the “town” of Phong Nah apart from the tours you can take or go on yourself. We walked down to the river, where we found… not a lot, and then we decided it was time to look what our options were for tours.
We popped in a few places, but there were so many different options, and they were all pretty expensive (compared to everything else we’d spent in Vietnam – so far). We ended up going to Easy Tigers (the hostel) to see what they offered. After looking through their multiple folders, (and spotting a mini Welsh flag on the wall) we’d settled on 2 different options…
One was more of a family friendly, explore some caves, do some zip-lines, easy day type tour… the other was classed as “moderate” with a fair bit of “hiking” etc.… Alice obviously preferred the latter, but, she told me she was happy to do either, as she knows I seriously lack any level of fitness. But, as terrified as it made me, I agreed that we should do the harder one. Why spend all the money, just to spend the day lolling about, not really feeling like we’ve achieved anything? (Oh how I’d come to regret this decision). So, it was decided, we’d come back that night to book ourselves onto The Abandoned Valley Trek…
The guy at Easy Tigers suggested somewhere for us to eat, so back down the street we went and we stopped at D-Arts for one of the most amazing meals we had our whole trip! We both ordered the same dish, with slight variations (Alice went for the tofu-vegie option, I went for the pork). The dish was called Bun Cha, and, I really can’t explain how good they were… They were even presented beautifully! We were each given a platter with broth/soup with our filling choice (meat or tofu), loads of veg and leaves, noodles, sausage, and spring rolls, and of course we got a local beer to wash it all down with (no, it wasn’t even 1pm yet, but, we were on holiday folks!) After scoffing down (as much as we could) the incredible food, we made our way back to the hotel/hostel to spend the rest of the afternoon by /in the pool, reading books and drinking beer.. it was a pretty sweet day!
After collecting our washing back from the reception (in our dry bags WHICH THEY STAPLED THROUGH – only slightly furious), we headed to Easy Tigers to book the tour, find out more info, get some food at Geko (with some pretty cool chairs), and then we went back to Tigers for some beers to see what all the fuss was about… Honestly, we didn’t see it. I mean, yeah it was a nice place to chill, and maybe it would be different if we were sleeping there, but we didn’t stay for long and called it an early night to prepare for the events of the next day!
So, day 13 rolled around, and what a day it was. 13… unlucky for some? Yes, and that “some” would happen to be me. Obviously… So, up early, breakfast and packet yadda yadda. We made our way over to Easy Tigers, our meeting point for around 7.30/8am and there were a few of us waiting for our guide for the day, Dai. He collected us up and we hopped into a mini bus picking up a few more people along the way.
We were all ready (I was not ready) for our Abandoned Valley trek, which included:
- A 12km jungle trek on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
- Swim and explore in the Hang E cave
- A BBQ lunch
- Climb and explore of the Hang Toi
The trip cost us around 1,350,000vnd (roughly £45), which felt like an insane amount of money for us after how cheap everything had been so far. But, we knew there were going to be a few things we would have to be willing to splurge on, and this was one of them…
I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, because it said that there would be moderate/difficult fitness level stuff, and I 100% do not even have an average fitness level… but, I was willing to give it my all and enjoy the day no matter what! We had a briefing, got given some water each which came in huge heavy army style canisters, signed our lives away, introduced ourselves and were able to swap our shoes for some of their very fetching *cough-cough* converse style, super grip shoes to save ours getting trashed.
There were 13 people in our group (and they were the only people we saw our on whole trip):
- 2 Welsh (us)
- 2 German (a couple)
- 3 French (a couple and friend?)
- 3 Dutch (friends – yes, even more Dutch!)
- 1 Indian/Australian
- 1 American
- 1 Chinese (the American & Chinese were your standard couple)
After a bus ride into the national park (bumpy would be an understatement), we stopped off on the side of the road and started our assent (yep, uphill right away) into the Jungle. I was starting to struggle, but I powered through and made it, thankfully we were going at a good pace and stopping every so often for Dai to tell us some facts about the jungle. We got a great view over the canopy before heading into the jungle where we soon realised we were going to get EATEN ALIVE, like, no joke, it was insane. The air was thick with teeny tiny bugs wanting to munch on our flesh… (Alice’s legs after this trip were insane, that poor girl got bitten so bad through her thick running leggings, my shoulders and back also felt like brail for a few days.)
After around an hours walk we came to the Hang E Cave where we were given snacks (chocolate biscuits and bananas), and some time to rest and change into swim stuff with a lifejacket and helmet onto… We were looking damn sexy. Our helmets had torches attached to the front, and we were instructed to take our shoes off. So, into the freezing water we went in just our swimsuits, lifejackets and helmets, and we were soon unable to reach the floor, so we swam into the mouth of the dark and cold cave… I’ve never really swam with a lifejacket on, and I was surprised at how difficult it actually was! Dai was telling us some facts about the national park and the cave while we continued to swim with only our head torches to guide us. We kept swimming for around 10/15 minutes (300m?) and he then asked us all to turn our lights off and be quite.
It was so, so cool just floating there, weightless in the absolutely pitch black cave. I LOVE sitting in complete darkness for some reason, and it was as close to being in a sensory-deprivation tank as I’ll ever get, I recon! Me and Alice were holding onto each other so as not to get lost, Alice is not a fan of the dark, so she wasn’t loving it as much as me, but eventually we all put our torches back on, and we’d all completely lost any sense of direction we previously had… also, me and Alice had somehow floated way away from the group and were by the wall! We were all trying to figure out which way we’d come in, and the Indian/Aussie guy (who was so damn chatty and know-it-all-ie) said “I know, we came that way, but I bet you’ll take us that way. I know it.” We most definitely did not come from that way… Dai put in him in his place!! So, out we swam and changed into our clothes again. We were given warm tea/coffee to warm us up again after the cold water while we prepared for the next part of our trek. (Also, I got some serious horrendous foot cramp while we were swimming out of the cave! I had to keep stopping and stretch it out with my hand, and then I smashed it against a rock in the process… the start of Charlie’s downfall…)
After downing more water than I thought was humanly possible, we started our walk up/along the river where we had to be careful of poison ivy, so, we were told we had to wear long sleeves (waterproofs/windbreakers were all we had with us), which felt like we were walking and trekking in plastic bags, so the sweat was pouring off us even more than would be classed as normal in a tropical humid jungle in July… I felt like I was in a constant (losing) battle trying to get more water into my body than I was expelling out of it. After a fair walk through the jungle and river we came to Hang Toi Cave (Dark Cave), where we sat at the mouth (my head starting to get really bad and poundy), and were given an amazing food buffet of make your own fresh spring rolls. It was cooked and laid out by some of the tour guys. They laid down a massive sheet of plastic and down the centre they put bundles of BBQ pork, rice noodles, fresh veg and greens, tofu and some other bits and bobs. We were then given two different types of dip (coriander heavy, yum for me, terrible for Alice), and our rice paper sheets to get rolling! I was feeling pretty crap, so unfortunately I was only able to eat a couple, but they were bloody good (one of my top meals of the trip – it was also a pretty surreal experience sitting on a plastic sheet at the mouth of this huge cave in the middle of the jungle)…
So, not only had I drank more water than I’d ever thought possible, my foot was hurting and slightly cut from where I hit it on a rock, my head was pounding like mad, I was starting to get a little shaky, and to top it all off, the shoes they had given us were rubbing like hell on my ankles/leg and basically slowly cutting me through friction with every step I took… (I still have the marks).
Then it was time to start our adventure into the cave! We were given our helmets with torches on again, and this time we were given some gloves (like climbing/gardening gloves) because apparently the limestone (maybe?) has been eroded into very sharp points in some areas of the cave.
We went in, scrambling over and on rocks into the darkness. The assistant guy ended up helping me quite a bit bless him, he could tell I was a liability and was never far away from me or without his eye on me for long… I like to pride myself on my scrambling abilities, but, they failed me that day… I’m not sure if it was a mix of how I was feeling (wobbly, dehydrated, and nervous), or just that we were heading into a pitch-black cave at quite a high at some points and I tend not to trust myself (even on stairs I get wary of my legs sometimes…)
We went in for around 700m and then stopped when we hit a point where it was just water. Dai told us that when it floods bad, the cave is full, almost to the top, with water and although the cave does continue on to another exit, we would require special equipment to dive, swim and climb to reach it. (As we were sat there it felt like I was back in the slate mines of North Wales!) We sat there in the dark for a bit, just chatting or allowing ourselves to experience the silence of the cave, and we eventually headed back out the way we came, and my head started to pound again, with full force.
Off we went for our final trek back to the bus, and this is where I let myself down… The first part was fine, it was just through the jungle, like, flat surface, just stepping over roots and rocks, marvelling at the jungle and trying not to get eaten alive… But then we started the 1 hour and 50 minute ASSENT to the top… This is where things got messy… for me, obviously, no one else had an issue.
My head was fucking killing me, I was downing as much water as I could, I was over heating and getting bitten to fuck, I slowed down, I struggled, I stopped, I tried my hardest not to, but I did actually cry, and Alice stuck with me at the back. We stopped for ages, started up again, just to stop a few meters on/up for me to try and breath like a normal human and allow my head to settle (I could not do either of these things)… We eventually caught up to the group where everyone was waiting and watching… It was absolutely humiliating… Everyone was pretty nice to me about it though, the Dutch girls asked if I needed to use their inhaler, someone else offered me water and food, others asked if I’d had this sort of “attack” before, and Dai used his shirt to fan me and tried to cool me down.
The porters took my bag and led everyone on while Alice and Dai helped me along… I felt so fucking awful, embarrassed, annoyed, frustrated and like I’d really let Alice down and spoilt her day… This is what she loved doing, and I was here messing it up for her… It killed me just as much as that bastard hill. Mt. Kinabalu, Boneo all over again.
With Dai helping me (basically holding my hand the whole way as I silently wept and tried to breathe) we finally made it to the top and back to the short scramble down towards the bus. I knew for a fact that everyone would be sitting there, waiting for us, ready to congratulate me on finishing… I was dreading it, it was going to be so patronising and even more humiliating… So, I asked Dai to let go of my hand so I could reach the end on my own, at least allow me that small piece of dignity… And, sure enough, as we reached the road everyone was sat around drinking beer and they all broke into applause for me… It was terrible.
The girls were sweet though and were asking how I was feeling and if there was anything they could do to help… At the start of the trip we’d had to select which drink we wanted when we completed the day, I’d obviously chosen beer (free beer, always), but I knew I couldn’t drink a beer at that time, so I gave mine to someone else as I continued to try and catch my breath and get more water into my body… (Me turning down free beer really showed Alice something was not right…)
Back onto the bus (really not a good time for me), back to the base where we filled in a review form, changed shoes and were then driven back to the main strip and dropped off at our hostels… I was still feeling humiliated and embarrassed about my breakdown, I also still wasn’t 100%, so I hardly spoke as we got to our hotel/hostel, stripped off into our swim stuff again, and got into the pool… My god it was needed, it was so fucking needed. We had the pool to ourselves and I just floated about with my head back in the water, allowing it to slowly return to its normal non throbbing self… Eventually a load of people were popping out their windows and decided to join us (very loudly) in the pool… So, we got out, grabbed our bags from reception (I forgot to mention we’d already checked out that morning, so technically we were no longer guests at the hotel, but we still used their pool and facilities, rebels ey…), we changed in the bathrooms and then headed out to Bamboo for some cheesy chips (after using google images to confirm which type of cheese – American crap or proper cheese), yet another massive bottle of water and a lie down (yes we lay down on the sofa chairs in a restaurant)… I took my sweet ass time eating the chips as I still wasn’t feeling the best, but they were so good and so needed… We eventually had to get up, grab our bags from the hotel, and moved ourselves to a sofa at a different location to wait for the night bus…
I apologised to Alice for messing up the last half of the day, and told her how embarrassed I was by the whole thing… she was good about it, obviously (I mean, she’s known me since I was born so she’s a pretty understanding gal’), and she said she’s seen a lot of unfit people struggle with exercise (in her line of work, of course she has), but what she saw in me was not just a lack of fitness, she said it must be something else and that she was actually a bit concerned about it. We agreed that I should get myself checked out at the doctors when I have chance in the UK, and finally, after a long wait, our bus arrived and we managed to nab ourselves the bottom row at the back (3 seats/beds). We pretended to be asleep in the hope that we wouldn’t have to share it! No such luck, obviously, we ended up with a German (?) dude next to me, and thankfully he was fine! Not the chatty Cathy we had on our previous night bus! Just after 10pm we were finally on our way, but some super tall guy, bless him, was given a foam mat and told to sleep in the isle! I mean, it was probably the only way he was going to be able to stretch out fully, but still… not cool, poor dude!