(August 7th) We woke, washed and jumped straight into the taxi that would take us via the Marble Mountains on our way to Da Nang. After a couple of hours on the road, our driver dropped us in front of a workshop shop full of marble trinkets and sculptures and told us, via Google Translate, that we were at the entrance to the “clinic”. Before getting out of the taxi we tried to explain that we would be back at 1 p.m.
It was hot, humid and sticky outside. We discovered the entrance to the mountain was across the street, where you could either buy a ticket that lets you in the elevator, or a cheaper ticket for the stairs. I chose the stairs, and was drenched with sweat by the time I caught up to Lily at the top of the elevator.
The mountain was a mix of steep steps and rocky scrambles leading to lookout points, dotted with functioning pagodas and monasteries, and several caves containing spiritual sculptures and shrines. One cave was spectacular, with a large golden buddha, shrines, statues, candles and incense around a large opening in the mountain. Worth the climb, just for that, but we were both pretty exhausted from the heat outside. Scaling the very top of the mountain provided us with a nice view, but the novelty was lessened by the close, damp air. Lily got angry, I think at the heat, but maybe at me too.
On the way down the mountain, I helped two very cute, old, Vietnamese ladies on the steeper stairs, which don’t have handrails. The 65+ year old was helping the 70+ year old down the larger steps, taking them slowly and carefully, so I was some welcome security for them both.
At the bottom, we looked around for our taxi, and, not finding him, went to a restaurant across the road. We called the hostel in Hoi An to ask them to call the driver, and eventually were reunited with him and our bags. We got to the Da Nang train station with time to spare, especially as our train was delayed by an hour.
When it arrived, it was a 12-carriage, blue and white thing that cut its way through the jungle along the coast. Immediately leaving Da Nang we passed a gorgeous mix of coves, bays, white beaches, and rich, plush jungle foliage on the banks of the rocky hillsides we snaked along. We passed through tunnels, flinched from the mid-afternoon sun, and saw the city recede into the distance. Our right side hugged the sea, our left side faced a wall of leaves, and, every now and again, a view of the mountain ridge that followed the coast.
One we’d left the mountain range we travelled inland through farm country, covered in dragon fruit cacti, rice fields and more graves. Over our heads, a flatscreen TV showed a mix of kids shows, telenovelas, comedies and science programs. Our cabin was a “soft seat” 2nd-class carriage, at the far back of the train. We haven’t experienced a “hard” seat yet, which is probably for the best. Around us we were surrounded by people on holiday, several from Hong Kong, others from Europe, but the majority were Vietnamese. Several train attendants made the rounds with snacks, drinks, meat, rice and veg, and plain boiled corn, which they called “maíz”, just like in Spanish. I got an inexplicable longing for it the moment I saw what it was – perhaps I do have just a bit of homesickness for Colombia.
The farm houses we passed were discolouring in the wet heat. Tiled, pointy roofs over concrete, boxy structures, small windows, and little touches that made them cuter than the country shacks you see back in Colombia. They were cared for, proud somehow. Larger homesteads (equivalents to the Colombian hacienda) had neat, simple gardens with colourful plants.
The rest of the landscape was an endless sea of green rice fields, broken up by a mix of wedding cake pagodas, wild jungle outcrops, sudden bamboo patches and power lines. That, plus the family tombs. Vietnamese farmers seem to not mind at all burying their loved ones in marble mausoleums right in the middle of their fields, only somewhat sheltered by foliage. Tracks around them show where tractors have detoured, and where arable farmland has been lost to the burials. Eventually, the light dipped and we could no longer see our surroundings, so I took the opportunity to write some notes before returning to my book.
We met a couple of backpackers at the Dong Hoi station who’d been on our train. They were going to a hostel in Phong Nha, about a 10 minute drive from our hotel, The Chay Lap Farmstay, so we jumped in with them. At the hotel, we had a beer and went to sleep on our beautifully decorated honeymoon bed.
(August 8th) The Chay Lap Farmstay was a large, neat and expensive hotel, with a bar next to the pool, neatly trimmed hedges and concrete paths leading out to the cabins. It was surrounded by mountains, quiet and full of other travellers on their way to or from the caves.
We had a full day at the hotel, so we rested by the pool and chatted with fellow adventurers, including Jelle (“yella”), a 32-year-old LinkedIn employee who’d just come back from the Son Doong 4 day trip, who was pretty well travelled, did a lot of outdoorsy stuff, and used his inexhaustible jokes and stories to a point I found annoying, I think because he reminded me of me.
Jelle told us about Oxalis. The company had a monopoly on tours into certain caves in the region, which weren’t open to the general public, partly to protect the caves and partly for safety reasons. They also owned the Chay Lap Farmstay. Neither the tours nor the hotel were cheap, so it was good to hear that they were a nice company, using international caving experts to explore the area and research, but teaching local cavers how to safely lead caving expeditions, while training the locals in sustainable development and tourism.
It sounds like the kind of thing a foreign company might be doing, but Oxalis was started by a local guy from Phong Nha, who’d previously worked in corporate social responsibility. His partners include two British caving experts that had discovered Hang Son Doong, the local celebrity cave, famous for being the largest cave in the world. Pretty much every other employee is a local, mainly from Phong Nha, Dong Hoi and Tấn Hoa village.
A note on sustainability – the local government had plans to build a cable car system that would enter the Son Doong cave (it really is that big, you could stack several jumbo 747s inside it). Oxalis has been fighting against this, trying to protect these beautiful caves and their ecosystems from mass tourism. They even limit their own impact, despite how much money they make from each tourist; we were charged around $750 for our tour, but Son Doong visitors pay $3,000. To put this in perspective, $3,000 would get you about 12,000 cans of beer at your local grocery store. It’s the USA cost of living equivalent of about $24,000 USD. Per tourist. And yet, despite the vast amount they could charge us, Oxalis has self-imposed a limit of just 20 tourists visiting Son Doong per week.
That evening we were brought to Phong Nha by Mo, the bubbly, attractive manager at Chay Lap who Jelle had taken a fancy to. Lily and I acted as wingmen. Along the way we picked up Tao and Stephanie, two other Oxalis employees. The idea was to do Karaoke, but at the first place we went we couldn’t get English songs to play, the second place we couldn’t get the karaoke machine to switch to English, so we went to get a coffee at Tree Huggers cafe, where Lily and I also bought a linen rug for our sofa made by the Thai Minority in the north of Vietnam, and a linen wallet for a friend.