Exploring the Caves of Phong Nha | Vietnam

When looking at the map of Vietnam, we were alarmed by the fact our next stop along the coast would be in Hue and actually quite far down the country, pretty much close to the centre. We weren't ready to venture that far south yet, knowing there was more of the North of the country to explore, so after perusing the Lonely Planet we settled on heading to Phong Nha.

Phong Nha is further in land, close to the Laos border and also home to the world's largest caves. It's truly a magical place, but also quite a dangerous one with the most unexploded ordnance per square mile in the world! The cliff faces and mountains of Phong Nha national park were blown apart by bombs during the Vietnam/American war, and you are not allowed to explore the park on your own because of safety. It's a place with a lot of history and one we knew we were going to absolutely love.

We arrived in Phong Nha at about 5am, I had booked into a homestay in the closest town, where the bus drops you off. Our homestay was full when we arrived, but our hosts gave us their beds (!!!) in the front of the property and we managed to get a few more hours shut eye before checking in properly. The village consists of one small stretch of road that is basically just hostels and a few restaurants/cafes. There's seriously not much going on, but we knew we wouldn't be sticking around after we'd visited the national park so no big issue.

We decided to book a tour to the park, instead of doing it ourselves, having not really spent the money on a tour for a while, we wanted a bit of ease and to be shown around instead of fumbling ourselves. It's nice not to have to think about all the organisation sometimes. There's lots of different experiences you can pick from, but we decided to do a day trip which took us to the botanic gardens, then to see the 'Paradise Cave' which up until 2009 was thought to be the largest cave in the world, stretching 35km long, if my memory serves me correctly. If you're wondering where the actual largest cave in the world is, well it's next door. That's why this area is so special because so little is known about it, it's so untouched and undiscovered. Anyway, we walked up and up and up the side of a cliff face, to reach the entrance of Paradise Cave - named as such because it really is magical in there, the lighting compliments the structures beautifully and it's quite something to behold, especially when you think about how long the caves have been there, developing over hundreds of thousands of years.

After a walk through the first kilometre through the cave and back, it was time for lunch. We sat and made rice paper rolls in big groups which gave us all a good chance to swap travelling stories and have a good chat. I was conscious not to eat too much as we knew that after lunch wed be zip lining across the most vibrant, bright blue, jewel coloured lake into the Dark Cave, which we had to swim to and then get into the most ridiculous mud bath ever. When swimming to the cave, I thought the water would be opaque but it was the clearest water I've ever been in. And ready with our tunneling hard hats, we entered the cave. It was in all honesty a claustrophobic nightmare, squeezing through tight walls that as we ventured deeper and deeper through, got more and more slippery with mud. It sounds disgusting, and it was but because of the natural minerals of the mountains, it was pure and clean mud with no smell. We eventually got to what I can only describe as an opening that looked like it had tons and tons of melted Dairy Milk, so thick you could sit in it and not sink. It was quite an experience.

On the way out we slithered over to a mud slide that ended up in one of the pools where we could clean off and head back out and canoe back round to where we first zip lined across the water. This was all rounded off with a celebratory beer on the coach back to town. And you can bet we slept like absolute rocks that night after chowing down on some good grub at the Bamboo Cafe, which was next door to our homestay. Seriously good Vietnamese food, washed down with a couple of Bia Hanois.

We left the next day to head to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam to continue our journey south, where it was quite quickly getting warmer and sadly getting harder to eat bowls of boiling hot Pho.

Trekking in Sapa | Vietnam

With eight days in Vietnam's bustling capital under our belt, getting stuck into the cuisine and trying to get used to that traffic (!) we were ready to spread our wings. Two of the most popular jumping points from Hanoi are cruising through Ha Long Bay (and Cat Ba Island) and trekking in Sapa; we very much had intentions of doing both trips. But bearing in mind the weather in Hanoi left much to be desired, and want of some thicker clothing, we were struggling to decide. The cruise trips to Ha Long Bay didn't really seem to suit the current weather, it was raining, cold, overcast and quite foggy so we essentially decided that we'd give it a miss on that basis. I love me some limestone crags but if I can't see them and the water in the bay is freezing, it's probably not going to be the best experience. But then whisperings of the current temperature in Sapa (north of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border) being 4c amongst the backpackers in the Old Quarter was enough to give you a cold just thinking about it.

Eventually we decided to brave it and soon found ourselves on an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the nearest train station to Sapa town. Having done multiple buses and trains and minibuses and taxis by this point, we weren't expecting much for this journey, but we were pleasantly surprised when we saw the wooden train carriage had a little table and lampshade. It was all very twee and actually very comfortable. We arrived at 6am and jumped straight into a minibus for a further 1 hour. The bus dropped us in the centre of town and it was FREEZING. Like seriously winter cold. We quickly huddled into a hole in the wall and had a massive hot steaming bowl of chicken pho. Never had soup been so well received in all of the history of the world. We decided to recoup in a hotel while we caught up on some sleep and er, defrosted so we could approach some trekking the next day having rested well.

We'd heard along the road that the best experience you can get in Sapa is not by booking a trekking and homestay tour but by basically seeking the experience out yourself and swerving the tour companies. Lonely Planet advises against it, because apparently not everyone is licensed... but I can't think of a time when anyone ever has needed a license to allow people to stay in their own home. I was a little dubious, not wanting to get in trouble or anything but we stuck to our guns and bypassed the tour operators.

So how did we go about finding one of the hill tribe women that would guide us through the mountains, and who exactly were we looking for? Why were we even here? People go to Sapa for the stunning scenery through the mountains just on the border to China. There are hill tribes and villages throughout the valleys of the mountains, a few kms outside of Sapa town and the women of the villages come into town to pick up tourists and sell their wares daily. It's a big tourist trade, some people go for day treks, some for a few days worth of trekking and some for homestays. So after a nap, we went into town to find a woman. It was scary. And we didn't know what we were doing, like at all, but as we gazed over to the mountains the most lovely woman made her way towards us for a chat. With impeccable English, Xao, asked if we wanted to go trekking so we said yes, and asked if we could do a homestay and she said yes, and as quickly as the conversation started it was over - we'd arranged to meet the next morning at 9:30am to start our day of trekking. All she had was our word that we would be there, so she gave us a woven bracelet each which I guess was a kind of incentive to make sure we came back.

Bright and early we set off to meet Xao, after another hearty and bone-warming bowl of Pho to set us up for a day of walking. Although I don't think we really realised quite how much walking would be involved. And the relief of making the decision to leave our main bags at the guesthouse we stayed at became immediately apparent, because the sun was OUT. Clear blue skies and 26c - we were sweltering within the first 10 minutes. As we traversed, because that really is the best way to describe it, through the valley, through tiny winding, rocky paths, down slopes, and literally on the edge of rice terraces, we took in our surroundings and chatted with our guide. We ended up walking for six hours with a mere 30 minute stop for lunch. So you can believe me when I tell you that by the time we reached our guide's village Lao Chai, we were knackered. Shay and I discussed it and we definitely walked over 10k, perhaps even 15k, and yes, we ached all over at the end. We stayed in our guide's cousin's house, complete with it's own vegetable patch and a group of cheeky, inquisitive and insanely intelligent children.

Shay and I showered and settled in by watching the sun set over the mountains - at which point the temperature promptly plummeted so that we could see our breath, quite a difference from the day we had, clambering through the valley in the heat. Our host recruited us to help pick veggies for dinner from the garden followed by prepping the various parts of dinner, including but not limited to stir fried runner beans, fried spring rolls, ginger chicken and beef and green pepper. When the food was ready and we sat down together - Xao, our host, about 6 children, Shay, myself and a lovely Dutch girl staying there as well, we were treated to a shot of home brew rice wine before our meal which we shared with the adults. After a quick prayer - the family we were with were practising Catholics - we dug in, with a small individual bowl of rice, the etiquette was to just reach over and take whatever bit of food you wanted, a way in which we've never eaten before and we pretty much ate until the food was gone. It was great and so nice to be treated like family at the table as we laughed and ate together - a true homestay experience. After dinner, it was sprung on us that we'd be babysitting for our host and her husband, while they popped into town for an hour or so. Quite daunting, especially with you know, the language barrier and all but the kids were all keen to show off their English skills by singing us songs and writing their names on paper for us. The best bit however had to be seeing how engrossed they were when we showed them all our pictures on instagram, which provided us a good hour of entertainment but before long it was bed time, although we were definitely more tired than the kids, and we settled into bed ready for our trek the next day back to Sapa.

After the arduous 10-15km hike the day before, Shay and I were keen to take a less demanding walk, and so Xao obliged, taking us on the quicker 6km steep uphill walk back to town. And although it was very steep the ease of walking on road allowed us to keep our eyes off the ground and on the stunning scenery. And it was at a stop point where we took a break that I became truly speechless at everything I was seeing, with my own eyes. I hope I never ever forget that feeling of awe and wonderment.

The walk back still took us a couple of hours but it was calm and serene and just beautiful. Upon waving Xao goodbye, we headed back to our guesthouse to retrieve our bags and get some well-earned sleep in the electric-blanket covered beds before booking a bus back to Hanoi for the next day to really begin our journey travelling down the length of Vietnam. Our trip to Sapa was definitely one of my highlights of the whole trip, it was worth all the effort of getting there and the frightening night time temperatures just to see those mountains.

Just as a side note, we paid US $20 each for a day of trekking and our homestay plus a tip. I believe tours through companies cost the same, but this way the money goes directly to the people.