Riding from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha, my offended digestive system calmed down at the same rate as my surroundings. The forest thinned, the river gorges shallowed, and the mountains gave way to the bizarre, dark spires of karst country. Shooting vertically from the flat ground, the landscape resembled an enormous graveyard, or something straight from Tolkein’s imagination. Despite the high drama above ground, the real action here is beneath the surface – where limestone and running water meet, there will be caves. In the case of Phong Nha, they are absolutely immense.
The caves have been known to the locals for generations, but have only been explored in earnest in the past fifteen years. Hang Son Doong was first surveyed by a British research team in 2009, and was quickly declared the largest known cave on the planet. It is big enough to have its own small jungle, river and localised weather system – clouds can form inside it and spill out from its mouth. Its primary cavern is over 5km long, 200m high and 150 wide, with an 80m high stalagmite. Using the more popular reference of Olympic swimming pool equivalents, is that it is large enough to swallow a NYC block, or to fly a 747 through. Unfortunately, it is not an easy place to get to, and the US$3000 price tag was beyond my range.
Instead I consoled myself with the more easily accessible, smaller sibling of Hang Son Doong, Paradise Cave. I arrived at 7.30am, while the crowds were still in town munching through bun cha and banana pancakes, and aside for a few maintenance crew had the place completely to myself. It is tastefully lit and carefully presented, and I slowly walked the 1500m boardwalk slack-jawed at the size of the caverns and the grotesque beauty of its formations. It is simply stunning, and despite the number of caves that I have visited through Asia on this trip, nothing else I have seen compares to it. Because of its enormity, it is hard to imagine that Hang Son Doong could be so much bigger – the scale is just too difficult to comprehend. To finish off my tourist pass, I joined a group of four motorbike-riding New Yorkers who were on an express visit to Phong Nha cave. This one is accessed by boat by an underground river, and although it is beautiful in its own right, the blatant commercialism and money-grabbing involved in getting to it takes away from the experience.
Heading north from Phong Nha, it quickly became obvious that the peaceful roads and wilderness of Ho Chi Minh Highway had come to an end. For the next three days I followed the dreaded National Highway 1A, weaving through Vinh, Ninh Binh, to Halong Bay and then Hanoi. While the roads are in generally good condition, they are absolutely filthy and are besieged by kamikaze truck drivers, air-horn blasting buses, and a several million overloaded motorbikes. Initially, I complained loudly inside my helmet about the choking dust that was turning my lungs into vacuum cleaner bags, and how a bit of moisture would be nice to settle it down. Prayers answered, the heavens opened and a three day deluge began. The trucks became aqua-planning water craft still moving at the same speed, and I gave up any pretence of being clean or dry. Early morning on the second day, a pig truck sloshed effluent all over my left side at an intersection. While I was busy screaming a mouthful of invective after him, the one behind it roared through a puddle and washed me down in chocolate-coloured water. I seriously considered abandoning the bike by the roadside and flagging down one of the buses that had been trying to kill me. It rained all of the way to Ha Long – nearly 9000km.
Vinh had little to offer except a hot shower and a chance to hang my rancid clothes up on makeshift clotheslines around my room. I stepped out late and tired looking for some quick easy food, and arrived at a little roadside food house with its outside, child-sized plastic tables and chairs. After five minutes of charades with a waitress, I still had no idea what food was on its way, so I buried myself in maps and tried to find a better path for the day ahead. The Vietnamese are hospitable to a fault, and they can’t bear to see a man eating alone. Over then next ten minutes, every table sent a representative to greet me and invite my company. I really wanted bed instead of a party, so politely declined each offer and went back to my maps. The adjacent table had a group of older men, better dressed, with heads bent in a quiet, intense conversation. Waiting until the end for their turn, they also sent a delegate to invite me into their group. When I politely turned them down they picked up their stools and food and joined mine. It seemed like I wasn’t going to get out of this lightly.
In Vietnam it customary and respectful to toast friends and strangers with tumblers of locally made rice wine. And so I began a reluctant series of shots, with every person on the table, each swallow distancing me further from my hotel room and sleep. I’d seen this hooch getting distilled on the road sides on may way into town. It’s rough on the throat and a recovering stomach, and at nearly 50% is potent enough to fuel an helicopter. At the end of six shots, I was quietly congratulating myself for surviving, but my heart sank when each offended member of the neighbouring tables came across for a handshake, some wobbly English and their chance to drink to my failing health. After a further 12 or 15 tumblers of noxious moonshine, my stomach lining was threatening a mutiny, and my eyes were starting to bulge. But I had survived, and dinner, I was assured, was on its way.
Most unfortunately, it is also customary to smoke with friends and strangers. In the north of Vietnam, the tobacco is harsh and unrefined, and mellowed by drafting it through bamboo pipe bongs. I’m not a smoker, so the drag that I took for fear of further offence ripped off the back of my skull like a deep sniff of bleach. With a belly full of hooch and a rush of neat nicotine racing through my veins, I had to hang onto the edges of the table for five minutes to keep myself from falling the eight inches onto the floor.
I was dazed and dizzy, so that when the plate of fried scorpions came out, I wasn’t sure that they were actually real. As long as my hand, and as thick n the abdomeen as my thumb,the scorpions are imported from Laos and are an expensive delicacy, reserved for special occasions or for the wealthy. It seemed that I was sitting with a select group, and the curiosity and envy of all of our neighbours brought them crowding around us. Had I been sober I probably could have come up with an escape plan, but I was still supporting myself against the table, so there was little chance of being able to leg it to safety. As a mark of courtesy, the elder member of my table placed the biggest one in front of me, and then waited respectfully, hands clasped. This was obviously a huge honour, and with thirty set of eyes watching the quivering tips of my chopsticks, I picked up my massive arachnid and held it in front of me. My dimmed wits scanned for options at a glacial pace. Bed and dinner seemed like they belonged on a distant planet, and the tension in the room mounted with each passing moment. The bank of ideas was empty, and so holding my breath and trying not to touch anything with my lips, I bit off a claw and began to chew. The tension dissolved like humidity with rain, and the rest of the table reached for their own and hopped in with gusto. The crowd still crowded, watching with jealous eyes. It took maybe ten minutes of teeth grinding and kharmic control to finish my enormous insect. It swam around in my stomach in an angry, turbulent sea of rice wine, smoke and inflammation. I tried to settle the nausea by blinking tightly and concentrating on my breathing. I was beginning to win the battle when I looked up to see my gracious host reach for the last scorpion on the plate, and in an overwhelming sign of respect, put it in front of me. Already rice wine toast were being poured to congratulate the entrée. Thirty sets of anxious eyes fixed again on my plate and I wondered how I was ever going to get through this night.
After what seemed like hours my dinner arrived. A skinny, wilted cabbage-relative floating in a vacant broth. It really wasn’t anything as substantial as I hoped, but it did help to rinse the chitin from my teeth. Not that I got to eat much with all of the respectful rice wine toasting in my honour. In the middle of my umpteenth cheers, the waitress assumed I was finished and carried it away while I looked after it with anguished eyes. My host finally helped me escape, and supported me as I wobbled on legs like Olive Oyl’s and a belly full of strange noises. He bought me a drink at a café while I slumped in my chair leaning against a wall, and told me that I was lucky indeed to have been invited to the table of the Black Social. It made little sense to me in the state I was in, but he went on to explain that the Black Social is the Vietnamese mafia, and I had been treated as a respected guest. Apparently half of my dinner mates had handguns tucked away in their clothes. I can’t be certain if this is truth (my later Google searches only turned up dating sites urging me to register immediately) or the drunken boasting of an equally drunk man. Afterwards, he drove a weaving path to my hotel at a half walking pace, nose to the steering wheel. I crawled into a bed that tilted and spun, dreaming that I was being stung and clawed from the inside.
The remaining trip to Hanoi was unpleasant riding at best. I stopped for an impressive canoe trip at Tam Coc, getting paddled 7km on mirror topped water by a young woman using her feet. I also joined a day trip on Halong Bay. The people I went with were great, but the trip itself was just the sort of rushed clipboard itinerary daytrips that I have grown to detest. But with the time budget that I had, there was little option if I wanted to get onto the water.
Finally I arrived in Hanoi. A cool change, and cool city compared to the sweltering madness of Ho Chi Minh. I surprised myself by being quite happy to immerse myself in cramped living space of an inner city backpacking hostel; content amongst the snoring bodies and stinking feet, and free off the isolation of the past three weeks. It felt like I had rejoined society.
Stage 6: Khe Sanh – Phong Nha – Vinh – Ninh Binh – Ha Long – Halong (995km)
NB: Header picture courtesy of National Geographic