We arrived into Dong Hoi about 4pm, the evening was encroaching and our taxi driver picked us up. We were heading for Ben and Bich’s Phong Nha Farmstay, a relatively new hostel-like accommodation that had rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. We were headed to the area to see Paradise Cave, an enormous newly opened cave that looked simply incredible.
It took about an hour to get from Dong Hoi to the farmstay, through quiet rural roads, past rice paddies that were being harvested, and water buffalo grazing. We turned left down a narrow road, alongside towers of drying rice plants and a local community playing volleyball, stopping briefly to pick up Ben’s son, then onwards to our accommodation.
With our great big red and blue backpacks, we stumbled out of the van. Pawel greeted us, “Why did you bring so much beer? We have beer!”. Inside music played from an iPod hooked up to some loudspeakers, two guys were rearranging a set of whiteboards where tomorrow’s tours were being posted and the place was full of people. Lounging on sofas, playing pool, drinking beer, playing volleyball in the small pool at the rear. It oozed a welcoming, party vibe.
Our room was modest. A bed with mosquito nets, a small bathroom, some shelves and air conditioning, everything you really need, plus a couple of bugs here and there.
The view from the bedroom however was breathtaking. Bright green rice paddies stretched out into the distance until they met towering limestone mountains which climbed gloriously into the sky, the sun setting just behind, amidst the orange hue of a few clouds. We stood for a few minutes just to take it all in.
Downstairs again we said our hellos, and got to know a couple of people, Andy and Beth were on their honeymoon, they’d been to Hoi An and we shared stories and plans, as you do.
We had beer, some very good beef Pho and umm’d and ahh’d about which tour we should do. Tomorrow there was a crazy Paradise Cave trek taking place — 14km through pitch black caves, pretty expensive at $125 each; it was that or a bike ride to Phong Nha caves. We questioned a lot of people and eventually committed to doing the trek, signing up our names on the board in red marker pen. We signed up for the National Park tour the day after, a tour that runs every other day.
Dave, a loud, brash, and self-proclaimed fat Australian, wearing his red hawaiian shirt, explained the cave tour. “Underground rivers, kayaking, swimming, climbing over big fuckin’ rocks, there were parts where if the guide hadn’t been there I’d have died. This [the Phong Nha tour] is good, but this [pointing at the cave trek], this is better than Macchu Piccu. This is incredible”. Yes, a real adventure, but this unsettled us, what had we signed up for?
We retired, but not before standing on the balcony and watching the stunning thunderstorm taking place over the mountains. A flash of fork lightning, spreading out across the sky, lighting up the rice paddies, and then the crack of thunder.
That night I imagined what the tour would be like. Would we be stranded in some pitch black cavern, squeezing through the tiniest of spaces and climbing down small holes? What if we got lost? What if I was forced to swim — I don’t really do swimming. But I swiftly fell asleep beneath the mosquito nets, the red light of the anti-mozzy spray glowing dimly.