We reached Đồng Hới by night-train. I slept on the floor, on a tarp. It worked perfectly, it was only a six hour ride. Pulling into the station, we elected to simply look for housing in the surrounding area. Well, it didn’t work too great, but eventually we ended up in a 150,000 VND per night room. The entire place STANK of mildew. I can handle a lot of things, but an overpowering aroma of mildew makes it nigh on impossible to sleep, even when you’re completely worn out. After a refreshing nap, I was ready to high-tail it to another place, but we’d booked the room for one day, so it seemed skeezy to just up and out.
Instead, we decided to walk around the town. From the train station out, the city seems very small. It devolves almost instantly into suburban straights with gardens and houses. We passed one funeral, one wedding, and a bride and groom on a motorbike. Everyone was friendly, and smiled at us, except the funeral goers, obviously. Everyone in that party was wearing a white robe made of either ultra-light cotton, or paper. They also had white strips tied around their foreheads. After they had left, we went to investigate the graveyard.
I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but Sino cemeteries are rather unlike ours. Each family has a plot, and this area is designated by a brightly painted containment wall with a high back. There are many styles, but the main difference is the use of color. Everywhere, chrysanthemums are left for the dead, along with incense, and sometimes small offerings of bright candy or other treats. The wall around the plot is low, and there is a break in it directly across from the high end. However, about a foot in front of this break is a small wall standing alone, with a character written on it. This wall is to keep the spirits from leaving, or any evil creature from entering. In Asian mythologies, spirits can only walk in a straight line–thus, the wall, which necessitates a 90 degree turn, keeps all spirits safely penned inside. This method is also used in many temples.
That night, we ate dinner along the main road (we thought). The price was excessive, 30,000 VND for mien (cellophane noodle soup) and 40,000 VND for chao (rice porridge) and pho (rice noodle soup). However, the proprietor was passing out cup after cup of what I took to be moonshine. It was served from an old gallon oil jug. They called it wine, and it was only offered to the men. Eventually I got a cup of my own; the taste was pure alcohol. Two cups is more than enough for a good time. Then he wanted us to go to karaoke, but his daughter, who was interpreting, told us there would only be Vietnamese songs. I was still down, but after the bill came, I changed my mind.
We were happy to leave the stinky place the next day, and took a taxi down to the water’s edge, where we had found a room for 200,000 VND per night. The room faced the ocean, the windows opened out, and we had a small balcony. Hot showers (if you found the breaker for the water heater), and walking distance from the beach and downtown.
Well, the beach was a pretty far walk, but it was completely worth it. The water was clear teal, with a clean, white sand beach. Olivier found two posts to finally put his hammock up between, with the help of some locals to reset the posts after he began. He was an instant success with many of the young people on the beach, and I left him surrounded by eager friends wanting pictures. I spotted a deserted beach lounger and laid out until storm clouds threatened and I began to feel sporadic rain drops. As we started to leave, we were approached by a boy and girl. They asked for money. For what? Apparently, using the posts for a hammock, and laying in the chair. How much? 200,000 VND. We don’t have any money. They called over a girl from a nearby picnicking party. She began again. You need to pay them, she said, 200,000 VND. We. Don’t. Have. Any. Money. we said again. And anyhow, that’s way too expensive! Eventually, they let us go, with the parting admonition, beaches in Viet Nam are not beaches in America!
Lately, it seems like everybody is out to squeeze some cash out of me. It’s frustrating, because I know I’m being overcharged, but I feel mean to dispute it. Usually, it doesn’t even make a difference. I guess I just always need to ask the price ahead of time, although that feels incredibly petty.
We looked up and down the streets for somewhere to rent a motorbike to go to the Phong Nha National Park the next day. We tried each guesthouse, but they wanted $10 per day for a motorbike; well outside my budget. Finally, we ended up back at the smelly guesthouse we’d started at, where the woman had offered us a motorbike for $6. Unfortunately, this guesthouse was across town–5 km away–right next to the train station. Plan accordingly! You can rent motorbikes more cheaply away from the center of town. Just don’t stay there.
The next day, we set out for the Phong Nha National Park. It’s about 30 km from Đồng Hới, but it’s an excellent drive by motorbike. The countryside is beautiful, all green fields, enclosing hills, and little jungle patches. Take a lunch, don’t try to buy anything there. It’s now a UNESCO recognized site, and they’re prepared to charge you through the nose for anything you might need or want.
You need to buy your tickets at the Tourist Center. It’s currently undergoing renovation, but is still open. It costs $11.50 to get a ticket to the Phong Nha and Ha Tien Caves, including the boat ride there. The boats are long, narrow “dragon boats”. The river ride is smooth and pleasant–one can see both sides of the shore, and find villagers out dredging the river bottom for water weed (I’m not sure why. Fuel? Food?) in tiny skiffs, and naked children splashing and clambering over sand bars.
When you arrive at the mouth of the cave, the motor is cut, the roof is rolled back, and someone poles you through the cave. As you enter the first cathedral-esque cavern, bats screech and wheel overhead to the solemn sound of the lapping waves on the boat. The light bouncing off the river illumines the cracks and colors of the ancient ceiling, but as you pass through a narrower aperture, Nature is replaced by Art, and the magnificent formations are handsomely lighted by winking electrical bulbs. There are drooping rock curtains and mushrooming rock growths. The rocks all have a plastic nature that seems in motion, rather than millenia old.
The park certainly does an excellent job with stage lighting; some formations are acid green, others are icy blue. In the depths of the cave, the mirror of the black river doubles and trebles the watery replicas of the awesome pilasters and piles into an unearthly multidimensional labyrinth.
Eventually, you disembark on a sandy bank and are allowed to clamber back to daylight in your own time. Upon reaching the exit of the cave, you are presented with a steep staircase. Going to the Heavenly Cave? Prepare to go through Hell. The stair is long and steep, although the view at all times is a welcome respite if you care to cool your heels. All along the way are small stands selling drinks and snacks. Near the top, you begin to feel a flow of refrigerated air. I believe the path to the second cave lies over the apex of the first, and that the chilled air is issuing through cracks in the ceiling of the first onto the steps of the second. However it happens, it’s certainly a pleasure.
Finally, you reach the second cave. The flood of cold air instantly makes the trek worth it. You descend into the rock mansion via a sturdy industrial staircase, and a path guides you through the belly of the basalt (I don’t know if it’s really basalt). The colors are fantastic, you wouldn’t believe they exist below ground. If there are blind fish in the bottom of the sea, what sees the colors in a midnight cave?
The trip back is a welcome break, but you’re starving, and all the food is ridiculously expensive. Eat on the road on the way home, you’re better off. But you better be able to order in Vietnamese, or at least name a dish.
All in all, my favorite thing in Đồng Hới was the discovery of Kem Xoi, which is sticky rice with ice cream on it. So good. We departed Đồng Hới to attend the Huế Cultural Festival.