Featured image: Navigating through a cave at the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
Dong Hoi/Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, North Central Coast
I think I almost threw up on the train to Dong Hoi. My self-diagnosed pneumonia was in full blown and the train smelled like a dark and damp highschool sports equipment store room. Ya … But I still enjoyed the journey.
On the Reunification Express you’re either in an air conditioned soft-seat carriage, or a non-air conditioned hard-seat one. Based on my experience, safe to say the soft seat carriages are not necessarily well maintained. Some are very well maintained and then there are those like the one I took to Dong Hoi. And best not to expect punctuality. My ride was 45 minutes late. But that’s okay because there was a lot to observe while waiting.
It was on this ride that I acquired the skill to devour an entire meal under three minutes. I’d lost track of arrival time when I decided I was really peckish. An attendant came around with a cart of rice, delicious ulam and cili padi, and I had no choice but to give way to my weakness. I’d fallen in love with Vietnam’s ulam and totally impressed by the consistency of their cili padi; so soul-satisfyingly pedas everywhere I went.
The attendant told me we were at least an hour to arrival so I figured I had time for a meal. But as soon as I took my first bite the conductor announced we were approaching the station. The attendant laughed and apologised. I wasn’t amused.
Dong Hoi is a small town but livelier than Vinh. I walked out of the station into a mob of cab and motorcycle drivers offering a ride, something one gets used to in Vietnam. And if at all I’d felt unsafe during my travels it was on that day at the Dong Hoi railway station. A persistent motorcycle driver followed me to a stall nearby pestering me to ride with him (okay, whatever …) but eventually held me by my arm to usher me to his motorcycle (totally unacceptable).
I stopped, looked at his hand on my arm, then looked him in the eye and “spoke” Universal Eye Language through my pupils: “Get your hand off me or I’ll rip your eyeballs out of your skull”. He let go of me and giggled nervously while he muttered something to the stall owner. I think he said something like, “Watch out for this one, she’s a bit psychotic”. But I don’t understand Vietnamese. He might have said, “Stupid tourist. Poison her”.
I was happy to check into a friendly rest house that day. Nevermind the steep and tiring staircase up, I was assigned to a small room on the third floor with a balcony overlooking the big
Nhat Le River and the remains of the Tam Toa Church. From the corner of the balcony I could also see the sea.
At dinner the owner of the rest house told me some guests were visiting the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park the next day, and I could join them if I liked. I liked, so I got up early the next day, ate noodle soup for breakfast and had a fantastic day with great company.
A Canadian family with two young boys were a joy to be with. I also got along with the Spanish woman who works in London, mostly because I think we’re both lost in our own heads and perpetually seeking—something. And then there was a Canadian boy in his early twenties who was really nice but made me feel really grateful my twenties are behind me. I think he may have helped me appreciate, and come into terms with, the idea of aging …
The drive to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park was lovely. We drove along miles of paddy fields against the backdrop of green hills. Farmers had started to plant their crop in Central Vietnam, perhaps because it was warmer there compared to the fields in the north.
At the park we got onto a long boat and cruised slowly down the river with hills on both sides of the bank. The water was green and we were surrounded by a great sense of peace. The soft drizzle was perfect. You can’t have fair weather all the time, yes?. Life’s not like that.
The boat ride was in fact extremely romantic. Everything about it was. I absolutely loved it.
We came to an opening by the hill and my heart skipped a beat. I’d never entered a cave by boat. The boatman turned off the engine as we entered darkness. A boatwoman onboard suddenly went to the front edge of the boat and raised her arms. As it turned out the cave entrance was really low and uneven. She was steering the boat with her bare hands over her head to make sure we got through safely.
I was overwhelmed by the scene. I might have even cried a little. Many times on my journey I saw things that spoke to me. That was one of them. It was like the Universe saying, “Kid, sometimes in life things can get dark and difficult. Sometimes the challenges are so mighty great you might even crash. You have to learn to grab ‘em head on with all your strength and steer your way through, slowly”. Everyone on the boat was silent …
We eventually entered into a well lit chamber and paddled our way through. It was quite an experience. We even disembarked in the cave to look at some ancient Champa inscriptions and then paddled back out and headed for lunch.
I think everyone was quite moved by the natural beauty of the park. I wonder if it’s as serene in spring and summer when there are more visitors. I’m glad I visited in winter eventhough it meant having to carry a jacket around. It was nice and quiet …
We proceeded to Paradise Cave where we climbed and cussed our way up more then 500 steps to the cave. But Paradise Cave is worth every step, and more! Discovered in 2005 it is now the largest in the world after the Deer Cave at Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak (huge chamber and full of bats, that one). And at 31 kilometres, Paradise Cave is believed to be the longest (discovered) dry cave in Asia.
General visitors are only allowed up to 1 kilometre into the cave, or 7 kilometres if you sign up for the “extreme” caving experience. Our lot went for the 1 kilometre stretch and we took our time absorbing the magnificence of the grand chamber around us. Unlike the previous cave and the one in Halong Bay, this one is not lit with colorful lights but gentle yellow lights that best allow us to see the cave as it is. According to our guide Paradise Cave is maintained by a private company that insisted the cave is lit to reflect its natural beauty and wooden walkways were built to protect the cave floor from human traffic.
We were a truly lucky lot to have visited that day. We were the among only a few people in the cave for the couple of hours we were there. It seems the cave sees thousands of visitors a day in summer where visitors travel in large groups and tour guides speak simultaneously through bullhorn megaphones. Just the thought of it gave me a headache. We were a group of seven with an informative guide who strolled at our pace. And we concluded our visit with a nice dose of ice cream at the foothill.
We then took a detour and trekked through the woods before heading back to Dong Hoi. We settled by the river so the boys could go for a swim. I don’t understand this business of swimming in winter. I suppose it’s a Canadian thing, though it did look fun.
But sitting on a rock watching a crazy rapid flow is also fun.
The scenery by the river was breathtaking. I got excited over a pretty spider the size of my hand hanging out in its web. It had purple stripes on it. And then the sun started to descend on the horizon and suddenly the forest felt different. It was the same feeling I got when the sun went down on Mount Bromo in Java. It was a signal for us to leave, we were no longer welcome. And that’s alright, we must respect The Order of Things …
Hue/Quảng Trị province, North Central Coast
Morning at a fishing village in Hue. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
I can’t say I wasn’t surprised to find the train to Hue equipped with television. They played music videos the whole way. It was my last train ride in Vietnam and the view was most stunning on that final run. The train sped through paddy fields, snaked through hills and chugged along rivers. Sigh!
I’d reached a point in my travels where I was a big sack of emotions. A million thoughts and feelings had pierced through my mind and heart. I’d walked till my toes bruised under my nails and I’d killed so many demons. But instead of fatigue I felt so—alive.
As we pulled up at the Hue station the television played ‘What’s up?’ by 4 Non Blondes. Naturally, I had to sing along to it. Unfortunately, I went over the top and sang loudly and exaggeratedly: And so I cry sometimes when I’m lying’ in bed just to get it all out, what’s in my head; and I … I’m feelin’ a little peculiar! … What’s goin’ on?! Luckily another girl passenger joined me in my moment of shame.
Oooooh, Oooh … OoOoOoOh, OoOoOoOoOh …
Well, then I spent the rest of the day cycling around Hue and walking through the Imperial City.
But one of things I’ll remember most about Vietnam was the day spent with my motorcycle guide. During my stay in Hue I arranged for a tour to the Vinh Moc Tunnels and Demilitarized Zone. He came for me at my hotel on a rainy morning riding a 125cc Honda tank motorcycle. An American War (Vietnam War) veteran, he strapped me up in an oversized rain suit and rubber boots, smacked a visor helmet on my head and took me on a 250-kilometre ride of my life.
We rode around the Quảng Trị province visiting and taking shelter in war ruins and cemeteries of fallen Vietnamese soldiers. We sat under a gazebo as he told me about the senseless killings that was the war. There are more than 70 cemeteries in the province alone, some with thousands of graves in them. And those are only the bodies of soldiers who were found.
My guide was a gentleman and a great storyteller. As he explained to me a gaping hole in a church ruin and the countless bullet marks on the walls I felt like I was there at the height of battle and bazookas were being fired at close range. It was surreal.
The rain never quite stopped and the wind was fierce along the rural coast towards the Vinh Moc Tunnels. We skidded a few times despite only going about 50 kilometres/hour. I was a little worried we might skid and fall so I requested we stopped for a while. We did, and as soon as we got off the motorcycle we almost fell on our sides when a huge gust lashed onto shore. We watched the choppy sea for a bit before moving along. I was shivering underneath my rain suit.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels in the Quảng Trị province is the only tunnel system in Vietnam that has three levels. The United States forces dropped over 9,000 tonnes of bombs in the area which forced locals to go underground, up to 25 feet below surface.
It was almost impossible to shoot a decent photo from inside the tunnels. My lens would fog up as soon as I removed the lens cap. In there I saw holes in the wall that functioned as maternity rooms. It seems at least 17 babies were born in the tunnels between 1966 to 1972. I asked my guide, “How the hell …? What inspired the making of these tunnels? Nowhere else in this region have we seen such a complex underground system”.
As we sat there squatting and looking at a “maternity room” my guide said, “To be, or not to be? That was the question for the Vietnamese people. This, was the answer”. It was both sad and pure genius. I could tell my guide was getting a little emotional. We both were.
He took me out through an opening that led straight to the beach. “American naval ships were stationed right there,” he said, pointing to the waters. “I’ve hosted American veterans who served on those ships. They said they had no idea the tunnels existed back then, and so close to sea”. We sat by the beach for a while, mostly in silence. Before we left he said, “I hope Vietnam never goes through war again. It’s the most horrible thing. We’ve been through enough, we’ve been through too much …”.
He took me for lunch in a hut where we continued our conversation. He told me he was in his twenties during the war. “Where were you based? And what did you do?” I asked. “My job was very important. I was in charge of the sky,” he replied. That was all he had to tell me.
We continued our journey to the Demilitarized Zone where we visited a small memorial, a kind of museum. As we entered my guide led me straight to the back to see one particular photograph. It was a topographic view of the area, although you’d have to look closely to identify its actual location in the universe. As my guide said, “It looks like the surface of the Moon. No signs of life, just craters everywhere …”.
I’d seen the devastation of war when I went to Gaza a few years ago, where Israeli F-16 planes flew by in the middle of the night and we heard deep thunderous sounds of bombs exploding in a distance. It was a traumatic experience then, and seeing that photograph of a devastated Vietnamese province full of holes on the ground made my heart race again. The entire area was destroyed by relentless air raids.
But it looks quite different today. The Vietnamese people have buried their past underneath miles of crops and villages. But as my guide and I crossed over the Ben Hai River that separates North and South Vietnam, I noted a giant statue of a woman and child just off the southern bank. My guide explained it was to commemorate the women and families whose sons and fathers left for the North to fight against the United States.
“Many families were separated. Many still waiting for sons who will never return,” he said solemnly.
The ride back to Hue was cold, wet and depressing. I’d studied a little bit about the war while in college in the United States. I also met a few American war veterans during my studies there. Visiting the sites in Vietnam gave a more complete picture of the war. And it’s a sad and ugly one.
During a stop for hot tea my guide said, “Many American soldiers died here too, you know. And long before our governments forged diplomatic ties American war veterans had already come here to make amends. They were the first Americans to come, the war veterans”.
I asked him about the fate of those who collaborated with the United States. He swiped his hand across his neck. I understood that gesture. He added that many also fled to Thailand before seeking asylum elsewhere. The use of Agent Orange was something too bitter to talk about, perhaps also because we were already quite exhausted from the long ride and our minds were preoccupied with all sorts of thoughts and reflections.
We arrived back at the hotel in Hue after dark and he helped me get out of my rain suit and rubber boots. I watched him as he packed the things into a bag and I thought, “This man has seen so much suffering and destruction in his life. And yet he is among the most gentle I’d ever met …”.
I wondered if he ever suffered from depression, and if so, how he learnt to rise above it.
We said our goodbyes and I knew I’d never forget him. The next day his friend came to pick me up on another motorcycle to take me to my final destination: Hoi An. I told him about my trip to the Vinh Moc Tunnels and Demilitarized Zone while he strapped me up in a rain suit. It was another rainy day. We both agreed I was lucky to have gone on the trip with a guide who was himself a war veteran, and one who studied history.
And then he asked me, “So … He told you about his experience in the war?”
“Yes,” I replied. “He was a young man in charge of the sky”. The guide then turned around, looked at me and said, “He was in flight operations. He worked for the United States Air Force”. I froze. Time froze. My mind went through a series of flashbacks from the day before with my guide; when I saw despair in his eyes as he told me about the thousands of Vietnamese who died from B-52 air raids … When he showed me the black-&-white photograph of a land pounded by bombs …
I pulled down my helmet’s visor over my face and cried. And we rode into the rain.
On the road to Da Nang. Pix by Juana Jaafar.